As London’s spatial development strategy, the new London Plan, is launched, Andrew Boff, chair of the London Assembly’s Planning and Regeneration Committee, and Nicky Gavron, its deputy chair, give an overview of what architects can expect to see in it
Tell us about the change to the tall buildings policy?
Andrew Boff: Key difference between the old and new plans is direction on tall buildings. The Secretary of State’s direction enabled local authorities to factor in the idea that a tall building can be anything above six storeys.
Nicky Gavron: The new London Plan is continuous with the previous plan in aiming to accommodate a rapidly growing population, but it now delegates more planning responsibility to boroughs, which is good, because they understand local needs. This allows them to each define what they mean by a tall building. They now need resources, a framework and supplementary planning guidance on characterization because where – and how – you locate a tall building really matters.
AB: With the changes in establishing what a tall building is, the new plan will be a useful template for the boroughs when deciding on the kind of heights that they want. This makes height a conscious decision rather than what we’ve seen in the past, when local councillors often let a tall building application go through because they thought it would get overturned on appeal. The amendments help deal with that.
NG: 80% of all tall buildings coming forward now are residential, and policy in the new London Plan doesn’t currently distinguish between residential and commercial. This is problematic as originally the policy was being written for commercial developments and the odd mixed-use development.
Sadiq Khan’s mantra for the new London Plan is ‘good growth’. What does he mean by that?
NG: It links to new policies on affordable workspace, like sub-market workspace, which can be included into newbuild offices. Andrew and I differ on industrial policy. Personally, I think there should be no net loss of industrial space in the city. There were good policies in place in the London Plan on intensification of industrial land and co-location of housing with light industry and, done well, it can be interesting. The policy of no net loss of industrial space has now been cut in Robert Jenrick’s directive and many policies around saving light industrial space have gone.
I’m worried about how Londoners will earn their living as the idea was to safeguard the balance between jobs and homes. This concept has been undermined to some extent by the Secretary of State’s directives. The proposed permitted development rights on the new Use Class E would undermine it further, as it means anything can now become a block of flats. If a gym, GP surgery, office, shop, health centre, light industry can become a block of flats without going through the planning system, it’ll mean a squeeze on outer London office space too.
I’ve never met a NIMBY; I have met people concerned about the type of development taking place in their area but never somebody saying there should be no development
What about the new London Plan’s housing targets?
NG: The New London Plan has a lot to say about affordable housing and the aspiration is that 50% of all new homes be affordable. The ‘unaffordable/affordable’ housing designation has gone. The mayor’s now got a ‘London affordable rent’, which is like social rent, and ‘London Living Rent’, set at middle-income Londoners such as keyworker level; then there’s shared ownership.
The new plan contains a big uplift in the number of homes to be built each year, compared with the last plan. It’s 10,000 homes per year more for the next ten years and 100,000 more homes over 10 years. Of its affordable housing, the committee wants to see a greater proportion as family housing.
And what about housing density and design quality?
AB: Robert Jenrick’s intervention regarding family homes and density is pertinent because of the experience so many people have had after a year in lockdown. It’s focused the mind of Londoners on the types of housing we should be living in the future. There have been too many small, identikit high-rise flats, that have proved under lockdown to be a poor environment for growing families. The committee’s concern is that family homes would be subdivided to deliver on small sites targets.
I’d have preferred the mayor to not stick to his small sites and family homes policy which I felt meant a lot of time wasted in a rearguard action fighting his small sites policy. But the Assembly believes the new plan is an improvement and future-fit. With the Secretary of State’s amendments, architects must start thinking more about the environment people have to live in and also the true outcomes from building tall.
The quality of some architectural design in London is astonishingly good. Where it falls short – and where architects tend to get the blame – is when developers try to maximise their outputs for profit or for housing quota need. Where architects can out-think developers is in anticipating the effect those designs have on local communities. I’ve never met a NIMBY; I have met people concerned about the type of development taking place in their area but never somebody saying there should be no development. People are just concerned about the quality.
NG: Other thing being argued for, where feasible, is for a different configuration for density to be put forward to really justify the times when you need to build higher. Because generally, you can get high density without having to go high rise.
AB: Also delivering environments that people love rather than what’s available. The likes of BedZed pioneered this; high density but allocating personal amenity space and also being environmentally friendly. And there are numerous other similar examples in the capital now. We want architects to be truly innovative in meeting the aspirations of Londoners.
This plan keeps the best of the previous one – like not building on greenbelt – but is more ambitious and holistic; it is a step change in being more people-oriented
What about the new London Plan’s sustainability drive?
NG: I believe the plan has is very good standards in terms of sustainable development. The mayor defines good growth as ‘socially inclusive, economic and environmentally sustainable growth’, and I think there is a strong attempt to integrate these, so there are not quick fixes and short term trade-offs. This underpins the new London Plan. Architects will find that there is much more emphasis given to the social value and how it works in terms of sustainability features.
The new London Plan is light years ahead of the last plan in terms of the environmental standards: taking on whole life carbon assessments and circular economy policies, for instance. Whole life carbon assessments include embodied carbon – and 15% of global carbon emissions are from concrete, steel and iron, so we should be thinking more about using timber, which stores carbon. The mayor is encouraging modular and offsite construction, and there are some great, pioneering examples out there. Factory-built homes could drive homes delivery. It really meets circular economy objectives, cutting down on lorry movements and waste.
How has the pandemic affected policy in the new London Plan?
AB: Covid has changed all our outlooks. Overcrowding is a housing issue needing to be addressed in both private rented and affordable social sectors. A third of a million kids in the capital are living in overcrowded conditions. It’s not ‘good growth’ if we build more front doors with only one bedroom behind them. Covid has made people realise they need more space. I hope the period of dormitory developments is over and that, from now on, we’ll be building places for families to live in.
Good growth meets the objectives of a healthy and thriving economy of the future, acknowledging that people may be working from home and that it might mean one more room than we’d thought about – a study even! People come to me and say that these kinds of homes are too expensive but the reason they are is because we aren’t building them! Their scarcity has resulted in the higher price, and we have to take action on that.
NG: I think the new London Plan anticipated a lot of the agility and flexibility that’s going to be needed post Covid-19 but there’s no doubt there will have to be further alterations.
What about London’s public realm?
NG: The committee is looking seriously at high streets, which need to be considered under the planning system and not permitted development rights, which doesn’t take account of suitable residential use. The new London Plan is looking at community hubs, affordable workspace, third space working and more ‘meanwhile use’. The plan assumed an undersupply of office space and we’ll have to rethink this. With people working from home a few days a week, office spaces will need to be redesigned for more collaborative working.
And your thoughts of the new London Plan for London generally?
AB: There’s projected population fluctuations but in the long run London will grow again – we’re used to periods of the city shrinking and growing. The old plan was flawed in some ways but with the new London Plan we’ve ended up in a better position. It’s more sensitive to the needs of Londoners.
NG: This plan keeps the best of the previous one – like not building on greenbelt – but is more ambitious and holistic; it is a step change in being more people-oriented.
AB: On density and tall buildings we have improved on the old plan, and we’ve addressed family housing, quality of design and sustainability. I think the London Assembly has done a good job.