A CITY RUN BY COMMITTEE?
First comes the crisis, and then come the committees – or in this case we’ve got two new Boards, on top of a Group, a Partnership and a couple of Taskforces, all to tackle COVID-19 in London. Let’s hope some of the additional bureaucracy proves a boon to the wider economy and not just the market value of red tape.
Andy Byford will certainly need to get his head round this landscape pretty quickly. The newly appointed TfL Commissioner has quite the job on his hands, navigating the network through the agency soup, from bailout to boom and from crisis to Crossrail!
He will also have to figure out how to make friends both of Government and the Mayor at a time when relations between Whitehall and City Hall are decidedly frosty – see below for a couple of planning battles and legal challenges that make that quite clear.
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A CORNUCOPIA OF PANELS
Having spent a week bashing each other in the media over Transport for London’s (TfL) bailout, City Hall and the Government last Friday announced the formation of two new joint bodies, in a newfound spirit of collaboration – or perhaps an armed truce? The London Transition Board and the London Recovery Board will coordinate the capital’s gradual exit from lockdown and its longer-term recuperation from the pandemic respectively. However, five days after their proclamation, the details of their personnel, purpose and purview remain a mystery. We are told the Transition Board will be co-chaired by the Communities Secretary and the Mayor and that the Recovery Board will be co-chaired by the Mayor and the Chair of London Councils, with the Minister of London also ‘attend[ing]’. As for their other members? We await news. The Mayor’s announcement meanwhile sets out a broad vision for what these Boards are meant to do, but a press release does not formal terms-of-reference make and a key issue for anyone invited to join is what is expected of them personally and corporately. Finally, the announcement says nothing about how these Boards will interact with an already crowded field of cross-agency groups operating in the capital, from the pan-London Strategic Coordination Group and wider London Resilience Partnership, to the Mayor’s Housing Recovery Taskforce and the ‘London COVID-19 taskforce’ announced as part of the TfL financial support package’s conditions (whose full details, incidentally, still remain under wraps).
The announcement was made without even the faintest of whispers in the press beforehand and the main parties to this agreement have – even more oddly – said barely a word about it on social media in the days since (though at least one veteran Labour AM is evidently not convinced by it). That all said, with sweeping new plans for easing the lockdown announced over the past few days, this news is broadly welcome and one hopes the powers that be will shed more light on their plans for our city of almost nine million souls.
TfL’s controversial bailout was, unsurprisingly, a major topic of discussion at last week’s virtual London Assembly meetings. The Oversight Committee met on 20 May to interrogate Minister for London Paul Scully MP in his first appearance before the Assembly in this role. Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon notably put it to Scully that the Government is ‘imposing itself’ on TfL by placing two members on its Board, to which the Minister responded that this condition was put in place for ‘accountability’ and ‘not to take powers away’. TfL also took up much of the Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) session that took place on 21 May, the first since March. AMs asked the Mayor to publish the full text of TfL’s bailout agreement, to which Khan responded that this would require the Government’s approval. The Chair of the Assembly’s Transport Committee has since published a relevant request to the Transport Secretary. However, back at the MQTs session, Conservative AMs seemed rather more interested in understanding how the Mayor is keeping Londoners safe, what he is doing to increase capacity on the transport network and how the lockdown has affected the opening date for Crossrail.
A BYFORD FOR A BROWN
Meanwhile, TfL has today confirmed that Andy Byford will succeed Mike Brown as London's Transport Commissioner. Byford is an old hand, having run public transport operations for three major cities on three continents. He was most recently President of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA), in which post he is credited with leading the modernisation of the Big Apple's subway. Since his resignation from the NYCTA this past February, it has been widely speculated that he is an obvious candidate to replace Brown at TfL, not to mention a fitting one, as he began his career at TfL back in the late 1980s, after graduating with double honours in French and German from the University of Leicester. It is understood that Byford will be stepping into his new role on 29 June and it goes without saying that he is coming on board at a time when relations between City Hall and the Government are - arguably - at an all-time low. Byford will need nothing less than a combination of the late Bob Kiley’s avuncular charm, Sir Peter Hendy’s political nous and Mike Brown’s juggling skills to cope with an extremely challenging set of circumstances. The initial reactions are positive: we have been told by Peter Hendy that this is 'a brilliant appointment of a consummate transport professional and a worthy successor to Mike Brown'.
