CONTROVERSIAL plans to replace two planning panels with one overseeing panel have been approved despite heavy criticism.

Councillors met at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM) first full council meeting to convene on an online platform where the ruling Conservatives passed plans to scrap both the Windsor and Maidenhead Development Management Panels.

They will be replaced by the overseeing Royal Borough Development Management Panel – chaired by councillor Phil Haseler (Con: Cox Green).

In the report presented by councillor David Coppinger (Con: Bray), lead member for planning, it stated this move will allow decision-making on large planning applications to continue virtually during the coronavirus pandemic, save over £6,000 per year, and will have nine panel members – a change from six panel members originally proposed.

READ MORE: Chalvey park will be transferred to Slough Borough Council

Major planning applications include plans for more than 10 dwellings or for commercial purpose, more than 1,000sqm.

The opposing Liberal Democrats and Independents panned the proposal and argued the current two panels would work perfectly fine online whereas only one overseeing planning meeting would just create an ‘unnecessary and unmanageable’ workload for councillors.

West Windsor Residents Association councillor Wisdom Da Costa (Clewer and Dedworth West) said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The leader of the Lib Dems, councillor Simon Werner (Pinkneys Green), said: “At one point we’re being told the reason for these changes is because there’s a large backlog of applications – so we need to get the panel up and running.

“Clearly, with two panels – two queues if you like – you’re going to get through a lot more applications then you are with one panel. So common sense says if you got a backlog, two queues.

“We don’t really know how difficult it would be to manage a planning meeting with lots of councillors on it.

“However, there’s no difference in managing two meetings with the same number of people to managing one meeting with the same number of people – so that argument doesn’t really hold up.”

READ MORE: Aldi puts in a planning application for the Dedworth Road site

Opposition members said they were not consulted on the proposed changes and both their parish council and residents have raised many concerns to them about the change.

Cllr Coppinger responded: “In terms of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

“We are on a journey – not an easy journey because we do not know what is coming next and it is absolutely essential, we are prepared.

“This is designed to be the first step – not the endgame by any means.

“Everyone tells me the software is fine, no problems. Tonight, I think four or five people have dropped out for a short period of time at one part or another. If that happened in a planning meeting, they would not be allowed to vote.

“If that happened at a planning meeting, we will not be able to make the decision and we will be subject to legal action by applicants and everyone.”

Other opposition members also raised concerns that there would be a lack of local knowledge in an area where a major application may have an effect on residents and the area.

The soon-to-be chairman of the Royal Borough Development Management Panel, councillor Haseler said panel members will make objective decision-making based on evidence and policy and will overcome this lack of local knowledge by site visits and listening to and reading the evidence set before them by planning officers just as it has always been before Covid-19.

The first meeting of the new singular planning panel is scheduled on June 17 and it will be reviewed in December – but Cllr Coppinger said a working group will be formed in September consisting of councillors from all parties and representatives from parish councils to externally review how the Royal Borough Development Panel is doing and make changes if necessary.

The motion was carried 24 for and 16 against.

READ MORE: Fundraising for struggling amputees in locked down Africa

An amendment, submitted by councillor Joshua Reynolds (Lib Dem: Furze Platt), was defeated by the ruling Tories to change the review date of the development panel from December to August for full council to debate the issues that may arise once implemented.

The current chairman for the Windsor Development Management Panel, councillor David Cannon (Con: Datchet, Wraysbury and Horton) accused the opposition of scaremongering and called the amendment ‘politically motivated’ where planning decisions should be based on evidence and its compliance with policy.

Councillor Reynolds denied that this was politically motivated and called it ‘wrong’.

He said: “This is not scaremongering. This is local people having the knowledge in their areas and that facts have been presented in away that is clear to people.”

The amendment was defeated 17 for 21 against.