“We are the genesis generation. There will never be a first assembly, a first mayor or first deputy mayor again, so we have this huge responsibility to shape the whole structure of the GLA and the framework for policy in action,” says deputy London mayor Nicky Gavron. Perched on a sofa in her spacious offices in Romney House, Marsham Street, perhaps suddenly aware of how pompous this sounds, she looks up from her briefing notes and adds:

“I really want to be open and inclusive. I am making it very clear. We are at a time when we really do need people with ideas and thoughts about what sort of London we want in the future and how to shape it. And I am encouraging people to write in with ideas and arrange meetings with me.”

When Ken Livingstone took office on 3 July, he decided to concentrate on transport, as chair of the board of Transport for London. He delegated to Gavron responsibility for developing the Spatial Development Strategy, the framework for the use of the mayor’s strategic planning powers, by September 2002. The SDS will include a new framework for land use and development in Greater London, to which all the borough unitary development plans must conform as they are revised. It will also set priorities for the future economic and social development of London and improvements to its environment.

Gavron has a big job and lofty a sense of her responsibility. “Ken sees the SDS as the overarching strategy, the one that binds all the other strategies together.” She adds: “It will be able to integrate and link up spatial dimensions across all the mayor’s strategies and policies. Through a mixture of using planning powers, economic regeneration strategy and funding, transport strategy and funding, you can make a really big difference.”

So what kind of difference will it make? Since 3 July, a handful of key policy directions has emerged from the mayor’s office: a commitment to reducing traffic congestion and improving public transport; support for more tall buildings in financial centres and on transport hubs; and addressing the affordable housing crisis. Livingstone’s appointment of Lord Rogers as adviser on architecture and urban strategy is an endorsement of the urban taskforce’s blueprint for design-led, high-density, mixed-use, mixed-tenure communities near transport interchanges.

As for Gavron, what has she been doing since 3 July? Gavron is big on broad-brush themes, short on detail. She explains that this is because the GLA’s strategies are work in progress, being developed through exhaustive consultation. “At the moment, the most exciting opportunities come round feeding into the development of policies and ways of making them happen, working out how strategies can be delivered through complex implementation mechanisms that combine financial, fiscal, regulatory and planning powers,” she says. Gavron has had a constant round of meetings with “all the stakeholders” in the spatial development of London: housebuilders, architects, planners, urban designers, landscape architects, academics, English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. She invited 50 of them to a four-hour think-tank of the SDS policy directorate in July, understood to have been attended by Lord Rogers, planner Sir Peter Hall, Peabody Trust chairman Dickon Robinson and architect Piers Gough, although Gavron is reluctant to name names. She adds: “I tried to get a good cross-sector interdisciplinary group together. I don’t want people to think there is a closed group of people who are involved.” Several more brainstorming sessions are planned before the end of October.

Despite her protests, it is clear that a few people’s input has been particularly influential. Gavron is a devotee of Rogers’ urban design vision. She is reluctant to discuss the names of those that Rogers has enlisted to advise Livingstone, saying only: “There will be a core. I know that Richard is keen to invite [urban designer Oriol] Bohigas from Barcelona.” And Ricky Burdett, chair of the cities, architecture and engineering programme at the London School of Economics? “It would be crackers not to use someone like Ricky Burdett. But these things aren’t fixed. It is not to be exclusive.” However, she reveals: “Richard and I are very impressed with Jan Gehl’s work in Copenhagen. He is a very good architect and urban designer who has written some superb books on the public realm.”

She says one of her aims is “to transform the way the street can be used in the next decade, thinking about the next generation of public transport”. Potential initiatives include time-managed pedestrianisation of busy zones such as Soho and town centres across London. “Have you heard of Curitiba, the fastest-growing metropolis in Brazil? That has influenced me enormously. We should have express radial and orbital buses like they do there, and smaller hail-a-ride ones in the suburbs.”

Gavron is already laying the groundwork for some of these initiatives. “We’ve been talking to Alistair Morton [of the Strategic Rail Authority] to discuss the orbital rail network,” she says. “It will mean better signalling, better interchanges, a bit more track on existing east-west, north-south lines, and a seamless integration between rail and tube. The Strategic Rail Authority is willing to invest £450m in the network.”

