Roundtable 3: Partnership and collaboration in land use planning
This was the third in our series of roundtables in March where we brought together individuals with a spread of expertise to identify questions to put to candidates publicly in the run-up to the scheduled Mayoral election in May.
And then Covid19 led to postponement of the election by a year. But, since at least half the point of the exercise was (and still is) to try to get continuing debate going about the big policy issues for London, we are here setting out some of the main issues that emerged from those roundtables. . The biggest area where the content of the debate will change is with respect to feasible levels of housing delivery given the massively changed economic environment. The other issues discussed below remain just as relevant as they were in March.
The starting point for Roundtable 3 was the surprising absence of debate about how the city and its governance could be made to function better. Such debate has been lacking throughout the 20 years since democratic London government was formally restored with a directly-elected Mayor. A widely shared view was that the relations within London and across the Wider South East have become more evidently unsatisfactory in the past decade or so; that more open policy debate and reporting is needed on a continuing basis; and that strategies for reversing this lack of debate should be a primary area in questioning Mayoral candidates.
Partnership in addressing the housing delivery gap
Discussion about the housing delivery gap started where the first roundtable left off: what can be done about the housing supply gap between the Mayor’s target (already revised downward) and realistic estimates of how much additional housing the strategy could be expected to secure.
One line of questioning involved the options open to individual London boroughs, as they are formally responsible for meeting their share of Mayor-set targets and potentially sanctionable for probable failures. Perhaps as significant was the observation that boroughs collectively had seemed unable to argue publicly against the Mayor’s position.
A second was about why, after two decades of apparent acceptance that housing supply issues in London and the rest of the Wider South East need to be considered together, there had been virtually no progress in that direction. Yet there is increasingly clear-cut evidence that they cannot be resolved independently. Instead, such gentle moves as there had been toward collaboration on infrastructure planning seemed (at EiP) to have made WSE authorities more suspicious. In part this is because of the fear that there is a housing agenda that was not being discussed but which might re-emerge (as the Plan hinted) if/when the intensification strategy demonstrably failed – again.
The disincentives to open discussion
There was discussion on how mayoral candidates might be encouraged to express their (hopefully different) views about how to advance effective collaboration – between the GLA and both local authorities and the WSE South East but also with other independent actors.
One anticipated obstacle was a degree of risk aversion, as observed in 2016 when candidates all fell in line to close off Green Belt review as a policy option. Perhaps the ground needs to be better prepared in terms of ongoing evidence-related debates to which candidates might respond? But it was also suggested that this lack of overt collaboration reflected broader sources of dysfunctionality in the GLA’s strategic planning role.
Planning and electoral cycles
The current arrangements make it extremely hard to hold Mayors accountable for performance in their key strategic roles. This arises because Mayors are elected for four year terms, with each so far seeking a second term. The strategic planning cycle itself takes more or less a whole term (more in the current case) to get a Plan together, consulted upon, publicly examined and endorsed (or not) by Assembly and by national government. So, after one term there are no real world outcomes against which a Mayor’s performance in a strategic planning role can be judged (beyond getting a Plan out), and arguably still little clear evidence against long term goals after a second one (though so far only Mayor Livingstone has been tested at that stage). This may offer too little incentive for pursuing a difficult and possibly unpopular option in preference to muddling through – unless there are other ways in which leadership can be held to account.
The gap in opportunities for serious policy debate
As the London system has functioned, there are basically two, quite intensive, opportunities for political discussion about the direction, aspirations and content of a strategic plan. One, early on, involves public consultation on a broad vision (of good growth, for instance), with an accessible manifesto-style presentation, eliciting an enormous variety of responses with substantive messages that are not easy to extract or address. The second involves a weighty full draft plan, with legally defined essentials, ready for examination of its ‘soundness’ (in relation to the formal requirements of national policy, as well hopefully as its realism). In between these stages, when there are (at least potentially) real policy/strategy choices to be made and assessed. But there is nothing prescribed and little that is open or publicly visible in the form of argued and evidence-related green papers, evaluations or statements of serious options.
Candidates might very reasonably be asked how they intend to bridge this gap and communicate with electors as well as stakeholders about the options and the basis of their choices – and also about what they think serious alternatives might be. They also should be asked to address what criteria they think they should be judged by, both during and at the end of a term.
The role of the Assembly
As one participant nicely said ‘the current process is wonderful and awful’: lots of opportunity to participate, but no attention to what is going wrong (or right), the lessons to be learned and how it actually matters for real people. An expected answer to such complaints might be that this is what the Assembly should be doing. And it surely ought to be playing an important, independent and well-publicised role in this. But there is little sign of this – and almost no public visibility. So potential Mayors could reasonably be asked to declare their intentions and expectations in relation to the Assembly’s role.
Developing real planning collaborations across the Wider South East
Effective collaboration and participation with other authorities, both within Greater London and across the wider region, requires substantial effort, persuasion, negotiation and trust-building – rather than a simple exercise of formal power. It almost certainly also requires (as has been signalled over some years) a mayoral willingness to take a lead, e.g. by promoting rather than blocking Green Belt reviews within London. Again candidates should be asked how (if at all) they would promote positive engagements with partners (both inside and outside London’s boundaries).