Why isn’t localism working in London?

Since 2012 the Planning Committee, which I chair, has been monitoring the progress of two aspects of localism – neighbourhood planning and the community right to bid – to see how they have been adopted in London.

There are some bright spots, but on the whole it’s clear that localism hasn’t taken hold in London to anywhere near the extent envisioned by Government. As fashioned by the Localism Act, these tools seem designed primarily for smaller, more homogenous areas than can be found in London.

Neighbourhood planning allows local people to draft a plan for their local area. The Community Right to Bid allows local people to identify buildings as assets of community value, which provides limited protections in case the owner decides to change use or demolish the building.

These are concepts with great potential, but that potential remains unrealised in the capital.

Localism in London report

In the course of our investigation, we found that a third of London boroughs have no neighbourhood forums, only one successful plan has been introduced so far, and it is unlikely more than a handful of neighbourhood plans will be in place by the time of the next election. The picture is more positive when it comes to the Community Right to Bid, but many communities still find the process daunting and potentially expensive.

The Committee is keen to engage with Londoners to understand how we can help communities across the city use the legislation to be proactive in planning their local area and to protect valued community assets. That’s why the report concludes with a call for Londoners to get in touch to share their thoughts on how localism is shaping up on the ground in the capital, and what the GLA can do to better implement it.

You can read the report here.

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Assembly to investigate Royal Albert Docks deal

Earlier today the Assembly voted to investigate Boris Johnson’s handling of the £1bn deal to redevelop the Royal Albert Dock.

Last week I appeared in a Channel 4 report which raised serious questions about the deal with Chinese developer ABP. That report highlighted the close relationship between London and Partners, which is a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of the Mayor, and ABP, as well as concerns about ABP’s human rights record and the involvement of the wife of a minister who made sizable donations to the Tory party during the tendering process.

At this morning’s Mayors Question Time, the Mayor attempted to pre-empt any further criticism by waving around an internal audit report. The report, which the Mayor claimed cleared the GLA of any wrong-doing, was released minutes after the meeting began, effectively preventing Assembly Members from having a chance to read it. Not a very transparent move.

The audit report left many questions unanswered. By its own admission merely a “desk top review” that failed to interview many of the key players, the document did not address issues raised in the Channel 4 report and offered unsatisfactory conclusions on others.

It was clear that  an independent investigation is necessary to restore faith in the process.

That’s why I spoke to a motion calling for the Mayor to appoint an independent investigation into the tendering process and relationship between the Greater London Authority and allied agencies, and ABP. It also called for three of the Assembly’s committees to hold meetings scrutinising the deal. The motion passed 14-3.

Channel 4 picked up the story again, which you can view here.

The relevant text of the motion reads:

“The London Assembly is deeply concerned at the Mayor’s failure to address fully concerns regarding the granting to Advanced Business Park (ABP) of the tender to develop the 35-acre site at the Royal Albert Dock, which includes 3.2 million square feet of office space, leisure facilities, and 845 residential flats.

“This Assembly is also troubled by the fact that, despite compelling evidence calling into question ABP’s human rights record in China, neither the Mayor’s Office nor London and Partners assessed ABP’s human rights record as part of the evaluation process in respect of the Royal Albert Dock development. In particular, this Assembly is disappointed by the Mayor’s recent admission that ABP’s human rights record in China “wasn’t relevant to the tendering process[2].

“This Assembly notes the comments of Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who has publicly stated that the tendering process “has the smell of a semi corrupt arrangement…[3]

“Given the gravity of the concerns raised by Channel 4 News’ investigation into the Albert Docks Development, this Assembly calls on:

The Mayor to:

•          Appoint an independent investigation into the tendering process and relationship between the Greater London Authority and allied agencies, and ABP, in the awarding of the Royal Albert Dock development.

