In the run-up to discussion of particular themes in the Examination in Public (EiP) we decided to bring together small expert groups, including several known to be participating in the relevant sessions and others with informed views – in order to identify key issues, the types of evidence likely to be in play, and areas of concern.
The discussions are informal, in manner and recording, with LSE London producing both a short briefing note after each discussion (with no attribution of points to individuals) and a blog which represented a specifically LSE London reaction to some of the key points, with the intention of stimulating reactions and responses from a much wider group of interested parties.
This first roundtable was focused on the spatial strategy set out in the New London Plan (NLP), and the way in which the Panel had picked up on particular issues, including the choices they had highlighted in the questions (known as Matters) they had prepared as the agenda for public sessions in the EiP.
Our 5 questions for this roundtable were essentially edited summaries of those presented by the Panel for Matters M1, M10, M11 and M16:
- Does the NLP adequately meet the requirement to consider and evaluate alternative spatial strategies, in terms of the reasonableness of the alternatives considered and the comprehensiveness of their evaluation?
- Is the strategic approach to accommodating development needs within London through intensification of existing built-up areas justified – and does the NLP’s version of this make success significantly more likely than with the current FALP version?
- Should some of London’s development needs be met through reviewing Green Belt (GB)/Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) in London – and how much difference might this make?
- And/or could it better be achieved by accommodating some of the growth elsewhere in the Wider South East?
- If so, how should this be pursued and how adequate for this are the NLP’s proposals /policies for pursuing this – in the short and long runs?
Discussion also included:
- some briefing from those with more prior experience of such Examinations, and knowledge of this Panel; plus
- initial consideration of what realistic outcomes from the EiP could be, and of what practical significance our conclusions could have where they might depart from the Mayor’s view – including the question:
what should and could be done through this process?
Though the public sessions are only starting in mid-January, the three Inspectors (individually and collectively) have been doing a great deal of reading (not only of the NLP itself) over preceding months, to frame their lines of enquiry.
Each Inspector would have particular roles and responsibilities – including the lead on particular Matters/sessions – though more than one might be present during a particular session.
Later participants need to be aware that Inspectors would have been involved in a series of sessions, various of which could, in principle, involve the same kinds of argument and evidence being presented. A big challenge is thus to try not to introduce the same material presented at the (or a) previous session.
The GLA will be represented at all sessions, on occasion together with others who have been involved in producing the evidence base. The first of these will be Arup who helped develop the Integrated Impact Assessment (IIA).
Discussion of individual questions
The discussion while addressing each of the questions separately often took a more overarching view.
Q1. The structuring of the Plan makes it clear that consideration of spatial development patterns is fundamental (in relation to broadly specified Good Growth Policies). The Panel’s remit implies that there was an obligation to discuss and evaluate alternative spatial strategies.
There was discussion about how far this might actually be a legal requirement and/or something presumed by international conventions. Whatever the formal position, the Panel was seen as quite reasonably expecting this to have been done, and in an appropriate way.
In fact, however, references to any alternative to the Plan’s (sustainable intensification) spatial strategy are confined to the Integrated Impact Assessment (IIA) report and even here they are quite limited, reflecting the data made available by the Greater London Authority (GLA). It includes only 3 alternatives which were incremental: (i) intensification within the GLA; (ii) that intensification plus GB/MOL; and (iii) both of these plus the wider SE.
This implies that there is an automatic assumption that intensification – and intensification in the outer boroughs in particular – must lie at the centre of the NLP. There was no assessment, e.g., via scenarios of a wider range of possibilities, which is what is required under European Commission guidance.
Q2. The question of intensification within the GLA area and its potential to accommodate the target housing numbers is central to the acceptability of the Plan. However, as already noted, no alternatives, other than accommodating the shortfall on GB and MOL or through overspill into the wider SE had been evidenced. The view at the roundtable, not surprisingly, was that the numbers were not achievable through the Plan as specified –but also that the reasons for this were wide ranging and many fell outside the remit of the Plan. However, it raised issues around how the Panel might address this – either by rejecting the Plan or requiring an immediate further review.
An important specific issue related to the removal of the density matrix and its replacement by a number of design codes and whether this would significantly modify outcomes. A particular issue raised was whether this would increase land prices because of expectations of higher densities.
