Tired of London

Last month, Mayor of London Ken Livingstone unveiled a planning blueprint for London over the next two decades. One commentator snappily dubbed the former leader of the Greater London Council's (GLC) vision 'the skyscraper manifesto'.`Hyperbole aside, there is much to keep developers and planning professionals smiling in 'Towards the London Plan'. Kate Hall, chairman of the Law Society's planning and environmental law committee and partner at DLA, calls the 103-page paper a “passionate” document.`”You really do get a sense that London is his city and he cares about it,” she says. “But [the question] is whether he will care about it in the way that everybody else does.”`The Mayor is required to draw up a spatial development strategy (SDS), or “London Plan” as he is calling it, under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Last month's document sets out his proposals for the SDS, which are out for consultation until the end of July. He will then publish his draft plan which will be followed by a three-month consultation and an examination in public by a Government-appointed panel.`CMS Cameron McKenna planning partner Chris Williams says: “Ken recognises that London needs to make a move in order to put its mark back on the world map, and for that he needs high levels of developments and landmark buildings.”`The paper enthuses that “London is a great city. It ranks as one of the three genuine 'world cities' with New York and Tokyo.” But there has to be change for it to retain its kudos and the new mayoral vision promises a dramatic break from post-war planning policies. During the past 30 years there has been an attempt to disperse business and people away from the capital.`According to the Mayor, this approach could continue and relieve pressure on infrastructure but he fears that it would also compromise a world-class city in the era of globalisation. Instead, the paper announces a commitment to moving away from policies of dispersal and instead accommodate the rapid growth caused by globalisation. London's population dropped from 8 million in 1945 to 6.8 million in 1983. It is now at 7.4 million and is expected to hit 8.1 million by 2016. All in all, the London Plan represents a new era of development for the capital.`Planning law practitioners welcome the return of joined-up thinking. Stephen Webb, a solicitor in the planning group at Denton Wilde Sapte, says: “It's great to see regional planning come back in vogue. We've missed having a regional planning authority which will actually get involved and make decisions.” Webb is on secondment to the Central London Partnership where he will advise the group on its response to the SDS. He believes that the greatest planning problems to have beset the capital have come from the Government Office for London “not making decisions, calling things in and then taking a long time to make decisions once an inquiry has taken place”.`Webb's view of the Mayor's plans so far are that they are “laudable in terms of their policy objective”, but “short on detail”. Not surprisingly, he is concerned that less than two pages out of 103 are devoted to central London.`He says: “There has been no overall long-term direction to the development of the capital and to that extent the paper is refreshing and what planning in London really needs. But it has to be a policy that has teeth.” He would like to see the Mayor focus on implementation mechanisms for putting political objectives into place and, in particular, he hopes that there could be a more radical approach to the use of planning obligations and more frequent use of compulsory purchase powers. The last time a strategic approach was applied to planning in the capital was in the days of the GLC, when the Greater London Development Plan was published in 1976. According to Lovells head of planning Michael Gallimore, the capital has suffered because of the absence of such strategic thinking.`”It has been a constant complaint that large development sites have been brought forward without any guarantee that the necessary infrastructure is going to be there to actually make it work,” he says. The classic example is Canary Wharf, which was left without adequate public transport links until the Jubilee Line extension was completed in September 1999.`Under Section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act, regard must be made to the development plan in planning matters “unless material considerations be considered otherwise”. The London Plan will not be a development plan but could well constitute material consideration. As DLA planning partner Kate Hall says: “The London Plan is going to be the strategy framework for the whole of Greater London and when they make their own plans all the individual boroughs will have to be in conformity with this strategic document.”`In addition, the Mayor will be consulted by London boroughs on any application of potential strategic importance, and will have the power to direct a borough to refuse the application. It is believed that there will be in the region of 250 applications per year that will be considered of such significance. The Mayor has 14 days to consider whether to refuse an application or ask the Secretary of State to call it in.`This time last year there was a rush of planning applications as property developers wanted to get schemes up and running out of a fear that Livingstone might return to office in 'Red Ken' mode. But planning law practitioners attest to the Mayor's developer-friendly approach to schemes.`Williams believes that the Mayor has looked into something close to 300 schemes since taking office, and has only intervened in a few. He says: “Contrary to people's worst expectations – and there was a lot of fear prior to the election – his officers have taken a very professional approach and it has been softly, softly.”