A new 'major applications' committee will be taking decisions at Westminster City Council from next week after a significant reorganisation in the borough.
The committee will be charged with assessing the merits of only very large schemes, such as those proposed for Victoria and Paddington railway stations, in a drive to prevent them from becoming bogged down behind thousands of smaller applications.
The number of planning committees is being expanded from three to five, while 50 extra staff are being recruited to speed up planning and licensing decisions. Planning chief Carl Powell told the AJ that the package of measures has been designed as part of a 'civic renewal' in the borough.
Westminster processes about 10,000 planning applications every year, two thirds of which are turned around within 10 weeks, according to Powell. But councillors are still concerned enough about delays - and the importance of competing with commercial centres such as the City and Docklands - to give special attention to large schemes.
Powell believes the idea could provide a useful way of getting large infrastructure projects through the planning system in the way that ministers would like: 'This could be one model others could follow.We think we are foreshadowing central government in terms of what they are thinking.'
The changes have also been brought in as a response to a Whitehall initiative to introduce more effective decision-making machinery in town halls, giving local authorities the power to create 'cabinet-style' government. From 1 September, Westminster leader Simon Milton will be surrounded by his own cabinet of elected officials who will be empowered to take executive decisions without putting them before committees and the vote of the full council.
But, crucially, planning will still be subject to committee scrutiny. At Westminster, the new major applications committee will be chaired by Angela Hooper, a powerful cabinet member whose brief will also include tourism and economic development.
Ministers have insisted that planning be kept within the committee structure to prevent the 'eccentric foibles' of individual members carrying too much weight, said Powell, but Hooper's economic-development role could still have architectural consequences.
For example, 'business improvement districts' - an idea favoured by prime minister Tony Blair as a way of bringing urban designers, local authorities, the police and businesses together to raise the tone of an area - would be subject to an executive decision of Hooper alone.
'In the old-style council, proposals would be put before committees which would report to the council. You could be chewing up to five or six months before reaching a decision. That's an awful long time in the commercial world, ' said Powell. 'Business improvement districts are all about improving the quality of the built environment, and this is going to have a lot of interest for architects.'