Assembly probes Mayor’s planning decisions

[Later: Since this post – and partly as a result of this story – Just Space worked with Planning Aid for London in the writing of a guidance document for community groups about the call-in process. [This is now published here ]

Just Space has been having productive exchanges with long standing and newly elected members of the London Assembly since the elections held in May 2021. Partly as a result, the new Planning Committee (now merged with Regeneration) is directing its first scrutiny to a hitherto murky aspect of how the Mayor system works: the handling of planning applications where the Mayor makes the decision instead of the Borough council.

Most of the 9 November meeting was used to hear evidence from Just Space and community groups, most of them linked to Just Space in some way. It was a very important meeting, revealing major failings in transparency, fairness and effectiveness in the system and how it works for Londoners. The transcript is available (marked DRAFT until approved at the January meeting) and is a fascinating and impressive read. At its January 2022 meeting the committee will discuss the issues with Deputy Mayor for Planning Jules Pipe and others and then write a report making recommendations.

[Planning applications are mostly decided by the local London Borough but major ones have to be referred to the Mayor of London who considers whether to get involved. A Stage 1 Report is issued by City Hall which can offer advice or indicate changes which the Mayor of London would seek so that the scheme complies with the LondonPlan. Then when the local authority is ready to make a decision the Mayor of London issues a Stage 2 Report in which (s)he can direct that permission be given, direct that it be refused or ‘call-in’ the application and take over the council’s role as planning authority. For the call-in cases, the Mayor’s City Hall staff work to negotiate with the developer a scheme which they can recommend to the Mayor and then finally prepare a Stage 3 Report to the Mayor. The Mayor then holds a one-day Hearing and makes a decision – which may or may not follow officers’ advice.]

It became clear in the Assembly Planning Committee meeting that there is a lot wrong with the whole process from Londoners’ point of view.

For most of the 20-year life of the GLA call-ins have normally led to the Mayor granting permission if it hasn’t already been directed at Stage 2. So Londoners became cynical about bothering with it. The recent decision of the Mayor to refuse permission at Mortlake Brewery (see previous post) has made many of us take the process more seriously.

Very few people know about this whole process, how it works and how they can effectively submit their views. There is little or no guidance on when and how submissions can be made, how they should differ from submissions made at borough level and how community groups can find the resources needed to make affective submissions.

It is very alarming that the Mayor of London’s staff often have frequent meetings with developers (applicants) but rarely or never with community organisations. In the recent Mortlake case the local groups had to use a Freedom of Information (FOI) request and discovered that there had been 23 such meetings with developers.

This process of negotiation is quite properly intended to produce a ‘better’ scheme, conforming more closely to London Plan policies and priorities. But there is no clear process for repeating the normal public consultations on the revised scheme: the Mayor of London’s consultations are minimal compared with what Boroughs are required to do. And even when a developer submits a radically altered scheme (as happened at Shoreditch Goods Yard) it does not go back to the boroughs but remains with the Mayor to decide.

A headline issue for us was the scope for making the entire process more democratic. Many speakers expressed dismay that the decision was being made in each case just by one individual and Just Space suggested that the Assembly Planning Committee should have a role in this decision making.

[It’s not widely known that the Assembly and its committees are NOT part of the decision-making process of the Mayor of London. They sit alongside the Mayor and the staff teams, and can only scrutinise. They don’t even receive copies of the Mayor’s Stage 1/2/3 reports although individual Assembly Members can and sometimes do lobby the Mayor on individual cases. ]

These notes simply gather some highlights. We do recommend reading the full transcript and groups can always write to the committee with further views before the January meeting. Just Space is also participating at Planning Aid for London in the writing of a guidance document for community groups about the call-in process. [This is now published here ]