The temptation to reference a certain early 1990s classic feature film starring a bewildered Bill Murray and an annually recurring rodent is overwhelming – but we resist.
Because yes, there is something depressingly familiar about another edition covering scandal at the Met police; flagging TfL finances; the Central London economy’s uneven recovery; a certain long-running planning saga from Islington; the never-ending cladding crisis; the still-nebulous levelling up agenda; still-pending planning reform; as-ever strained council finances; and interminable battles over the green belt in the Home Counties.
But look below the headlines and in each case, you will find that things are not quite as repetitive as they seem. Sometimes, sadly, controversies escalate and heads roll and sometimes, grand ideas for change become more realistic plans for incremental improvement.
But before we take you through our usual whistle-stop tour of the week past, we have two shoutouts on behalf of friends and partners. First, our friends at the Ethical Property Foundation, the property advice charity for the voluntary sector, is running a survey to inform its services – if you work in the sector, please fill it in and if you know someone else who does, do pass it on! Second, New London Architecture are hiring a new Marketing and Communications Coordinator – see the JD and other details here.
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MET IN A MUDDLE
The row over the Met Commissioner’s resignation – and over the appointment of her successor – does not bode well for the capital. Our readers will be familiar with the sequence of controversies, culminating last week with a damning Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) report. This report led the Mayor to put the Commissioner ‘on notice’ pending a comprehensive plan to turn things around, fast. A week later, Khan indicated that he was ‘not satisfied’ with the response and Dick declared that this left her with ‘no choice but to step aside’. Critically, the Home Secretary, who is responsible for appointing the Commissioner in consultation with the Mayor, reportedly felt ‘blindsided’, triggering a briefing war between City Hall and the Home Office and speculation (more here) that Priti Patel may try to cut Khan out of the process. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police Federation has defended Dick’s record and – in an unprecedented intervention – declared that ‘it has no faith in London Mayor Sadiq Khan’, arguing that the work of the police is ‘being undermined by politicians’. It is worth noting though that most senior Conservative politicians have not publicly defended Dick but instead focused their comments on criticising Khan. Meanwhile, not generally known for their pro-Sadiq stance, the Evening Standard have given the Mayor some credit for the political expediency of his actions.
A drawn-out, toxic debate over appointing Dick’s successor could be seriously damaging. It could upset the Met’s ongoing (and definitely necessary) efforts to mend its ways; it could depress already low police morale and even disrupt operations; it would, ultimately, further corrode perceptions of London’s safety, at home and abroad. It is, already, serving as yet another source of entirely counterproductive conflict between national and regional government. This is not the first time that a Mayor, the Home Office and the Met have found themselves in this kind of muddle. Perhaps, as Centre for London’s Nick Bowes and others have argued, it is time for a rethink of the system as a whole.
Meanwhile, the current – extended – funding agreement between Transport for London and the Government is set to expire (again) this Friday. Commissioner Andy Byford last week explained that no agreement had been reached due to ‘unacceptable’ terms attached by Government, though he declined to specify these. We might guess though, with this week’s announcement from the Mayor that public transport fares will increase by 4.8% from 1 March, the biggest annual rise in a decade in line with conditions attached to TfL’s current funding agreement. Of course, Sadiq Khan had (rightly or wrongly) also frozen most TfL fares in his first four years as Mayor. Separately, Khan has also confirmed an 8.8% increase in his share of council tax bills for 2022/23. In better news, TfL figures have shown that ridership on the Tube has increased by more than 25% since early January as more people return to the office, though this remains at around 60% of pre-pandemic levels. A fleet of fancy new electric buses is also being introduced by TfL on route 63 – though the Deputy Mayor for Transport has used their launch to warn that ‘we will not see more of these buses if TfL goes into managed decline due to lack of funding’.