The London Assembly Audit Panel (with authority delegated to the committee chair in consultation with group leads to agree the terms of reference) to:

•          Launch a scrutiny session on the internal audit process undertaken by the Mayor in relation Royal Albert Dock development, and seek a commitment from the Mayor to appear before the Panel as part of the scrutiny.

The London Assembly Economy Committee and Planning Committee (with authority delegated to the committee chair(s) in consultation with group leads to agree the terms of reference) to:

•          Launch a joint scrutiny session on the economic and planning aspects of Royal Albert Dock development, and seek a commitment from the Mayor to appear before the Committee as part of the scrutiny

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Big questions for Boris over billion dollar property deal

Tonight Channel 4 aired an exclusive story raising serious questions about Boris Johnson’s handling of the £1bn deal to redevelop the Royal Albert Dock.

You can watch the full report, including my interview, and read an accompanying story here.

The story raised serious questions about the closeness of relationship between London and Partners and ABP. The public has to have confidence in the process behind all  developments, particularly ones as high profile as the Royal Albert Dock. That confidence could well be undermined by the perception that London and Partners, a stakeholder in the tender process, appears to have had a financial link to the developer during that process.

Whilst London needs to attract inward investment we cannot allow a situation to arise where the public perception is that a developer is getting preferential treatment.

The Mayor and officers working for the GLA have a duty to do everything they can to ensure impartiality and avoid any perception of bias. Ultimately given that London and Partners are a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of the Mayor, then on any concerns about their conduct the buck has to stop with him. This programme raised a large number of questions about the close relationship between ABP and London and Partners. I hope the Mayor will take these concerns seriously.

Nicky on C4 news

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Our visit to Old Oak Common and Park Royal

Next month the Assembly will decide whether to approve the creation of a Mayoral Development Corporation for the Old Oak Common and Park Royal Area. The convergence of HS2 and Crossrail on a 50 hectare-plus brownfield site represents one of the greatest opportunities for regeneration in London’s history, but we need to make sure that the Mayor’s vision for Old Oak is the right one, and that a Mayoral Development Corporation is the best way to implement that vision.

Yesterday I joined Assembly Members from all parties on a site visit to Old Oak Common and Park Royal. The visit followed on from the Planning Committee’s meeting this summer, and highlights our continuing scrutiny of the Mayor’s plans.

OOC site visit 2

We saw first-hand the current under-utilisation of the brownfield land around Old Oak, the relationship between that site and Wormwood Scrubs to the south, and the highly-productive Park Royal industrial estate. Our visit was led by Victoria Hill, the proposed director of the MDC, who fielded questions from Labour members concerned about the height and design of future development, the make-up of the Mayoral Development Corporation board and planning committee, the impact on existing residents, financing of infrastructure, and the future of industrial uses. Many of these concerns were highlighted in the Labour Group response to the MDC consultation.

OOC site visit 1

We recognise the potential for this area, but our in-principle support does not mean we will give Boris a free ride to do what he wants with the place. We will continue to closely scrutinise these proposals closely.

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Peabody rents petition

Accepting a petition from Peabody tenants calling on the housing association to stop unfair rent rises

Accepting a petition  with my colleague Tom Copley from Peabody tenants calling on the housing association to stop unfair rent rises

Earlier today I received a petition from tenants calling on their housing association Peabody to stop escalating their rents, which have risen by 36% in just four years. Peabody bought four estates housing keyworkers across London in 2011 from the Crown Estate. The estates in Victoria Park in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, Cumberland Market in Camden, Milbank in Westminster and Lee Green in Lewisham contain 1,200 homes.

Despite assurances at the time of the sale that rents would be kept affordable, since 2011 rents have increased so someone who paid £650 per month now has to pay £884 a month. At a time of stagnant wage rises and increases in the cost of living residents simply cannot afford this. The petition signed by over 1,000 people calls for a meeting with senior staff at Peabody, a 12 month freeze on further increases and a review of their rent policy.

Peabody used to be a major provider of key worker housing, but the ability of nurses, teachers, and others to pay these escalating rents is slowly being eroded.

