In the heavily-trailed speech he delivered in Dudley yesterday, Boris Johnson claimed his government has ambitious plans to “build, build, build” a post-coronavirus economic recovery across the United Kingdom and described London as being “in so many ways the capital of the world”. However, his proposals, many of them re-announcements of existing policies, seem to have generated little enthusiasm within London government and business circles.
Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of London First, which represents many of the capital’s biggest companies and education institutions, said that although the Prime Minister had “expressed the right sentiments on infrastructure projects” and indicated there would be rapid progress with improving roads and building on brownfield sites, he needed to think on a “much bigger scale”.
She called for a national infrastructure strategy to match the ambition of Johnson’s language so that projects such as HS2 and Crossrail 2 can be delivered, along with bolstering green technologies. “There needs to be a long-term approach to the environment as we look to rebuild sustainability in the aftermath of the pandemic,’ she said. “Given the level of spend and support during the crisis, it is vital that the government considers the ways in which private capital and investment can play its part in the ambitious plans for growth in the future.”
HS2 was mentioned in Johnson’s speech along with Northern Powerhouse Rail and a road congestion bottleneck near Manchester, but Crossrail 2 was not, just as it was absent from the 2019 Conservative manifesto. The financial structure proposed for the scheme has been approved, but it does not look to be a priority for Johnson’s government.
Disappointment with the speech has also been expressed by London Councils, the cross-party body that represents the capital’s 33 local authorities. Its executive member for housing and planning, Darren Rodwell, said that although the PM was right to say that “investment in housing and infrastructure is crucial to economic recovery” there is concern among the boroughs that his plans for his affordable housing budget are vague and might actually produce no extra money or even a reduction.
“We’re also wary of any sweeping changes to planning law, which plays a vital role in creating safe, clean and attractive neighbourhoods while ensuring local accountability and protecting communities’ interests,” Rodwell said, pointing out that nearly 60,000 London households are currently in temporary accommodation. He added: “It is clear that planning regulations are not responsible for the undersupply of housing. London boroughs grant around 50,000 planning approvals each year and there are approximately 266,000 new homes in the capital’s development pipeline.”
Johnson’s speech had signalled a cutting of “red tape” and increased freedom for owners in urban areas to convert properties for residential use without needed planning permission to do so – what is known as “permitted development”. However, the PM’s argument that over-regulation is a principal cause for the UK’s under-supply of homes has been sharply contested by housing commentators including Inside Housing’s Peter Apps and Jules Birch, who said that “come the moment, the Prime Minister sank to the occasion” before documenting in detail the confusion surrounding what the speech contained about the funding of affordable homes.
Unsurprisingly, Labour politicians in London were publicly critical of what Johnson said on housing. Responding to a claim by Johnson on Twitter that “we’re making the most radical reforms to planning since the Second World War”, Mayor of Hackney Phil Glanville, a housing policy specialist, wrote that Johnson’s plans will mean “cuts to affordable housing funding” and to “social housing quotas in new developments” as well as “slum conversions of empty (often not empty) shops and offices to homes”.
A more general rubbishing was issued by Sadiq Khan. “This announcement shows the Government has fundamentally failed to grasp the scale of the economic challenge ahead and the unprecedented threat to millions of jobs in London and across the UK,” he said in a statement. “This funding is just a tiny fraction of the economic stimulus packages announced weeks ago by other major economies such as Germany and the US. As well as being money that was previously announced, this is another example of central government deciding what is best for local areas and cities, instead of meaningful devolution to those closest to the issues.”
The London Mayor concluded: “Our government was too slow to act on the health crisis caused by Covid-19 and thousands more people died as a result. Now, they are being too slow to act on the economic crisis that could mean millions could lose their jobs. We urgently need the government to come forward with proposals for an unprecedented economic stimulus package that truly matches the scale of the challenge to jobs and growth.”
Photograph from Gov.uk.
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