Stimulated by the presentations during the final event, there was a lively discussion about ways in which collaboration should and could effectively be promoted – both immediately in the post-EiP situation, but more about future rounds of London Plan-making. The discussion ranged across the three sets of relationships – and sometimes much more widely – and are best summarised in relation to several recurring questions and themes.
How could the process of draft Plan preparation and review be improved?
Participants in the EiP expressed frustration with the long-drawn-out process. It elicited compelling and powerful arguments but was too geared to technical/legalistic questions about the soundness of the draft Plan’s lengthy text concerning the out-of-date NPPF. At too late a stage in the process, there was discussion around basic issues of policy choices and their ramifications which could not be constructively and adequately debated. Political leaders (and central government) were conspicuously absent from sessions where such decisions were at issue. There was a virtual absence of public coverage or external debate about these choices before or during the EiP. And nobody from the GLA, local authorities or indeed central government was really prepared to say what they meant. The case was made by participants for more prior discussion, with public involvement of boroughs, Mayor and authorities outside London, in relation to strategic alternatives and potential scenarios – rather than generalised ‘consultation’ – before production of future draft Plans.
How much of this is central government’s fault?
There was some agreement (among participants as well as in the GLA) to blame central government in situations where it hadn’t actually done very much, or (about housing targets) where its judgement was little different from the GLA’s. However, it was argued variously that: the government hasn’t given the GLA/boroughs the powers/resources required to get more housing built; ministerial concern about a national housing crisis reinforced the tendency to unrealistic targeteering; and that a general problem with the planning system was politicians’ use of it to showcase and avoid political trouble.
Are there lessons to be learned from experience elsewhere?
Various examples were referred to as cities with systems or cultures that were more effective in consensus building and securing joined-up planning of infrastructure/development. These included Paris, Dublin, Greater Manchester, Montpellier, and Eindhoven. Doubts were expressed about some of these examples. There was also an argument put by several people that planning systems differed because cities differed from one other (as did national politics and state structures). It was also stressed that Mayoral Plans in London had particular achievements to their credit (notably about carbon emissions and sustainable energy). Even so, there was general support for putting some real effort into finding out more systematically what worked (or not) in terms of securing good collaboration concerning strategic concerns at a metropolitan scale. Joint planning (a la Manchester) was, however, seen as a recipe for delay in the London context.
How far a Mayor’s policy preferences should be allowed to constrain strategic options?
Opinions on this ranged between a view that this Mayor’s absolute resistance to development within the London Green Belt had closed the door on constructive dialogue both with boroughs and authorities outside London, and one that saw an elected Mayor as having an absolute right to put their stamp on policy – whether or not they had the powers, finance, and independence to carry that through effectively. In either case, a more objective, evidence-based assessment of feasibility was thought necessary.
Is the compact city model of London development dead?
Several speakers had made this claim about the presumption of each Mayoral Plan that London could and should the additional housing generated by the city’s continued economic and employment growth be accommodated within the capital’s boundaries. What this meant in practice was quite unclear. Formally, the Plan almost met this requirement through the targeted numbers. But – although one ex-GLA-officer expressed puzzlement at the idea – the continuing gap between targets and housing delivery (despite much higher development densities) was seen as evidence of the model’s unrealism.
Can a better evidence base secure collaboration as well as more robust policies?
The case for a more open process of commissioning and building the evidence-base was made by several of the lead speakers, with support from others. The aims should be to avoid another politically selective mix of evidence and assumptions; to enable effective contingency planning in an increasingly uncertain environment; and to build a frequent basis of understanding (if not of agreement on policies) across actors within London, the WSE, and in central/local government. It was suggested that this should cover options, processes, and sources of change – as well as projections – to enable constructive debate and understanding of trade-offs. To make the most of available resources and skills, and to build trust, it was suggested this could be appropriately handled through a joint team, engaging with WSE and borough interests.