Richard Derecki: A short history of national government plans for London going wrong

Richard Derecki: A short history of national government plans for London going wrong

Next Monday, On London and The London Society will co-host a discussion event about whether Greater London should be made bigger. Should it expand to cover the Home Counties from where so many workers commute into the capital? Would such a change lead to a more efficient mass transport system, more affordable housing and better use of the Green Belt? It should be a lively debate, as for the best part of the 20th Century the relentless expansion of London was a cause of national concern and prompted a range of radical policy decisions to try to rein it in.

Between the two world wars, London expanded at an extraordinary rate. The strength of its manufacturing industries and the growth of retail and office services drew in workers from across the country. Between 1911 and 1931 the capital’s population grew by nearly a million people and to reach a historic high of over 8.6 million. More than one person in five in the whole of England and Wales was a Londoner. The transport revolution of the Underground, trams, railways and the motor bus led to a rush of housebuilding, merging the Victorian and Edwardian homes of inner London with the new dormitory towns and villages beyond.

In the 20 years from 1919, the London area doubled in size on the ground, running from Cheshunt in the north to Banstead in the south, and from Dartford in the east to the market town of Uxbridge in the west. Where would it stop? It was feared that London would swallow the whole of the south-east.

Proposals for a green “belt” or “girdle” to contain London’s spread were around from at least the early 1900s. Measures were eventually put in place in 1935 by Herbert Morrison, Labour leader of the London County Council. Grants were offered to outer London authorities to buy up agricultural land to prevent it being built upon. Legislation followed in the Green Belt (Home Counties) Act 1938, and by 1939 some 8,000 hectares had been bought, followed by another 12,150 immediately after World War II.

Yet questions about the regional distribution of people and industry persisted, and with the drumbeat of war ever louder military planners were forced to contemplate the likely impact of aerial bombing on the densely populated city. In 1937 a Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population, chaired by the Conservative Sir Anderson Barlow was established. Patrick Abercrombie, already a renowned town planner following his work on redesigning the centre of Dublin, was a commissioner. The Barlow Commission called for the “decentralisation or dispersal” of “industries and industrial population” from “congested urban areas”. It concluded that the “urgency of the problem of London and the Home Counties…demands immediate attention”.

The devastation and evacuations wrought by the Blitz presented opportunities for grand thinking about population movements, housing and congestion. Abercrombie developed his policy proposals further, first through his work on the County of London plan in 1943 and later in the Greater London Plan of 1944. Population growth would be restricted in the region, new industry would be directed outside of London towards new towns, including at Harlow and Crawley, where housing provision would accommodate up to a million relocated Londoners.

This would all take time. Instead of falling, London’s population initially re-bounded, thanks to a post-war baby boom. By 1952 it had grown back to 8.2 million, close to its pre-war peak. Numbers in inner London had fallen, but in the suburbs they had flourished (see Trust for London chart below). The south-east region as a whole was now home to over 12 million people.

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In 1961 the government launched a new strategic exercise, the South-East Study, to try to manage the expected further in-flows. Ministers had the explicit aims of again trying to prevent London growing geographically in size and achieving a shift in the geographical economic balance – a hard “levelling-up”.

The strategy was “to provide attractive, vigorous, big communities well outside London and well outside the green belt on a scale to cope with the overspill foreseen”. A Location of Offices Bureau would direct businesses away from London to other parts of the country, including Southampton and Portsmouth, Bletchley and Newbury, to new towns at Ashford and Stansted and to major expansions of Ipswich, Northampton, Peterborough and Swindon.

From 1965, London government was reorganised under the 1963 London Government Act which created today’s Greater London and the 32 borough councils within it. The Greater London Council (GLC) replaced the London County Council. It was given strategic planning powers across the whole of Greater London and local planning became the responsibility of the boroughs. The Act required the GLC to produce its own strategic plan, the Greater London Development Plan (GLDP), which was to give administrative effect to Abercrombie’s vision within the Green Belt.

London would now deal with its own issues within its new boundary. The first GLDP, drafted in 1969, assumed a fall in London’s population. A forecast movement of between 650,000 and 850,000 people to the wider south-east over the 20 years from 1961 would “ease the congestion from which London has suffered”. The plan got bogged down under the weight of tens of thousands of public objections, most of them opposing the notorious proposed London Ringways or “motorway box” proposal. The plan wasn’t approved until 1976.

Meanwhile, economic forces were wreaking havoc on London’s uncompetitive manufacturing base and it took the planners a decade to catch up. Factory closures came hard and fast and no sector was immune. In the east, the old industries that had grown up around the Thames and then across the whole of London were the first to go. Starting in 1967 with the East India, the docks, once the busiest in the world, closed in quick succession – 20,000 jobs would go in a decade. London’s manufacturing workforce fell from 1.43 million in 1961 to 940,00 in 1974. Meanwhile the Location of Offices Bureau was still moving office jobs out of London. The city’s population tanked. By 1981 London had lost more than double the numbers forecast in the 1970s.

