The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is on a collision course with the government over proposals to water down his green plan for the capital, which involves stopping the expansion of Heathrow and protecting the green belt.
Planning inspectors want Khan to withdraw his objections to Heathrow’s expansion, permit fracking in London, and loosen his commitment to the green belt by allowing building in “very special circumstances”.
Khan is expected to write formally to the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, to reject these proposed changes to the “London Plan” policy. Ministers will then have six weeks to choose whether to force through the changes by legal means.
The brewing row highlights the tensions between local governments, which in some areas are taking a tough stance on climate change and environmental issues such as air pollution, and central government, which is accused of lagging behind on concrete actions to fulfil the UK’s national goals on the climate emergency and environmental protections.
Jules Pipe, deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, said: “Tackling London’s filthy air and the climate emergency are among the mayor’s top priorities. London has declared a climate emergency and it’s critical we move towards renewable energy to improve the capital’s toxic air quality, protect the health of Londoners, and keep the city on course to being a net zero-carbon city by 2050.”
Khan’s plan would ban fracking in London, prevent the massive expansion of Heathrow backed by the government, and enshrine stronger protections for the green belt and metropolitan open land.
A report by the Planning Inspectorate, a quasi-independent government agency, suggested changes to the London Plan that would allow for fracking in London, and for development in the green belt “in very special circumstances”, with alterations to the boundary of the green belt in “exceptional circumstances”.
The inspectors want the changes in order to bring the London Plan into line with national policies, set by central government, and the great majority of the measures in the London Plan received their approval. Their recommendations are non-binding – however, to ignore them, the mayor must write to the secretary of state explaining why he is doing so.
A spokesperson for the Planning Inspectorate said: “The London Plan has been examined by an independent panel of three inspectors. The panel’s role in the examination is now complete. The report sets out any recommended changes, as well as the reasoning behind those changes, following the examination in public. It is for the Greater London Authority to consider the changes and publish the report at a timing of their choice.”
The effects of the changes proposed by the inspectors are likely to be minor in practice. For instance, there are no current plans to frack in London, and none are likely to be brought forward. Fracking has in effect stalled across the UK.
Allowing for building on the green belt in “very special circumstances” would be open to challenge and require explanations of what made circumstances so special that the presumption against building should be breached.
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On Heathrow, the London Plan will in effect be subordinate to the decisions of the courts, where attempts to stop the airport expansion by legal means are already well under way. Last week, a new legal front opened up in the ongoing battle, when WWF was granted permission to make arguments against expansion based on the rights of children.
Khan’s objections to Heathrow expansion are nuanced, moreover, by his backing for increased capacity at Gatwick.
The row over the London Plan is significant as it highlights the gap between local and national government on green issues. Local mayors and council leaders wishing to implement environmental improvements, whether on air pollution or measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes lack the powers to do so.
Even where they are given power, for instance in setting up clean air zones, they may be frustrated in raising funding for their plans, when local authorities are facing cuts, large deficits or even bankruptcy.
Khan will write to the secretary of state before the end of the year, and the government will have six weeks in which to respond.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “It is for the mayor of London to take forward the planning inspector’s comments on the London Plan. The secretary of state will respond to any letter from the mayor of London in due course.”