Legal report

Devil lies in the detail as mayor increases powers.

For more than seven years, London mayor Ken Livingstone has had powers to direct local planning authorities in Greater London to refuse planning permission under certain circumstances. But following the granting of Royal Assent for the Greater London Authority Act last month, the mayor and the London Assembly will both soon enjoy a range of fresh powers.

The mayor himself will be able to direct the boroughs that he is to act as local planning authority in determining applications of "potential strategic importance" and may give them direction on their local development schemes. He will also be under an obligation to act in regard to any comments submitted by the London Assembly on the spatial development strategy.

Another requirement of the act is that the mayor must publish strategies on housing and climate change mitigation. The full impact of this new regime should become clearer within the next two weeks when a consultation document on the planning powers is due to be issued by the Government Office for London.

Consultation set for go-ahead

Secondary legislation will include a draft order setting out the categories of development that are of potential strategic importance. In addition, a circular on strategic planning in London will be published. The consultation process will last three months, after which the revised powers will come into force at the beginning of April.

The mayor's power to determine strategic proposals will be accompanied by an ability to enter into planning obligations and enforce them. But he will be under an obligation to consult local planning authorities before agreeing a section 106 agreement. In determining planning applications, the mayor is also obliged to give both applicants and boroughs an opportunity to make oral representations at a hearing.

Related powers will enable the mayor to decide connected applications for listed buildings as well as conservation area and hazardous substance consents. In the case of outline planning applications, he will be able to reserve matters for subsequent approval or direct that boroughs approve them. Furthermore, he will be able to exercise enforcement powers instead of or as well as local planning authorities.

A draft order setting out the categories of development of potential strategic importance was circulated during the passage of the act through parliament. The categories relate to large-scale developments and major infrastructure projects that may affect strategic policies.

Given the act's provisions on climate change and the mayor's own policies on renewable and localised energy, it is surprising that the draft order does not cover development proposals involving electricity generation However, it considerably extends the mayor's reach over particular categories of development.

Powers face limitations in City

The projects include schemes that comprise proposals for 150 houses or flats or houses and flats, against a previous threshold of 500. On the other hand, his powers of direction in the City of London will be restricted to buildings with a total floor space of more than 100,000m2 or a height greater than 150m.

The next round of consultation is eagerly anticipated and further guidance will be sought on a number of matters. They include the definition of applications of potential strategic importance and the nature and extent of the role of the boroughs, particularly in relation to section 106 agreements and enforcement.

Another popular topic is likely to be the procedure for determining applications and in particular how long this will take. It is unclear how the proposed hearings will operate and where they will be held - City Hall or the locality in which the development is proposed.

Some boroughs have expressed concerns about the extent of the mayor's powers. They are worried about a democratic deficit because local politicians will no longer be accountable for key decisions. Other concerns relate to the use of the mayor's powers to force through development in boroughs that disagree with his policies and the time it will take to determine applications.

Whatever the outcome of consultation, the extended powers will give the mayor significant influence over development in London. How he chooses to use them and the manner in which he does so could have a significant impact on London and its politics over the next few years.

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