London’s Strategic Planning & Housing

There has been understandable trepidation on the part of London’s council leaders concerning the precise definition of strategic planning and housing powers which the recent Greater London Authority Bill intends to transfer from local authorities to the Mayor.

On housing, I believe that the Mayor’s new powers risk concentrating too much influence in City Hall to the detriment of local priorities. It is quite likely that local London councils will find themselves obliged by the Mayor to undertake specific tasks without any indication as to where the finance is coming from. Given the understandable concern about so much funding of local government activity already being passported by central government, this would be a very retrograde step.

I have been lobbied by several of my own local residents groups, including the Knightsbridge Association and Paddington Residents’ Active Concern on Transport, about the strategic dimension this devolution brings in to play. These groups feel that the present system allows decisions to be taken openly in the full knowledge of the local context.

Whilst no one would deny there is at least a case to be made for a wider range of planning applications to be treated as genuinely strategic and left for referral to the Mayor’s office, it is not clear how such a referral would be made. Above all the Mayor should not be given carte blanche in this matter. Frankly, no London Mayor would have the depth of intimate local knowledge to justify interfering with the planning application refused by a local council. Yet the proposal is that he would be given power to reverse a locally-made decision. Furthermore the notion that any Mayor should be able to direct boroughs to amend their local development schemes surely runs counter to the devolutionary principle from which this Bill is supposedly based.

I also fear that the Mayor’s intentions on planning matters are likely given his own track record not to be limited to strategic issues. Paradoxically this sort of potential grandstanding is likely to have the effect of allowing a further layer of bureaucracy, complexity and potential delay at precisely the time when central government wishes to streamline the planning process. I agree with the leader of Westminster City Council, Sir Simon Milton and other London councils, when they assert that the number of cases where the Mayor needs to intervene should be minimised.

The Mayor should only be able to take over a planning application for a limited time after a borough has resolved to approve or refuse an application, or where after a specific time the borough has failed to make substantial progress on that application. It is easy to see how developers or other interested parties might use the Mayor as an additional means of delay and a further appeal mechanism to play off against the local authority. Similarly, where the local authority is running an efficient, timely planning system, meeting its housing targets and delivering social housing in line with the London plan, it is surely unfair that the Mayor will be able to micromanage its day to day operations. In short, where the Mayor of London intervenes in any planning or housing matter, it should be only to focus on the strategic issues.

I want to stress the importance of maintaining our heritage. London is an exciting City, full of hope, passion and vision for the future. We need to encourage exciting new development.

The Mayor’s stance since he was elected has been unashamedly pro-development and he prides himself on his ‘tall buildings’ strategy. In the government’s consultation paper on the Mayor’s power it lists some 25 examples of strategic planning applications that would have benefited from ‘positive Mayoral planning powers.’ However, many of these schemes such as the Tabard Square scheme in Southwark were refused or altered because of local heritage concerns. Accordingly, I strongly oppose the provisions for the Mayor to be responsible for listed building consent and conservation area consent.