June 9, 2015 - From the June, 2015 issue

City Planning That Values Stewardship: Implementing the London Plan

Sir Edward Lister, the mayor of London’s  chief of staff and deputy mayor for policy and planning, must manage development in a city both deeply rooted in history and experiencing dramatic population influxes today. TPR sat down with him at the CityAge LA Conference to discuss the London Plan, which governs growth of the built environment across the metropolis. He cites examples of successful urban revitalization in Stratford and Canary Wharf; shares an innovative  system of parking requirements based on connectivity; and notes the planning challenges with which this city composed of 200 different villages contends.

Sir Edward Lister

“The current challenge we face is housing density and the increase in [London’s] population.” —Sir Edward Lister

Sir Edward, if there’s one city Angelenos respect, it’s London. As chief of staff and deputy mayor for policy and planning there, share how London is planned.

Sir Edward Lister: It is horribly complicated—and a bit different from the way things are done in Los Angeles.

In London, our boroughs are planning authorities. Above them is the Greater London Authority, which is the Mayor’s Office. We’re the strategic planning authority. Any plan application over 30 meters in height or over 150 residential units is referred to us, as well as any building on metropolitan open land or greenbelt land, including playing fields. We can then decide whether to leave a scheme with the borough or to take it over. 

Perhaps more importantly, we are also the strategic planner. We write the London Plan, a strategy document and spatial development plan for the city, which we keep under constant review. It’s subject to public inquiry, so every time we change anything, it’s a long process. It is the Bible that everybody must comply with.

What is the strategic focus of the current London Plan?

It’s a strategy planning document, so we’re primarily interested in where the housing is going, the zoning, the commercial areas, the heights, and the densities. 

We’re also interested in connectivity. We set out ratings for transportation that decide how much car parking is allowed. In Central London, it’s very limited. In Outer London, you’re allowed more car-parking space. All that is defined by our estimate of the connectivity. You could be in Outer London but well connected to public transport, in which case we are likely to restrict your car parking. 

We also set minimum space standards for properties and deal with disability. 10 percent of all properties have to be convertible for disability use, although they don’t have to be outfitted for it.

How often is the London Plan updated?

About every four years.

What are examples of the big challenges that arise over these four-year planning cycles? 

The current challenge we face is housing density and the increase in population. 

Our last London Plan estimated that we needed 32,000 housing units a year. Our new London Plan, which we’ve just published, estimates that we need 49,000 housing units per year. That increase must be picked up within the boundaries of London. 

We are different from other cities in that we have an artificial barrier around London—a greenbelt. That’s not to say that all of the greenbelt is lovely green land. But to build on it, you have to go through quite a complicated process. It’s very political and sensitive. So we try to do our development within the city. 

The London Plan also identifies “opportunity areas”—places within the city where we think we can densify on old brownfield land. That then feeds into the grants system for social housing.

Can you describe for our readers the diverse planning priorities of London’s diverse villages, and, if possible, their historical roots ?

London is really 200 very different villages that have all come together. 

Some parts of the city have been used to large-scale buildings for a long time; some parts are extremely historical; other parts were created mainly in the 1930s as the city moved out, and are low-rise residential properties. 

London is also the center of the train network. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, London had a vast railway network being constructed. The underground network itself is just over 150 years old—the first underground trains were run in London.  

The 200 villages are well connected with trains, which are the lifeblood of the city. In the 60s and 70s, there was a move to close down railway lines. The car was paramount, and we were building motorways. But there was such an outcry against road construction that it wasn’t long before that was stopped. Today you see bits of freeway that seem to go nowhere, simply because they were caught in this big change. Then the railways came back into use. The majority of Londoners commute by rail, not by car.

How do the boroughs interact with the London Plan? Elaborate on the process.

Let’s say an application comes into the borough. If it’s a scheme that’s referable to us, the borough will make that referral, as well as entering into discussions with the developer. We write a “Stage 1 report,” which goes to the borough and to the developer. It says why the scheme does not comply with the London Plan. It is then the developer’s job to reassure the borough that it does comply, or what has been done to mitigate the non-compliance.

Normally, we leave it to the borough to lead, but it depends on the circumstances. Some parts of the city are more capable of dealing with large-scale planning applications than others. For example, the core—the City of London itself—has a very strong planning framework. It’s used to large developments. Some parts of Outer London get a big scheme every now and again. They find it much harder to deal with. That’s where we become much more involved.

Stepping back from London’s unique planning process, how did you come to be the Mayor of London’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for policy and planning?

For many years, I managed one of the boroughs.

One of the more capable boroughs, I presume.

Of course! I’m very proud to say that it was one of the lowest-taxed boroughs of the lot.

