London Plan - 6 months on...
Khan he, khan-t he. After much political wrangling with Robert Jenrick, the London Plan was finally adopted in March 2021. The key drivers which fuelled Sadiq’s Plan included his manifesto ambitions to improve the capital’s air quality, make London a zero-carbon city by 2050, to establish a long-term target for 50% affordable homes, and to protect the green belt. There are undoubtedly moves towards targeting each of these aims, but the results can only be measured many years ahead. So, 6 months in, how are things panning out on the ground?
Well there is less ambiguity, which has to be a good thing. An adopted London Plan is a better thing than a nearly adopted London Plan which left us in a 2019/2020 limbo. The Plan promotes ‘Optimising Density’ and this is something and we can all get behind. This isn’t a free-for-all for development, but the shackles of the old density matrix, which had long outed as a redundant tool, have finally been released. Well thought-through high density development on an appropriate site should be approved, and we have seen this in action over recent months. There is also greater clarity on policies relating to climate change. The redefinition of zero carbon, requiring new buildings to meet at least 35% reduction of carbon on site has provided a benchmark of good design and has been broadly welcomed in practice.
But what about the flip side? The new London Plan set a yearly target of over 52,000 new homes, which was a 24% increase from the previous Plan. Has anyone felt this new urgency on the ground? Maybe, in some cases? Waltham Forest are often held up as leaders in this respect. But all too often, we still see ‘housing need’ as a committee report afterthought across the capital. Indeed, it is very often not mentioned at all. Surely the London Plan demands that this is given more prominence in the ‘planning balance’.
But there has been a shift in how we allocate land. The Government’s outside influence on ever-more flexible change of use rules have helped redundant retail space be allocated more efficiently as housing – as has the scrapping of the ‘no net employment loss’ requirement in the London Plan. The Mayor had previously closed the door on releasing industrial land for housing, but Jenrick forced it ajar again in this Plan. Has this opened the floodgates? Not yet we think, but it’s an important concession given the intransience of Greenbelt protection. In truth, much of the impact of the London Plan over the first 6 months seems to have been in the minutiae. The quick wins. Floor-to-ceiling height minimums have increased from 2.3m to 2.5m to maintain ventilation, a ghost of the pandemic perhaps. Car-free development has moved from being a general aspiration to becoming enshrined across the board.
But I always get back to the same point in my mind. Are London’s planning authorities well enough resourced to deliver on the big ticket items of the London Plan? Quite simply, not currently. To meet the major targets of the Plan, everything has to work in unison, over a sustained period of time. But there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for stretched local authorities to deliver a quality of service to all. Even when you offer up a seemingly juicy Planning Performance Agreement, there is all too often a metaphorical role of the eyes, or worse, complete radio silence. Until funding in local authority planning teams is bolstered, I strongly suspect the bigger ticket items will continue to be pushed into the 2050 long-grass.
Authored by Rob Pearson, Executive Director.