Cut London’s 33 boroughs to 15 – Norris

Friday 26 February 2016

The ‘undeclared’ competition between London boroughs is likely to intensify in the coming years as they are forced to embrace new funding regimes, with an ‘interesting’ impact on development in the capital.

So said LSE director, Greater London Group Tony Travers as a send-off line following discussion of his London Boroughs at 50 book, at an event jointly hosted by New London Architecture and the Westminster Property Association last week.

Travers was reacting to Haringey’s leader Claire Kober, who said that the old way of funding had ‘almost stopped’, replaced by the need to grow and incentives, with the decisions district councils making largely driven bv mechanisms like the New Homes Bonus. ‘With the incentives in the system, the austerity agenda, the absolute sense that growth is the only name of the game, and the move to 100% business rate devolution I think that will drive the right sort of decision making’, she said.

But it was fellow panellist, former mayoral candidate Steve Norris who suggested that the current regime is loaded with ‘too much democracy’, and that, for the ease of better governance, London’s 33 boroughs should be cut in half to around 15.

Ken Livingstone had suggested the ‘New York solution’ of bringing London’s 33 boroughs down to just five in his first term, said Norris, but that was perhaps going too far. ‘Possibly the answer to devolution lies in fewer boroughs, but fewer boroughs with more powers’, he said, suggesting 15, each with around 600,000 people to provide a more coherent view of the way London might develop and develop a strategy for London, particularly in housing. ‘I’d like to see much more genuine condensation of government.’

Earlier, deputy leader of Westminster City Council Cllr Robert Davis looked back over his 34 years in local government, and the time when 20-30 committees carried out council business, ‘each one exhibiting its own brand of chaos’. Davis recalled working alongside figures such as Diane Abbott and a NALGO representative – someone called Jeremy Corbyn – in a period of ’towering and infamous figures.’ ‘Say what you like about people like Ken Livingstone and Shirley Porter’, said Davis, ‘but it certainly wasn’t a dull period in politics and it certainly made it exciting.’ Davis also vividly recalled the period when the WARS campaign – Westminster Against Reckless Spending – was at its peak against the GLC’s ‘runaway finances’. It was also a time when bullets were dodged as plans for a series of motorways in London following the Westway were happily rethought, said Davis; Westminster was a story characterised by ‘constant evolution’ and ‘change at breath-taking speed’, which Travers’ book allowed us to pause and take stock of.

CBRE director Jonathan Stoddart said that today, with reasonable developers and local authorities with strong leadership and which worked hand in hand with their heads of planning, complexities should be seen merely as hoops to go through. But with 33 boroughs, the service on offer was ‘random’, with more consistency required across the board.

Localism could be an invitation to NIMBYism and all sorts of counterproductive behaviours that do not allow the city to grow, Norris added, and too much democracy in the system means that a 50,000 unit nnual housing target is always going to be difficult to achieve. Travers said housing targets raised the question of whether government will be asked to change legislation to drive more through. Argent Executive Director and Partner Robert Evans said there was now more consensus between developers and local authorities, with less of the ideology of the past and less general distrust, with more people moving between private and public sector. But CIL is ‘a blunt instrument that will cause more havoc’, said Evans, and Section 106s had become an ‘ultra negotiation’, ‘It used to be the case that planning policies were drafted so you could actually meet them’, he said. ‘I don’t think that is the case so much anymore’.

While the motorways were the bullets dodged in the past, what were those that should be dodged in the future asked one questioner from the floor. Davis suggested it could be Boris’ ‘unrealistic’ ideas for tunnels across London, Evans the current scheme for Euston. The ‘complete waste of money’ Garden Bridge was one for a start, for Norris, Nine Elms developments another, but another still was to avoid building into the Green Belt unnecessarily before inner London intensification was exhausted. The big issue was land cost rather than built cost, with perhaps ‘commissioned housing’ - the state becoming the developer – being one answer and another helpful measure being an ‘absolutely mandatory’ social or affordable housing component imposed.  ‘It’s a bit like belling the cat’, said Norris of the housing conundrum. ‘We all know what the problem is. But nobody wants to put the bell around the cat’s neck.’  

’London Boroughs at 50' was sponsored by CBRE.

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