And what of the mayor’s planning powers? The planning decisions unit, chaired by Giles Dolphin, former head of development control at the London Planning Advisory Committee, has a caseload of 78 planning applications, 14 of which were statutory referrals and 32 informal referrals from the boroughs.

Developers’ fears that the new tier of planning review would mean more bureaucracy and delays were plain by the flurry of applications rushed under the wire before the 3 July cut-off date. Yet after this indecent haste to escape Livingstone’s scrutiny, his first strategic planning interventions were in support of high-rise schemes. Gavron rolls her eyes: “Uncertainty breeds speculation and paranoia. But I do think people are aware now of the GLA being inclusive. Everything we are doing is predicated on partnership and you can't achieve the things we are trying to achieve unless you work closely with the boroughs, CABE and English Heritage and with the private sector.”

Livingstone’s latest comments condemning the £500m Battersea Power Station and £440m Project Vauxhall developments for not including enough social housing are clearly a taste of things to come. So, was Tony Carey, managing director of developer St George, part of the joint-venture team behind the Project Vauxhall estate redevelopment, vexed by Livingstone’s intervention in the scheme that he has spent two years developing in consultation with the local community? “Not really, because it is a major issue. We do have to find practical ways to provide more affordable housing,” he says.

Gavron admits that Livingstone’s vociferous support for tall buildings opened the floodgates to a rush of informal approaches from developers with tower proposals. This has caught the planning unit somewhat on the hop, as the opinions expressed by Livingstone are a departure from the tall buildings policy in the London Planning Advisory Committee’s “endowment to the mayor” – the blueprint for the SDS. Gavron intends to draft an updated policy urgently. “I am very keen to agree an up-to-date, robust policy framework for tall buildings in advance of the completion of the SDS.” The policy will include “introducing clusters of tall buildings” in mixed-use developments around transport interchanges.

Gavron says sensitive design is crucial. “You’d be looking very much at the scale of the development, its impact. To date, tall buildings have not created a good environment for many people who live and work at the feet of them. I want to be clear that when we look back from the future, we have got it right.”

How in practice is the mayor and the GLA going to make sure London gets it right? “We change the climate, we set standards, we provide incentives, have competitions, all sorts of ways. We are going to work closely with CABE, and English Heritage is currently seconding help to our planning team.”

Gavron also stresses the mayor’s determination to redress the imbalance of investment in areas most blighted by the 1960s planning regime and industrial decline: “The SDS, working with the London Development Agency, can address this great crescent of deprivation that goes all the way up the Lee Valley, out towards the East Thames Corridor.”

One of the tools Gavron intends to use is to involve the wider public in debate about proposed new development. She has been persuaded by the Architecture Foundation of the value of having an architectural information centre in central London. “I think it’s a very good idea. It would be an architectural design centre where Londoners can see proposals in a model form or in a virtual form.”

Gavron is also charged with helping Livingstone make an impact on London’s affordable housing crisis, despite having no statutory powers.

“I always say, ‘He who has the gold, has the rule’, and for the mayor it really is unfortunate that he doesn’t have control over the funding sources for housing. But an enormous amount can be done through his planning powers and through the whole planning framework and by working with the other players, particularly the housebuilders.”

Gavron has met twice with the House Builders’ Federation in the past couple of months. Julian Smith, the HBF’s director of public affairs, said discussions had focused on “how to get the planning system in London working more efficiently, particularly on developments needed to meet the government’s brownfield targets. And how to tackle the shortage of affordable housing, by creating balanced communities with a mix of private, private rental and innovative low-cost solutions like shared ownership.”

A new Housing Commission, headed by Chris Holmes, director of the homeless charity Shelter, has been set up to enquire into and set targets for London’s affordable housing needs. It will report by 31 October. “The Housing Commission will have to open up a dialogue with government about London’s housing need. We might not have all the mechanisms we want – financial, fiscal and regulatory – but when the commission reports, we will be talking to government about our findings.”