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London Assembly calls on Mayor to rethink approach to tall buildings

The London Assembly today unanimously supported a motion calling for the Mayor to establish a Skyline Commission to tackle the proliferation of tall buildings dramatically altering London’s skyline.

Ken Livingstone was famously fond of tall buildings and gave permission for about 20 in 8 years. Boris has already approved 200.

Research by New London Architect earlier this year found more than 230 in the pipeline.

These are super-tall buildings over 20 storeys.

This isn’t just a central London issue. NLA found 20 in Barnet, 16 in Newham, and 11 in Wandsworth. And there will be more to come.

The horses have bolted but the stable door is still wide open.

And the public didn’t know.

Helix

What does it matter?

 There’s nothing wrong with tall buildings if they’re in the right places, meeting the right needs, and respect the character of their local areas. Everyone can think of a favourite tall building – from the Gherkin to the Shard – but do we really want London to become Shanghai-on-Thames?

One problem is that many of these towers don’t interact well with the street. There’s even one proposed in Canary Wharf which will sit atop a drive-thru McDonalds.

London’s unique selling point is its heritage, but the Mayor is approving proposals which dwarf iconic buildings and dominate iconic views. The result is a situation where UNESCO threatens to remove Westminster’s World Heritage status because of the impact of skyscrapers towering over it in the distance.

All of that is bad enough, but the worst part is that these lofty “units” aren’t even providing homes. They’re only creating a market for overseas investors who want to buy luxury flats in skyscrapers to treat as safety deposit boxes. Even though they’re not contributing to solving the housing crisis, the Mayor includes them in the completions he boasts about.

We don’t need to build high to get the housing we need anyway. We can achieve high densities in people-sized developments, like Kings Cross.

So what do we do about it?

We already have a raft of good policies in place in the London Plan, such as Policy 7.7. But they’re not being implemented properly, and we need some new ones too. Above all these proposals need much greater scrutiny and there must transparency and accountability.

The Mayor needs to rethink his approach. And fast.

He should establish a ‘skyline commission’ made up of design experts from a variety of fields to offer advice on commissioning, have an enabling role and carry out design reviews.

There are other approaches and policies he should also consider, many of which have been suggested by the Skyline campaign. The Mayor should develop more detailed and rigorous masterplanning processes, including engagement of local residents and stakeholders, especially within Opportunity Areas, and implement a clusters policy. There should be a review of existing protected views with the intention of adding new viewing corridors, as well as a recognition that views from all angles – even if not within a protected corridor – should be a planning consideration. The GLA should support the development of a fully interactive 3D computer model of London’s emerging skyline in order to allow development proposals to be visualised within the context of their contribution to the London skyline. Finally, the Mayor should require all developers with proposals for tall buildings to consider other building configurations.

Today, the London Assembly unanimously called on Boris to do exactly this. Let’s hope he heeds our direction.

The full text of the motion:

 This Assembly notes with concern the revelation earlier this year by New London Architecture that over 230 tall buildings are in the pipeline for development. The cumulative impact of these developments on London’s skyline is not being thoroughly considered, with the resultant often bland design and irreversible negative impact posing a threat to London’s heritage, character and architectural distinctiveness. 80% of these buildings are residential, mostly luxury flats which will do little to alleviate the housing crisis.

 Tall buildings can make a positive contribution to city life and the skyline, but only if they’re in the right places, meet the right needs, and respect the character and identity of the surrounding area. However, the flaws of ill-considered tall buildings have been well demonstrated by the skyline campaign.

 The London Plan includes policies on tall buildings, but these are not being properly implemented in planning decisions. There are also examples where height limits established by Opportunity Area Planning Frameworks have been ignored.

 This Assembly therefore calls on the Mayor to rethink his approach to tall buildings in London. To protect London’s skyline and arrive at well considered appropriate high rise buildings the Mayor should establish a ‘skyline commission’ made up of design experts from a variety of fields to offer advice on commissioning, have an enabling role and carry out design reviews.

