Charles Wright: Gove review of Khan London Plan underdelivers

Charles Wright: Gove review of Khan London Plan underdelivers

Back in December, housing secretary Michael Gove was threatening urgent action against City Hall to get more housebuilding underway in London. Announcing a quickfire probe of possible changes to Sadiq Khan’s London Plan – which was allegedly preventing “thousands of homes” coming forward on brownfield sites in the “heart of our capital” – the minister warned the Mayor: “If you cannot do what is needed to deliver the homes that London needs, I will.”

To say the outcome of that independent review, published on Tuesday, has received a mixed response might be generous. “Tinkering round the edges,” said the Home Builders Federation. A “damp squib,” said former Khan policy chief and Centre for London chief executive Nick Bowes. Ex-Homes England boss Nick Walkley added his own dose of cynicism.

“Not sure this changes very much in practice”, was the frontline verdict of Rob Krzyszowski, Haringey Council’s assistant director of planning, while Khan’s housing deputy Tom Copley declared that as an attempt to blame the London Plan for new home shortfalls it had fallen “totally flat”.

Everyone agrees, of course, that there aren’t enough new homes being built in London. Gove’s review had a narrow remit though, to consider only how the policies in the London Plan – the mayor’s planning blueprint for the city – could be changed to enable more housing development on brownfield sites.

But the review couldn’t avoid the same conclusions that others, including London Councils and City Hall’s housing delivery group of public and private developers, have drawn: “It would be wrong to say that it is only the London Plan that drives the rate of housebuilding in London”.

In fact, it agrees that a whole range of factors are in play, from wider macro-economic headwinds to lack of government funding, skills and labour shortages, cost hikes, new fire safety regulations, infrastructure constraints and not enough planners – all of them “complex, inter-related and overlapping”.

And brownfield sites – where 99.8 per cent of development in London already takes place, according to City Hall – are particularly prone to problems with land ownership, decontamination and infrastructure costs, making them more expensive and vulnerable to viability challenges in the first place.

The review nevertheless says there is “persuasive evidence” that the “combined effect of the multiplicity of policies in the London Plan work to frustrate rather than facilitate the delivery of new homes on brownfield sites”. Unsurprisingly, it’s this line the Prime Minister chose to quote in his comment piece in the Times yesterday.

Schemes are finding it difficult, apparently, to comply with the plan’s plethora of requirements – some 113 separate policies in all –  including detailed guidance on design, layout, density, building height and, not least, Khan’s target for 35 per cent of new homes to be genuinely affordable.

City Hall itself complains that borough planners apply London Plan policies too rigorously, treating “shoulds” as “musts”, the report says. More significantly, it suggests that Khan’s “good growth” policies, for a city that is “socially and economically inclusive and environmentally sustainable”, are effectively asking too much of developers in current economic circumstances.

But in the short document, compiled in just three weeks, specific examples are missing. And while it accepts what it calls “macro evidence” about the impact of the plan on housing delivery, it highlights the need to “distinguish between what is anecdotal and what is evidenced” when it comes to rewriting policy.

It would therefore be “unwise” to recommend specific policy changes, it says, because of the “complex and inter-linking and over-lapping nature of many of the issues, which warrant a good deal more analysis than a short report like this can do justice to”.

What it comes up with instead is a new policy “presumption”, effectively instructing planning authorities that where delivery is falling short, brownfield housing plans should be automatically approved unless the benefits of the scheme are “significantly and demonstrably outweighed” by any adverse impacts.

It’s a move the report suggests might get plans approved for some 4,750 extra homes a year, a suggestion Gove is now taking up, subject to consultation, not just for London but across the country, along with an exhortation for planners to take a more “flexible” approach to a development’s impacts on daylight and sunlight and its internal layouts.

So, no detailed changes, no removing planning powers from the Mayor, no directions to change track on affordable quotas or protections for industrial land and no announcements of new development corporations able to circumvent local planning policies. Not quite the “major intervention” suggested before Christmas.

The single London-specific proposal is to increase the threshold for referring an application to City Hall for decision from its current level of 150 homes, meeting concerns that it is slowing down development. Perhaps, as Nick Bowes suggests, the review “didn’t quite tell Gove what he hoped it might”.

Meanwhile the most significant government intervention this week was not about the review at all, but came in a separate announcement of more government money for housing in the capital – more in line with the London Councils view that the “core problem” is not the planning system but “insufficient capital funding and infrastructure investment”.

The package includes £50 million for estates regeneration, £4 million to start scoping new homes around Euston station and a £125 million loan to housebuilder Berkeley for infrastructure work at three schemes in Newham and Southwark set to deliver some 8,000 new homes.

London may not have heard the last of planning reform though. Officials are considering “further measures that stakeholders raised were holding back delivery”, according to Gove, though these are likely to feed into City Hall’s post-election work on the next London Plan.

And could the capital’s devolution settlement, under which City Hall rather than the Homes England agency distributes government housing funds, also be in Whitehall’s sights? Today’s funding announcement also cryptically hints that the government “intends to legislate when parliamentary time allows to remove the block on Homes England’s ability to deliver in London”.

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