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Wanted - one minister with a brain and an open mind


Chris Shepley has a case of déjà-vu over the Mayor of London's efforts to co-opt neighbouring authorities into co-operation on housing

Open mind illustration
Although, like most planners, I frequently find the phrase “I told you so” springing unbidden to my lips, I rarely get much satisfaction from it. I just feel frustration that some distant politician has ignored or misunderstood the carefully evidence-based, far-sighted advice that one of us has given.
In 2007 I chaired an Examination in Public (EIP) into one of the sets of alterations to the London Plan. Looking again at the relevant and surprisingly cogently argued section of the panel report, which I wrote at the time, I find this: “We conclude that there are issues which go across the boundaries between London, the East of England and the South-East which need to be considered in a comprehensive way. It is perfectly obvious that housing markets [etc] pay no regard to the boundaries, and… require a wider view of some kind.
This had not been a difficult conclusion to reach because the linkages were unmistakable, and even if we had been too dim to notice them, many of the participants pointed them out. Mayor Ken had sought, quite cheekily, in the plan to introduce the idea of ‘corridors’ of development beyond his boundaries – for example, towards Gatwick and Bedford. Authorities in those areas were naturally unimpressed. Much argument ensued, but in the end we identified the need “to establish a coherent inter-regional perspective and evidence base” and said that: “with some urgency, and certainly before the end of 2008, arrangements (should be) established… ”
This had been the view also of the panels examining the late and frequently lamented Regional Spatial Strategies for the South-East and the East of England.
There were already in existence some arrangements for inter-regional co-operation but nobody at the EiP seemed to think much of these. So Mayor Ken, supporting this no-brainer of an idea, set about doing something, with the estimable aid of people like Robin Thompson, a former president of this parish.
But Mayor Boris, without seeming to think about it very much, soon put a firm and rapid end to this kind of bureaucratic nonsense. And Eric the Short-Sighted compounded the error in 2010 by putting a further end to the Regional Assemblies, which were the only bodies which might have had a chance of trying to tackle these blatant inadequacies.
Recently, however, persons on behalf of the said Boris have taken to writing letters to people like Bedford Borough Council telling them to take account of a potential gap between housing supply and growing demand in London, and throwing at them that most dismal of inventions, the Duty to Co-operate. 
In response 51 south-eastern authorities have sent a tetchy but entirely understandable letter which inter alia says that an authority “cannot possibly come to a realistic view on what level of need London might be failing to plan for or provide and what proportion of that failure it should seek to plan for in its development plan”. And that any need for the South-East to contribute should be “tackled in a strategic and collaborative way”.
Which is pretty much what we said all those years ago. 
What this story does – apart from confirming that politicians should not ignore what planners tell them – is to provide just one rich illustration of the importance of, nay the necessity for, strategic planning. And it does so in the London context, which, after all, is the only context which most politicians and most of the media know or care about. (There are equally compelling arguments in the North, far from assuaged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s haphazard pre-election promise of HS3 across The Pennines after most of us are dead). 
I guess all we can do is to keep on making this case until we get a minister who has a few strategic brain cells to rub together and a bit of an open mind.



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