KEN'S CORONATION DIVIDES CAPITAL
When Ruth Kelly, secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, announced that Whitehall would be extending Ken Livingstone's powers last week, it sent a tremor through London.
In what is the biggest change yet to mayoral powers, 'King Ken' will have the power to approve 'strategic' proposals as well as reject projects, which could see the London skyline dramatically altered.
Ministers have yet to decide what 'strategic' actually suggests, but many councils are gravely concerned over what the decision might mean for local government.
One senior planner at Southwark council claimed the decision was a slap in the face following the good work it has been doing in recent years.
He said: 'We believe our own track record does not warrant the mayor's increase in powers. We were led to believe the Government was looking for greater local democracy, but this move seems to go directly against this. It is taking the decision out of our hands, and the hands of local communities.
'It is a total erosion of democracy, ' he added. 'It will promote oppositional politics at a local level, and seems to directly oppose the Government's move to engage the public in planning concerns.'
The announcement has led many to think that, with Livingstone's apparent love for tall buildings, the London skyline will be utterly changed.
It is also possible that had the mayor had such powers earlier, building proposals such as Vinoly's 'Walkie-Talkie' would have stayed at 45 storeys.
The scheme was subsequently reduced to 35 storeys so as not to detract from the impact of the Tower of London and St Paul's ( ajplus 14.07.06).
It would also have meant that Broadway Malyan's Vauxhall Tower might never have faced a planning inquiry.
The project was vehemently opposed by Lambeth council, though it was eventually pushed through by John Prescott.
And there is speculation that the first major scheme to benefit from the mayor's extended powers will be Allies and Morrison's vast 'Three Sisters' project for Waterloo.
Michael Snyder, the City of London's policy and resources committee chairman, has had a good relationship with Livingstone in the past, but he does have concerns over the changes.
He said: 'I am all in favour of planning tall buildings in the city, if they are in the right place. The mayor and I have always agreed on that.
'There are designated areas for tall buildings in the City. We have a heritage to protect and we must also be able to allow world businesses to have world class premises in the city. It is about striking the right balance, ' he said.
Instead, Snyder's concerns lie in the checking process.
Although he is in favour of an overall strategic body to be given such planning powers, there must be an equally powerful watchdog.
'There needs to be independent scrutiny, but one which doesn't slow the planning process down. It has to be simple and effective, but there doesn't seem to be one in place as yet, ' he said.
Although Snyder believes there could be a degree of anxiety among local councils over some planning proposals, he is adamant that the fears are misplaced.
'I have yet to see a single instance where a local council has managed to prevent a major scheme going through, anyway. And the mayor has always had a say in local plans in order for them to conform to the London-wide plan, so the announcement hasn't changed much.'
Until ministers firm up the proposed changes, the announcement is likely to cause a great deal of confusion, as local councils and developers await further details on how far Livingstone's remit will extend.
In a statement following the decision, Westminster council slammed the announcement, claiming it was 'vague', and the process for planning applications is likely to become more 'complicated and unclear'.
The council's statement went on to say the new powers will mean developers will have 'no clarity over who is running the planning process for strategic schemes'.
The council also claims Livingstone's new powers appear to, 'add further layers of bureaucracy, uncertainty and delays to the planning process.'
But Simon Foxell, former RIBA London chairman, believes this is exactly what it will not do. But he does think the powers could cause problems in the future.
'It is a good idea to have an overall planning authority in London, as it will cut down on layers of general appeal.
'However, a future mayor could abuse the powers if he has a very political agenda, which would allow him to make planning decisions on that basis.'
According to Foxell, the affect of extending the mayor's powers on planning and development in London will come down to the individual, and Ken Livingstone is increasingly seen as a good thing by developers.
He said: 'It should facilitate development, but it all depends on the mayor at the time and what the London plan is.
'But a more streamlined planning system, will allow for more planning and development in the capital, ' he concluded.