Why the mayor is angry about the housing secretary's London interventions

A more interventionist approach by the housing secretary on planning decisions in the capital has angered London mayor Sadiq Khan. Observers say the government's line could make both developers and councils nervous.

London mayor Sadiq Khan and housing secretary James Brokenshire
London mayor Sadiq Khan and housing secretary James Brokenshire

In the days before Christmas, good cheer appeared to be in short supply at City Hall. On 20 December, London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement accusing Tory housing secretary James Brokenshire of ‘hypocrisy’ over his intervention in planning decisions. Khan said Brokenshire had blocked, or threatened to block, three residential schemes in the capital in just a few weeks, despite having previously called for a "step change in housing delivery". 

Plans to rebuild Purley Baptist Church, as part of a development providing 220 homes and including a 17-storey tower, were provisionally approved by the London Borough of Croydon in December 2016. Khan then granted approval in March 2017, but the plans were called in by the housing secretary the following month. While a planning inspector recommended approval, Brokenshire disagreed, citing "serious concerns" about design, and refused permission at the start of December. According to Ian Fergusson, an associate at consultancy Barton Willmore, this is the first time the secretary of state has called-in and determined an application in London since Khan became mayor.   

Just a few days before, the housing secretary had issued a holding direction in relation to plans for the 46-home redevelopment of the Newcombe House office block in Kensington and Chelsea – preventing permission being granted until Brokenshire decides whether to call in the application. Khan also alleged that the housing secretary had said he was likely to issue a further holding direction in relation to another scheme in the same west London borough, a redevelopment of the Kensington Forum Hotel to create a new hotel plus 46 homes, which was called in by Khan in November. Khan's criticisms came just days after he praised Brokenshire for refusing an estate regeneration scheme in west London over a lack of social housing.

Claire Dutch, head of planning at law firm Hogan Lovells, said the dispute reflects the housing secretary’s growing appetite to get involved in planning decisions. "It shows the government is being more interventionist," she said. "In the days of Eric Pickles, there was always an unofficial policy that call-ins would be very rare because of the localism agenda." If Khan is correct about the impending  Kensington Forum Hotel holding direction, Brokenshire has even pre-empted the London mayor’s decision. "I can see why Sadiq Khan is a bit irritated by that one," said Dutch.   

Dutch said the housing secretary’s approach could make developers nervous. "It wasn’t so long ago that our clients were thinking, ‘this will never get called in’," she said. "Call-in wasn’t really factored into the timescale and budget of a project. These recent decisions have shown there’s an appetite by the secretary of state to call-in projects and that has to be built in to developers’ risk matrix." 

Fergusson said applicants could perceive unhelpful mixed messages coming from the London mayor and the secretary of state. "The mayor has been very keen that applicants deliver more homes - and more affordable homes," he said. According to Fergusson, Brokenshire’s refusal in Purley on design grounds shows that, unlike Khan, housing delivery, is not his sole prime consideration.   

Mike Kiely, London chair at the Planning Officers Society, said such disputes could make life similarly difficult for councils. "These decisions should be made locally," he said, adding that the Purley decision will have been particularly hard for officers to stomach. "These are difficult decisions to make and the officers at Croydon have worked hard to make this scheme a success," he said. "To have the rug pulled out at the end of the process is not the way to run a planning system."   

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was approached for comment but did not respond.

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