The Housing Secretary, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, today issued his letter to the Mayor of London on his ‘Intend to Publish’ London Plan (see blog by Tom Davies
on this). The firm letter focuses on the inadequacy of the Plan to provide policies which will deliver more homes, and a greater mix of homes in response to the capital’s identified needs. He notes that he had expected the Mayor to “set the framework for a step change in housing delivery, paving the way for further increases given the next London Plan will need to assess housing need by using the Local Housing Need methodology”.
Mr Jenrick provides a fairly damning review of housing delivery under Sadiq’s reign, labelling it ‘deeply disappointing’ in comparison to Mayors elsewhere (West Midlands) who he says have proactively led to see significant increases in the delivery of homes in the same period. Mr Jenrick highlights worsening affordability for Londoners: “Since you became Mayor, the price of an average new build home in London has increased by around £45,000, reaching £515,000 in 2018, 14 times average earnings”.
Overall, he concludes that “you have not taken the tough choices necessary to bring enough land into the system to build the homes needed” and as such “I am left with no choice but to exercise my powers to direct changes”.
Turning to the details, the letter sets out eleven directions and ‘remedies’, which must be incorporated into the plan before it can be published. The key thread being to seek greater alignment with National Planning Policy. The option for a further direction to be made is also not ruled out, pending the government’s consideration of the judgement on the Heathrow Judicial Review. The Housing Secretary has invited the Mayor to suggest alternative changes to Policy to address the Government’s concerns.
We have identified seven key points that stand out and are likely to have, in some cases, immediate impact on planning in London.
1. Be more ambitious
Mr Jenrick feels that the draft Plan fails to provide the step change that is needed in housing delivery in London, and considers that, as drafted, it would actively discourage ambitious boroughs from seeking to deliver these desperately needed homes. Whilst they do not ‘need’ to do so, the proposed direction will encourage boroughs to revisit the housing figures set in the London Plan where additional evidence suggests they can be exceeded. We welcome this element of flexibility.
2. A greater focus to deliver family housing
If housing need cannot be met, then achieving an appropriate dwelling mix across the capital becomes all the more important. In particular Mr Jenrick criticises the plan’s preference for one-bedroom dwellings as likely to push families out of the capital and directs the Plan to make meeting the need for additional family housing more explicit. It will very much depend on how this is applied by Boroughs as to whether this could have a significant impact on viability.
3. Optimise density on ‘appropriate sites’ only
Mr Jenrick softens the ambition for optimising density across the board, and more towards ‘‘ensuring that development takes the most appropriate form for the site’’. Areas with existing high-density development should be considered for expansion (i.e. Opportunity Areas) and only ‘gentle densification should be actively encouraged’ in mid-lower density locations, including high streets and town centres. This is helpful, but does not go far enough, in our view, to deliver more homes in outer London Boroughs.
4. The Green Belt and MOL
Whilst Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) designations get little attention in the Letter itself, the London Plan will now be in line with national policy on Green Belt/MOL Reviews and applications, allowing the scope to demonstrate ‘very special circumstances’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’ for Green Belt development. This is a firm response from central Government demonstrating that London is no longer the exception that successive London Mayors have argued.
5. More flexible residential and retail parking standards
Sensibly, Direction D10 requires the Mayor to accept Borough standards diverging from the Plan where evidence demonstrates the application of retail parking standards would divert demand from town centres or reduce the viability of mixed use schemes. Residential parking standards are to be brought closer in to line with national policy, including to accommodate electric vehicles and charging points (the Government’s target is for only electric vehicles from 2035).
6. Industrial land
Against this housing delivery backdrop, Mr Jenrick’s direction sees a significant watering down of the Mayor’s tough policy stance on protecting industrial land by deleting the ‘no net loss’ principle for designated SIL/LSIS, thereby introducing considerably more flexibility around redevelopment of these key sites.
In doing so, the 65% plot ratio standard is also deleted (this has been controversial from the start and deemed to be unrealistic by the London Plan Panel).
The changes mark a stark shift in emphasis from “retain” to “provide”, which invariably allows for a more flexible interpretation.
The Borough-level ‘provide/retain/release’ categorisations have also been removed from Policy E4; whilst their past effectiveness might be questioned, this shift is significant given they have defined the London Plan’s approach to industrial land for more than a decade. Without these, the test that boroughs need to meet through their plans is significantly reduced.
Mr Jenrick’s direction also places greater emphasis on substitution of SIL land where alternative, more suitable, locations exist, although the viability of this remains unclear without Green Belt release (as the Panel Report identified too). Taken together, it points to a much less prescriptive policy approach for industrial land than the Mayor had intended. This will pose even tougher challenges for London-wide industrial land delivery if boroughs are tasked with using this flexibility to secure extra housing capacity.
7. London Plan Review
Notwithstanding all of these changes, Mr Jenrick is also seeking an ‘immediate’ review of the London Plan which will inevitably mean a Strategic Green Belt Review (as recommended by the Panel) and an increase in the housing requirement.
Overall, the proposed changes will assist and support.
Finally, whilst earlier today this damning letter appeared to be politically ‘well timed’ with planned Mayoral election looming, the May elections have now been delayed by a year (due to COVID-19); the Mayor should have time to respond to the Government and adopt the plan before then.
London Plan: letter from the Secretary of State for Housing