New London Architecture

Development set for more ‘politicking’ and interference

Tuesday 24 May 2022

Development in London is likely to become more politicized, with opposition sentiment being ‘weaponised’, more interference and call-ins from central government over projects, and further barriers emerging from build costs and the churn and change in local authorities. But the capital should respond by developing measures to value place and a ‘balance sheet’ of its assets as local politics becomes more influenced by votes against built environment issues.

Those were some of the key points to emerge from the latest meeting of the New London Sounding Board last week, which was kicked off by London Communications Agency’s Jenna Goldberg’s assessment of the recent local elections.

The national picture was of key Labour gains and Conservatives losing nearly 500 seats, she said, while in London it was a complex affair with Labour wins including at Wandsworth and the ‘totemic’ gain in Westminster, Tories taking Croydon and a new entry in the political scene, Aspire, taking Tower Hamlets. Goldberg predicted that Westminster and Wandsworth might begin to conduct themselves in a way that we have perhaps been used to with City Hall. ‘Which is this sort of campaigning mode where we see a very combative relationship with government, and of course that’s two-way’. An interesting test of this could come with the next TfL settlement, due to come up for expiry on 26 June. But key to local elections next year, Goldberg added, may emerge from the Levelling Up Regeneration Bill, with planning, development and Green Belt issues coming to the fore. ‘I think we will see more politicking around planning decisions’, she added, pointing to Michael Gove being more activist than his predecessors, exemplified by recent decisions over the ITV Studios building and ‘slightly odd’ Cockfosters decision from the transport secretary.

LSE’s Tony Travers said he felt that the Labour vote had ‘topped out’ in the capital, given its slight reduction in vote share, but that there was clearly a lot of opposition in some places to developments, or a perception of lots of development going on. Lots of new councillors are ‘weaponising’ the built environment and planning system, he suggested.

The Westminster result, Travers added, may have been affected by people leaving the borough to go to second homes because of COVID and not coming back, evidenced by low vaccination rates in some of the wards that then flipped. A further likely effect on future voting will be the census, whose initial results will come through this year and will start discussion about the make-up of the population and how that is changing.

Stuart Murray of Waltham Forest said he felt there was a polarization between the deep suburbs and urban metropolitan populations of outer London in particular, and some conservative councillors had stood on a very NIMBY anti-development boat. ‘The conservative Councillor stood absolutely firm that the Labour Council would knock down your home and build tower blocks. That was their mantra, and this will save our suburbs and save our Green Belt’.

Westminster’s Debbie Jackson said the Labour manifesto was very detailed, with an emphasis on residents, a lot of interest in local town centres and high streets, and talk of the 15-minute city, along with a priority for refurbishment – which is already reflected in planning policy – and a central plank on delivery of ‘truly affordable housing’.

HTA’s Ben Derbyshire was optimistic about the possibility of serious design coding and spatial planning to get a grip, and cheered at the way his Supurbia ideas of suburban intensification had moved in a decade to become a germ of an idea in the Queen’s Speech. Derbyshire said he was also excited about the prospect of community participation resulting in interesting examples of people wanting to see radical change in their neighbourhood that benefit them, rather than ‘street fights’, as others had predicted.

One of the biggest challenges facing London, said Historic England’s Emily Gee, is how we engage meaningfully and inclusively with communities, while another concern is about the relationship between local authorities across borders, added Peter Eversden of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies. ‘They’re not barriers, they should be planned across’, he said. 

Eversden was also keen to stress the ‘serious results for London’ his forum sees in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill if the DLUHC intentions are pushed through, echoing the views of people like Theresa Villiers. But Knight Frank’s Stuart Baillie said it was ‘quite concerning’ about the level of churn and change in politics in London, which will affect planning committees. ‘I think for developers that is quite a concern’, he said, as well as the election results being affected partly by attitudes to development. 

CEO at Accessible Retail William McKee said that the composition of London’s population is a better guide to future election results than reactions to particular development proposals, however. Social housing is the real housing crisis, he added, along with the difficulty of becoming a homeowner needing real change.

Pocket Living’s Thomasin Renshaw said the intermediate market is ‘very much forgotten’ in London and nationally, and is in need of real support, with people feeling priced out and therefore disenfranchised with the politics around them. The typical first-time buyer needs to earn £84,000, an ‘enormous number’ Renshaw feels is not talked about enough. 

The developer is talking to government about implementing a small sites policy to fast-track homes for local people and key workers. But build costs, Renshaw added, threaten to stymie delivery, with many big schemes becoming unviable. ‘Housing delivery is essentially going to fall through the floor unless something is done to deliver certain housing starts’, she said.

NLA’s Peter Murray spoke about how Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) did not have as much of a bearing on the election as suggested – ‘like the dog that didn’t bark’. Consequently, councillors who support LTNs will now likely be more ‘emboldened’ to deliver them, Murray added. ‘We haven’t heard the end of LTNs as a result of the results’.

Perkins and Will’s Sunand Prasad said that there was a need to look at outcome impacts on spending, with a research and professional side to levelling up that London could show the way on, seizing the initiative on things like skills. The Bartlett’s Yolande Barnes, meanwhile, said we should be measuring value rather than spend, because we don’t understand our balance sheets and the social environmental and financial value that investments bring. ‘We’ve got to grapple with the issue of the value of places, which has been intimately tied up with local politics’, she said. The timescale of local politics is also ‘a complete mismatch’ with the cycle of the built environment so needs more broader political consensus around what we want to see happening. But the election results have been significant. ‘I’m just wondering if what we’re seeing is a start of a shift towards a local politics of place’.


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