What attracted you to planning and your current London responsibilities?

It provided a bigger playing field—a larger train set. It was much more exciting and interesting, and it was time to move on.

Pivoting back to city planning, did the Olympics impact the London Plan? How so?

Tremendously. Stratford, where the Olympics were held, is a corner of London where, 15 years ago, you didn’t walk around late at night. It was an area of rundown industrial premises with very low employment levels, largely used for recycling fridges or cars. It was heavily contaminated and very poor. Strangely enough, it was quite well connected but not used. 

The Olympics did something that would have happened anyway, but probably would have taken 30 or 40 years instead of happening in one go. The area was cleared; the contaminated land was removed; the area was opened up; and then came redevelopment. 

Stratford is providing thousands of homes and jobs, and has changed out of all recognition. So we have gained an enormous benefit from the Olympics.

We’ve also gained in transportation terms, because it made us upgrade our rail networks in that part of London. The Jubilee Line—the underground network that goes into that part of London—used to run a train every six or seven minutes. Now, we run a train every two minutes on that line. That is a fundamental change. It’s all about signaling and redesigning the network accordingly.

Going back 20 years, another example, I suppose, is the Docklands. How did that development opportunity change London and the Plan?

That was a very similar story—old, unused land where we established a development corporation to sort it out. The area was given the green light for high-rise commercial property. At that time, there was a lot of resistance in the core of London to large floor-plated and high-rise buildings. So the big banks moved to Canary Wharf with their large floor-plated sites. 

Since then, it’s changed. Today the London Plan has designated Canary Wharf for highrise and high density. Just in one small section alone, there are over 20 buildings over 60 stories in height currently under construction. That gives you an idea of how that area, which was totally rundown, has changed.

Many believe land use and transportation are connected at the hip. But are they connected through London’s planning and local agencies?

They are totally connected. 

All those opportunity areas we want to open up are opportunity areas because they missed every single property boom that’s taken place over 150 years. They missed it for one of three reasons, or maybe all three combined: diverse land ownership; heavy contamination, because they’re old industrial sites; or, most likely, connectivity issues.

The key to lifting up those areas is opening up transport. In some instances, that may be as simple as putting in a good road and buses. But more often, it is about putting them onto the rail network. That’s the only way we can shift large numbers of people.

We have an area of London called Nine Elms, where the American Embassy is being built. Nine Elms is very close to Central London—it’s a mile from the palace at Westminster. But it was an area of old railyards. Very central, but very difficult to reach. 

We asked ourselves, “How can we redevelop this area?” The answer had to be rail connectivity, and we made the decision to trade density. 

We allow far higher densities there—we’re up at the top of our density matrix, with about 16-18,000 habitable rooms per hectare. For us, that is very dense, like Manhattan. 

It’s strange for us, but we did it because we put in a rail extension that allows us to build 25,000 homes and 4 million square foot of commercial space.

Share the political conversations arising from that decision—the reaction to density.


There wasn’t concern particularly at the time, because I don’t think people understood it. 

But now, it is causing disquiet north of the river. Nine Elms is south of the river, within the views of those north of the river. They’re suddenly realizing that they’re looking upon a totally different place—not three or four story buildings, but 20-50 story buildings going up. There is a great deal of nervousness. 

Some people believe it is inevitable that London will go that way. Our population is growing at about 80,000 people a year. We’re going to have to grow and density is going to have to increase. People aren’t comfortable with it. 

Our answer is that we don’t believe the whole city will be like this. In our vision, some of our 200 villages will be high density but others will remain as they are today. 

When you say “our” vision, who comprises “our”?

The “our” is the mayor of the city. But of course, the mayor is taking soundings from within the boroughs and within the political leadership of the city. 

Was there a change in planning vision in the transition from Mayor Livingstone to Mayor Johnson?

There is a change of emphasis. But is there a change of direction? No. Livingstone was pro-development, as is Johnson.

Let’s discuss London’s congestion-mitigation plan.

It started life in planning during the Livingstone era—done very deliberately to try and contain the buildup of traffic in the center of the city. It was very political at the time, and was deeply opposed. But it was saleable and successfully installed. 

Livingstone then extended it to the west. That was when it ceased to be acceptable, because he suddenly moved it into a very residential area. Now it was starting to affect people much more directly. In the Livingstone-Johnson election battle, Johnson committed to taking out the extension (but not to removing the original scheme.) That’s what he did.

What did you learn from that experiment?

The first thing we learned was that it works.

But it only works because there are twin policies at play, which are both in the London Plan. Firstly, the congestion charge is the price mechanism. Secondly, our planning regime doesn’t offer a lot of car parking. 

