The London plan; for developers or for people?
by Pat Turnbull
For five months this year the draft London Plan has been through an Examination in Public. This is the last stage of a process which started about four years ago. In it a team of three government appointed planning inspectors has been sitting in City Hall, headquarters of the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London, listening to planning employees, representatives of local councils, developers and speakers from community organisations like the London Tenants' Federation and planning network Just Space putting their various views on the draft as presented. It is the job of the Inspectors to decide whether the plan is 'sound'. It is up to the Inspectors to decide that on the basis of various criteria, among them the National Planning Policy Framework, which is a government policy. To what extent do they, however, have to consider Londoners' actual real needs?
One problem with trying to plan in the anarchy of capitalism is that in four years a lot can change. Also, there is a great deal that planners at their desks in City Hall have no control over. This is particularly true with the run-down of the local state and the rise of unchecked market forces.
The biggest problem faced by Londoners is the severe shortage of housing at a cost most people can afford. The rich from all over the world are looking for a place to park their money, as an investment, or even as a vehicle for money laundering and British developers are only too keen to oblige. So every space in London, it seems, is being covered with towers of expensive flats, because housing cheap enough to meet Londoners' needs doesn't make the same huge profit.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of the first council housing in Britain. In 1919 Parliament passed the Housing Act which promised government subsidies to help finance the construction of 500,000 houses within three years. It is also the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies had such a disastrous effect on housing provision. By giving council tenants huge discounts to buy their rented homes, she initiated a process which has ended up with forty per cent of ex-council flats sold through right-to-buy being rented out more expensively by private landlords, as the Commons Communities and Local Government select committee found in 2016. At the same time the Thatcher government de-regulated the private rental market so that there is no limit on rents and no security for tenants.
The current conservative government and its previous coalition with the Liberal Democrats have also slashed funds to local councils, who are now scraping around for every penny. By 2020, local authorities will have faced a reduction to core funding from the Government of nearly £16 billion over the preceding decade. That means that councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 that the Government had provided to spend on local services in the last eight years. In this situation many encourage private house building which brings in extra government funding and council tax. They don't have the wherewithal to build homes themselves, and if they do right-to-buy means they can be sold on the private market within three years, or even sooner, if the tenant of the new home was already a council tenant. One recent new council home was sold within seven hours.
So planners are in an unenviable situation but, all the same, critics of the latest London Plan feel strongly that they could have done better.
To begin with, there is an unhealthy emphasis on growth, named 'Good Growth' in the policies, which only begs the question, good for whom? A high target of overall figures for house building has been set on the basis of a prediction that London will grow by 2041 to 10.8 million. There aren't really any sound bases for this prediction and in any case, who will these people be who swell London's population? With the type of housing being built, mainly as an investment or a pied-a-terre, low paid workers will continue to be living in cramped, expensive and poor quality private rented homes, in hostels or on the streets and in the parks, like one local Portuguese catering worker.
Certain standards for house building have been loosened in the draft London Plan. The density matrix which has applied up to now will be abolished. Instead, judgments about how dense building should be will be based on 'good design', a notoriously subjective criterion. London Authority planners have argued that the density matrix is pointless as it has not been adhered to. London community planning network Just Space has countered that the answer is to enforce it, not to abolish it.
London is now scattered with a patchwork of 47 Opportunity Areas. These act as magnets to developers who want to cover every inch with tall buildings to get the maximum profit from London's ridiculously high land values. Restrictions are weakened in these Opportunity Areas to make this easier. This is at the cost of everything that is already there, because the area is almost treated like a blank canvas. Cheap(ish) rented housing, cheap workspace, public leisure facilities, bits of green space, everything is up for grabs.
Councils' powers to resist have been weakened. If developers appeal a planning refusal, it costs councils money and the developers often win. Council planning committees have become very timid in turning applications down, even where it is clear that all it is is a developer's money grab. There is also the incentive that every flat built brings some kind of income to the council, whether it meets the real needs of local people or not.
Yet there is still this pretence of planning. The Greater London Authority's own Strategic Housing Market Assessment indicates that 78 per cent of the backlog for house building is for social rented housing - what used to be council housing. The London Plan policy is to build 66,000 new homes each year, of which 43,000 would be 'genuinely affordable' (whatever that may turn out to mean). Up to now the average numbers built per year has been about 30,000; developers deliberately restrict the numbers to keep the cost of housing high. So the planners are trying to persuade private developers to build a few more 'affordable' units in order to avoid having to go through a viability assessment. In fact, with their huge expensive teams of consultants, the developers run rings round depleted council planning departments and get permission for practically anything anyway.
There is a further problem with this emphasis on growth at all costs. These ambitious figures for house building have been broken up and fed down to the local councils so now the councils are scraping about for bits of land on which to meet these targets. Housing is being crammed in ever closer, standards of daylight, sunlight and green space are all threatened and most of it still too expensive to meet ordinary Londoners' needs.
Take the term 'affordable'; this includes, for example, London Living Rent homes aimed at people with a household income of up to £60,000 and shared ownership homes aimed at households with an income of up to £90,000. The median household income in London is around £32,000. The average household income in social rented properties is about £17,500. By what standards are these homes affordable? Yet developers get off with providing a handful of just such homes as these to meet their obligations to include affordable housing. Unfortunately the Mayor of London has muddied the waters still further by adding a new category, London Affordable Rent, which is supposed to be the equivalent of social rent, but is in fact about 50% higher than current council rents. So even the cheapest housing built is becoming more expensive.
There is a great deal for a future well intentioned Labour Government to sort out on the housing front, should one get elected.