Sadiq Khan’s new London Plan has set out ambitious housing reforms. But can he deliver?

A rather fetching image from the cover of the London Plan. Image: Greater London Authority.

The draft London Plan released by Sadiq Khan this week expresses his determination to meet London’s housing need in full, without infringing on the Green Belt. The commitment may seem obvious, but it is nonetheless ambitious – and it brings a rebalancing of the geography of development towards outer London, a shift away from Boris Johnson’s strategy.

The new plan is now out to public consultation this week. Since 2000, the London Plan has been the mayor of London’s principal instrument to shape the city’s change, allowing them to influence both the location and the kind of development that will take place. The mayor estimates that the capital will need an additional 660,000 homes this decade – an assessment consistent with that commissioned by City Hall in 2014, which projected a ten-year need of “at least” 620,000 homes.

However, there is a marked difference in the scale of ambition of the two most recent versions of this document. In his last plan, Boris Johnson found space for 420,000 homes, 200,000 short of his estimated housing need, and chose to monitor the boroughs against this target. This week’s draft Plan identified capacity – and set targets – for 650,000 homes in London over the next decade.

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Sceptics argue that this target, like its predecessors, will not be met – the new target is, after all, more than twice the number of homes completed the last ten years. Yet it is remarkable to see where this additional capacity was identified: in outer London, thanks to policies that the mayor believes will enable boroughs to achieve their targets.

The plan allows denser development in places with transport capacity – and argues that many of those are in outer London. Indeed, Crossrail and Thameslink are about to unlock significant development potential in outer boroughs, which the mayor hopes to realise by allowing higher densities near stations and encouraging building on small sites. Scrapping maximum densities may stir opposition, but these were not respected anyway, and the mayor plans to offset taller buildings with new guidelines promoting design quality and affordable housing provision.

If the plan becomes reality, many outer London boroughs are set for a pace of housebuilding that they have not experienced in their 50-year history. The new plan requires them to accommodate 58 per cent London’s new build (against 41 per cent in the current plan).

Most outer boroughs will see their housing targets double, and some nearly triple. On the other hand, most central London boroughs can expect their targets to decrease, perhaps because a lot of capacity has already been delivered. A third group of boroughs, in east London, will continue to make a very large contribution to the city’s growth.

Rebalancing development towards more suburban areas may not have been the mayor’s first choice, but his commitment not to build outwards probably constrained his options. He will also have to allow building upwards in the city’s opportunity areas to accommodate growth, whether those sit in inner or outer London.

The London Plan will take time to digest. It is a long document, and is only entering its consultation phase; it will then be examined at public hearings by a planning inspector next autumn, with the final draft published in 2019. In the upcoming local election campaigns, these housing targets may be hot topics for debate.

But whether the mayor can temper London’s spiralling cost of living by expanding housing supply will depend on developers’ and landowners’ appetite to pursue those opportunities opened up in outer London.

Nicolas Bosetti is a senior researcher at the Centre for London. He tweets as @nicolasbosetti.

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Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.