Is it time to scrap the London Plan?

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Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

In today’s politics, it is rare to hear plain-speaking. However, smothered beneath the all-encompassing story of Coronavirus, there has been hidden away a remarkable chapter in the history of housing in London; the response to Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan from the Secretary of State.

The reality is that London is not building enough houses. This has been a long-term problem but in the past four years, it has gotten worse. Generally, housebuilders across the UK have been getting on with the job of building homes. In fact, records are being broken for the number of homes completed. [1] In London the story is somewhat different. London is the only place left in the country that continues with a spatial strategy which is authored by the Mayor. Spatial strategies were a Prescott policy in 2004 and were abolished by the coalition in 2010, for everywhere but London.

The performance of house building in London has been poor. At the time of Boris leaving the Mayoralty in 2016, granted planning permissions meant that housing delivery in London would hit 40,000 new homes a year. This itself was significantly below the target in the Old London Plan and its subsequent alterations. [2] Under Mayor Khan we have seen housing delivery not advance as it needs to and as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, has made clear in his letter to Khan:

“Housing delivery in London under your mayoralty has been deeply disappointing, over the last three years housing delivery has averaged just 37,000 a year; falling short of the existing plan target and well below your assessment of housing need.” [3]

The Mayor’s draft London Plan accepted that London needed to build 66,000 homes a year if it is to catch up with the underperformance as well as create enough homes to meet the demand. The plan the Mayor presented to the Secretary of State had reduced that target to 52,000 because the planning inspector did not think the plan identified how the Mayor would deliver his higher target. [4] In essence, there is no argument about the target just how the Mayor hopes to deliver more homes than he is currently, given his track record and the sometimes incoherent lack of cooperation from the Boroughs.

On top of this, the Government has given enormous funding powers to the Mayor by way of the affordable homes grant, including some grant that the Mayor turned away as he was not able to spend it on homes because he did not like the conditions the government set. Clearly, to not spend taxpayers money when it has been made available for you to use points to a delivery problem.

One of the principal difficulties for the Mayor has been his willingness to rule out where he will not allow building (usually political decisions) and not identify where he will build. Yes, there is plenty of brownfield land but the density required to meet targets from that land alone will simply not be acceptable to Government and Londoners. The London Plan concentrates on building more 1 bed flats because of course 1-bed flats are an efficient use of land and helpful if your motivation for building is to count units, not suitable homes. However, for London to remain a balanced city we also need to see much more family housing (not three-bed apartments) and that is going to require more land. Boris had a very specific agreement to work with the wider South East outside of London and back infrastructure requirements for them that would allow them to build more homes, but that seems to have been pushed into the long grass.

There used to be a good relationship between the Mayor and the Outer London Boroughs that has virtually disappeared. Outer London could help meet the needs of the city as a whole, but not if the strategy is to merely spread urban solutions into the suburbs with tall buildings and high density rented solutions. The suburbs are home for families and they need to be supported to build many more homes in a sensitive manner. To date, there has been little Mayoral attempt to support this approach or even consider options to support delivery.

Finally, there is the problem of Council housing regeneration projects. Many of the London estates are simply horrid — we should not be expecting Londoners to live in substandard housing. The Mayor should be directing all his efforts to bring about estate regeneration and not creating blocking policies such as estate ballots. If the State is not able to quickly and simply redevelop its own land then it is little surprise that the private sector is struggling to make up for the failings of the Mayor. There needs to be a massive speeding up of the regeneration process. The Mayor either pushes on with demolishing estates or hands them over to the national housing body (Homes England) and lets them get on with it. The only caveat I make in this is my belief that the current terms on which regeneration takes place is now broken. The current model of the private sector building on council-owned free land has to end as it is simply not generating enough truly affordable homes and is heavily subsidised by the state.

But what happens to the London plan now?

The Secretary of State has said that the plan needs to be rewritten and that the next draft must show ambition as to how it meets the undisputed housing targets. This is done through bringing more land into the system and a reduction in complexity of the drafted plan, particularly where it goes against the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This is a direction by the Secretary of State and therefore cannot really be resisted but there are other options if the Mayor says he cannot meet it. Interestingly the Government has not set a deadline for this new plan but with the Mayoral elections now postponed for twelve months, one hardly thinks they will want to wait that long before taking a decision.

The obvious option is that the London Plan powers could be given to Homes England (HE). HE has the advantage of few political considerations in what they believe should happen in London. They currently do what the Mayor does for the rest of the UK and it, therefore, makes complete sense for the Government to hand the powers to HE if the Mayor continues in his failure to deliver. That would require legislation and is presumably what the Secretary of State is hinting at in his letter.

I do have another radical option. Why do we need the London Plan?

London is not like other parts of the UK. Yes, it is significantly the largest city in the UK and a global centre. The strength of London has always been in its diversity of Government and London is the sum of its parts. Those parts, in London governance terms, are the Boroughs. If we scrap the London plan then we will have a national policy that will set the framework under which each Borough will have to construct its own Local Plan, based on its own Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) done with its neighbouring boroughs, both in and out of London. This would create truly local accountability and a planning policy designed and delivered in the communities it is shaped for. Yes, Boroughs could be obstructive to growth but then the Government needs to align its infrastructure investments to those places delivering housing and create Borough incentives to build homes, or allow local leaders, through inaction, condemn their Borough to tired and inadequate infrastructure. After all, this is how the UK works outside London and think how much faster the London Planning system would work without so much toing and froing between the local planning authorities and the Mayor’s planners. The administration of housing grant would fall to Homes England as it does elsewhere in the UK.

One might argue what would the Mayor then do? Maybe that’s for another time but there is plenty of scope for a Mayor to concentrate on other issues such as infrastructure delivery co-ordination to support housing plans but also a wider role in health delivery across London. The Mayor should be running strategic London wide services such as Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police and not trying to direct a system over which much of the powers lie elsewhere; in the Boroughs. In any case the London Plan can only really be delivered if the Borough’s allow their local plans to deliver it and planning committees to implement it.

What is clear is that the Government has run out of patience with the lack of delivery of the current Mayor of London. The Mayor now has twelve months to convince the Government and the electorate that he is up to the job and cannot merely keep blaming others for his lack of performance.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Welwyn Garden City. Welwyn marked a step change and model for post-war development and London needs to be setting a new vision of what comes next in housing development and the building of communities. Instead, in 2020, London seems to lack a vision of the sort of place it wants to be and a lack of leadership to develop a liveable, safe and well-connected city. I fear for London’s future and this is rightly a concern for the Government. The current Mayor needs to demonstrate he can walk taller than he has for the past four years and concentrate on delivering for London and Londoners and just maybe scrapping the London Plan will let him play a more strategic role.

This article was first published by The Nudge Factory on the 16 March 2020 https://www.nudgefactory.co.uk/blog/london-plan-part-1-whats-going-wrong/

Works Cited

[4] LDN_gov. “Inspectors Report.” London City Hall, 21 Oct. 2019, www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/london-plan/new-london-plan/inspectors-report.

[2] Ministry of Housing. “London Plan: Letter from the Secretary of State for Housing.” GOV.UK, GOV.UK, 13 Mar. 2020, www.gov.uk/government/publications/london-plan-letter-from-the-secretary-of-state-for-housing.

[1] Osborne, Hilary. “Housebuilding in England at 30-Year High, Government Data Shows.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Nov. 2019, www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/14/house-building-in-england-at-30-year-high-government-data-show.

[3] “Total Number of Dwellings and Net Additional Dwellings, Borough.” London Datastore News, data.london.gov.uk/dataset/net-additional-dwellings-borough.

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