The London Mayor’s Planning Powers

Sadiq Khan’s First Term

May 2021

With the result of the Mayoral elections now known, we take a look back at how Sadiq Khan used his planning powers during his first term as London Mayor.


When politicians run for London Mayor they often promise to use their planning powers to achieve a particular goal. In his 2016 manifesto, Sadiq Khan committed to ‘…use planning powers effectively to raise the number of new and affordable homes London builds.

Since coming into power in May 2016, Sadiq Khan has used his planning powers to call-in 25 applications and direct refusal on a further 10 applications. This equates to 35 schemes in total, with involvement in an average of just under 6 applications per year.

This compares to Boris Johnson’s record of 17 called-in applications and 7 applications directed refusal, just over 3 applications per year. Ken Livingstone directed refusal for 19 applications during his two tenures which equates to approximately 2 per year.

Clearly a Mayor’s influence on planning is much greater than just the applications they choose to become actively involved in. For example, the viability approach to determining the amount of affordable housing (introduced in 2017) has seen a change in the level of affordable housing at Stage 1, which is as much due to the change in policy as it is call-ins.

Sadiq Khan has used his planning powers to become directly involved in more applications. However, these figures do not show a step change when considered as a proportion of the total number of schemes which are referred to the GLA at Stage 2. For both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan’s most recent term, the percentage of Stage 3 interventions was very similar (just over 3.5% of Stage 2 referrals).

Whilst compliance with the London Plan and strategic relevance play the primary role in whether an application is taken over by the Mayor, clearly there is a practical consideration of how many call-in applications the GLA can process efficiently on top of other planning responsibilities.

The reason to call-in an application is also relevant. The threshold approach to call-ins and the need for an application to be of ‘Strategic importance’ allows the reasons to be broad and interpreted differently. Previous Mayors focused on tall buildings, but what is clear from the applications called-in or refused by Sadiq Khan, is that housing delivery or affordable housing is almost always the primary reason in the Stage 2 letters. This is particularly interesting when considering the London Plan’s increased emphasis on design-led planning.

As well as the reason for call-in, we have undertaken detailed analysis on the called-in applications and those directed refusal. This shows some useful themes which are set out in the graphs below.

Controlling political party
The majority (56%) of called in schemes have been in Labour-led Boroughs compared to only 20% for direction to refuse.

The spread of applications shows that the majority of applications are located in Zones 1, 2 and 3, with clusters of schemes in East and North West. Very few applications are located in the South which is likely to be reflective of the schemes being brought forward. There is also little correlation with the London Plan Opportunity Areas.

Location of Called in Applications and Directions to Refuse

Interestingly, when we look at the London Boroughs there tends to be quite a wide spread of where the applications are located. Westminster and Barnet stand out as having the most called-in applications or directions to refuse but there is not much of a pattern across the Boroughs.

Affordable housing
Undoubtably, affordable housing has characterised Sadiq Khan’s first term as London Mayor. The delivery of affordable housing has been central to almost every residential planning decision made.

The threshold approach to affordable housing was one of the most significant policy changes in recent years and has seen a step change in the approach to the delivery of affordable housing. Although only formally adopted as policy in 2021 this approach has been used by the Mayor as the basis of determining planning applications since 2017, when the Affordable Housing and Viability Supplementary Planning Guidance was published.

What our research shows is that schemes which are called-in are generally approved with higher affordable housing levels.

Average Affordable Housing Figures before and after call-in


Looking ahead, what could be the future for call-ins during Sadiq Khan’s second term as Mayor? There are some clues as to the direction of travel.

Firstly, the elections happened following the publication of a recently adopted London Plan. Therefore, alongside the introduction of the threshold approach to viability and an overall increase in affordable housing levels, we expect to see fewer calls-in on the basis of affordable housing alone.

Secondly, the newly adopted London Plan introduces new approaches which will take some time to bed in. For example, Policy D9, which requires tall buildings to be located in specific areas defined by the Development Plan, could see a number of test cases in the near future. The Kensington Hotel application, which is not within a designated tall building area, being withdrawn could be an indication of developers not wanting to be the first application tested against this policy. We are likely to see further test cases around this.

In 2016 the number of applications being referred to the Mayor dropped following the election. This was caused by a degree of uncertainty around how a new Mayor may interpret new policies. In this instance, Sadiq Khan has been elected for a second term and we have a recently adopted London Plan.

Current economic forecasts predict a boom period over the next few years following the pandemic. If this is reflected in reality, it would be surprising to see a significant reduction in major applications.

Thirdly, how will ongoing challenges of housing numbers continue to play out? A number of London Boroughs are behind on their housing targets, potentially giving the Mayor the ability to step in on applications which seek to refuse new homes against local objection. This will be exacerbated with the updated standard methodology, which when updated by Government, introduced a 35 per cent ‘cities and urban centres uplift’ to all authorities containing one of England’s top 20 largest cities. For the GLA this uplift applies indiscriminately across all London authorities, substantially increasing future housing targets.

Sadiq Khan’s second term arrives with less uncertainty. How he uses his planning powers over the next 3 years will be very interesting to see. 

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