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Is the promise of good growth in London deliverable?

19 February 2018 Author: Stephen Wilkinson

In an increasingly urbanised world city planning assumes greater importance. The draft London Plan represents an ambitious approach to plan for a global city in the context of the developed world.

There are few ‘models’ of how a city the size of London, in the context of a highly developed country, can continue to grow whilst achieving sustainability.

The two previous versions of the London Plan in 2004 and 2011 identified with contrasting models of growth, the former focussing on the centre, the latter giving more emphasis to growth in the development of the suburbs.  In this they were characterised, respectively, by what Steen Eiler Rasmussen identified as the centric and poly centric city.

But away from these broad models cities are complex, representing the extremes of the human condition when so many different people are thrown together to share space.

Cities have complex dynamics

On one level cities are the physical manifestation of civilisation, representing the renaissance ideals of art and architecture, opportunity and freedom. But in contrast they can represent a darker side of decadence, poverty, isolation, uniformity and repression. Every city includes elements of these attributes which over time can be found in different districts. It is what makes them dynamic and vibrant.

And it is the degree to which a plan informs and in turn is informed by these factors as much of those physical ones such as mitigating for flood risk, preparing for climate change and addressing pollution, that defines its outcomes.

Good growth

The latest draft London Plan has been issued at a time when London faces unprecedented challenges including Brexit, continued cuts in public funding, emerging artificial intelligence, London’s role in the UK, and the competition it could face with the region of cities encompassing the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

The central feature of the current draft is social justice or, as it is termed, ‘good growth’, defined as a form of sustainable development being both economically inclusive and environmentally sustainable. It gets to the heart of ‘planning’ as a mechanism for improving lives as much as places.

Whilst the plan contains some (very) big numbers, ambitious targets, dense text and numerous graphs, it is explicit in setting an agenda to ensure that growth benefits everyone.  

There is a coherence to the plan. This is determined by exceptionally high densities particularly at transport nodes, limits on expansion through adherence to greenbelt policies, and protection of employment land.

Mitigation of growth impacts

In mitigation of this there is an array of targets to be achieved by 2050, including a zero carbon city, 80% of all journeys by sustainable means, 50% affordable housing, and protected swathes of green infrastructure. The spatial components of ‘good growth’ involving the subtle balance between environmental sustainability and inclusiveness are there.

Research in support of the plan identifies that the levels of committed funding would not meet London’s growth needs...

No doubt in the weeks and months to come there will be local debates on the likely impact of the draft plan on the green belt, ‘densification’, the role of town centres, transport modal shift, and on how and where Londoners work, choose to live or crucially can afford to live (linked to the South East).

But if population rates rise in line with the anticipated growth targets, London will become the first city in Europe, and one of the few in the developed world, to achieve a population of over ten million by the 2030s. This will raise questions about how Londoners can all can live, work and interact together in a way that maintains their high standards of living.  

There are few ‘models’ of how a city the size of London, in the context of a highly developed country, can continue to grow whilst achieving sustainability. Getting the infrastructure in place to deliver ‘good growth’ is essential to this.

Is it deliverable

There are questions on how all this can be delivered with a massive £1.3 trillion spending required for infrastructure. Research in support of the plan identifies that the levels of committed funding would not meet London’s growth needs and that the total gap between required public sector investment and committed funds is estimated to be around £3.1 billion per year. This is the major challenge to successfully delivering ‘good growth’.

The draft plan could be the catalyst for a ‘new urbanism’ defined by its ambition, one which could be a model for how other capital cities develop as they also morph into global cities.

However, without the right commitments to securing the infrastructure necessary to offset the impacts of the high levels of proposed growth at the outset, there are major questions on deliverability and ‘good growth’ may just be a hollow ‘ambition’.   

The RTPI held rountables to discuss the Plan and is seeking members’ views to shape our response to the Plan's consultation. Please email your comments to by 23 February 2018.











Stephen Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson

Stephen Wilkinson MRTPI was President of the RTPI for 2017. Stephen is a Chartered town planner with considerable experience in planning and regeneration. He has worked for four London Boroughs and for the Audit Commission where he advised planning authorities on their management arrangements. He currently works for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority and sits on several regeneration boards.