Legal report - Mayor talks up capital as call-in powers go unused

A frisson of excitement ran round the room as London mayor Boris Johnson bounced onto the podium at last month's Future of London conference in Westminster.

"I am excited about the future of London," he boomed confidently. "Rumours of the death of the London economy are somewhat exaggerated," he said with a glint in his eye. There would certainly be a downturn but he admonished delegates not to go "all gloomy" on him.

Johnson goes for lighter touch

As he explained his vision for the future in more detail it became clear that several topics particularly excited him - the Olympics for one and transport for another, especially Crossrail and the Thames Tideway Tunnel. He confirmed that the Greater London Authority and the London Development Agency (LDA) will do what they can to jump-start stalled housing schemes. However, it was telling that no mention was made of his new planning powers.

London has a population of more than 7.5 million and the figure is expected to rise to 8.1 million by 2016. Its continued success, according to LDA director for design development and environment Peter Bishop, relies on getting the right strategic policies for housing, transport, the environment and climate to ensure a sustainable future.

The mayor is responsible for producing a spatial development plan for the capital. The first London Plan was published in 2004 and contains a policy framework looking ahead for the next 15 to 20 years. Revised once this year already, further revisions are in the process of being drafted.

It is expected that there will be changes to the current pizza model of sub-regional boundaries, as these are regarded as not being sufficiently permeable. More protection for the green belt, metropolitan open land and green spaces is on the cards, along with policies to promote energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions such as area-wide community heating networks.

Housing policies are likely to relax the current blanket target of 50 per cent affordable housing for new developments and allow for higher proportions of intermediate housing. This month's draft housing strategy should provide further detail.

To ensure that the policies in the London Plan are implemented, the Greater London Authority Act 2007 gave the mayor additional powers to call in applications of potential strategic importance. Johnson is empowered to determine such cases in place of boroughs, as opposed to simply being able to direct refusal as was previously the case.

Act outlines referral routes

The implementation details are set out in the Town and Country Planning (Mayor of London) Order 2008, which came into effect on 6 April. This introduced a three-stage process for referred applications:

- The mayor has six weeks from receipt of a strategic application to issue a statement confirming whether it complies with the London Plan or whether there are no issues of strategic importance.

- Once a borough has made a decision about a strategic application, it must notify the mayor of its decision and the mayor then has 14 days to decide whether to allow the borough to proceed, direct a refusal or decide to take over determination.

- If the mayor decides to call in the application, he must then duly determine it.

When he took power in May, Johnson let it be known that he would take a hands-off approach to planning at borough level and he has since confirmed that he intends to use his powers sparingly. True to his word, he has not used the regulations to determine a single strategic application, despite a large number of referrals. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to providing remedies to correct deficiencies in compliance reports.

This approach is very different to predecessor Ken Livingstone's micro-management approach to planning. Johnson could be praised for taking a step back from the minutiae to concentrate on the overarching strategic issues facing London. But it will be interesting to see whether he can remain detached from the process, especially in delivery of the Olympics sites and the regeneration of east London.

The planning process may fail to excite Boris Johnson, but his enthusiasm and optimism for the capital were warmly received by delegates at the conference. They make a welcome change to the continuing gloomy economic forecasts.

Sara Hanrahan is a partner in the planning and environment group at solicitors Winckworth Sherwood.


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