Reporting on the new London Plan

One of the curiosities of the London Mayoralty is that it takes almost an entire Mayoral four year term to revise the London Plan, so each Mayor’s planning policies come in only as they are ending their term. Sadiq Khan’s new London Plan is likely to be adopted in the next few months but the planning inspectors have dealt a couple of major blows.

Many boroughs (and not just Conservative ones) nearly had a fit when they saw a policy calmly headed ‘Small sites’, which would have imposed a presumption in favour of infill development and increased density on sites below 0.25 hectares with good transport connections. That it was serious was shown by jaw-droppingly high targets for new homes from such sites. Suburban densification is seen as hugely unpopular.

Hopes that the Planning Inspectorate would save the boroughs have been borne out: the inspectors find the policy “neither justified nor deliverable” and have cut the target for new homes from such sites to less than half. They accept it’s fewer than London needs.

With the Mayoral election now just over six months away, the sitting Mayor’s housing numbers are going to be a big topic. Sadiq Khan deliberately avoided setting himself clear targets before the 2016 election, reasoning that other factors out of his control (central Government and the state of the housing market) affected delivery. He can now point to his housing targets being cut by a central government body – but will critics point to a Mayor who has lots of excuses and not enough new homes?

The Inspectors have given both the Mayor and the boroughs a big political headache by demanding a review of the Green Belt so sites could be released for housing and industrial development. Anyone who has been out seeking votes around the edge of London knows that the Green Belt remains the magic word that makes even the ugliest site suddenly and massively controversial. The Mayor’s press office have been hyping his disagreement and saying he will be asking the Secretary of State to overrule it.

In truth Khan’s use of the London Plan to oppose a third runway at Heathrow always looked like it would be overturned: the inspectors were bound to apply national policy. The same goes for his attempt to use the London Plan to ban fracking. To regard both as essentially ‘political’ is not to denigrate them, but the inspector’s veto neatly links with the Green Belt review in a cogent argument that views it as an attack on the Mayor’s environmental agenda.

While housing and environmental policies have been altered, the inspectors have notably failed to intervene in several other areas many had predicted would be deleted. Very restrictive maximum parking standards were proposed for housing developments, which the then Secretary of State urged the Mayor to withdraw as inconsistent with national policy. The inspectors did not agree. Expect a series of confrontations as outer London boroughs (backed by residents complaining about lack of parking) resist the new policy.

Proposals to protect pubs from a change of use have also been endorsed, helped by extensive evidence the GLA was able to put together; expect councils to welcome their ability to back populist campaigns to save the local. The Mayor also wanted to use the London Plan to put strict fire safety requirements on new buildings; the Government objected that this was the job of building regulations, but the inspectors had no problem at all.

Some Conservatives had hoped the inspectors would find so many faults with the plan they would pause it, and prevent it being adopted before the Mayoral election. That hope was in vain, and in describing the plan as “aspirational but realistic” the inspectors could have been writing an election manifesto. But Sadiq Khan may now have to think up other ways of conjuring housing development sites that are not in the Green Belt.