Although Gavron laments the GLA’s lack of powers over housing, she is gung-ho about what it can achieve with the resources it has. “The London Development Agency has inherited land from English Partnerships, so we have land, planning power, regeneration moneys, transport moneys, and a growing partnership with the Strategic Rail Authority, which has money. So, we have a unique package of partnerships, powers and influence with which to start doing something about disparities of wealth and opportunity and to start improving the built environment, the street scene and the quality of life of Londoners.”

How London is Governed

The “government” of the Greater London Authority is made up of eight directorates, each chaired by a member of the 19-strong advisory cabinet that meets once a month to advise the mayor on his areas of responsibility. The directorates are transport, planning, economic development, environment, policing, fire and emergency planning, culture and health. They are developing the draft strategies that will be published in December’s Prospectus for London. The directorates are developing their proposals in consultation with private and public “stakeholders”. They will then be presented as “issues and choices” to policy committees made up of GLA members. The Transport and Development Strategy Scrutiny Committee will receive weekly e-mails from the mayor’s planning decisions unit on all new cases. These committees have no formal power to veto proposals; they can just make a fuss if they don’t like them. Robert Gordon Clark, director of the London Communications Agency and broadcaster, says the influence of these committees should not be underestimated: “If you look at the way the Cultural Select Committee in the House of Commons has acted over the Royal Opera House and television rights, you can see that a high-profile, aggressive select committee can cause a lot of embarrassment for government. It can generate a lot of press,” he says The assembly as a whole has the opportunity to put questions to the mayor, Ken Livingstone, at question times 10 times a year. Livingstone also has to face public questions twice a year. According to Clark, who attended the first session: “Assembly members will table a casual question and then whack in a stinging supplementary. Ken reads from a script for a lot of the answers and uses a lot of humour.”

Ken Livingstone’s interventions in major developements

May 2000 Pledges £25m to the regeneration of the area around Wembley Stadium, from the London Development Agency’s £300m regeneration fund. Aug 2000 Writes in support of Foster and Partners’ “erotic gherkin” in an Independent article with the strapline “London's skyline will never look the same again, thank goodness”. Aug 2000 Pledges £16.7m in LDA funding to save the troubled £30m Hungerford Bridge project. Aug 2000 Deplores the loss of 400 social housing units in the £440m Project Vauxhall, a proposed redevelopment of two estates in Lambeth. Sept 2000 Slams Wandsworth council for approving developer Parkview’s £500m Battersea Power Station redevelopment of 657 luxury flats and no social housing.

What projects does the mayor get a say on?

Planning applications of strategic importance include:
  • Very large new buildings (more than 30 000 m2 in the City of London, 20 000 m2 in the rest of London)
  • Tall new buildings (above 25 m fronting the Thames, 75 m in the City and 30 m everywhere else))
  • Residential schemes with more than 500 units or covering more than 10 ha
  • Mining operations (sites of more than 10 ha)
  • Large new waste facilities (with more than 50 000 tonnes capacity)
  • New transport facilities, such as air terminals, heliports, coach stations and Thames bridges)
Applications likely to affect key strategic policies include:
  • Loss of housing (more than 200 units) or designated housing land (more than 4 ha)
  • Loss of land (more than 4 ha) in use or designated for employment purposes
  • Loss of land (more than 2 ha) in use or designated as a playing field
  • Development of more than 1000 m2 in the green belt or on designated metropolitan open land
  • Development affecting a designated strategic view, such as the area around St Paul’s Cathedral

A plan for London

The Spatial Development Strategy forms the heart of the GLA’s plans for the development and regeneration of the city. It covers:
  • Sustainable development
  • Transport (and integration with land-use planning)
  • Economic development, regeneration and social inclusion
  • Housing (particularly that which is provided by the boroughs)
  • The built environment
  • The natural environment and open spaces
  • Waste disposal
  • Spatial aspects of the other environmental strategies
  • Town centres, major retail, leisure and other trip-generating developments
  • Major cultural and community facilities
  • The “central area” (including the “World City” role)
  • The River Thames