In an age of Covid-19, will the new London Plan help communities?

In case you missed it, Sadiq Khan wrote to Robert Jenrick last month, confirming his team will work with MHCLG to hammer out a compromise on the new London Plan. Officials in City Hall and MHCLG will now sort the crucial wording. The Mayor then publishes the final version. The Secretary of State approves it (claiming victory). And at long last all statutory notifications go out before the election campaign is up and running.

The obvious question is, will it make any difference? And how does Covid-19 change things?

One of the striking changes written through this Intend to Publish version of the new London Plan is the emphasis on working to ‘engage and collaborate with communities at an early stage and throughout development’. That is basically new and creates an opportunity to redefine normal practice and ensure clear social principles underpin development in a way that benefits millions of Londoners. 

For the first time, London could now have a Plan that requires us to be proactive, to understand the social and physical context in which regeneration and development takes place, and to formally assess the existing and future needs of local people.

So if you work with or for communities, in property or planning, there are three sections of this regional policy framework that you really should read:

  1. Policy D1 of Chapter 3 on Design proposes that boroughs should undertake area assessments to define the characteristics, qualities and values of different places. These assessments should establish how places are perceived, experienced and valued, and directly inform Local Development Plans. This cannot be achieved without meaningful community engagement.
  2. Policy SD10 of Chapter 2 on Strategic and Local Regeneration requires boroughs to engage and collaborate with communities, at an early stage and throughout the development of local development documents, strategies and regeneration programmes. It makes clear that, in order to be effective and reduce inequalities, regeneration initiatives need to involve a broad spectrum of groups, businesses and individuals and establish a shared understanding of how change will be secured, managed, embedded within and supported by the community.
  3. Finally, Policy S1 of Chapter 5 on Social Infrastructure introduces a much broader definition than in the previous plan, covering informal networks and community support as well as the formal provision of services and facilities, from youth and play to criminal justice and emergency. It calls for an audit of existing social infrastructure and needs, involving relevant stakeholders, including the local community. It promotes, where possible, the replacement of these facilities and uses when they are lost through development; and enables boroughs to protect a facility through designation as an Asset of Community Value.

All this would have been important at the start of the year before London was confronted with Covid-19. But the pandemic has brought the issue of neighbourhood strength right to the forefront of public debate. It has not only exposed stark social divisions and huge racial disparities (which I know isn’t news to people who’ve been fighting that fight for many long years). It has also enforced geographical reliance and revealed the extent to which many people want to be involved and want to feel connected. 

I think it’s useful to understand that change in the context of how social attitudes have evolved in Britain over the last decade. If you examine the ONS wellbeing data and the DCMS Community Life Survey before the pandemic, it showed the general population enjoying higher levels of life satisfaction, saying they felt happier, feeling more like they belong, and increasingly believing that people from different backgrounds get along well in this country.

In an age of austerity, after four years of rancour over Brexit, I find that remarkable, don’t you?  

But look closer and you note these are views that people report about their own lives, not about society as a whole. We thought our own lives were getting better but society as a whole was getting worse. We believed that people in general can be trusted – just not in our own neighbourhood. And while life satisfaction was rising, place satisfaction was slowly falling, with cities faring better and small towns doing worse, as traditional public assets like the pub, your library or the post office seemed to stutter and decline.

What we don’t know yet is how Covid-19 might have changed the citizen perspective in four short months. No doubt, the pollsters will tell us soon and there is already some fascinating data coming through – just look at the latest Edelman Trust Barometer findings on systemic inequity. 64% of the people surveyed across 11 countries in April say that something must now be done to more fairly distribute wealth and prosperity.

My point here is that the new London Plan offers people working with and for communities a powerful hook. It might not be as radical as some would have wished. But those three sections summarised above provide more than enough reason for property companies to rethink and reset how they work in the aftermath of lockdown.

That is part of what Grosvenor is trying to achieve with the launch of Positive Space. There won’t be a better springboard than this pandemic for championing community engagement. And I reckon we should all keep a close eye on the final furlong of the London Plan saga. It matters now more than ever.



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