The London Plan – what do council leaders think about it?

After welcoming a new puppy into his household at the weekend, this week Sadiq Khan has published 524 pages of his new draft of the London Plan. Developers, politicians and Londoners have eagerly awaited the Mayor’s proposals and are all relieved that he has handed it in on time and not told us that the dog ate it.

The headlines from the Draft Plan are probably known to all our readers – an encouragement for greater density, fewer parking places, continued protection of Green Belt land and so on – so we thought that we would get some reaction from councillors across the capital.

We also spoke to to two London council leaders about the plan, one Conservative and one Labour. It’s fair to say the plan received a mixed reception.

In outer London there was concern about the higher targets from both Conservative and Labour councillors. The Labour leader we spoke to told us that the increases were ‘hard to take’ and that there seemed to have been some sort of punishment for boroughs that had exceeded expectations previously by increasing targets still further. The Tory leader said that the targets would not be met: “We’re not going to hit the new figures, because we can’t. Just over 95% of the new housing is being put into the suburbs of London, bypassing central London – that’s just not feasible.”

He continued: “We all agree that densification of big sites is what we need. But this new London Plan effectively wants to rip up suburban streets, and put two houses where just one stood. That’s why, in the run-up to the elections next year, we’re starting a “Save Our Suburbs” campaign.”

A senior Conservative told us that councillors would find it hard to support even denser developments and was particularly scathing about the apparent removal of policies that would help to ensure the delivery of family housing. “We all know that there’s greater value in smaller units in town centres” she told us “and now we will just have applications full of one bed flats. How are we supposed to encourage sustainable long term development with no policy protection for family units?”

Closer to the centre of London, one long-serving planning committee member said that “The London Plan isn’t the main driver of development in London” and predicted that boroughs would continue to make their own minds up. “The GLA talks a great deal” we were told “but are they really going to start intervening at this level? I doubt it”.

Another senior Labour figure supported the densification of areas near transport hubs but sought guarantees that promised improvements to infrastructure would actually take place. “We get the big projects, the Crossrails and the Bakerloo Lines, but we need to know that we can provide the schools and empty the bins and that’s never guaranteed. And if we are going to get more applications on smaller sites then I need to recruit more planning officers, and stop planning consultants taking my best ones!”

Our Conservative leader was realistic about the car-free aspect of the plan: “Completely car-free is inevitable. It won’t be liked by some of my fellow Conservative leaders, but this is just a wake-up call, or a reality check. It’s going to happen, so we may as well embrace it.”

The draft plan’s position on industrial land seemed confusing to some, with one senior Conservative noting a protection for industrial land seemingly combined with a determination to see better use of brown field sites. One long-serving Labour committee member said that they didn’t want their borough to become a dormitory and hoped that they could use planning powers to maintain employment uses in areas of high residential value.

There was support for some parts of the Draft Plan. Both Conservative and Labour councillors told us that they liked the moves to help preserve pubs and noted that there was an awareness on planning committees that applications for flats above pubs – and restaurants – was often storing up trouble for the future. Similarly, there was support for moves to restrict takeaway use near schools.

Equally, other parts of the plan were met with surprise and derision, not least the direction to refuse any fracking applications. “It’s the equivalent of the London boroughs in the 80s declaring themselves Nuclear Free Zones” one Conservative told us. One labour leader focused on the direction to provide public toilets, asking if Khan “really was taking the piss”.

The Tory leader we spoke to reminded us that London Plans are rarely transformational. “What’s radical in the last two weeks is not what’s come out of City Hall, but what’s come from No 11. The Chancellor’s Red Book has sneaked out a policy to greatly expand PD rights on all commercial property. Now that could be massive.”

So it’s fair to say that councillors are not rushing to love the draft plan. We should finish this brief analysis with one councillor’s comment which spoke for all that we talked with. “In the end, if we like a scheme, we’ll approve it, and if we don’t, we won’t. So not much will really change. It’s up to developers to convince us”.

And that’s where we come in. If we can help, get in touch.