More than four years in the making, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has now adopted the new London Plan. When work first began on this in 2016, none of us could have imagined the extent to which our world and our city has been turned upside down in the past twelve months. Can we expect this plan to solve the unprecedented problems facing London today? It’s almost an unfair ask.
London has never been afraid of reinvention and renewal, but this relies on flexibility. Our city centres and high streets are currently under monumental strain. We need to ensure that planning policy is flexible enough to adapt to these changing circumstances, not to mention the almost cartoonish increase in housing demand over the period it’s taken us to get to this point. Hindsight is certainly a wonderful thing, but from the offset the Mayor should have been asking: does this Plan go far enough?
For me, there are three big implications of its implementation.
Firstly, affordable housing remains top of the agenda for London – Covid-19 hasn’t changed that. But what this new London Plan won’t change are the viability debates that rage on. They will still loom large in planning applications, and remain a significant obstacle to increasing the pace of housing delivery in the capital.
When originally introduced, the aspiration was that the 35 per cent affordable housing threshold would be embedded into land values – as the price of land would adjust given what was achievable on a site. In reality, this hasn’t been the case, and the new plan hasn’t learnt from this experience. As developers struggle to overcome viability concerns, these delays risk stalling development further.
But there will be a shift in how we allocate land. More flexible change of use rules will help redundant retail space be allocated more efficiently as housing – as will the scrapping of the ‘no net employment loss’ requirement. The Mayor had previously closed the door on releasing industrial land for housing, but Jenrick has forced it ajar again. Whether this in turn opens the floodgates remains to be seen, but it’s an important concession given the intransience of Greenbelt.
Because thirdly, given the demand to build more homes, we’re going to have to see greater densification. By removing the density matrix, this Plan acknowledges that we need to look at higher density and taller developments, but what needs to go hand in hand with this is a focus on quality and a recognition that how we live in these homes has changed throughout the pandemic. The new housing SPG on ‘Good Quality Homes’ needs to reflect the rapid shift in society and that the requirements of our homes have broadened now that they’ve been doubling up as offices, schools and gyms.
So does this new London Plan combine the ambition and the flexibility we need for it to be fit for purpose – not only today? In the end, this new plan won’t be judged on the strength of its content – much of which is already out of date – but on its application, and the work the Mayor and his team must do now to boost housing delivery, encourage sustainable development, and take London into the post-pandemic era.
As written for Housing Today.
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