`But some detect a more forceful approach. According to Berwin Leighton Paisner's joint head of planning Ian Trehearne, there is “a feeling that the people who work for him are very elbows-out and arrogant, and looking for roles in a big way”. But he adds: “On the other hand it's not an unreasonable regime and it does make decisions quickly.” Williams also suspects that the Mayor's stance will be more assertive once the SDS is published.`On any analysis, the new role of the Mayor builds another layer of bureaucracy into the red tape-ridden planning system. It certainly has the potential to slow developments down, says Webb. But he adds: “If developers use it properly and ensure their development proposals actually comply with the policy direction that the Mayor is advocating – and that requires early consultation with the GLA – it could actually speed things up.”`Commentators have made much of Livingstone's trip to New York at the beginning of the year and his admiration for Manhattan-style skyscrapers. The future of London's skyline is in the balance, proclaimed London's Evening Standard last month. The Mayor was a keen supporter of the plans for Heron Tower which, at 183 metres high, would have made it the tallest building in the City. Not every Londoner shares the Mayor's aesthetic taste and many were concerned that it would blot out views of St Paul's. Earlier this year, Environment Secretary John Prescott clashed with the Mayor when he announced that the proposals for the 43-storey skyscraper would be determined following a public inquiry later in the year.`Many lawyers fear that that the role of the Mayor – especially with such a controversial character as Livingstone – will drag politics into planning. Lovells' Gallimore says: “To the outside world it looked as though the political battle that was in evidence between Prescott and Livingstone on the tube privatisation was manifesting itself in a tit-for-tat approach. It's just not good news if wider politics are allowed to influence these development schemes.”`In February, the Mayor gave a thumbs down to a major development which included a 60 metre tower in South London. He directed Lambeth Council to refuse the application by developer Frogmore, because it would be contrary to good strategic planning and would result in an unacceptable appearance because of the standard of architectural design.`Alistair Watson, a solicitor in the planning group at Camerons, believes that Livingstone has a role as “the guardian of the design” for London's prestige buildings. He says: “He is someone who will watch over a building as it is being constructed and make sure that it turns up on the London skyline more or less as it was promised two years earlier.”`While the property developers might be thrilled at the promise of skyscrapers, they are less happy about the level of planning gain that the Mayor is attempting to extract on such schemes. Central to Livingstone's approach is making private developers sign up to his plans on promoting affordable housing. He has spoken about residential developments having to offer half of their homes to those on low or middle incomes. “Certainly when such figures were first kicked about, the developers were throwing their hands up in horror,” says Gallimore.`Williams expects the Mayor to take a flexible line in such arrangements. “There's going to have to be a mechanism for deciding how much you provide as a theoretical figure and what level of financial contribution is affordable,” he says.`The London Plan will identify areas for regeneration. The Mayor has already earmarked East London and in particular Stratford, which is to become prominent as a result of the Channel Tunnel rail link.`But Hall believes that targeting development in this way could amount to a manipulation of the market. She cites the example of Thames Gateway, one of four regional corridors named in the proposals, which stretches east towards north Kent and south Essex. She asks: “Will people want to develop where they are being told to develop?”`It remains to be seen what form the London Plan will eventually take, but as Williams points out, it marks a fundamental change to the capital's planning regime. “It's going to have a tremendous impact, it's going to change the debate and it may help put London back on the map,” he says. “There are certainly going to be implications for us and the way our clients are going to have to deal with the changes.”“The london plan`-The paper will be the strategic plan setting out an integrated social, economic and environmental framework for the future development of London in the context of the wider South East region and Europe.“It will look over a 15-20 year period.`It will integrate the physical and geographical dimensions of the Mayor's other strategies, including broad locations for change, providing a framework for land-use management and development.`It will set out proposals for implementing and funding the strategy.`It will be the London-wide context within which individual boroughs will set their local planning policies through their Unitary Development Plans.`It will be London's response to European guidance on spatial planning (the European Spatial Development Perspective).`It will set the policy framework for the Mayor's involvement in individual major planning decisions in London.“The boroughs continue to be responsible for dealing with all planning applications in their areas and retain their day-to-day development control responsibilities. However, the boroughs must consult the Mayor on planning applications with potential strategic importance. He is able to comment on these applications and, in the last resort, the Mayor has the power to direct boroughs to refuse planning permission on strategic grounds.