“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency” (Daniel Burnham)
The current version of the London Plan is no little plan, but fails the “magic to stir blood” and “noble, logical diagram” tests. It runs to over 400 pages, which is surely ridiculous – particularly since it is legally constrained only to deal with “matters which are of strategic importance to Greater London”. (Whilst no replacement for a formal document, New London Architecture’s 2015 summary of the document in a four minute video fronted by Peter Murray shows how the key messages can be got across in a more accessible and rousing style).
We are expecting initial non-statutory public consultation this autumn into a review of the current plan, so as to reflect the policy priorities of our third London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. Following this initial process, there would then need to be two formal consultation stages (the first with the London Assembly and GLA bodies, the second with the public) before an examination in public into the submitted document, which the Mayor projects for summer 2018, and perhaps adoption (his fingers still crossed) in autumn 2019. So even on a best case the Mayor will not have an adopted plan until over three quarters of his way through his four year term of office.
His predecessors had the same problem. It took Ken Livingstone four years from election in 2000 to have in place the first London Plan (which ran to an even more thudding 420 pages) and it took Boris Johnson three years from election in 2008 to have in place his 2011 Replacement London Plan, which, subject to three sets of alterations, remains the current plan, supplemented by no fewer than adopted 21 SPGs with two further SPGs currently in draft (Culture and Night Time Economy (April 2017); Affordable Housing & Viability (November 2016)). The extent of reliance on SPGs is no doubt partly down to the exclusion of non-strategic matters from the plan itself (although the SPGs cover a whole range of strategic matters) but as much as anything is probably down to pragmatism, given the slowness of the statutory process.
Strange and dysfunctional system isn’t it? Particularly when one recalls that the inspector, Anthony Thickett, concluded his report dated 18 November 2014 into the Further Alterations to the London Plan as follows:
“57. The evidence before me strongly suggests that the existing London Plan strategy will not deliver sufficient homes to meet objectively assessed need. The Mayor has committed to a review of the London Plan in 2016 but I do not consider that London can afford to wait until then and recommend that a review commences as soon as the FALP is adopted in 2015 (IRC3). In my view, the Mayor needs to explore options beyond the existing philosophy of the London Plan. That may, in the absence of a wider regional strategy to assess the options for growth and to plan and co-ordinate that growth, include engaging local planning authorities beyond the GLA’s boundaries in discussions regarding the evolution of our capital city. “
There are urgent and important issues to be grappled with, with implications far beyond London postcodes. Why do we put up with such slow processes?
The London Plan, or “spatial development strategy” to give it its statutory title, is a strange and unwieldy beast and, as we await consultation on its new incarnation, let’s remind ourselves of some of the curiosities arising from its statutory basis in sections 334 to 341 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Town and Country Planning (London Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2000.
The legal structure for the plan arrived at in the 1999 Act was at the time largely novel. The plan superseded the then Government’s non-statutory regional planning guidance (specifically, RPG3, the then regional planning guidance for London) and the procedure set out for the adoption of this new strategic regional plan echoed in part the examination-in-public process for structure plans of the time. (My recollection from then was that the emphasis on “strategic” was to mark a contrast from the over-prescriptive and slow plan-making of the previous Greater London Council – nice try!).
When the development plans system (over-engineered in the extreme) was created by virtue of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (which also introduced statutory regional spatial strategies for the rest of England), although the London Plan was not a “development plan document”, it was part of the statutory development plan alongside the boroughs’ development plan documents (ie core strategies etc). Under section 38(6) of the 2004 Act, planning applications therefore must be determined “in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise”.
Increased powers were devolved to the Mayor, including, by way of the Mayor of London Order 2008, the ability to direct that he should be the local planning authority on a planning application of potential strategic importance and determine it himself. The plan’s policies are central to the call-in criteria in Article 7(1) of the Order, all of three of which must be met in order for the Mayor to be able to intervene:
“(a) the development or any of the issues raised by the development to which the PSI application relates is of such a nature or scale that it would have a significant impact on the implementation of the spatial development strategy;
(b) the development or any of the issues raised by the development to which the application relates has significant effects that are likely to affect more than one London Borough; and
(c) there are sound planning reasons for issuing a direction”
The application of the criteria was tested in R (Spitalfields Historic Trust) v Mayor of London (Gilbart J, 10 May 2016).
