On the fourth anniversary of the Localism Act, planning has never felt less local, argues Amanda Baillieu
Whatever happened to planning in London?
Zaha Hadid almost put her finger on it when she said there should be more debate over how London’s remaining big sites are developed.
She was referring to Mount Pleasant not far from her office in Farringdon. But the Royal Mail site is just one of many where people are losing faith in the planning system.
Others include Convoys Wharf in Deptford and City Forum in Islington.
While Hadid was lamenting the unimaginative architecture proposed for Mount Pleasant, what unites these sites is that all three have been refused planning permission by the local authority, only to be overruled by London mayor Boris Johnson because they involve large amounts of new housing.
The Mayor’s mantra “housing, housing, housing” is all very well – nobody could argue that we don’t need to build more of it – but it’s the way the programme is being implemented that’s the problem.
Planning in London has always been slow and cumbersome and local authorities all had their own idiosyncrasies, but it was at least democratic.
There is very little democracy in evidence now but this was not what was promised when the Localism Act was passed four years ago this week.
“The Localism Act sets out a series of measures with the potential to achieve a substantial and lasting shift in power away from central government and towards local people… they include reform to make the planning system more democratic and more effective, and reform to ensure that decisions about housing are taken locally,” wrote the then minister of state for decentralisation, Greg Clark, in a Plain English Guide to the Localism Act.
Planning, despite its complexity, was perhaps the biggest area where the Coalition believed the Big Society and localism could make some easy wins.
Long perceived as too top-down and remote, planning was to be handed back to local authorities and to us, the people, via neighbourhood forums.
To date, more than 30 neighbourhood forums have had their plans adopted and more than 1,000 areas have embarked on a neighbourhood planning process.
But a planning system that’s the equivalent of a cottage industry run by Mrs Twiggy Winkle doesn’t work in central London where development pressure is intense and the stakes are high.
Localism, as Greg Clark said, was about local councils taking the decisions, and about local communities agreeing to new housing in order to serve local need. In London the reverse is true.
Increasingly, councils don’t make the decisions; politicians do. At the same time, not enough of the housing being built is affordable; it’s aimed at investors not middle-class professionals.
The result is that London is becoming a more polarised place to live, while areas that give the capital its unique character, like Shoreditch, will soon disappear under a sea of new apartment blocks.
One poignant story is told by the occupants of the Tram Depot in Clapton, east London, one of the few remaining examples of a Victorian horse-drawn tram shed in the capital, shortly to be demolished and replaced by flats [designed by Stephen Davy Peter Smith Architects].
“As old buildings are torn down and new towers of glass and steel erected in their place, are the workers, residents and ultimately the communities that once occupied these spaces given the thought and attention they deserve?” ask those being evicted in an exhibition of photographs that opens this week.
In time, we might be persuaded that removing decision-making powers from local authorities and allowing parts of the city to become gated communities for the very rich is a fair swap if London is to retain its economic competitiveness – but we need the debate first.