Planners in Whitehall and County Hall, where the GLC based based, struggled to slam on the brakes. New Town growth was constrained in an attempt to shore up London. The 1981 GLC administration, led by Ken Livingstone, sought to secure existing jobs by averting business closures with financial and other assistance provided through London’s own industrial strategy and embarked on a major overhaul of the 1976 GLDP, whose policy framework was clearly deficient for shaping a now distinctly different future.

A new one, published in 1984, addressed a broader economic and social context. It sought to ensure the integration of the basic elements of land use, transport and the environment. London’s economy would be regenerated by creating opportunities and improving the skills of the workforce through direct intervention. This would reduce unemployment, improve the environment and start to tackle social deprivation and inequalities. There would be a decisive shift away from the car towards upgraded public transport. This was a radical departure from past approaches to strategic planning which had focused largely on how land would be allocated.

But the government of Margaret Thatcher, sharply at odds with Livingstone, decided to abolish the GLC and refused to accept the new GLDP. Following the GLC’s demise in 1986, London’s future was put in the hands of government ministers, the boroughs and the City of London Corporation and a web of joint governance arrangements. There would be over 60 separate bodies and over 30 different ways of dividing up the Greater London area for administrative purposes.

One of them, the London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC), comprising councillors from each of the boroughs (plus the City), fought to give London a voice on strategic planning issues. Despite only having an advisory role, it managed to win the argument that London needed the ability to tackle its own problems within its boundary.

With the wider south-east fearing over-heating as firms and commuters continued to leap-frog the Green Belt, London needed to find a way to re-balance regional growth and to exploit the many brownfield land opportunities to the north and east of Tower Bridge. It maintained that better transport links would be key to opening up the potential of these areas, while more affordable housing, a higher quality environment, improved education and training provision would all attract and keep a younger more diverse workforce to drive the economy in new directions.

With the establishment of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the office of Mayor of London in 2000, such a spatial development strategy, which soon became known as the London Plan, was formally placed the very centre of how the Mayor would realise his vision of a sustainable, economically dynamic, more inclusive society. Mayors are required to produce strategies for a range of policy areas: transport, economy, housing, environment, health, culture. The London Plan is the overall spatial expression of them all.

It means that national government, investors, developers, community interest groups and all other interested parties can see the mayoralty’s direction of travel. Decisions about, for example, transport initiatives would lead proposals for new housing developments, ensure that people had access to jobs and that environment priorities, such as access to green spaces, were met. Such strategic planning could drive the achievement of high-level objectives such as tackling the lack of affordable housing or entrenched deprivation. Reinforcing the need for joined-up thinking, borough plans must be in conformity with the London Plan.

And how London has thrived in the past 20 years. It is consistently found to be among the top world cities to do business in, its population has reached nine million and its tax contribution to the rest of the UK has climbed to over £30 billion a year – more than double what it was ten years ago. The global success of the Stratford-based Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 is one of the most striking examples of strategic planning.

And yet, for all this, London is still seen as problematic for central government, not so much out of fear of its physical expansion as its apparent economic and cultural dominance – a black hole that remorselessly sucks in talent and resources. The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill currently wending its way through Parliament would make a number of legislative changes to give force to the government’s “levelling-up” ambitious. However, as one peer (Baroness Taylor) noted, the Bill is like a sweet shop “jamboree bag” in that it promises much but seems to contain little of real value.

There are measures that will devolve some limited powers to Combined Authorities and elected Metro-Mayors in other parts of England, but they sit alongside proposals for new centrally-produced planning polices that will trump locally produced plans where there is any conflict. And there is nothing in the Bill for the Mayor of London. Sadiq Khan is having to lobby for changes to protect the integrity of the London Plan so he can continue introducing innovative policies tailored for the capital and prevent a return to one-size-fits-all planning policy controlled from Whitehall. It seems that letting go really is the hardest thing for UK governments to do.

Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. Follow him on Twitter

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Categories: Comment


  1. Why not develop a Great London ( akin to Great Britain ) which would cover the entire South East of England ? Commuters travel to work and for leisure from all over the South East to London . Rail transport is already being developed by Crossrail . A North/South Crossrail should be built with fast and frequent electric transport to the 2 Crossrails from the whole South East . This would revive struggling South East cities , towns and villages . It would also make London the world’s First City . It is already the most-loved city by visitors from all over the world .

  2. Kyle Harrison says:

    I feel like it’s a tad too coincidental to say that it was the London Plan era from 2000 that has turbocharged London. London’s population started growing again from the late 80s onwards. Once the population was on the up, more money was going to end up in the coffers for public transport which would improve it. Growth often leads to more growth, as new businesses are launched to service the needs of the new residents etc… London’s growth was being driven by Thatcherite economics and globalisation. Which makes it so ironic that there are so many lefties in London, including good old red Ken as the first mayor. A socialist mayor in a neoliberal age. I think London’s future is more troubled, fundamentally, because of deglobalisation. But then young people might be able to afford an actual house. So there’s always winners and losers. Many Londoners got on in life pretty well in the declining years.

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