Opportunity Areas: ?scrutiny

On 8 February the Planning and Regeneration committee of the London Assembly discussed the working of Opportunity Areas – the 30+ areas in London designated for most of the growth in housing and jobs. [ See our previous post ] Many community groups who have struggled with these very undemocratic entities for years watched the webcast and were not impressed. This doesn’t count as scrutiny. Most of the members of the committee are newly elected and have yet to learn the complexities of these Areas. They don’t have substantial staff teams to marshall material for them and the statistics they would need to do their job properly often don’t exist. For example data on numbers  of “affordable” homes completed in each Area are available at the touch of a button from the GLA’s spanking new Planning Data Hub, but the breakdown between the categories of “affordable” housing and thus the all important numbers of council homes is not. ‘We have to phone around for that’ said the officer.

You can watch the meeting here if you missed it.

We had urged them to invite representative community people from some of the Opportunity Areas to speak —as they had done so effectively last autumn on Mayoral decisions on planning applications— but they didn’t do that so were informed only by their background knowledge and a submission from us. This wasn’t enough to enable them to press home their questions to the Officers they had invited whose professional fluency and charm got the better of them.

For some reason the meeting was set up partly to explore the relationship between the Opportunity Areas and Housing Zones which often overlap with them. It turned out, though, that Housing Zones had been a brainchild of a deputy mayor in the Boris Johnson period, were not thought to be useful any more and were about to be abolished.

The democratic deficit in how Opportunity Areas are designated, how their initial plans are made and formalised, how the schemes are managed  and the impacts on citizens and the local economy in and around each Area recorded remain largely unscrutinised. These are the areas where much of the existing employment losses are felt, where many communities are displaced by estate ‘regeneration’, where prices and rents rise faster than elsewhere for firms and households. Increasingly they are also areas where development has shot ahead of social and transport infrastructure, much of which will now not be built. So many of the problems of London need to be understood in a scrutiny of Opportunity Areas. Neither the Mayor’s planning teams nor the Assembly are doing or commissioning the studies that would be needed and we hope that the Committee will return to this issue after the May elections.

A short version of our submission to the committee is in our previous post. Our much longer submission will be posted here later in February after some checking and polishing. [ Here it is now: download PDF ]

In the mean time the Deputy Mayor accepts that better initial studies and consultations are needed for new Opportunity Areas but they can’t afford to do more than one a year. The first one, for the Royal Docks and Beckton, is just getting under way and consultations have begun this week.

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