COME ON DOWN FOLKS
London’s police and transport services may be having a bad week, but the show must go on. Such was the Mayor’s message as he revealed plans for a new international tourism campaign. Following the Let’s Do London domestic campaign, the Mayor and his Covid Business Forum are aiming to draw visitors from abroad back to Central London – focusing first on the US and then ‘either France or Germany’. The plans also include a Mayoral trip to the US to bang the drum for London’s technology and innovation sectors
ROCK THE CAZ(BACK)
Beyond those aforementioned Tube ridership figures there are other encouraging signs that the Central Activities Zone (CAZ) is regaining its vigour including rising retail footfall. Major landlords like Shaftesbury are also refreshingly bullish about the future, while bellwether retailers like John Lewis are recovering rapidly. Of course, the situation remains febrile – and complicated. Most key indicators of Central London’s economic health still remain below pre-pandemic levels, also lagging behind many other UK cities, while the long-term impact of hybrid working becoming a fixture for many office-bound businesses remains to be seen. Indeed, in some quarters of the CAZ there is active resistance to everything going ‘back to normal’. Responding to complaints from residents, Westminster City Council is calling for powers enabling local authorities to more closely regulate short-term lets through platforms like Airbnb.
HMP HOLLOWAY ON PROBATION?
A decision on the redevelopment of the Holloway Prison site has been deferred by Islington Council. The plans, by housing association Peabody, are for the demolition of existing buildings and the delivery of 985 homes including 60 extra care homes (60% affordable, split 70% social rent and 30% shared ownership), as well as a women’s centre, flexible commercial workspace and a new public park. Despite a recommendation for approval by officers, councillors wanted more time to ‘get to grips’ with aspects of the proposals , including the size of the proposed women’s centre, the lack of homes available at London Living Rent and the density and height of the proposed buildings (the tallest would be 14 storeys high). The site has a long and complicated planning history, whose latest chapter began with its sale by the Ministry of Justice to Peabody in 2019, with the aid of a loan from the Mayor’s Land Fund which came with a list of conditions reflected in local policy too. The application is now expected be considered at the next meeting of the Planning Committee on 8 March.
Andy Donald has formally started as Chief Executive of Haringey Council, succeeding Zena Etheridge – who in turn is going on to become Chief Executive of North East London Integrated Care System.
Claire Symonds has been appointed as Chief Executive of Redbridge Council. She will take on the role in May, replacing interim Chief Executive Lesley Seary.
Bob Roberts, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs at the City of London Corporation, has told colleagues that he will step down at the end of June this year.
Nick Hibberd has been appointed as Croydon Council’s corporate director of sustainable communities, regeneration and economic recovery.
Emma Markiewicz has been appointed as the new Director of the London Metropolitan Archives.
SevenCapital has appointed Simon Howard as Group Sales and Marketing Director.
The Labour Party has suspended MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark Neil Coyle after he reportedly made offensive comments to a journalist in a bar in the House of Commons.
Michael Gove’s ‘super-department’ has been ‘super-busy’. On Monday, the Levelling Up Secretary literally laid down the law on his contentious plans to make developers pick up the £4bn bill for the remediation of dangerous cladding on mid-rise buildings. Following industry push-back (for example by Redrow) Gove has announced amendments to the Building Safety Bill making its way through Parliament. As per analysis by the Financial Times, Inside Housing and others, these clauses add real teeth to threats that had, to date, been a tad nebulous. Meanwhile, as the Prime Minister ‘tours’ Scotland to bang the drum for the Levelling Up agenda, critics have continued to poke holes in the relevant white paper’s provisions for education, skills, council finance and devolution, the voluntary sector, and regeneration. Some, including UK2070 Commission Chair Lord Bob Kerslake and Centre for London’s Research Director Claire Harding, have added their voices to warnings that levelling up cannot be achieved at London’s expense. Meanwhile, one of Gove’s picks for his Levelling Up Advisory Council earlier this month has, understandably (if belatedly), raised an eyebrow or two.
PLANNING BILL DITCHED?
