New London Architecture

Soapbox: Will the proposed planning reforms curb the Mayor of London’s powers?

Wednesday 09 September 2020

Sarah Elliott

Sarah Elliott

Town Planning Lead, AECOM

The Mayor of London has substantial powers over housing and planning including the ability to set the spatial development strategy for the whole city which the local borough authorities must comply with. Mayoral authority has grown substantially since the Greater London Authority (GLA) was established in 1999, but a pull-back could be on the cards. 

Last month, the government announced plans to reform the planning system in England. The planning white paper is however very light on any references to London, raising questions about the Mayor’s future role. The Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper expected next month might answer these questions, but it is unclear whether the new mayoral and combined authorities it creates will see a levelling up, or whether London will see a levelling down. 

The past nine months have seen a lot of proposed changes to planning in London and elsewhere. Since the start of the year, Mayor Sadiq Khan has been trying to publish his revised London Plan, which sets out the Mayor’s policies on everything from affordable housing targets to land use specifications. Using powers afforded him by the GLA act, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Robert Jenrick blocked publication of the plan, saying the Labour Mayor’s plans contradict national policy, as set by his Conservative government. 

For the Mayor of London, the stakes are high. Unless the powers first set out in the GLA act are enshrined in new legislation, they could be curtailed or even lost. Clarity is also needed for London Councils trying to create their own plans, which must be in conformity with Mayoral guidelines (if and when these change[1]), whilst looking ahead to the requirements of the White Paper and grappling with all the uncertainties related to coronavirus. Developers too are in the dark, including those seeking to deliver the 69,300 homes granted planning permission in 2019 along with the thousands of commercial, retail and mixed-use permissions which will be impacted by early changes to the current planning system to be implemented from Autumn 2020.

What powers are at stake?

The GLA 1999 enshrines the London Mayor’s power to create a spatial strategy – and the Secretary of State’s ability to issue a holding direction. It gives the Mayor power to direct boroughs to refine their own planning policies and to direct them to refuse planning permission if not in conformity with the plan. 

Since the GLA was established, the mayor’s powers have grown through secondary legislation, notably the Town and Country Planning (London Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2000, and the Mayor of London Order (2008), which refers proposals deemed of “strategic significance[2]” to the Mayor. Like other planning authorities, the mayor can also charge a so-called community infrastructure levy (CIL) to pay for strategic infrastructure such as Crossrail.

We found just three points in the planning white paper that could directly reference the Mayor’s planning powers.  The first concerns the charges the GLA is able to levy on new development to fund infrastructure. It proposes folding the Mayoral CIL into a national Infrastructure Levy to support the funding of strategic infrastructure[3]. More details are needed before the full effect of this will become clear, but is likely that the Mayor will have less say in what is funded and the levy will need to stretch further. The second is an oblique reference to liberating local authorities and mayoral combined authorities to plan[4] and thirdly, the white paper wants mayors of combined authorities to oversee the strategic re-distribution of national requirements on housing delivery.[5] For London, that could see the Mayor potentially redistributing the higher targets across the boroughs or between London and ‘willing partners’ in the wider South East. In each case, it depicts the Mayor more as an agent of national government than a power base in his or her own right.

MHCLG Minister of State Simon Clark said the government’s plans to expand devolution should give new and existing mayors “the powers they need to lead economic recovery and long term growth.” For London, it is not yet clear whether that will mean a pull-back of Mayoral powers to a common basis with other combined authorities and the larger unitary authorities that are to come.

[1] The Intend to Publish London Plan needs to be adopted before the 5 years expire on the 2016 London Plan.[2] Buildings that are more than 30 metres high or a development of 150 homes or more[3] Proposal 19[4] Paragraph 1.26[5] Proposal 4. 


Sarah Elliott

Sarah Elliott

Town Planning Lead, AECOM


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#NLAPlanning

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