Meeting of the New London Sounding Board

Thursday 30 October 2014

Sounding Board © Agnese Sanvito

The latest meeting of the New London Sounding Board grappled with subjects as diverse as London’s relationship with the wider south-east; regeneration; and what was branded part of government’s strategy to ‘dismantle the planning system’ via permitted development rights.

Topic 1: London’s relationship with the wider South East 

CABE chair Pam Alexander kicked off with a plea to get the capital to look outside its borders to deliver a better quality of life for all in the south-east, and to try and fill a gap in strategic planning lost when regional planning was ended. Perhaps, she suggested, an England plan was necessary, or at least an approach to strategic planning that is not imposed from the top-down. It was important to keep an eye on investment in transport corridors, said Peter Eversden, chairman, London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, with strategic thinking needed to build local jobs. Sounding board chairman Michael Cassidy said London mayor Boris Johnson has an ambition to host an Expo in 2025 in London, but that after Ebbsfleet, Old Oak Common and Barking Riverside, there were no sites left or mechanisms in place to help the process. The residential opportunity in Kent is one which should be a natural for London, he added, but has not started yet, nor is there the process to adjust to the new market place of a London bursting at the seams. The duty to cooperate is not up to the task we face, said CBRE executive Stuart Robinson, and it seems ‘ludicrous’ that the way we need to integrate regions is through infrastructure, which is reliant on a slow parliamentary process. HS2 is a case in point, he added, which although it has got over its initial poor messaging to be perceived more as about capacity than high speed, will still be held up by three years through the parliamentary petitioning process.  One of the best – though much-maligned – places for job growth is Milton Keynes, said Pat Hayes, executive director of regeneration and housing at Ealing. But it was important to have a conversation about further New Towns, he said, armed with some of the lessons of the less successful ones such as Harlow. Yet getting the pricing of infrastructure and travel right is key. ‘Not everyone wants to live where they work’. 

Topic 2: Regeneration – what is the industry doing to make lives better in London? 

Strategic advisor Clive Dutton introduced the next topic around regeneration and what the industry is doing to make our lives better. At the macro- scale this could be a national economic plan for the UK, without which ‘picture on the jigsaw puzzle box’ Dutton believes it is impossible to talk about infrastructure, allied to ‘softer’ issues like quality of life or happiness. We never talk about the unheard people of London, added Dutton – the 1/3 of the population who are in poverty, 50% of whom are in working households, or the 600,000 people who are paid below the working wage. And lastly, Dutton raised the problem of public conveniences – or lack of them. ‘We’ve had decades of closures’, said Dutton, with 25% of facilities having closed since 2010 and 11 cities in the UK having precisely no public WCs. ‘What is the role of the local authority if it is not meeting basic human needs? How can we possibly talk about being a smart city?’ Rosemarie MacQueen, now a consultant but previously at Westminster City Council, said there was no legal requirement to provide lavatories but the current atmosphere in local authorities was that even the ‘need-to-dos’ were being analysed to see if councils could get away with avoiding them in order to make short-term savings. ‘There will be at least another five years of starvation’, she warned. HTA partner Ben Derbyshire suggested that the NLA runs a competition to design a PPP – a ‘Private Portable Pissoir’, but also that on planning there could be scope for a private-sector sponsored plan. Certainly the onus on the private sector is shifting. London Communications Agency’s executive chairman Robert Gordon Clark said that in the last three years the public meetings he has attended on major schemes have got ‘rougher’ on the developers to meet the gap of what is not being provided by the state. ‘I’ve definitely noticed a shift’, he said. ‘As less and less cash is provided by the state the developer is seen more and more as the cash cow.’ Hayes suggested that the real reason that planning applications are more fraught is the house price situation and a ‘two-speed economy’ – London and the rest of the UK was fast emerging because we have no regional policy. Could we move the capital city somewhere else, with all the government jobs that entails? The danger, if Little Englanderism takes hold, is to see ‘London unravelling’. Lambeth’s Strategic Director for Delivery, Sue Foster agreed that this period of austerity had led authorities to focus clearly on their priorities for spending, especially faced with cuts to budgets of as much as 40%. One of the solutions was to use a more innovative approach concerned with growth and investment, with a much more ‘creative’ conversation with investors. And, said Robinson, the biggest commodity authorities are sitting on is land. Councils thus need to develop investment vehicles and lever in available funds – mirroring what the landed estates have done for so long. 

Topic 3: Permitted development rights 

The final topic was permitted development (PD) rights, introduced by Rosemarie MacQueen, who revealed the negative picture from responses to the moves so far from across England, not least on how it had affected affordable housing, where some 3000 units have been lost as a result of the policy. Also at risk were the office rentals at the lower end – the local authorities were ‘not happy’, but Nick Boles thinks it is a ‘fantastic solution’ that should be put in place permanently. Another issue was with the retail to resi element – where retail can sit quite happily alongside nightclubs and the like, residential is a less amenable bedfellow. Whilst there is an upside, said David Reay, development director at Lend Lease, insofar as some projects would never have got underway without PD because they were too much of a market risk, there was the potential, said Publica director Lucy Musgrave for a resultant ‘huge monoculture’ developing outside of the Central Activities Zone. ‘We don’t need this absence of diversity’, she said. Architects too, are facing a threat by this PD move, said Ben Derbyshire, since they tend to occupy spaces at around the £25-£50/sq ft level. And neither are the exemption areas to PD safe. Michael Lowndes, executive director of Turley Associates said that it was ‘absolutely clear’ from his meetings with the DCLG that these exemptions will be taken away, with potentially ‘disproportionate’ problems arising from this crude policy. ‘Going from A to C-classes will be like going from chicken shops to rabbit hutches’ he warned. ‘We will have streets of really poor housing’. Some of that poor quality housing has already been refused at planning, but is coming back under the new rules, said Foster. It is all, said Igloo chief executive Chris Bown, ‘part of a much bigger strategy to dismantle the planning system.’ ‘It is a direction of travel that the government is on’, said Brown. ‘For those that think the planning system brings benefits, you may have to draw the line.’ 

Write up by David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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