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Ian Gordon

November 26th, 2023

Strengthening the Strategic Core of London Plans in the light of experience with the first five rounds

1 comment | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Ian Gordon

November 26th, 2023

Strengthening the Strategic Core of London Plans in the light of experience with the first five rounds

1 comment | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

A point of entry for a first LSE London roundtable on responding to old/new challenges



Under the structure introduced in 2000, London Mayors are obliged to prepare (and review) a series of strategies, including one on spatial development – which under the first Mayor (Ken Livingstone) morphed into a “London Plan”, intended to integrate key elements of each of the other functional strategies (as well as addressing specific town planning requirements). Unlike “development plans” elsewhere, however, there was no required frequency of revision. But the four yearly cycle of Mayoral elections has led to a rhythm in which normally editions of the plan have been developed, consulted on, reviewed (via an Examination in Public), approved, and implementation started, within each cycle – whether or not that comes to involve a new Mayor or a re-election.

The Covid pandemic broke that rhythm with extension of Mayor Khan’s term by a year, until new elections could be held, and shortening of (what became) his second term by a year. Together with the effect of delayed government approval to his (first) Plan that led – if not via any clear public announcement (!) to a situation in which formal Plan-making/review has been deferred until after the next (May 2024) election. In a situation where the current Plan (produced in 2018 and approved in 2021) has some substantial weaknesses, recognised by the EiP in 2019and not since resolved, this provides both an opportunity and a motive for spending time seriously considering both how old (failed) challenges to an effective strategic approach can be more successfully met and the new ones of a recognisably more uncertain world could also be effectively addressed.

Starting such a process is the modest objective of the pair of roundtables (Looking Back and Looking Forwards) with a group of experienced and well informed participants and observers of the Mayoral London Plan process that Christine Whitehead and I jointly convened for LSE London. This (personal) blog was prepared as a, hopefully provocative, point of entry to the first of these roundtables. It starts from an observation that, aside from some personal Mayoral differences in style, priorities and perhaps effectiveness, there were strikingly similar weaknesses (in process and outcomes). And suggests that these point to serious structural weaknesses in the GLA’s capacity to produce the strategically effective Plans that the key aspiration for its establishment. If so, a high priority now should be to seek ways of remedying these weaknesses.

The Greater London Authority as a Strategic Authority: Context, Strengths and Designed Limitations

The old Greater London Council was a power in the land, partly at least because of the scale of services, notably education and council housing, which it delivered directly to a massive electorate. It was less evidently successful in strategic planning, getting just one version of a spatial Plan through to adoption during its 20 year life (as against 5 achieved by the GLA in its first 20 years). The cumbersomeness of the process at the London scale partially explained that, as did vigorous/high profile arguments about motorway boxes with differential local impacts – and the fact that the GLC leadership’s view of the desirability of structural shifts in the economy shifted. The more critical view of deregulation and global city trends was in direct conflict with key central government political objectives during the Thatcher era – commonly an unacceptable problem in relation to capital cities.

Abolition followed. During the interregnum London transitioned, with infrastructural support but little strategic management, to a differentially prosperous, post-industrial, “global city”, with an immigration-based turnaround in population trends – and enhanced (business) expectations of what a city-wide strategic approach could deliver. But the prospect of a politically challenging recreation of the GLC was just about as unattractive to Tony Blair as it has been to Margaret Thatcher.

So, when London-wide government was resurrected 25 years ago it was to fill an essentially strategic role (initially without any service delivery responsibilities), with power vested in a single leader, directly elected for a 4 year term. The aim was to address the challenges of steering development of the complex/dynamic, (inter)nationally important metropole that London had now become, without recreating another powerful “political machine”, and with development of a set of integrative strategies as the focal activity for a modestly staffed organisation.

