David Silverman, executive director of Derwent London, is the new chairman of the Westminster Property Association – its 15th. This is his inaugural speech at the WPA’s agm and reception on 1 March.
“I would like to thank Rob Noel for the fantastic way in which he has steered the Association over the past two years. Under his leadership he has seen that we have been listened to on the Core Strategy at least in part and have made significant progress with [land-use] credits especially for public realm a concept which seemed almost unthinkable not so very long ago. Needless to say there is more to be done, especially on housing credits but I wanted to pay tribute to the way Rob has led from the front in his own inimitable style.
WPA is the voice of property owners in Westminster whose role it is to engage with our colleagues at Westminster City Council – both members and officers – with the aim of improving the built environment to ensure our great city continues to thrive. For this we rely on strong relationships with our partners at City Hall.
As with all relationships it is not always plain sailing but as long as there is mutual respect and understanding, agreements can be reached. I believe the relationship between WPA and WCC has never been stronger and for this considerable credit must go to Robert Davis [Cabinet Member for the Built Environment] and his colleagues and Rosemarie Macqueen [Strategic Director Built Environment] and her team for their commitment and passion for a world-class Westminster.
I would like to share my initial thoughts with you as incoming Chairman about the challenges that face us.
By far the most significant has to be the impact at local authority level, of the seismic shift which occurred last May in the economic and political environment.
We are in a time of unprecedented local authority cuts and we fear for the effect of this on the planning service. We also need to recognise and to respond to the shift in political dialogue with the wider Westminster community which is being ushered in through decentralisation and Localism.
An efficient planning service is essential to development and development is essential to Westminster’s future.
Westminster’s Planning Department is the largest in the country handling a record number of applications last year – over 11,000 in total. It needs to be properly funded. Our Association has been at the forefront of support for the Government’s changes to the fee regime, which will allow fees to be set by local authorities and charged over a wider range of transactions such as listed buildings which should ease the burden. But as of today, we still do not know clearly how the department is going to be affected.
Rob Noel declared at the annual lunch that the WPA stood ready to help by working with officers to find ways of maintaining its vital service. I endorse that pledge.
Restructuring is not the only change we face. There will be substantial changes in policy as the localism agenda has its impact and of course we shall be talking constructively to the Council about that. But central to the policy debate about planning in Westminster has always been the discussion about how its prized land and buildings should be used, the tension between commercial and residential development.
Under mixed-use policy commercial development is the enabler of residential – and it has to be viable. The worst position for all is that development will grind to a halt – and we have told Westminster that that is precisely where some of their policies are heading.
We have tried to be constructive with our proposals for swaps and credits, and it is rewarding that our efforts are meeting with some positive response but there is a way to go. We look forward to engaging with the council on this issue in the context of the City Management Plan.
The acceptance of credits for public realm investment is an excellent start but it will not have its full effect unless some element of flexibility is allowed. If developers know they can assign their credits they will be more encouraged to participate at the outset.
Enough of the serious stuff.The only thing that is certain is that the next two years are bound to confound any attempt at prediction but I am looking forward to them immensely and particularly continuing to work closely with our Westminster Council colleagues.”