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Time for a London Plan B

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Last week the housing secretary blocked the mayor’s long-awaited London Plan. But do we really need another ‘bible’ or is there a more agile vehicle for London’s policy? asks Christopher Cummings of chapmanbdsp

Last week the housing secretary finally offered his withering response to Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan, leaving the environmental ambitions of the capital to stumble along while politicians argue whether bed linen should have its own policy, or not.

One of the main criticisms levelled at the plan is that it is not ‘ambitious or progressive’ enough. That’s a pretty easy stone to throw at a document that began development pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Greta, pre-Covid-19. Away from the headlines, we have also seen new National Planning Policy Framework, consultations on the Building Regulations and a legal commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 amid continued decarbonisation of the grid over that time.

It would be quite the miraculous document that could maintain relevance throughout the past few years, such has been the pace of change. It’s an impossible task and we should be asking why we persevere with a format that makes life so difficult for ourselves?

The stuttering London Plan, non-existent progress on Part L and an ill-thought Future Homes Standard are putting sustainable development firmly in the back rows

The current version is over 600 pages long, containing more than 100 policies across 10 key topic areas. Many of these have been untouched by the consultation and review process but have, nonetheless, have had to wait for the others to be ratified. And that wait continues.

Work began on the next version of the London Plan back in 2016, with the draft document published in December 2017. Over 100 consultation events and thousands of responses led to the August 2018 version, which was used for the ‘examination in public’ phase of development. Over 300 organisations took part in 51 hearing sessions, resulting in the ‘intend to publish’ version being put before the housing secretary Robert Jenrick in October 2019.

The (Conservative) secretary of state then took five months to respond to the (Labour) mayor of London’s proposals, meaning his halting response and subsequent demands for revision landed just two months before the mayoral elections. These elections were postponed just as the response was published, and it’s hard not to view the scathing comments through the lens of party politics.

Creating a magnum opus takes time, and policy positions that constantly shift in response to the zeitgeist would be impossible to respond to, but there must be a middle-ground that frees up individual policy areas to provide clarity and certainty in development.

When the GLA released its supplementary planning guidance on the production of energy strategies, back in October 2018, it was a progressive move (and should be applauded as such) – but it has ultimately added to the noise and confusion. This is due to the misalignment with Building Regulations and the launch of the London Plan itself. Adopting the carbon factors of SAP 10 should have provided vital fuel to the electrification drive central to our commitment to net zero. Within a more agile, joined-up, framework this could have been the case.

Local authorities in the London boroughs and beyond look to the London Plan to inform their local development plans and policies, often in a pedestrian-paced trickle-down process.

Policy and legislation should be preaching sustainable development across the country. The stuttering and stumbling London Plan, non-existent progress on Part L and an ill-thought Future Homes Standard are putting it firmly in the back rows. Societal pressures, sustainability-led financial and insurance models, and now legal challenges to uphold 2050 commitments are the ones leading the sermon.

The obsession with creating another bible for London has put parts of this good book in danger of obsolescence before it has even been completed. 

Christopher Cummings is technical director at design consultant chapmanbdsp, responsible for all aspects of environmental and sustainable design

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Readers' comments (1)

  • A sobering critique of where we are - and surely mirrored in the current health of planning strategies, and their interaction with national policy and legislation, elsewhere in the country.
    One factor is clearly the personalities of the 'movers and shakers' - the refences to party politics, and to the government Housing Secretary and to the Mayor of London, make me wonder if this particular Housing Secretary is going to wind up making enemies way beyond London - and is fit for the job. Is he, in fact, sustainable?

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