During these strange times, you sometimes read something in an official document and assume you must be suffering from some sort of lockdown fever. 

Paul Finch

Paul Finch

You read it again and the words are exactly the same. You ask around and find that others are as baffled as you are. Maybe it isn’t you after all. It is the document that is the problem.

This happened as I struggled through the newly published London Plan, whose long and fractious gestation has finally resulted in mayor Khan’s strategy being delivered. Midwife Robert Jenrick was about as ungracious as it is possible to be about the new arrival. In effect, he has described the plan’s housing policies and targets as not fit for purpose, inadequate in terms of ambition and flawed in proposed delivery.

In a letter to the mayor, Jenrick claimed: “Your plan added layers of complexity that will make development more difficult unnecessarily; with policies on things as small as bed linen. Prescription to this degree makes the planning process more cumbersome and difficult to navigate; in turn meaning less developments come forward and those that do progress slowly.

Jenrick has in effect described the plan’s housing policies as not fit for purpose

“One may have sympathy with some policies in your plan, but in aggregate this approach is inconsistent with the pro-development stance we should be taking and ultimately only serves to make Londoners worse off.”

Ouch! However, one can take this with a pinch of salt, if not a bucket-load. Trying to pin blame on the latest London Plan for a collective failure over the past 40 years is not reasonable, though the central thrust of the Khan strategy, that the private sector can or indeed should provide our social housing, looks doomed to failure on the basis of recent experience.

Astonishing claims

But it was not housing policies that caused me to blink with astonishment – it was a phrase in Policy E1 Offices. This is what it says: ‘The unique agglomerations and dynamic clusters of world city businesses and other specialist functions of the central London office market, including the central activity zone, northern Isle of Dogs and other nationally significant office locations (such as Tech City and Kensington & Chelsea), should be developed and promoted.’

What? Kensington & Chelsea?!

Is that wonderful Royal borough really ‘a nationally significant office location?’ Just where exactly are the secret offices that give rise to this extraordinary description? King’s Road? Knightsbridge? Kensington High Street? This is so weird it makes you wonder about almost anything the plan says.

Kings Road

Source: Shutterstock/ Willy Barton

Chelsea: not previously noted as ‘a nationally significant office location’

Happily, the plan’s section on design is far more convincing, acknowledging implicitly that planning is there to hold a balance between conflicting demands, and explicitly in saying: ‘not all elements of a place are special and valued’.

This is in the context of thinking prompted by Historic England, and made explicit in studies published by Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners analysing local character and density, which should inform any development proposal. There is a hint that nice areas could get a boost to remain nice, while dense areas will be intensified. Let’s see.

Boroughs are told they should identify sites for extensive, moderate or limited growth, echoing principles in the recent planning white paper. Proactive identification of sites suitable for tall buildings is advocated, those buildings to show an exemplary standard of architecture and materials — a requirement no London mayor so far has done anything to enforce.

There is plenty of motherhood and apple pie advice, including a demand for more drinking fountains and ‘reducing opportunities for terrorism’, whatever that means. The car is treated as an evil throughout the document. Minimum room sizes for new homes are treated as desirable maximums elsewhere.

So, as with any London plan, a curate’s egg of a document. I am still puzzling over the Kensington & Chelsea office reference.

Paul Finch is programme director of the World Architecture Festival