By way of the Localism Act 2011 the regional spatial strategies were abolished but the London Plan remained. The extent to which the London Plan was a development plan for the purposes of the new “duty to cooperate” that the 2011 Act introduced (by way of inserting a new section 33A into the 2004 Act) was left unclear. The plan also now sat not just above the boroughs’ individual local plans but also above potentially a tier of neighbourhood plans below those plans.
When the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (haiku-like little plan, in contrast to the swathes of guidance it replaced) was published in March 2012, it cancelled the guidance there had been in Circular 1/2008 as to the contents of the London Plan. There is now very little direct guidance for the Mayor in the NPPF or indeed in subsequent Planning Practice Guidance.
These are some of the key legal elements of the London Plan process:
What it must contain
The plan’s functions are unique:
As well as the Mayor’s “general policies in respect of the development and use of land in Greater London” (section 334(3)), it must deal with any “general spatial development aspects” of the other strategies, policies and proposals that he is responsible for, whether or not they relate to the development or use of land (section 334(4)). These other strategies include transport, bio-diversity, waste, air quality, noise and culture.
The plan “must deal only with matters which are of strategic importance to Greater London” (section 334(5)). The meaning of “strategic” was tested in R (Mayor of London) v First Secretary of State (Forbes J, 7 April 2008). The then Mayor had directed that Brent Council should refuse planning permission for a student housing scheme on design grounds. The developer appealed against the refusal and in allowing the appeal the Secretary of State awarded costs against the Mayor on the basis that he should not have intervened on grounds that were not of strategic importance. The Mayor challenged the award of costs but the court held that the Secretary of State had been entitled to reach that conclusion.
There has been legal argument as to the extent to which the formal “duty to co-operate” (for what it’s worth) is engaged in relation to the London Plan. This occupied time at the examination of the 2012 examination of “revised early minor alterations” to the plan and the 2014 examination of further alterations.
Inspector Geoff Salter in his report dated 19 June 2012 concluded that the duty did not formally apply:
“Section 110 of the Localism Act introduced a new section (33A) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 which imposes a duty on local planning authorities and other prescribed bodies to co-operate in a range of planning activities. The Mayor is a prescribed person for the purposes of the duty but the London Plan is in effect a regional strategy (RS), the preparation of which does not fall within the list of activities covered by the duty, such as preparation of Development Plan Documents (DPDs). Activities that can reasonably be described as preparing the way for activities such as DPD preparation fall within the duty. However, I do not agree with the South East Waste Planning Advisory Group and the East of England Waste Technical Advisory Body that the LP can be considered to meet this definition, since its production is an activity in its own right“.
Whereas Inspector Anthony Thickett in his report dated 18 November 2014 appears to reach the opposite conclusion:
“Section 33A(3) lists the activities to which the duty applies. The first activity is the preparation of development plan documents. The London Plan is part of the development plan for London but the Mayor points to Section 38(2) of the 2004 Act which defines the FALP as a spatial development strategy and not a development plan document. Section 33A(3)(d & e) apply the duty to any activities that can reasonably be considered to prepare the way for or support the preparation of development plan documents. The preparation of the FALP is an activity in its own right but it must, in my view, also prepare the way for and support the preparation of development plan documents.”
By the time of the most recent examination, into further minor alterations to housing and parking standards, inspector David Hogger’s report dated 15 December 2015 simply accepts the Mayor’s position that the duty does not formally apply, as set out in a procedural note submitted to him which contains the following passage:
“Although the duty applies to the Mayor in respect of other authorities’ plans, it is the Mayor’s view (upheld by Leading Counsel) that section 33A does not apply specifically to the activity of preparing or amending the London Plan. However, London Plan Policy 2.2 makes clear that the Mayor is strongly committed to working with authorities and agencies in the East and South East of England to secure sustainable development and the management of growth in the wider metropolitan area and to co-ordinate approaches to other strategic issues of common concern.” (paragraph 3.6)
The point may be a sterile one in part given that all three Inspectors found that in practice there had been sufficient co-operation in any event, in the context of specific duties in the 1999 Act for the Mayor to:
* consult on any alteration to or replacement of the spatial development strategy (the London Plan) with counties and districts adjoining London (section 335), and
* inform local planning authorities in the vicinity of London of his views concerning any matters of common interest relating to the planning or development of London or those areas (sections 339 and 348).
