The London City Region London is a global city. Its reach and influence depends on an economy and a population that is not limited to the London boroughs. Major transport infrastructure and business centres lie across the Wider South East. Business transactions and supply chains cross the city’s administrative boundary, people cross it (in both directions) to travel to work, visit family and friends, or for leisure and recreation. As one interviewee said: “London wouldn’t be a global city without its hinterland.”
All local administrations answer first to their own electorate. However, local and city government in London and beyond recognise they must collaborate if they are to plan successfully for growth and maintain the economic success they all share in, whilst also protecting and enhancing citizens’ quality of life and their own distinct identities. They also recognise the need to speak to ministers with a unified voice, in order to balance the increasingly effective lobby for support, powers and responsibilities from city regions such as Greater Manchester or the West Midlands.
The relationship is recognised as important, but can be nervous and fragile. There is some political mistrust, driven in part by nervousness from some suburban and rural communities about being “swallowed up” by London, but also by a legacy of historic disagreements on strategic planning. Both London and Shire local government can too easily look inwards, and give cross-boundary working a relatively low priority. That fragility may lead to needless confrontation – challenging a neighbour’s Local Plan, for example – and missed opportunities, such as the lack of support for growing the London Overground network. 37
Formal mechanisms for collaboration between London and its neighbours have come and gone over the years. The Wider South East Political Steering Group is proving a useful forum for dialogue, and has done much work to help shape the London Plan. However, not all councils across the Wider South East recognise it: indeed, some interviewees were unaware of its existence. Others, notably LEPs, also believe they should be part of the strategic dialogue on the city region, but are not included in the current arrangements.
A Shared Vision
At the heart of any effective collaboration lies a sense of shared purpose, a shared vision for a common future. This provides a template for managing growth together and an important tool for securing government support and resources in the face of growing competition from Mayor-led combined authorities. The current lack of a shared picture of the future may help explain the tension in the cross-boundary relationship.
That vision should be a clear declaration of how those involved see the future, rooted in consistent evidence and a shared understanding of the Wider South East’s challenges. The London Plan and neighbouring districts’ Local plans are important documents, as are transport strategies and the many other plans and strategies prepared by local authorities. They provide a good starting point, and the work done to date as part of the review of the London Plan will be particularly valuable. But a holistic picture for the growth of the Wider South East can provide a context for all those documents.
|Recommendation 1: London and its neighbouring regions should develop a vision for the future, a shared understanding of the challenges they face in sustainably accommodating growth, and a strategy for joint action, using the London Plan consultation process to frame this understanding. This should guide a more integrated approach to meeting the housing, infrastructure and economic investment needs of the area.|
Collaboration and cooperation
In producing their spatial strategies, local authorities either side of the London boundary already have an obligation to work with their neighbours. The GLA is required to “consult and inform” neighbouring areas in the preparation of the London Plan, whilst Local Planning Authorities must “cooperate” with their neighbours. The GLA’s approach to the review of the London Plan shows they take their duties seriously, as do many of the Local Planning Authorities on the London boundary. Whilst there is much good practice, not all have confidence in what has been done to date, and some local plans have been rejected by the Planning Inspectorate on the basis of failure to fulfil the “Duty to Cooperate”. There is still work to be done to ensure that consultation is thorough and credible with all, based on shared assumptions and projections where possible.
Collaboration, cooperation and partnership are inevitably fraught processes and need to be managed carefully. London and its neighbours need to decide what sort of cross-boundary governance mechanism can overcome existing tensions and promote joint working. They need to consider whether the current voluntary approach is sufficient to shape and drive forward a shared vision for the future, or whether a more robust mechanism is necessary to facilitate a mature strategic dialogue across their whole geography, and to provide a coherent voice with which to articulate their shared interests.
At present most cross-boundary collaboration is localised, carrying the risk that dialogue is patchy and inconsistent. Strategic liaison through the WSE Group is still at an early stage, has yet to establish the political trust and mutual confidence needed to shape a shared vision, and does not include other stakeholders such as LEPs or the emerging regional transport bodies. The Group should nevertheless be the nucleus of a more robust governance mechanism, and should seek to secure buy-in from all those in the Wider South East – though members may need to refine that geography over time.
The WSE Group recognises it is still evolving. If it is to continue to be credible and effective it needs to review its remit, membership, communications and support arrangements, whilst acknowledging a widespread desire to avoid creating an unwieldy, un-democratic bureaucracy.
|Recommendation 2: The WSE Group, along with other key stakeholders such as LEPs and other partnerships, should explore how best they can strengthen the Wider South East strategic partnership as a forum for dialogue and a vehicle for articulating shared interests and a shared vision. They should consider, inter alia, the geographic scope of that partnership, its membership, and arrangements for its governance.|
The View from Whitehall
Central government has in the past recognised the importance of a subnational perspective in guiding growth. Since the mid-1990s, successive administrations have pursued various models for devolution of funding, powers and responsibilities to countries, regions and cities within the UK: indeed, the London mayoralty and GLA were created at the beginning of this process. More recent moves for devolution outside London have been based on combined authorities, which generally cover a number of closely linked administrative areas. Most combined authorities are city regions of national or even international importance, though only one has been established in the Wider South East to date, and the legislation specifically excludes London boroughs from forming them.
Local and national politicians may wish to consider the case for forming combined authorities in the long term. But these should not be a prerequisite for the government to recognise the importance of a coherent view of policymaking across the Wider South East (the 2017 Budget made a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of “strategic and zonal planning approaches” to meeting the region’s housing need). 38 Rather, it is for ministers to consider how best to manage their dialogue with London and its neighbours.
|Recommendation 3: The government should recognise the need to address the Wider South East challenges comprehensively; consider how best to gauge the impact of policies on the region; and take steps to support the Wider South East vision – potentially through replacing the Minister for London with a new senior portfolio charged with taking an overview of the Wider South East.|
Funding and Finance
England’s local government funding regime is heavily centralised, and limits the opportunity for the GLA, London boroughs, counties and districts to invest jointly in growth and infrastructure. 39, 40 Need-based formulas and bidding processes do not encourage collaboration, and it can be hard to fund projects that straddle borough or LEP boundaries.
There are also different governance systems in place in London and the Wider South East, with a different financial regime and more extensive devolution – including full business rates retention from 2018/19 – within the capital. More extensive devolution, as recommended by the London Finance Commission, could unlock more capacity for investment, growth and partnership across the Wider South East, without diverting funding from other areas of the UK.
There are also examples of a more flexible, area-wide approach to funding. Combined authorities have taken a holistic view of the need for investment in skills and infrastructure, unconstrained by administrative boundaries, and Transport for the South East is a promising collaboration. Allocations are made on a more strategic basis to reflect the whole area’s needs, with the added advantage of having local control over spending priorities. There is no mechanism to encourage or support such strategic investment in the Wider South East.
|Recommendation 4: The government should consider how national infrastructure decisions, the local government finance system and other funding mechanisms can take better account of the needs of the Wider South East. This should include a consideration of how to support joint bids for infrastructure funding to meet current and future needs.|
London and the rest of the Wider South East are the heart of the UK economy. As their economies and populations grow, and the challenges of Brexit loom, shared objectives and integrated action are needed to enable growth, enhance prosperity and support other UK regions. Consultation on the 2017 Draft London Plan creates an opportunity and a platform to strengthen joint working, and to work towards a genuinely strategic partnership.