OF PRINTWORKS AND INCINERATORS
The Government has conceded that the Communities Secretary’s planning permission for the Westferry Printworks development in Tower Hamlets ‘was unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed’. The scheme had been opposed by the local Council, the Greater London Authority as well as a Planning Inspector, against whose recommendations Secretary of State Robert Jenrick issued planning approval in January. The plans, for over 1,500 homes as well as commercial and office space, generated opposition on a number of grounds, including impact on the character and heritage assets of the area, height (its tallest proposed building was 44 storeys) and the proposed level of affordable housing (21%). Tower Hamlets Council launched legal action against the decision in March, claiming that it was timed to avoid a pending revision of its Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) charging schedule and thus ‘influenced by a desire to help the developer save money’. The council has further alleged that the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has been reluctant to release documentation relating to the decision. A Ministry spokesperson has been cited as ‘reject[ing] the suggestion that there was any actual bias in the decision’ but nevertheless agreeing that the application should be redetermined.
Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has said that he will launch a judicial challenge against another national Government decision, specifically the Business Secretary's decision to grant permission for an incinerator planned for Belvedere in Bexley. Alok Sharma gave the green light to Cory Riverside Energy’s scheme last month, but environmental concerns have led to objections from borough councillors, residents, local MPs and the GLA.
VIRTUAL COUNCILS LATEST
All 32 London boroughs (plus the City of London Corporation) have now held or at least scheduled remote sessions, less than two months after the Government implemented new regulations allowing for local authorities’ public meetings to be held remotely. Since our last edition, more than a dozen planning committee sessions specifically have been carried out in London using MS Teams or similar, including the first remote sessions of Bromley’s Development Control Committee (which approved plans for the redevelopment of its Old Town Hall) and of Ealing’s Planning Committee (which considered a number of hefty applications, cumulatively corresponding to more than 520 new homes). Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that over the past seven days, a ‘Special Meeting’ of Waltham Forest’s Full Council has formally adopted the Higham’s Park Neighbourhood Plan, while the City of London’s Court of Common Council agreed, among other items, the next steps towards the adoption of its draft City Plan 2036 (whose latest version will soon be posted on the City’s website, with a formal consultation to follow later this year). After a mid-May burst of councils holding remote Annual General Meetings (AGM), we now find ourselves in something of a lull, with most boroughs having postponed theirs until later in the year, or even as far as the next – but watch this space for more on that front.
Along with the new TfL hire, there have been some other notable people moves:
- The Labour Party has appointed David Evans to succeed Jenny Formby as the party’s General Secretary.
- Relevant reports by HuffPost and OnLondon suggest that London Labour’s Regional Director Hazel Flynn is also poised to step down.
- Major commercial landlord Hammerson has confirmed that its Chief Executive David Atkins is to step down – though he may remain in position until as late as spring 2021, while the company’s Board conducts the process of identifying his successor.
- Darren Hockaday, former HR Director at Gatwick Airport, has been appointed as the new Chair of Croydon BID.
- Arcadis have announced the appointment of former Planning Minister and Downing Street Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell as a Non-Executive Advisor.
- Calthorpe Estates has appointed Haydn Cooper, former Property Director at Cadogan Estates, as its new Chief Executive, after Mark Lee announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down. Cooper will begin his new role in July.
- Bishopsgate Ward Deputy Tom Sleigh has taken over as Chair of the City of London Corporation’s Barbican Centre Board, succeeding Dr Giles Shilson.
- Westminster City Council has elected Cllr Jonathan Glanz to be the new Right Worshipful Lord Mayor of Westminster in a 'virtual Mayor Making ceremony' which took place last Wednesday.