This arrangement has been strikingly successful (as just noted) in getting a whole series of spatial development Plans/Strategies through the system, with some consistency in their thrust, despite a sequence of three Mayors with Independent, Conservative and Labour affiliations. And, I would add a thrust that has never presented a radical challenge to national government objectives for the city – even (maybe especially) in the case of Mayor Livingstone who had made a volte face in his attitude to global city based growth since his days as GLC leader.

But, I would argue, that the arrangement offers very little support or incentive for development of a strategic orientation, in terms of situating issues in a long term and spatially/functionally broad context, with attention to the fundamental forces in play.

Three Common Limiting Features of GLA Spatial Planning So Far

Reviewing rounds of the London Plan/Plan making as a set, rather than trying to rate them comparatively, I see three striking and quite fundamental continuities across them.

The first of these is the most aggregate and least arguable statistical performance indicator – how well total additions to the housing stock across Greater London have kept pace with growth in housing needs as the Plan assesses them , This is the baseline for more sophisticated issues about affordability and matching to need categories. And here the blunt fact is that supply growth has fallen markedly short of growth in needs, through the two decades since the first Livingstone Plan. Let alone redressing the initial gap between need and supply as each edition of the Plan has committed to doing within its time horizon. How comparisons should be made across periods will be contested, in terms of what can be counted as an addition to stock (and when?), and the allowance made for unexpectedly faster population growth in the first decade or so. But Halligan’s citation of “a cumulative building shortage between 2000 and 2017 of 343,000 homes in London”[1], averaging 20,000 p.a. – during a period when actual dwellings completions were of a similar order – illustrates a long term pattern with no sign of being reversed. And is surely a fundamental contextual factor in the city’s current homelessness crisis.

A second shared feature is an underlying storyline pitched particularly at central government, and representatives of the wider South East, critical parts of which are boosted (in shifting ways) by convenient overoptimisms. The essence of this storyline (reassuringly established by the 2002 Livingstone draft Plan) is that “London can take it” in support of national economic priorities for global city growth, without upsetting the neighbours – given appropriate (nationally funded) infrastructural support. Upsetting the neighbours here would involve expecting them to accept additional housebuilding in their greener areas to accommodate growing numbers of London workers that the city itself failed to house.

Looking back we can see that this assurance has been misleading since (as just noted) the required rate of house-building inside London has never been reached – though there’s little sign of the shortfall having been made up by more building in the ring around London. A more basic problem is that Mayors (and indeed the wider public sector) are not in a position to get many houses built at all directly, since this is so very largely a commercial activity. And, though they can offer incentives and promises of supportive conditions they cannot be assured of the response to these.

To take the first Livingstone Plan (again) as the tone-setting case, from the outset the credibility of its housing targets could be seen to rest on a dual strategy of: “going east”, with underdeveloped areas being opened up by two new Cross Rail (CR) lines; and encouraging higher densities of housing development. But in the first case, even the one approved line was not due for completion until near the end of the Plan period [2]. And, in the second case, though it turned out that there had been a massive step up in London development densities (responding to tighter controls on greenfield development in the surrounding region), its impact was preponderantly on husbanding increasingly valuable London sites rather than on boosting housing output (up by about 5,500 p.a.)[3]. The densification which actually secured London population growth came essentially from more crowding within existing dwellings (principally by migrants from poor countries), not from the margin of additional dwellings[4]. Similar sources of convenient over-optimism are surely there to be found in other editions of the London Plan (including the windfall small-site intensification allowance that the last EiP struck out of what became the current 2021 Plan).

Repeated shortfalls in housing delivery relative to household growth/need changes are clearly not simply matters of unpredictable external factors – though there have been plenty of those. Glossing over these is simply a convenient diversion from engaging in serious strategic action – in conjunction with potential partners among the neighbours to establish bases for collaborative action in securing a more elastic supply-side response to riding housing demand in a dynamic metropolitan region[5]. Or else, to back off from the growth-oriented agenda of Mayoral Plans – perhaps negotiating with central government about acceptable and productive versions of inter-regional “levelling up”.