 The Mayor should also develop more detailed and rigorous masterplanning processes, including engagement of local residents and stakeholders, especially within Opportunity Areas, and implement a clusters policy. There should be a review of existing protected views with the intention of adding new viewing corridors, as well as a recognition that views from all angles – even if not within a protected corridor – should be a planning consideration. The GLA should support the development of a fully interactive 3D computer model of London’s emerging skyline in order to allow development proposals to be visualised within the context of their contribution to the London skyline. Finally, the Mayor should require all developers with proposals for tall buildings to consider other building configurations.

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Eric Pickles’ planning changes are putting economic recovery at risk

The Government’s proposed gutting of the planning system is a threat to London’s economic recovery, as the London Assembly Labour Group explained in its consultation response.

In a piece that appears in today’s New Statesman, I explain the particular threat to a growth area that the Prime Minister has identified as a pet project: Tech City.

Eric Pickles’ planning changes are putting economic recovery at risk

Businesses risk eviction, higher rents and no space to grow if government changes to planning policies are approved.

Tech City is under threat from planning changes. Photo: Getty

Four years ago the Prime Minister proclaimed his desire to help make East London one of the world’s great technology centres. We have made significant progress since then, but now proposed changes to the planning system threaten to put this growth at risk. East London is one of the best places for technology companies in the world but we face significant competition from global cities such as Berlin and should be building on our current momentum.

Whilst large technology companies are important, ambitious and entrepreneurial start-ups and SMEs form the foundation of any technology hub. They bring the ideas, skills and drive for innovation which push the boundaries. Perhaps most importantly, small companies create jobs.

The introduction of ‘Permitted Development Rights’ which are being consulted on by the Department for Communities and Local Government would mean that offices and workspaces could be converted into flats overnight without the need for any planning permission. This would have a devastating effect on small businesses in areas like Tech City where housing property values far outstrip those of commercial buildings, heavily incentivising property owners to convert to residential.  Councils already have the powers to allow conversions where appropriate– but this also means the ability to protect office space, ensure good standards of housing and encourage balanced mixes of dwellings and commercial space alongside the infrastructure they rely on. We strongly believe that affordable workspace is just as important as affordable housing in creating a sustainable, balanced economy.

Permitted Development takes that right out of councils’ hands and removes their ability to help build the ecosystems and areas where people want to live, work and succeed.

Some boroughs where Permitted Development Rights were trialled have already lost a significant amount of their office space. This has, in many cases, seen businesses evicted, while others face an uphill challenge to find affordable office space.

Tech City is just one of the areas under threat from these changes. Through the work of the local businesses, local councils and Central Government, the ecosystem which has built up over the last decade in East London has significantly regenerated the area, stimulating thousands of new high tech jobs but also making it vastly more attractive to residential development.

Whilst we recognise the need for new housing in the capital this cannot come at the expense of jobs and London’s economic recovery. During the trial phase of the new planning regimen areas like Tech City, were granted an exemption but this is now set to be removed as the policy is made permanent. Having seen the impact on other areas we are clear that Old Street roundabout and the Shoreditch area more broadly would be at serious risk of redevelopment as housing. The cluster is beginning to spread to other areas such as Haggerston, but affordable workspace is still in limited supply in these areas.

Reform of the planning system is welcome but Permitted Development threatens to undermine the ability of companies, particularly start-ups and SMEs, often supported by coworking spaces, incubators and accelerators, to find the affordable facilities they need to set-up, expand and create jobs. For that reason, and given his personal commitment to the technology sector, we call upon the Prime Minister to support current exemptions, and help us to grow the economy, create jobs and opportunities.

Nicky Gavron AM is the London Assembly Labour Group Spokesperson on Planning; James Governor is a businessman who runs Shoreditch Village Hall and Shoreditch Works

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