Beyond building safety and levelling up, DLUHC is suspiciously silent on the keenly-awaited Planning Bill. Chief Planner Joanna Averley’s monthly update for February promises a ‘further update on our approach to changes in the planning system in the spring’ – which could well mean June. Other recent statements by Government officials have, similarly, not specifically mentioned a Planning Bill, referring only in general terms to ‘reforms’ and ‘changes’ to the system. The most recent Parliamentary Question specifically mentioning the Planning Bill was fielded by DEFRA Parliamentary Under-Secretary Rebecca Pow, who said on 3 February that Ministers are considering how to best take forward ‘proposals for planning reform’. Indeed, the only recently-replaced Housing Minister Christopher Pincher last uttered the words ‘Planning Bill’ in parliament in mid-September 2021, while Michael Gove himself (appointed in November) has never actually used the term in the House. All of which does seem to support speculation that DLUHC may have abandoned plans for a stand-alone planning bill, in favour of combining planning reforms and the more recently-promised levelling up bill into a single piece of legislation later this year.
COUNCIL INVESTMENTS SCRUTINISED
Haringey Council’s plan to redevelop the former Cranwood care home has attracted the attention of the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and even the Met Police. It was only yesterday reported that the Council Leader has agreed to commission ‘an independent external investigation’. With an election looming, Haringey’s main opposition Liberal Democrat group is pushing for the investigation – which will be put to a vote of the full council on 22 February – to cover several other property transactions. Meanwhile, Croydon Council continues to struggle with the loose ends left by its wholly-owned development company Brick by Brick, which is in the process of being wound down. It has most recently made headlines for its handling of the Fairfield Halls’ refurbishment, after an auditor’s report found a series of financial control and governance failures in connection to the project. This triggered a raucous Extraordinary Full Council meeting and promises of a new ‘financial action plan’ – and may yet see a police investigation. Here too, the council opposition, in this case the Croydon Conservatives, are seeking to capitalise on the political fallout.
GREEN BELT BUST-UPS?
Looking beyond the M25, it’s clear that planning and development are as contentious as ever – notably pitting local priorities against national policy. Basildon Borough Council last week voted to withdraw its draft local plan, despite examination currently being underway. The motion to withdraw, by Leader of the Conservative Council Cllr Andrew Baggot, argued that a new plan was needed, placing a greater emphasis on the protection of the green belt, town centre regeneration and concerns about high-rise developments. Cllr Baggot was also critical of Government policy and ‘inconsistent’ messaging to local authorities on the green belt. Also in Essex, the Government has placed Uttlesford District Council (which is led by the Residents for Uttlesford group) under special measures. The Council was one of five in England that had over 10% of its planning applications overturned at appeal in the two years to March 2020, meaning that it exceeds the ‘special measures’ threshold. In neighbouring Kent, Conservative-led Medway Council has had its refusal of outline plans for the delivery of 800 homes (25% affordable), a school, retail space and community facilities, overturned by a planning inspector. Medway had refused the proposals due to their impact on greenfield land, but the planning inspector found that the development was needed to boost housing numbers in the area and that any harm caused would be ‘minor’ in the long-term.
O2 PLANS SUBMITTED
Last week, LCA client Landsec submitted a major planning application for the O2 Masterplan Site in West Hampstead. LCA has been supporting Landsec on this exciting project for nearly three years now, delivering four incredibly detailed phases of consultation which saw over 2,600 survey responses and 32 workshops, meetings and events. The impressive masterplan will deliver around 1,800 new homes, with 35% affordable homes, up to 180,000sqft of commercial and community uses and 50% of the 14-acre car free site will be dedicated to public and green spaces including a long tree-lined park that connects West Hampstead and Finchley Road.
We were pleased to secure coverage in CITY AM this week for our interior architecture client March and White Design. The article looks at what businesses can do to encourage people to return to the office – and specifically how they can future proof the next generation of working spaces, fit for flexible, collaborative working. The practice uses an innovative data-led design process – called EXCD – to create bespoke, tailored spaces centred on the individual experience.
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