For example, we’ve just completed the Heron Tower, a 60-story office building. There are 12 car parking spaces in the building, for disabled people. That’s it. 

That is repeated time and again in the center. Residential developments do get a bit more car parking.

Does that only apply to the areas within London controlled by congestion mitigation?

No, in the central zone, full-stop, car parking is controlled.

We do a rating scheme of connectivity. If you are near a station and well-connected to buses, we are very difficult about allowing any car parking. Only when you’re some distance away do we allow any. In the center, the average is about one car parking space per apartment, but even that is on the high side. Quite often there are schemes with no car parking. 

In Outer London, when you go toward the edges, you move up to about two or even three car-parking spaces per scheme because the connectivity is much poorer. 

Turning now to historic preservation, I can’t think of a city prouder of its prized buildings and areas.

Yes, they are protected.  

Firstly, we have “viewing corridors” within the planning network, picked up from the London Plan. Certain historic sites are very protected: the Palace of Westminster, which is the Parliament building, and everything around it; Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which was the largest brick building in its day; and the Tower of London. There are a few smaller sites: Greenwich Park and Cue Gardens. The viewing is very controlled. Around those buildings, we will not allow a building to encroach on the views from certain directions. 

We go down these viewing corridors, usually from high ground looking toward the buildings, and protect those views. You will see buildings sometimes with rather strange shapes because they’re deliberately built to avoid the corridors.  Very important buildings get listed. Those you can’t touch. For example, the current American Embassy is a listed building.

Second, parts of the city are deemed conservation areas, where we’re very restrictive on development—sometimes down to the types of front door or windows allowed. It’s all controlled. We’re doing our best to protect the very best. 

There is quite a bit of controversy about this at the moment. In Westminster, there is a development site with an old pub on it. Not particularly old—a 19th century one. It’s not that unique and wasn’t listed. Developers put in a planning application, but they knew it was going to get turned down for demolition of the pub and building of a block of apartments, so they pulled it down. A few weeks ago, Westminster Council determined that they have to put the pub back up, exactly as it was before, on the site. Legal action has now commenced. We do get quite excited about things like that.

How is the planning function funded in London?

Through fees. This is quite controversial at the moment, because the fees don’t meet the costs. 

The fees come in two forms. Firstly there is a planning fee: If you put a planning application in, you pay a fee depending upon the site. Secondly, because you want to get your scheme through, you want to involve the planners in the design of the building. We enter into a planning framework agreement where you pay us a certain amount of money for us to advise you. It’s a way of helping fund the system. 

We’re very keen to see the fees rise considerably, because we believe we need to speed up the planning process. One of the reasons our planning process is slow is that we don’t have enough planners, because local authorities and City Hall can’t afford to employ more. 

But the argument from government is that they don’t want the fees raised because it would affect householders. There’s a bit of a debate going on at the moment. The government would like to take a lot of these smaller schemes out of the planning system completely.

What’s the status of building by right, and what are your thoughts on it?

It’s gaining ground. I agree with it. I think we need to concentrate our planning resources on the things that matter: larger buildings. Provided that those making small extensions to properties are consulting with neighbors, and the neighbors do not object, why should the city get involved? 

What’s the relative political status of planning in London’s government and with the public? How does it compare to, say, transportation or fire safety?

It’s very high. For any city with a large middle class, as we have, planning is a big issue and very controversial. For local authorities in those boroughs, it probably fills up most councilors’ post bags. 

You were a former borough planner. Let’s say, during that time, you thought that the London Plan was deficient or its leadership was mistaken. What would you do?

Because it’s a statutory document, it has to go through a public inquiry. I would have had to go in front of that public inquiry as a borough planner and explain what I thought.

Does that happen frequently?

Yes. If my points stood up in planning law, I would probably carry the day. It is very unusual for us to get the London Plan through the system without various modifications. We have a big public consultation exercise, as well.

In Los Angeles, there is an abundance of lawyers, land-use specialists, and community organizations that manage community engagement. Often these professionals drive the development process. Is that the case in London?

It’s very similar, although we’re probably less legalistic because, as a nation, we are less legalistic. The boroughs employ planning lawyers for review of the London Plan. Planning appeals always get involved.

To close, what have you learned at the CityAge conference and on your visit to LA that you will bring back to London?

We watch very closely what happens in the US. You’ve had to do what we’re now having to do: find other ways of raising money to build infrastructure. You have a much more flexible system, which has allowed you to raise cash to bring about the changes you need through TIF and levies. We are quite interested in your funding mechanisms because we’re needing to do that more.

 You are also much more adventurous with your buildings. I think the quality of your public realm is absolutely superb.

US cities work—they’ve been very successful. We do measure ourselves against your cities.


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