Third time lucky for Sadiq Khan?

Grant Leggett, Executive Director Boyer looks at the impact of a future Labour government on the role of the London Mayor.

Related topics:  London,  Housing,  Politics
Grant Leggett | Boyer
11th June 2024
Sadiq Khan 622
"The result of Labour winning the next general election is unlikely to be more development in London, but more ‘protection’ of Londoners from development"
- Grant Leggett - Boyer

So Sadiq Khan has succeeded in winning a third term as Mayor of London – albeit with a smaller majority than he might have hoped.

His previous two terms have been beset with rows with successive Conservative Secretaries of State, so will his third term prove any easier?

A Labour win in the upcoming general election seems a foregone conclusion: even among developers, research by Knight Frank states that 70 per cent of housebuilders hope for a Labour win at the next election, believing Labour to be party most capable of enhancing the country’s land and development market.

It might be assumed that challenges to Sadiq Khan will be lessened by a change to a government of the same political colour. But will a Labour government enable Khan to finally address the issue of housing supply and affordability which has plagued these first two terms?

Certainly, the current government has not made life easy for Khan. Recently Michael Gove ordered Khan to conduct a partial review of the London Plan, focusing specifically on housing delivery.

This follows the publication in February of a government-commissioned review which found that, since the beginning of the current London Plan period in 2019, 60,000 fewer homes have been built than the strategy had intended. The review recommended an intensified brownfield presumption to increase the supply of new homes.

A review of the London Plan is due in the next Mayoral term anyway. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 gives the Secretary of State powers to intervene if is felt that the review isn’t delivering on its objectives. It’s very rare for a Secretary of State to intervene, but still possible.

And that possibility will be at the forefront of the London Plan team’s minds when the Secretary of State is politically adversarial to the Mayor, as is the case now. A review is more likely to take place because of differing attitudes towards planning policy.

And on this basis, is it less likely that a Labour Secretary of State would bring about both a review and the ensuing changes to policy which the Labour mayor may find unpalatable. In this respect, a Labour win would be good news for Sadiq Khan when the review of the London Plan takes place.

The government’s intervention on housing delivery in London underlines a fundamental difference in planning policy between the two main parties, one which is entirely politically driven: that Conservatives ultimately wish to ‘protect’ their suburban and rural voters, whereas Labour will always protect its supporters in urban areas.

I use the word ‘protect’ – perhaps controversially - in relation to protecting voters from the harm of development. Emotive and subjective language in this context is not something you’d expect to hear from a planning consultant, the majority of whose clients are large-scale developers.

But balancing between the benefits and harm brought about by development is intrinsic to our planning system: where development ‘harms’ the status quo, the system enables that harm to be outweighed by benefits. We see this played out daily in the way in which the planning gain system incentivises development and mitigates its impacts.

And so the result of Labour winning the next general election is unlikely to be more development in London, but more ‘protection’ of Londoners from development; conversely we expect to see less tolerance for the sentiment of rural NIMBYs (who have unquestionably had a disproportionate influence on the policies of the current Conservative government).

This urban/rural dichotomy is already evident in political sentiment. We don’t know much about Labour’s planning policies yet, but what we do know is that Kier Starmer is keen to review Green Belt policy – both reducing its strictures and its footprint.

And it is also born out in the Conservatives’ various reviews of the NPPF, specifically their inclination to reduce development on greenfield land and intensify housing delivery in London.

I wonder whether, following a Labour win in the general election, the new Secretary of State will look to reverse the Conservatives’ changes to NPPF, specifically the platitudes to the anti-development MPs implemented in the December 2022 revisions and the consultation on Strengthening Planning Policy for Brownfield Development which was introduced in February.

While this analysis is very black and white, very polarised, so too is politics, especially in the run-up to a general election. It will undoubtedly be played out in the emerging planning policies of both parties.

I don’t anticipate an immediate reduction in development in London as a result. But I predict more being done to ‘protect’ Londoners from development – whether through fiscal policy or changes to planning policy to mitigate its impact – both of which would have a direct financial impact on urban developers.

Already the Labour London Mayor has introduced a policy (Policy D9 of the London Plan) which, in my view, thwarts the development of tall buildings. There is also an increasing element of zoning through the London Plan which requires the determination of the future use of land at the plan-making stage. As such, it discourages “ad-hoc” applications for certain types of development, such as industrial co-location.

This stifles creativity and the opportunity for development that better responds to demographic trends and market conditions. For example, specific policies within the London Plans such as E4 (Land for industry, logistics and services to support London’s economic function), E5 (strategic industrial locations), E6 (locally significant industrial sites) and E7 (industrial intensification, co-location and substitution) rule out the potential for mixed-use, including co-location schemes which can bring about considerable benefits.

I wonder whether the developers responding to Knight Frank’s poll had considered the resultant reduction in development opportunities in London following a Labour win?

Or perhaps those responding were mindful of the complexities of brownfield development and look forward to the relative ease of building on the Green Belt.

Either way, while a Labour victory may be a foregone conclusion, its likely impact on development in London is far from clear.

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