City Hall exercises planning powers for the first time
Last week brought news that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan used his planning ‘call in’ powers on two large housing developments. This is the first time the Mayor has stepped in over the head of a local authority to make a decision on a planning application. It was an important moment as he begins to flex the proverbial muscles his City Hall seat provides.
Khan was elected on a ticket that sought to address the city’s housing crisis and his team have been beating the drum about increasing housing delivery from day one. It was the preeminent issue during the 2016 London election campaign. It is also affecting the competitiveness of the city as a location for business investment. Against this background the Mayor overruled two previous decisions to refuse development projects made by the London boroughs of Haringey and Harrow. Each was given the green light.
So what does this tell us about the Mayor’s approach? Large development projects need to move ahead quickly if City Hall is to get anywhere near the number of new homes required to meet housing need. Figures in the city’s blueprint, the London Plan, require 49,000 a year. However, evidence suggests the actual housing need could be far in excess of that target. Although there are many factors in play, the current administration will be judged (certainly by its political opponents) by the numbers on the board. It will have been keen to kick-start these large projects.
The lack of new homes will be old news to anyone familiar with City Hall and London politics. However, these decisions provide a few clues about how Sadiq’s team will go about addressing it. Not every project will be met with the same pro-development approach from the Mayor, even if his desire to get building is written plain across the 2016 manifesto.
First, each project was been recommended for approval (the ‘green light’ to get building) by local authority planning officers, but overturned by planning committee members (councillors). Others can pore over the detail, but this suggests City Hall staff felt they had sound technical reasons to overturn the decisions. Second, Sadiq has adopted a collaborative approach – wishing to work with local authorities on housing delivery. This was the case on the applications in question: each council’s leading politicians expressed the desire to ‘find a way forward’, rather than opposing the Mayor’s initiative. It is notable that both boroughs were Labour administrations, like the Mayor.
Third, and perhaps critically, each project provided a good level of affordable housing. This is the absolute political priority in City Hall. The proposals in Haringey saw an increase in low-cost homes from 9 percent to ‘up to’ 35 percent of the scheme. From this we can see that the Mayor is taking a favourable approach to building projects which help Londoners with the cost of housing, and negotiating with developers to increase their offer.
What can we conclude? There will be more stern tests of the City Hall apparatus in future. However, there are two overriding themes worth considering: collaboration between the Mayor and local authorities in question; and the all-important delivery of affordable housing which is seen as the priority. The latter in particular is one of the most important determinants as to whether City Hall will back new housing projects.
By Francis Mallinson, Senior Consultant