“ANTI-DEMOCRATIC” plans to merge the Windsor and Maidenhead planning panels into a single borough-wide one have been scrapped.

Head of planning Adrien Waite recommended councillors at a full council meeting merge the two panels that determine major and controversial planning applications into a Royal Borough-wide panel to save resources and reduce the risk of ‘inconsistent’ decisions.

The council has operated a single borough-wide panel before during the pandemic but moved back to two, one for Maidenhead and one for Windsor and Ascot, last year, believing ward councillors with local knowledge of the areas should decide on applications.

Despite the switch, there was a condition for Mr Waite to review the two panels on how they operate and come back with a recommendation.

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Speaking at the meeting on Tuesday, April 26, councillor Phil Haseler (Con: Cox Green), lead member for planning, said it’s “clear” that having two panels is having a significant impact on officers and is not an efficient use of resources.

He said: “Members when sitting on the planning committee are representing the planning authority, not their ward, village, or town.

“They are duty-bound to make defensible decisions based on material planning considerations. There’s no evidence to suggest a single committee compromising members across the borough are incapable of making sound planning decisions for applications outside their ward, village, or town.”

Cllr Haseler, who was the chairman of the Royal Borough development management panel, said the single panel “worked well” and decisions were “consistent and defensible”.

Cllr David Hilton (Con: Ascot & Sunninghill), who was the only member to vote against moving back to two panels last year, and the former lead member for planning, Cllr David Coppinger (Con: Bray), agreed with Cllr Haseler.

However, a majority of Tory councillors and all of the opposition members disagreed with the recommendation, believing local knowledge is beneficial when deciding on planning applications.

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Cllr Leo Walters (Con: Bray) said the two panels are working “alright” and that local knowledge of the area is “all-important”.

Meanwhile, Cllr Julian Sharpe (Con: Ascot & Sunninghill) said: “To move two panels to one is purely anti-democratic. Our residents expect us to have two panels and expect decisions to be made by us locally, in which we are elected to voice their opinions and views.

“If we move to one panel, we will be moving in the wrong direction.”

Cllr Amy Tisi (Lib Dem: Clewer East) said there was no evidence to suggest having two panels increases the risk of ‘inconsistent’ decisions that could lead to a planning appeal.

She also said merging the two panels will not solve the lack of resources if officer time is “overstretched” already and the planning department is “understaffed,” believing a single wide panel will go on hours more than a Maidenhead or Windsor specific committee.

Cllr Hilton said the country is facing a shortage of planning officers as they are difficult to recruit.

The proposal to swap to a single panel was defeated by 35 councillors voting against and three members voting for.