Relationship Counselling: London and its boroughs, neighbours and central government
The Final Event was structured around discussion on where and how more effective relationships between the GLA and local authorities, the GLA and the Wider South East; and the GLA and central government might be secured. This was led by three pairs of speakers, including four of those whose contributions to the EiP notably addressed this relationship issue as well as two other practitioners with directly relevant experience. The topics covered in their contributions are summarised below often without direct attribution because several speakers drew both on the positions held by their employing organisations and on their own ideas/experience.
The GLA-Borough relationship: Ismael Mulla (Enfield LB) and Andrew Barry-Purssell (West London Alliance) each represented boroughs that recognised a need to meet challenging growth pressures, in a strategic and collaborative way. But they also argued that to address these pressures needed substantially greater flexibility than the draft Plan enabled. In Enfield’s case this included looking more strategically at green-belt sites and a more flexible and nuanced approach to the development of very small sites. In West London worries were reported about the Plan’s inability to recognise choices involving difficult trade-offs – and about the over-attention to detail and process as opposed to the Plan’s overall strategy and likely outcomes. The speakers also referred to concerns that local authorities’ representations to the EiP were concentrated too much on ‘making the right noise’ in relation to these ongoing concerns. They also reflected on views that there might be an underlying risk that, given its inadequate evidence base for many policies, strategic planning in London could fall into disrepute, with reversion to a system pf planning by appeal.
To remedy this situation both speakers urged a more collaborative approach between different government levels/agencies in London particularly in relation to the production and use of the strategic evidence base. More specifically it was suggested that there should be joint commissioning of elements of the evidence base (in relation to e.g. housing issues) which could facilitate more deliverable and adaptable Plans. This should allow boroughs to work with GLA to identify where change was needed – in a context that was now substantially more complex and volatile than had been recognised. A broader argument was also made for meaningful collaboration to involve the development of shared objectives, fostering trust relationships and sharing skills and resource – which would help to enable both bottom-up and top-down planning.
GLA’s relations with authorities elsewhere in the Wider South East (WSE): Cllr. Ralph Bagge (deputy Chair of South East England Councils) and Corinne Swain (from Arup, and a member of the former Outer London Commission) both recognised that there had been some progress in engagement across the WSE before and during the preparation of this draft Plan, as compared with its predecessors. But there remained plenty of scope for closer working across boundaries, so planning solutions could be co-designed and implemented more effectively. But also plenty of scope for disagreement. Cllr Bagge’s comments referred to a perception in relation to past Plans that areas in the South East had essentially been dumped on, in housing terms. He therefore welcomed the NLP’s aspiration for London to ‘consume its own smoke’ via the more efficient use of land. There was still, however, a need for conversation around compensation to areas outside London – to support the infrastructure / place-making investments necessitated by the continuing flow of Londoners out of the capital.
Corinne Swain addressed the need for enhanced collaboration rather more directly, starting from a sense of massive disappointment with the draft NLP’s perpetuation of the myth that London could ‘consume its own smoke’ despite evidence (reiterated at the EiP) of the inadequacy of this ‘compact city’ approach. The English planning system had simply failed to accept the reality of a more extended functional urban area. It was, she argued, time to move on to a process enabling joint-planning. This would entail integrated analyses of the challenges affecting the wider region (including new ones such as that of AI to suburban/exurban jobs) and common data/tools, rather than new institutions or a new spatial planning framework. To achieve this needed a change in the ‘mood music’ from central government, notably MHCLG.
The GLA and central government: James Stevens (from the Home Builders Federation) and Alan Benson (from Haringey LB, and formerly the GLA) addressed what both saw as the currently problematic relationship between central government and the GLA in the context of housing targets. The two layers of government both had unrealistically high, and indeed growing, aspirations – of not dissimilar magnitudes. But neither had any means of effective enforcement, let alone incentive mechanisms to encourage developers and local authorities to achieve the numbers. Yet, as was made clear at many of the EiP sessions, much of the rest of the Plan stands or falls on assuming they can be achieved.
Under the devolution settlement, the GLA’s authority and powers are clearly limited – ‘it is allowed to do what central government allows them to do’. Hence, it was argued, ‘central government needs to stop outsourcing responsibilities for housing targets to the GLA’.
There was (in James Stevens’ judgement) nothing the planning system could do to get anywhere near the targets in the next 10/20 years. Wholly unrealistic targets were unenforceable and might just be ignored. Delivery potential was seriously exaggerated by wishful thinking with regards to the (GLA’s) continuing compact city philosophy; by political prevarication on the part of central government faced with a national housing crisis; and by local authorities’ coyness about planning for additional housing. This last was now being addressed by central government putting in place unrealistic ways of making authorities suffer for non-delivery, which taken together with voters’ negative attitudes, made authorities even less inclined to plan for higher numbers. More practically much of the identified major infrastructure was likely to be delayed and not to be in place for years after it was assumed in the Plan – with knock on effects on housing deliverability.
Proposals as to what could be done included: central government (i) writing into the approved London Plan a realistic estimate of what it thinks the housing shortfall could be (ii) insisting that the members responsible for the duty actually do co-operate; but also (iii) an immediate review of the adopted Plan.