London needs wider south-east plan

Tuesday 24 March 2015

A string of measures brought in by Government to improve planning have made little difference to the volume and certainty of major applications, while permitted development rights have resulted in the loss of employment space and affordable housing as well as a ‘tension’ with localism. But London could be improved by a review of the Green Belt and the creation of a wider south east regional plan that the GLA revealed it is aiming to publish by 2019.

Those were some of the headline findings at last week’s planning summit at NLA. The session was kicked off by Shaun Andrews, Head of London Strategy at GL Hearn, who said that despite attempts to stimulate planning through ‘growth friendly’ planning rules, reduction of red tape and the NPPF, performance across London was ‘a mixed quilt’ and the system was becoming ‘a real test of stamina and resources’ that only bigger developers could manage. Whilst in 2014 all but seven London boroughs saw applications growth and boroughs continue to grant the vast majority – 86% – there was a wide range of approval rates and three-quarters of those served were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with time taken. The average time of decisions was ‘stubbornly high’ at 26 weeks, albeit with some ‘outperformers’ such as Hounslow and Camden who should be highlighted, along with Westminster, whose use of planning performance agreements were part of their success, said Andrews. ‘That highlights the need for a comprehensive review of the charges used in the planning system’, he added, recommending that there should be no more major overhauls, a review of affordable housing delivery, more realistic aims over time goals and the introduction of statements of development principles. Hounslow’s director regeneration, economic development and environment Brendon Walsh said the secret of his authority in speed was of ‘letting the fox into the henhouse’ and urging his planners to be more creative and proactive on development.

Ben Denton, Executive Director for Growth, Planning and Housing, City of Westminster led a discussion on the future for neighbourhood planning, stressing that the movement was in its infancy and a complex ‘learning process’ with complicated interrelationships between transport, growth, heritage and other factors. Adrian Penfold, Head of Planning, British Land provided an update of his review based on propositions that there is too much planning and is seen as a solution to too many areas, with designation ideally taking place in a clear window to give developers more certainty.

Turley director Will Linguard said there have been 2000 applications under permitted development rights from May 2013 to June 2014, with 1300 approvals, but that there are ‘mixed messages’ over whether the system will be retained. Although in some cases planning has been speeded up the real issue was the amount of office space lost – in Ealing alone 30 office blocks have prior approval and 21 of them are occupied. This is affecting starter businesses, with owners who might have refurbished now being lured by the prospect of tripling their money rather than spending it. Affordable housing provision is also suffering, there is a ‘tension’ with localism, while the quality and space standards of the conversions is leaving much to be desired. ‘I was asked to come up with some recommendations’ said Linguard of PD rights. ‘But I really struggled beyond ‘stop it’.  

Finally, Stewart Murray, assistant director, planning, GLA, looked at the pressures facing the city from a burgeoning population, with housing at the Olympic Park and Old Oak Common only delivering 1-1.5 years of London’s annual targets and the new alterations to the London Plan upping the figures by a third only getting us to halfway of where the projects might take us. There is no intention of reviving SERPLAN from the dead, said Murray, but there have been talks on structures and proposals including a commission for the South East and questions over whether London can sustain what is effectively a new London borough being created every three years. ‘We have been looking at how we can consume our own smoke’, said Murray, pointing to more homes near Crossrail, HS2, overground and underground, and even possibly where Crossrail 2 stretches beyond London, talking to the capital’s ‘neighbours’ about how they play their part in delivering new homes. Essex, Kent and opportunity areas in East London, for example could each deliver 50,000 homes with shared infrastructure, Murray added, such as extending Crossrail to Ebbsfleet and building three new river crossings. ‘So together we can crack this at a certain level but we need to have a very good structure on coordination and infrastructure delivery’ he said. ‘We are going into a formal review for a new mayor potentially in May 2016 for a discussion with the south east around a new plan for London and we hope to publish that by 2019.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

Event sponsored by Barratt London and Berwin Leighton Paisner

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London Planning Summit


London faces enormous demands to deliver new housing, workspace and infrastructure in order to meet its predicted population growth over the next decade and beyond. But how far is our planning system geared up to deliver this growth while responding to local needs?