17 June 2024

Planning London under Labour

Planning London under Labour image
Image: Zaid Bin Yaseen / Shutterstock.com.

Grant Leggett, Executive Director and Head of Boyer’s London planning team, looks at the impact of a future Labour government on planning and development in London.

Will it be third time lucky for Sadiq Khan? The London Mayor succeeded in winning an unprecedented third term, albeit with a smaller majority than he might have hoped, but his battles with the Conservative government may be at an end.

Since being first elected in May 2016, Khan has encountered differences of opinion with Conservative Secretaries of State Sajid Javid, James Brokenshire, Robert Jenrick and not least Michael Gove. He is no doubt hoping that if a Labour government is returned to power on 5 July, his disagreements on planning and development may be lessened.

Or will they? Will a Labour government enable Khan to more successfully address the issue of housing supply and affordability that have plagued his first two terms?

In reality it may not be quite as simple as Labour government + Labour mayor = successful roll-out of housing policies across London.

The first sticking point is likely to be the Green Belt. Keir Starmer has been building up to a commitment to utilise Green Belt land for development since he first coined the term 'grey belt' over a year ago. As expected, the recently launched Labour manifesto refers to ‘a more strategic approach to Green Belt land designation and release’ and repeats the reference to using the ‘grey belt’ to meet housing need. And yet, in contrast, Sadiq Khan has always appeared fiercely protective of London’s Green Belt.

A second potential conflict could arise around the review of the London Plan, which is due imminently. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 gives the Secretary of State powers to intervene if is felt that the review isn’t delivering on its objectives. While it’s rare for a Secretary of State to intervene, it is still possible. We are yet to know who the next Secretary of State for Levelling Up will be, but we know that it won’t be the current holder of that position. And the chances are that anyone new to the role will want to make their mark.

I suspect we will see more of a convergence of opinion on broader planning and housing policy. The current government’s intervention on housing delivery in London underlines a fundamental difference in planning policy between the two main parties, one which is entirely politically driven: the Conservatives ultimately wish to ‘protect’ their traditional base of support in the shires, whereas Labour has greater allegiances in urban areas.

In relation to protecting voters from the ‘harm’ of development, I appreciate that my choice of words is potentially controversial. Emotive and subjective language which identifies development as harm is not something you’d expect to hear from a planning consultant. But balancing between the benefits and harm brought about by development is intrinsic to our planning system: where development harms the status quo, the system enables that impact to be outweighed by benefits. We see this played out daily in the way in which the planning gain system incentivises development and mitigates its impacts.

And so the result of Labour winning the next general election may be more ‘protection’ of Londoners from development. I don’t anticipate an immediate reduction in development, but I predict fiscal policy or changes to planning policy to mitigate it. Conversely, I think we’ll see a lower tolerance of rural and suburban NIMBYs – including those who currently reside in the Green Belt.

More specifically, I wonder whether a new Labour government will look to reverse the Conservatives’ changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), specifically the platitudes to the anti-development MPs, councillors and Conservative supporters which were implemented in the December 2022 revisions. It might also look to reverse the sentiment behind the consultation on Strengthening Planning Policy for Brownfield Development which was introduced in February. This is already borne out to an extent in Policy D9 of the London Plan which, in my view, thwarts the development of tall buildings. Ditto the increasing element of zoning through the London Plan which requires the determination of the future use of land at the plan-making stage and in doing so discourages ‘ad-hoc’ applications for certain types of development.

While my predictions of planning in London under Labour government are very black and white, very polarised, so too – as we are seeing in the current general election campaign – is politics. How this actually plays out remains to be seen but we can expect to have a much clearer idea by 5 July.

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