There was more than a whiff of electioneering in communities secretary Robert Jenrick’s comprehensive rubbishing of Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan, released on Friday morning before the decision to postpone the 7 May mayoral election was announced.
The draft had been on the minister’s desk for final sign-off since December. And the timing of the release of his response, directing significant changes to the Plan, made it unlikely that Khan’s new blueprint for development in the capital could be published before the formal campaign period got underway and provided fuel for criticism of the Mayor’s housing record.
“Housing delivery in London under your mayoralty has been deeply disappointing”, Jenrick told the Mayor. “Clearly, the housing delivery shortfall you have overseen has led to worsening affordability for Londoners; and things are not improving.”
The planning inspectors reviewing the draft Plan last year had concluded that Khan’s 66,000 new homes year target was not credible and had imposed a new of 52,000, leaving the Plan’s aspirations falling well short of identified housing need and ultimately, Jenrick noted, harming “the economic success of London”.
The draft Plan had not demonstrated the “tough choices necessary to bring enough land into the system to build the homes needed,” the minister concluded. “Housing in our capital is simply too important for the underachievement and drift displayed under your mayoralty, and now in your Plan, to continue.”
Jenrick took the opportunity for a wider swipe at the Labour mayor too. Khan’s plans were not “proactive” enough in promoting home ownership, he was driving people out of the capital by favouring one-bed flats over family homes, and his ballot requirements for estate regeneration were a brake on the supply of new homes (despite every ballot to date delivering a pro-regeneration result).
All of his is exacerbated by “empty threats of rent controls”, the minister wrote. And progress on major sites had stalled, he added, singling out the Old Oak Common and Park Royal site, overseen by a mayoral development corporation, where £250 million government grant had been foregone after failed negotiations with landowners.
What now? With the election postponed, there’s time for Khan to avoid the embarrassment of failing to finalise his plan within his first term of office. And while a City Hall statement called Jenrick’s approach a “heavy-handed” attempt to “run roughshod over the Mayor’s efforts to finalise a London Plan that will deliver for Londoners”, business lobbyists London First have urged a dialling down of the rhetoric.
“London needs more homes, and the only way this will be achieved is if politics are put to one side and there is a renewed focus on creating a planning and delivery framework that can increase housing supply in London,” said executive director Jonathan Seager. “We need more land, more money, and better ways of building.”
Even so, the minister’s demands effectively send Khan back to the drawing board. The Mayor is ordered to scrap his “no net loss” policy on designated industrial land, and he must reinstate dwelling mix requirements in favour of more family homes, relax parking space restrictions for Outer London development and rein back his “garden-grabbing” small sites policy.
In a nod to London Assembly Conservatives’ “war on the suburbs” attack on Khan’s draft, Jenrick also demands a rethink on “densification”. “Londoners need to be given the confidence that high density developments will be directed to the most appropriate sites,” he says. “Gentle density” high streets and town centres should be protected, with high density development only in existing high-density clusters.
Will the minister’s intervention save the Green Belt and refocus development on “brownfield” sites, as Tory Assembly Member and now MP for Orpington Gareth Bacon has claimed? The directions, in fact, reject Khan’s blanket ban on Green Belt development, asserting instead the national policy position, which allows development in “very special” or “exceptional” circumstances.
Comment from leading planning and development consultants Lichfields suggests Jenrick’s demand that work should start immediately on a new Plan, and his call for a more flexible approach to industrial site allocations, both add to the pressure for the review of the Green Belt many observers have been recommending.
And the ministerial call for more ambition from City Hall on housing delivery also encompasses “optimising new capacity above and around stations”. Would this include Khan’s current plans for 10,000 homes on Transport for London land, which have prompted widespread suburban opposition?
Notably, while the inspectors had challenged Khan’s “no Heathrow third runway” stance as contrary to national policy, Jenrick backed away from directing compliance – another hint perhaps that Heathrow expansion plans may no longer expect government support.
But, on housing in particular, Jenrick promises a war of attrition with City Hall, threatening a Whitehall takeover if major sites are not kick-started, “new legislation if necessary” to raise housing ambitions for the capital, and the Mayor ordered in regularly to report on progress.
So far the stand-off remains, with Khan putting the need for extra funding to get more affordable homes built at the heart of his argument with Whitehall. “The mayor makes no apologies for trying to deliver genuinely affordable housing in the capital while at the same time protecting and enhancing the Green Belt,” a City Hall spokesperson said. “The secretary of state needs to realise that London is best served by the government devolving further funding and powers to the capital to build the affordable homes it urgently needs, instead of taking this heavy-handed approach.”
Beyond the political wrangling, many commentators argue that ambitious housebuilding targets, in this and previous London Plans, cannot be met while Mayors seek to meet all the capital’s housing needs within Greater London’s boundaries and keep the Green Belt off limits, an argument borne out by recent official figures.
Except in the metropolis, regional planning strategies were scrapped by the coalition government in 2010, with communities secretary of that time, Eric Pickles, in typically rambunctious fashion, condemning a regime which had “wrested…planning powers away from local councils”.
Interestingly, Jenrick’s latest stance hints at what would be a radical shift after a decade of “localism”. Part of the recipe for more homes, he tells the Mayor, should be “producing and delivering a new strategy with authorities in the wider South East to offset unmet housing need in a joined-up way.”