A number of participants suggested that removing the matrix was a necessary part of the GLA’s growth agenda but that the impact of its removal would be minimal – on both prices and outputs – as it had not really been implemented over the last decade. A structural issue of considerable importance here is that saving land through higher densities has not led to higher output rates. Even were the removal of the matrix to increase permitted densities one important question is whether anything in the Plan would modify that relationship thus allowing more housing to be built directly as a result of increasing densities – this appears to be core to the link between Plan and delivery. This suggests a two-stage element in the enquiry – will the removal of the matrix increase densities; and will such increases be accompanied by more land being used.
An important concern even among those who were comfortable with densities and design being more clearly determined at the LA level was whether there was the capacity in planning Departments to undertake this role without slowing the planning process further.
Qs 3 & 4. In the context of using GB and MOL land much of the discussion was around the intransigence of the Mayor with respect to GB within London in comparison to the apparent willingness of boroughs in the SE to re-examine their GB policy. What most participants would like to see is a much more nuanced approach to GB review focused around issues of sustainability. There was a strong wish for a strategic approach but concern that the Plan would lead more to piecemeal review/release as well as greater intransigence on the part of Las in the wider SE because of the lack of preparedness of London to enable appropriate GB land to be released.
The point was made that GB that is surrounded by development should be treated differently from GB which is there to preserve boundaries. The first should be treated as MOL which has particular value to local communities. In this context there was considerable concern that more MOL had been lost than GB in the last decade – and that there was a need to distinguish between GB that was necessary to preserve boundaries. Yet a cost-benefit analysis, especially one which took account of distributional issues would almost certainly suggest that it would be better to concentrate new development on GB that was not completely surrounded by development. This again points to the need for a more structural approach which is clearly ruled out in the Plan.
A rather different point was that GB and MOL are not the only designations that impact on land use and housing delivery. Conservation areas in particular impose major constraints across large swathes of areas of low-density development.
A final point was that much more should be understood about the patterns of migration into the wider SE as they are now and how they might be affected by the Plan. The Plan inherently assumes that current levels of migration will be taken into account in plans in the surrounding areas – but even this is not clear. London addresses these issues in a very different way to the authorities outside London – so different conclusions can be reached.
While there is evidence of co-operation between authorities, the duty to cooperate does not apply to the London spatial strategy. What is really needed is a coherent strategy that takes account of these patterns and enables Local Authorities across the whole of the SE to plan more effectively.
Q5. It was thought that the government would allow the Plan to be adopted and they would concentrate on how to deliver the housing identified in the Plan. But plans have failed to deliver over the last fifteen years – and the economic environment is hardly supportive – and no trajectories for increasing output have been examined. If the plan is clearly failing, we need a replacement which includes the use of appropriate green belt. Overall therefore there was concern that this was an aspirational Plan rather than one that was evidence based and deliverable.
What Is to Be Done?
There was clearly widespread dissatisfaction with the Plan’s treatment of these issues, which most of those in this roundtable seemed to accept as fundamental to the NLP. But it was less clear what participants in the EiP might realistically seek to achieve in order to remedy this – in terms of conclusions/recommendations from the Panel, and (a separate issue) what power they could rely on to get these implemented.
One view on the first question was that the NLP was unfit for purpose in this respect and that the Panel could reasonably go a step further than the Further Alternations to the London Plan (FALP) Inspector by actually refusing to approve it, or, failing that, to recommend after acceptance, an instant review of the whole Plan. Another view was that the development industry at least was unlikely to advocate this, because everyone had some particular interests they wanted to protect. Simply revising specific elements of the NLP would not achieve a workable operational model.
Overall, some clearly want the NLP to be adopted – and most would then want it reviewed immediately afterwards. Others would rather that the Plan were rejected, and the current Plan remain in place. Most perhaps will therefore be comfortable with accepting the analysis as it stands even though it is clearly flawed.
As one participant summed up the situation:
- There are groups that are comfortable with the NLP however flawed.
- There is very little evidence provided about alternatives for the plan.
- While there are many problems even around capacity itself the link between capacity and delivery is the core problem for overall success.
A second concern is that, as already stated, unlike earlier Plans this Plan is heavy on policies and very light on statistics. As such there is relatively little evidence base to assess issues in anything but the most general ways either the costs and benefits of proposed policies or to assessing identify the impact on different groups.
This led to a final concern: that there is no real evidence of monitoring and post experience assessment – so there is no learning process built into making the next Plan more realistic. A better starting point might be actually to ensure such an assessment is made and published.