New London Architecture

20 years of the London Plan

Friday 01 March 2024

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the London Plan's inception in February 2004, Peter Murray takes a retrospective look at the transformative journey of London’s strategic blueprint over the past two decades.

While the detail of the London Plan has changed with each Mayor, there is one constant: that development for London takes place within the boundaries of the Greater London Area. For this clarity of vision, we must thank the late Lord Richard Rogers whose ideas about the sustainable, compact city were set out in his book Cities for a Small Planet. These were central to the policies of the Blair Government via the Urban Task Force and then to Ken Livingstone when he commissioned Rogers to become his architectural advisor heading up the Architecture and Urbanism Unit.
 
The key to this policy was the densification of brownfield sites with good public transport. The results of these policies can be seen easily today on the NLA’s London model at The London Centre: the low-rise city remains across the majority of the capital, but spread across the model are hillocks of taller buildings – Stratford, North Greenwich, White City, Nine Elms et al.
 
As well as accommodating London's growth within its boundaries, the first London Plan aimed to make London a better city to live in, a more attractive, well-designed and green city, and a more prosperous city promoting social inclusion and accessibility. 
 
Livingstone liked tall buildings. He saw them as the embodiment of the global city that he wanted London to be. Following the publication of Saskia Sassen’s book Global City in 1991, this new identity for the capital had taken root among the various groups who had put a lot of serious thinking into London’s future during the decade and a half when the city had no strategic leadership following Margaret Thatcher’s dissolution of the Greater London Council.
 
Ken actively promoted some key projects. He made sure The Shard was viable by taking a big chunk of office space for TfL. He supported the controversial Walkie Talkie because turning it down would have sent the wrong messages to the investment world. He was also very aware of the substantial sums of Section 106 money that dense development delivered.
 
As London’s population grew it was clear that, with the Green Belt surrounding the capital, greater density was essential. It was also more sustainable. Rogers’ research showed that Hong Kong, with its very dense living conditions had the lowest CO2 emissions of any global city, while low density Los Angeles was one of the most polluted and unsustainable.
 
Ken was also interested in placemaking. He oversaw the pedestrianisation of the north side of Trafalgar Square, increased the cycling network and a programme for 100 public spaces. Only half a dozen of those were completed when Boris Johnson took over, but the die was cast and we have seen the benefits ever since.
 
When Johnson became Mayor in 2008 he tinkered with the Plan. He wanted a healthier city, long term economic growth, and, he added “an exemplary world city in mitigating and adapting climate change.”
 
Johnson was much more lax on affordable housing and content with gains often in the low teens while Ken had aimed for 50 per cent. Johnson owed his success at the ballot box to the blue outer London boroughs and was much keener to engage with them than his predecessor. He set up the Outer London Commission in order to kick start investment in failing suburban centres.
 
Housing targets needed adjusting following the 2011 census which showed that London’s population had grown by 400,000 more people than expected. One of Johnson’s key legacies was the Mayor’s Housing Design Guide which was largely responsible for the ubiquity of the New London Vernacular, an approach which may have dampened down some of the more striking architectural solutions but raised the quality across the board.
 
Boris campaigned against tall buildings but, once elected, was convinced they were necessary. He liked delegating and that part of the agenda was driven by Deputy Mayor and Head of Planning Ed Lister.
 
When Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor in 2016 he rewrote considerable chunks of the Plan under the heading of the Good Growth Agenda for a city which met the challenges of economic and population growth, was internationally competitive and successful with diverse, strong, secure and accessible neighbourhoods. He wanted a city that delighted the senses and a world leader in improving the environment. Like Ken, he aimed at 50 per cent affordable housing but was willing to accept 35 per cent.
 
It took all of five years to deliver Khan’s plan due to arguments with central Government over housing delivery, protection of industrial land and the complexity of the plan. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick instructed the Mayor to start work on the next London Plan straight away. This work is currently underway through the Planning for London Programme.
 
NLA is collaborating with the Programme and the GLA’s London Plan team via our Expert Panels and the New London Agenda. We are offering evidence, industry guidance, and expert perspectives to contribute to the development of a revised London Plan following the conclusion of this Mayoral term, post the elections in May 2024.


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