The London mayor has been gifted superpowers to control housing and planning and the question on everyone’s lips is: how is he going to use them? Ken Livingstone’s pro-growth housing strategy suggests we can be optimistic
All things evolve. Give it time. Superman returns, Daleks can fly, even Monty Panesar’s fielding may improve.
So it is with the mayor of London. Six years after he took office, elected regional assemblies may never recover from the thumbs-down administered by Geordies, Mackems and Teessiders and the jury is still out on local authority elected mayors. But undaunted, the mayor has soldiered on.
He is now to be equipped with new housing, planning and skills powers, as well as other responsibilities (he must now be responsible for more appointments than the Pope).
As the power plates of the capital shift and realign, the development industry will ask one question: will these extra powers make it easier or harder to get the job done?
A simplistic assessment might state that more layers of government equals more bureaucracy. But in drafting the mayoral proposals, the civil servants have carefully sought to balance interests and not simply add a layer of decision-making. And for the most part, they have succeeded. In future, much will depend on who is in the hot seat as mayor, but for as long as Ken Livingstone is in charge, these powers should make quality development easier to get off the ground.
We can expect a housing strategy that is pro-growth and pro-affordability – a plan the Housing Corporation will relish helping to deliver. The harder part will be in ensuring that the boroughs follow the mayor’s lead.
The proposals state only that the boroughs’ housing strategies must be “in general conformity” with the plan. There would appear to be quite a lot of wriggle room for a recalcitrant borough and no obvious means of enforcement for the mayor, except through his investment decisions – which may not help with authorities seeking to resist affordable housing development. So, it will be interesting to see if we get any more detail on these issues when the bill is published.
Taking strategic regional decisions at a regional level – once removed from vested local interests – has to be a good thing
Turning to planning, again the extra powers will look very different depending on whether the mayor is pro-development or anti-growth. But on a fundamental level, having strategic regional decisions taken at a regional level – sufficiently close to the public to ensure accountability but once removed from vested local interests – has to be a good thing. Similarly, I applaud giving the mayor the ability to direct changes to local development schemes to ensure they take on board regional priorities.
My one anxiety about the planning powers concerns the timescales for intervention. If I have understood the proposals correctly, the mayor has one shot at call-in, which is when the borough has “considered the strategic issues”. If the mayor lets the application go at this stage, his only later recourse appears to be a negative one – to direct refusal.
I understand why the proposals place this restraint on the mayor: to give certainty to applicants as to who is going to consider their application and to avoid duplication of effort. But I can see some possible problems. First, the mayor may call in more cases than are necessary, particularly with boroughs he doesn’t trust. At the same time, some boroughs may talk the talk to get past the “strategic issues” threshold and then revert to a more localised position, leaving the mayor only with the option of refusal. Although there are no easy answers, I would not be surprised to see further discussion on this issue.
One suspects that this extension of the mayor’s powers is not the end of the story.
It is part of the evolution of devolution in one of the most centralised states in the developed world. It contains progressive steps that must be seen in a wider context of the Lyons review of local government, the work of the unelected regional assemblies and continuing thinking on city-regions as drivers of the national economy.
For both the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, it requires a shift of alignment whereby local and regional government become our key clients and our main task is using our powers, skills and funding to help them deliver their priorities. Our national status allows us to concentrate scarce skills and resources, and to generate economies of scale, particularly in commercial relationships. But just as a multinational company must adapt its products to local markets, so our approach has become “think local, act local”. For we must also evolve and there is no turning back.
Jon Rouse is chief executive of the Housing Corporation