Our last Council meeting was a bit different. Rather than the Council chamber, we opted for the less intimidating small hall; rather than the declarations, petitions and motions that are the stuff of the normal agenda, we focussed instead on a single issue. And rather than Councillors holding sway we invited in residents and gave them the floor.
The issue for debate was planning, and in particular, the challenge of long-term planning to ensure that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea remains one of the very best places in which to live and work. To help us, we had Professor Tony Travers of the LSE, the leading expert in Britain on local government and the public sector more widely, and also Trudi Elliott the Chief Executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute.
It was a lively meeting and I mean that in a good way. Community champions from across Kensington and Chelsea were in attendance to question, comment and challenge, as were several elected councillors. Hot topics such as mega-basements, regeneration schemes, consultations and overseas buyers all came up during the debate. There was also a pleasing recognition from at least one member of the audience that enforcement in Kensington and Chelsea is these days rather robust.
Tony and Trudi were excellent at guiding the discussion, listening to complaints and criticisms, and at answering questions. But they also pushed back a little, asking the audience for their solutions to the problems raised and for their proposed alterations and alternatives to our current planning system.
I was impressed that, freed from championing their particular patches and opposing particular developments, most of the residents present seemed to appreciate that planning is an extremely difficult task that in virtually every case produces winners and losers.
Professor Travers sketched for us the kinds of challenges we are likely to face here in Kensington and Chelsea over the coming years. Rather gratifyingly, he emphasised that many of them are the problems of success, of being one of the most desirable places to live in the country; and that the planning problems caused by decline are far, far worse.
However, planning policy can be unduly permissive in densely packed inner cities. Most of us, I think, recognise that economic growth, home improvement, housebuilding and new and improved infrastructure are absolutely vital. But equally, each and every one of us wants to protect the investment we have in our homes and neighbourhoods and to experience the peaceful enjoyment thereof. For all its flaws, our planning system is a serious and democratic attempt to square that circle and I think many in the room were willing to acknowledge that.
But that was then. No doubt normal hostilities have already resumed. Even so, it felt to me like a meeting well worth having. I suppose you could say it was a little like one of those “town hall meetings” which are such an important part of the American democratic tradition; I wouldn’t mind if it became part of ours too.