A third common feature standing in the way of this, and recognition of other factors beyond the Mayor’s immediate control is the lack of substantial (and publicly reported) debate within London, both during the process of strategy development, and what should be the follow-up monitoring phase. For those with scarred memories of protracted conflict in the GLC era of Greater London Development Plan debate that may well be a relief, and explanation for smooth cycling of Mayoral Plans, at least until they hit Examinations in Public. Specific Action Areas, and threats of densification clearly and properly attract locally-focused debate. But broader dimensions of strategy much less so.

There is a vicious circle here in that the repression/glossing over within Plan documents of potentially difficult strategic issues and uncertainties about market or government behaviour lowers expectations about the interest and significance of what London Plans do and do not involve. And, vice versa, the lack of active (real or virtual) arenas for debate, and publicised feedback to City Hall, about strategically significant issues (including evidence of impacts) encourages such glossing over/under-achievement. And displacement of frustrations on to the influence of anti-London lobbies in higher places

But it is important to recognise that the unproductive silence has roots in the design of the Greater London Authority and governmental desire to avoid re-creation of a powerful political voice across (or now down) the river. Strategic Plans are designed to look 20 years so ahead, and take close to the 4 years of a Mayoral term to get a new edition up and running – so practical impacts (beyond teething troubles) can have minimal impact on re-election prospects. The stakes of political parties are now also very limited, since the Mayoralty is designedly personalised and Assembly members with continuing stakes have minimal power in relation to the Plan (just the possibility to reject a draft if two thirds of them are of that mind). And, maybe crucially, there is no governmentally backed structure or set of incentives to facilitate collaborative initiatives or strategy development across the boundary between “Greater London” and its complement in the capital region role, across the border (and Green Belt).

Moving Forward

The three concerns discussed in this blog are examples of how and where London is failing at a strategic level. These failures seem to reflect features designed into the GLA structure, which were intended to encourage purposive governance on a city-wide basis but avoid unacceptable challenges to central government authority. The GLA itself was brought into being after a break in which new economic realities had firmly established themselves. But it did not resolve tensions around relations with the rest of the functional region; or clarify how an adequate housing supply was to be secured.

Going back to a previous model now is not an answer. But this is a time for hard-thinking about how the very real limitations/dysfunctions of the current model for a responsive strategic metropolitan planning authority can be overcome – before some other crisis overtakes it. The joint organisers hope that the discussion in the two roundtables can point to ways to address structural obstacles to developing a more effective system .

More specifically, what we are looking for is a system that:

  • is supportive of an evolving London Plan (rather than a series of new models);
  • offers credible support for a more productive and fair city; and
  • stimulates a higher level of political engagement, within Greater London itself – and in collaboration with communities across the wider South East, and the other major conurbations.




[1] Harrigan (2020 ) Home Truths: the UK’s chronic housing shortage, Hull: Biteback; Figure 2.2, p. 84.

[2] G. Hall and I.R Gordon (2002) Postscript: the Mayor’s London Plan, pp. 388-392 in N.H. Buck et al. Working Capital,: life and labour in contemporary London, London: Routledge.

[3] Gordon, I.R., Mace, A. and Whitehead, C. (2016) Defining, Measuring and Implementing Density Standards in London, LSE London: London Plan Density Research Project 1,

[4] Gordon, I.R. (2014) Fitting a Quart in a Pint Pot? Development, Displacement and/or Densification in the London region, FALP EiP library, Greater London Authority.

[5]As proposed in the (ignored) set of spring 2016 reports by the Mayor’s Outer London Commission on removing barriers to housing delivery, co-ordinating strategic policy, and accommodating London’s growth :

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About the author

Ian Gordon

Ian Gordon is Emeritus Professor of Human Geography at LSE. His main research interests are in urban development /policies, spatial labour markets, migration and London. He was a member of the Mayor’s Outer London Commission (2009-16).

Posted In: LSE London Roundtables 2023