Planning London during lockdown - A perspective from Cllr Jonathan Cook, Deputy Leader of Wandsworth Council
What lessons have been learned from different approaches to planning across London?
What began as a matter of necessity has quickly become accepted. Wandsworth held its first virtual planning meeting in mid April, at the height of lockdown, and has since held two more. They clearly work, and seem to lead to crisper, more defined questions and incisive focussed exchanges during the meetings. Overall, in terms of resident experience, they probably have more impact and reach a wider audience – this can only be a good thing and helps demystifies the planning process.
For Wandsworth we felt it was important to maintain control by elected members, and the democratic accountability and transparency that comes through planning meetings. That’s why we were among the first to hold virtual planning meetings, and didn’t entertain thoughts of suspending that process and simply delegating decision making.
Wandsworth’s approach has long been to work with developers to mutual advantage – pressing hard to maximise affordable housing, training and jobs opportunities for local people, apprenticeships, and conditions to benefit wider community schemes. These priorities will now be more important than ever, as we seek to get the economy moving again, provide homes and employment. The guiding principle has always been to obtain the best possible deal for the borough and its residents. An efficient, well-resourced and experienced planning service is critical here for developers to deal with, at all stages of the process.
How are local authorities supporting businesses to drive our economic recovery? What further action is needed?
Recent weeks have seen councils working round the clock to distribute emergency funding to businesses – Wandsworth distributed over £50m to over 3,000 businesses. While stupendous in its scale and ambition (and cost), the government’s various business support schemes have, perhaps inevitably, not reached all businesses, and helping as many as possible survive, get back on their feet and trading must be our priority.
As with much council work in these troubling times, proactive communication with business has been critical during lockdown – not just waiting for businesses to come to us. So we’ve collaborated closely with the local chamber of commerce on weekly Zoom meetings, sharing information, answering questions and getting a sense of the most urgent challenges facing businesses. The borough’s Business Improvement Districts have also been highly effective partners, each attuned to their own localities. We haven’t always been able to solve all problems, there are businesses who haven’t yet been able to access financial support, but we’ve been visible, engaged and playing a leading role in understanding what needs to be done next.
While local authorities don’t have the resources to offer loans or grants ourselves, we can play a major role in advising, training, and adapting the urban realm to be as conducive as possible to business growth. With working from home will be with us in some form for the foreseeable future, and a major shift in work patterns, we can see the strengthening of a sense of community with which people closely identify, with town centres becoming more like neighbourhood and community hubs. We need to make these spaces as attractive as possible, especially to those on foot or cycling, lessening the dominance of the car. This process of re-imaging town centres is upon us now as an urgent task as businesses re-open; and it will be for councils to lead in ensuring all voices are heard, and that things happen quickly to support businesses in the immediate term, while thinking too about what things will look like in the coming months and years. It already seems certain we won’t return to a recognisable ‘business as usual’ but will move more to what might be termed ‘business unusual’. Already we see signs that small, local independent businesses with a distinctive offer are finding ways to thrive as new opportunities arise from changing behaviours.
How do we ensure communities are still engaged in the planning process whilst observing social distancing?
We need to be mindful, though, that there will be some residents uncomfortable with the virtual world, for whom physical presence is important. Drop in sessions for now aren’t possible, but do need to be re-established. But there’s no doubt that virtual drop ins, and online consultation has seen a big leap forward and in some form will stay – as an addition to our repertoire in communicating planning issues with residents.
What more can the government do to support local authorities and the development industry?
The world has changed in the last three months. Local authorities have been at the forefront of coping with the coronavirus crisis, and must now play a leading role as thoughts turn to recovery. Looking ahead, councils have a vital leadership role to play in driving recovery. Wandsworth’s emergence from the 2008/9 recession was boosted by the regeneration of Nine Elms, home to Battersea Power Station and the US Embassy, a regeneration in which the council played the leading role in bringing together the pieces of a vast jigsaw, not least the catalyst of the privately-financed £1.3bn Northern Line Extension running through its midst – now nearing completion.
Other ambitious regenerations are now underway, of the Alton estate in Roehampton, the Winstanley estate in Battersea, and a 1,000 home council-led programme of affordable housing across the borough – all of which will help pull us through the demanding times ahead. So, the point is that councils can and must adopt a leadership role in master-planning and making things happen. Government can help – what might be termed ‘seed funding’ to help with the upfront costs of that master-planning, mobilisations and land assembly. Funding should be based on delivering outcomes with a budget to release and realise development potential that matches local ambitions to deliver a diversity of homes. Wandsworth has been able to make a substantial financial commitment to development in the borough, but even the most prudent and financially robust of councils will require backing to do more.
More flexibility may be needed as the ‘new’ economy emerges – will the same level of protection of industrial and commercial spaces make sense ? This will present challenges to councils who have usually sought to protect such spaces, but this may change with decreased demand for office space and a very different retail landscape. Ambitious, well-planned urban development, with more, high quality and greener homes of multiple tenure types is for councils to drive, with the support of government and the GLA - making best possible use of precious urban space. Maximising site capacity will be vital, and imaginative high density developments in the most appropriate locations; other ways of maximising use of space will be through use of modular building, and adding storeys to enhance existing structures. Open space will be more valued than ever, both in public form and as private gardens.
There is also a role for government in persuading public sector landowners to come forward with sites; there are un-tapped or underutilised assets, notably held by the NHS, TfL, Network Rail, or as part of the prisons estate, to name just some of the major players.