Some of London’s local authorities have made it very clear they do not agree with Government guidance issued last week, according to which councils should ‘ease financial pressures’ on developers by allowing for greater flexibility in meeting CIL payments and Section 106 commitments. Southwark’s Cabinet Member for Growth, Development and Planning, Councillor Johnson Situ, has said that while developers should be supported to resume construction, ‘it cannot be at the expense of the kinds of homes that people need most, or vital contributions to create more local jobs’. Over in neighbouring Lewisham, Mayor Damien Egan has called the relaxation of rules a ‘backwards step’. And on Friday, Leaders and Cabinet members representing several (Labour) councils in London co-signed a letter to the Communities Secretary, which argued – among other things –that ‘affordable housing obligations need to remain a national priority and must not be deferred.’
... ON WHICH NOTE
Obviously, homes will not just build themselves in the impending recession and surely, the planning system must offer flexibility to help sustain housebuilding. The wider planning update issued by the Government two weeks ago sought to offer precisely such flexibility. Sadly, temporary planning fixes only partially address the problem. That is because England’s primary planning authorities continue to face tremendous financial pressures. At the beginning of last week, the Local Government Association (LGA) warned that councils will need ‘up to four times’ the approximately £3.2bn in extra funding they had been allocated by government to that point. The LGA has since welcomed a cumulative £583m boost for testing and tracing and local transport, as well as – separately – additional support to tackle rough sleeping. But England’s councils faced a funding crisis long before the pandemic, which pushed a long-term spending review into the long grass, forced a steep hike in emergency spending, and slashed revenues from sources such as Council Tax, Business Rates and commercial assets. On top of all this, it has been reported that the Treasury is ‘poised to ban local authorities from buying up investment property.’ No wonder some councils are reluctant to loosen Section 106 requirements...
PARTY TIME (WELL, SORT OF)
As a result of the pandemic, the Labour Party has cancelled its annual Autumn Party Conference, which was due to be held in Liverpool from 19 to 23 September. Alternative plans are being made for events to take place online.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems have confirmed that their leadership contest is set to start on 24 June, making use of online hustings and voting. Candidate nominations will be open from 24 June to 9 July, with the ballot running from 30 July to 26 August. The Lib Dems had already announced the suspension of preparations for their autumn conference in Brighton back in March.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE
At the time of writing, Dominic Cummings continues to dominate the headlines. Claims that he broke lockdown rules have raised an uproar and led to an unprecedented press conference by the Prime Minister’s top adviser on Monday, held, somewhat provocatively, in the Rose Garden at No 10. While Boris Johnson and high profile Cabinet members have been quick to defend Cummings, the allegations fed demands for his resignation by most (though not all) of the Opposition, as well as much of media and wider public. Even dozens of Conservative backbenchers and party grandees have vocally called for Cummings’ to step down and Junior Minister Douglas Ross (MP for Moray) resigned on Tuesday morning in protest. Polling has shown that the Government’s handling of this affair is starting to seriously dent its approval ratings and that the public was little swayed by Cummings' address to the nation. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister may have been pleased to hear that a review by the Independent Office for Police Conduct’s (IOPC) into his relationship with American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri (during his time as Mayor of London), has found no grounds for launching a criminal investigation. However, this decision is now reportedly subject to a potential judicial review and the London Assembly’s Oversight Committee can now resume its own investigation into the issue.
EVENTS, DEAR BOY, EVENTS
While the pandemic has played havoc with the usual annual events calendar, a host of digital webinars and online summits have been cropping up to replace cancelled and postponed fixtures. We have been pleased to find that most of the events we have attended remotely over the past weeks were rather good (and have organised quite a few ourselves, for clients, associates and our own team). We regularly exchange notes on the more interesting built environment events coming up and figured we should be nice and share a sample with LDN’s readers:
- The annual London Festival of Architecture will going digital between 1 – 30 June, featuring everything from cake baking competitions to virtual building tours, with its wider core public programme set to take place later in the year.
- With Housing 2020 postponed until September, Inside Housing, Social Housing, Housing 2020 and Homes UK have teamed up to organise Digital Housing Week starting 22 June, featuring a series of events on the challenges faced by housing providers.
- For those interested in the heavier stuff, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) will be hosting its annual Infrastructure Summit in a ‘virtual format’ on 2 June.
- And of course, sector stalwarts from the British Property Federation (BPF), to the Westminster Property Alliance (WPA), and from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)to Future of London and New London Architecture, are all keeping up a steady stream of online discussions and training sessions for professionals across our wider sector.
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