However, it is a point that needs urgently tidying up to avoid legal uncertainty in the context of the forthcoming plan.
The previous Mayor established the Outer London Commission to consider how parts of outer London might better realise their economic potential. Given as well Anthony Thickett’s urging in his report of the need for a new approach given the pressures for housing, inter-relationships with surrounding areas outside London’s formal boundaries cannot be ignored. The Outer London Commission’s March 2016 report, Coordinating Strategic Policy And Infrastructure Investment Across The Wider South East, touches on the taboo subject of green belt review:
“3.24 […] a strategic review [of green belt boundaries] in London may raise legal issues. The NPPF is very clear that Green Belt reviews should be a local planning authority matter and the two London’s Mayors have so far accepted this. However, S30 of the GLA Act enables the Mayor to take action to further one or more of the authority’s principal purposes. Moreover, the London Plan is legally part of the Development Plan for any area of London and, more practically, the NPPF is clearly written with single tier planning authorities in mind. A case might well be constructed to justify Mayoral/strategic involvement in a review (he already addresses other issues to which the NPPF attributes responsibility to the local planning authority). A formal legal opinion on the admissibility of the Mayor leading a strategic review might inform this.”
No doubt, the new plan will duck the issue, but should it?
Relationship with the boroughs
Section 24(1)(b) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires borough plans to be in general conformity with the London Plan.
The content of the plan is clearly of critical importance to the boroughs and the sensitivity is heightened given that the Mayor does not have to accept an inspector’s recommendations. Differing political priorities between the Mayor and boroughs can lead to tensions, as we saw in relation to the affordable rented housing policies in “revised early minor modifications” introduced by Boris Johnson. Nine boroughs challenged the policy which had been adopted in the face of recommendations from inspector Geoff Salter in his report dated 19 June 2012. They argued that the policy would unlawfully preclude them from imposing borough-wide caps on rent for affordable rented housing at lower than a London-wide default level of 80% of market value.
The dispute reached the High Court in London Borough of Islington (& 8 other London boroughs) v Mayor of London (Lang J, 25 March 2014). The court dismissed the challenge:
“28. In my view, the Claimants have failed to establish that the Defendant’s strategy is contrary to the NPPF. The NPPF is a national policy framed in terms of broad policy objectives. Detailed decisions on how those objectives can be best achieved have to be made at a regional and local level. The only reference to rent caps for affordable rented housing is in the definition of affordable rented housing, which provides that the rent must be “no more than 80% of the local market rent”. Paragraph 47 of the NPPF does not speak either for or against local rent caps. Nor does it prevent the Defendant from adopting a London-wide policy against rent caps with which local boroughs must comply. There are other ways in which the Claimants can and should “use their evidence base” to ensure their local plans meet “objectively assessed needs” for affordable housing…”
So, a plan is to be adopted in 2019 with a two year preparation process, within which period the environmental and other implications of emerging policies will need to be thoroughly tested. How will it point London forward in a certain and confident way given the various current uncertainties over such issues as Brexit (given the particularly internationally-facing role that Greater London plays, a clear priority for Khan will be to avoid a hard Glexit, regardless of the consistency of any Brexit); Heathrow; Crossrail 2; the Bakerloo Line extension and other infrastructure proposals, and whatever emerges as the (new) Government’s air quality plan? But perhaps above all of these uncertainties remains the continued desperate need for increased housing, with affordability a key component.
What a challenging prospect the Mayor and his team have ahead of them in appropriately directing boroughs and developers with clarity and precision, retaining the good, snipping out the unnecessary or counter-productive. Let’s hope that, in every respect save its length, this turns out to be no little plan.
Simon Ricketts 23.4.17
Personal views, et cetera