Charles Wright: Khan’s London Plan is at last set for approval, but what does that really mean?

Charles Wright: Khan’s London Plan is at last set for approval, but what does that really mean?

Sadiq Khan’s London Plan finally looks set for sign-off, more than a year after the Mayor’s “intend to publish” version of his planning blueprint for the capital was submitted to communities secretary Robert Jenrick for approval.

“We expect to agree the London Plan with the Mayor early in the new year,” Jenrick told the Commons last week, after a flurry of December activity which saw Khan set a deadline for publication and the minister, just a day later, adding further new “directions” for changes.

The likely agreement means Khan’s Plan, which began its tortuous journey back in 2017, will be approved just before the next year mayoral election, but only by virtue of the 12-month extension of his term due to the pandemic.

It will emerge from the process with its targets for new house-building falling far short of current Whitehall expectations – 52,000 annually compared to the newly-announced government figure of 93,579 a year.

Khan’s original aspiration for 65,000 homes a year had already been pared down by the planning inspectors who scrutinised the draft Plan last year, finding the mayor’s proposed 250% uplift for development in Outer London, predominately on small sites, unrealistic, and any more than 52,000 new homes a year not credible without encroaching on the Green Belt and/or asking the wider South East to help out.

So what is the basis for the government target, now not only almost twice the draft London Plan figure, but getting on for three times more than the average number of new homes actually built in the capital over the past three years?

It’s all down to Jenrick’s predictable U-turn last week on plans to boost house-building across England via a standard formula for calculating local authority targets across the country – the “mutant algorithm” which ended up allocating the bulk of new construction to the (Tory) shires and suburbs, predominately in the south-east – the opposite of “levelling up”.

Cue backbench outrage, and last week’s rapid reversal, with the government now calling on England’s cities, and London in particular, to do the heavy lifting in a bid to reach its overall target of 300,000 new homes a year.

The new approach simply adds 35% to the 2017 targets for England’s 20 largest urban centres, producing for London the “heroic figure” of 93,579 homes a year, according to insightful analysis from planning and development consultants Lichfields.

Will these homes ever actually get built? For the capital there’s the now familiar conundrum – where to put more homes while continuing to assert that London’s housing needs must be met within its own borders and keeping off the Green Belt.

Enter our old friend, “brownfield” land, now coupled with the prospect of a pandemic-induced “profound structural change” for the retail and commercial sector, freeing up sites for residential use, according to the government. 

Lichfields are politely sceptical: “It does seem that the structural change sketchily envisaged would at best take time to achieve, whereas the new…figures will need to inform plan making now”.

Furthermore, according to planning lawyer Simon Ricketts expert Simonicity blog, it’s an overall approach which can “no longer be said to be a proper methodological assessment of local need based on demographics and household formation rates.” 

And there are political considerations at play in the capital too. With London Tories already criticising Khan’s previous draft Plan as a “war on the suburbs”, and the mayoral election coming up, doubling the Mayor’s target by Whitehall diktat clearly didn’t look to Jenrick like such a good move.

So the new targets come with a crucial fudge, to the effect that Khan’s current Plan gets the go-ahead now, with the uplift applying only to the next London Plan, pushing the application of the new targets back by five years. 

Along with Jenrick’s further directions to amend the current draft, giving boroughs the power to restrict tall buildings and spelling out even further that the Green Belt remains sacrosanct on top of previous directions removing Khan’s commitment to preserve current levels of “strategic industrial land”, it seems to have been enough, for now, to placate critics such as Chipping Barnet’s Theresa Villiers.

The five-year delay in implementing the target hike, coupled with the further protections, is a “major victory for all those who are concerned about protecting the character of suburban locations like Barnet,” she said.

Nevertheless, as Jenrick himself told the House, his new formula did mean that in London “there will need to be a much more ambitious approach to delivering the homes the capital needs.” The minister therefore announced he would send in his Homes England national agency, particularly to help kick-start large “brownfield” sites including Old Oak Common, currently administered by a mayoral development corporation.

With Khan effectively instructed to start planning for the new targets as soon as his current draft is approved, the involvement of Homes England, whose powers over the capital were devolved to City Hall in 2011, looks like a further provocation in the Whitehall/City Hall standoff over who really runs London.

The overall settlement too, as Villiers recognises, suggests that the war over strategic planning and new homes targets in the capital is far from over: “There are still battles to be fought over future housing numbers in London after the London Plan expires.”

The evidence, meanwhile, according to expert commentators, suggests that house-building policies must now be taken with a large pinch of salt. “There have to be very significant doubts over the prospect of London hitting that figure given past rates of delivery,” says Lichfields. 

And LSE housing specialist Kath Scanlon, writing in the Centre for London’s recent “London’s Mayor at 20” compendium, puts it even more succinctly: “Some time ago the targets crossed the line from aspirational and achievable to hopelessly unrealistic”.

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Categories: Analysis

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