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Urban growth planning: A London perspective

Urban growth planning: A London perspective

While the London model of governance may not be suitable for all cities in India, it should certainly be considered for the large and rapidly growing metropolises. Lessons and experiences from London could be relevant to better and integrated planning of Indian citites, says Yogesh Patil.

The unprecedented levels of growth of towns and cities all over India have caught many local planning authorities, and indeed politicians and local residents themselves by surprise. A recent World Bank report "Urbanization beyond Municipal Boundaries" shows India’s urban areas growing much faster than expected, adding 90 million new residents in the last 10 years alone. By 2030, Indian cities are projected to be home to another 250 million people and could account for 70 per cent of the country’s GDP. Planning for such rapid growth of towns and cities is undoubtedly going to be a significant challenge for India in this century.

The challenges associated with governing, managing and planning for the future of rapidly growing cities are not unique to India, though. From 1830 onwards, London experienced rapid growth with an increase in railway commuting. Governing a rapidly growing London with its multitude of authorities was chaotic and it was often a challenge getting all the authorities to agree when providing strategic services that crossed their administrative boundaries.

Strategic oversight

The need for strategic oversight and management of London and planning for its future required the administrative structures and the geographical extent of London to undergo several changes over the following decades. The initial response in 1885 was to appoint a Metropolitan Board of Works with responsibility for providing strategic infrastructure and London-wide government. Its lack of democratic accountability meant that it quickly became unpopular with Londoners and just four years later was replaced with London’s first directly elected municipality, The London County Council (LCC) which had a wide ranging authority over strategic policy areas such as city planning, education and housing amongst others and a lower tier of 28 new metropolitan boroughs was created and some powers of the LCC were transferred to them while others were shared.

In the decades leading up to 1965, London had experienced significant growth and expanded beyond administrative boundaries of the LCC. The Greater London Council (GLC) replaced the LCC and expanded its administrative control to include all of Greater London and created 32 new metropolitan boroughs. Although political conflict with the central government led to the abolition of the GLC in 1983, a referendum in 1999 provided an overwhelmingly positive mandate (2 out of 3 Londoners voted in favour) to restore London’s government.

Today, The Greater London Authority (GLA) provides an elected local government and improves the coordination between the 33 local authorities in Greater London. It consists of a directly elected Mayor, who represents London and proposes the GLA’s policy and budget, and a London Assembly that scrutinises the Mayor’s actions and decisions. It is a strategic regional authority, with powers over transport, policing, economic development, and fire and emergency planning. While the London model of governance may not be suitable for all cities in India, it should certainly be considered for the large and rapidly growing metropolises.

Integrated urban planning

Exploring options for accommodating, managing and accelerating urban expansion is important because cities in India are struggling to cope with demands on infrastructure, housing, employment, environment and a whole range of essential public services. In this context, integrated urban planning is indispensable.

As noted in the World Bank report, it is interesting that a mid-term appraisal of the 11th Five-Year Plan by the Planning Commission concluded that most Indian cities had not embraced the notion of integrated urban planning when preparing the city development plans required by Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

In London, the Mayor has a statutory duty to publish a document called The London Plan which is an overall strategic plan for Greater London. It sets out a strategic framework to co-ordinate economic, environmental, transport and social considerations over the next 20-25 years. It sets the London-wide policy context within which the lower rung of 33 boroughs (lower level/local municipalities) set their local planning agendas.

The London Plan is an excellent example of integrated strategic urban planning because it not only draws clear links between issues such as housing need, economic growth, climate change, transport interventions, poverty and deprivation etc, but also sets out a holistic policy framework to address those issues over a defined horizon of time. The key diagram brings together various components of the spatial strategy of the London Plan. It shows key development corridors, growth areas and key transport initiatives.

Forward planning, or planning for the short, medium and long term is a key feature of integrated urban planning. It is absolutely critical to identify the nature and volume of anticipated changes a city is likely to undergo over a defined horizon of time. This can go a long way in ensuring our rapidly growing towns and cities are well equipped to cope with future growth.

Targeted planning – opportunity areas

In planning for the future, it can be very helpful to spatially identify areas where a significant proportion of anticipated growth could be accommodated. The London Plan refers to them as ‘Opportunity Areas’ (OAs) and estimates show that OAs in London could potentially provide in the region of over 500,000 additional jobs and 300,000 additional homes. The OAs in London are diverse, ranging in size from 20 hectare to up to 4,000 hectare. While some require substantial public sector investment to address market failure or weakness, in others the market may be stronger and public intervention can be restricted to ensuring an appropriate planning policy framework.

Opportunity Area Planning Frameworks (OAPFs) are planning documents targeted towards these areas to provide clearer planning guidance and encourage inward investment. These frameworks are scalable and flexible and have been widely used in London to unlock development potential of neglected or underused industrial areas. They typically focus on implementation, identifying both the opportunities and challenges that need resolving such as land use, infrastructure, access, energy requirements, spatial integration, regeneration, investment, land assembly and phasing. They also usually include a development capacity study, a transport strategy, and indicative master plans to show how the planned development capacity could be delivered to high urban design standards over time.

The OAPFs provide a strategic and design-led approach to spatial planning, specifically considering how key development sites fit together within the existing and emerging policy context and across administrative boundaries. They exemplify positive planning by identifying and resolving contentious policy issues at an early stage in the planning process, thus providing greater certainty to the development process which in turn encourages inward investment. The plan making process itself is as valuable as the end product because the OAPFs are prepared in consensus with a range of public and private stakeholders including landowners and developers as well as local and regional politicians. Since the OAPF process includes a full consultation process with statutory authorities as well as the wider public, the OAPFs are a material consideration for strategic planning applications and decision making on the wider planning and development of an area and are recognised as providing a sound evidence base at appeals by Planning Inspectors.


The experience of London shows that with right governance structures, integrated and strategic city plans and targeted spatial frameworks, it is possible to not only manage urban growth but also shape it to create world class cities with thriving economies that are also loved and cared for by residents and businesses alike.

The lessons and experiences in London could be relevant to Indian cities and could be summarised in three key initiatives outlined below.

Set up a city-wide democratic authority with powers to set policy direction for key strategic issues such as transport, housing, public realm, heritage and open spaces, economy and environment. This authority should be well equipped with significant political and financial resources to set future vision and objectives and enable implementation of policy objectives.

A strategic, integrated and forward looking development plan should set out on how the vision will be delivered over the short, medium and long term. It should include a suite of detailed planning policies for key strategic issues with clear links to delivery of the overall vision. It should recognise that cities are dynamic and change will happen. The approach to Plan-Monitor-Manage should be at the heart of the plan making process. Identify opportunity areas that have significant potential to accommodate new development and/or infrastructure. Prepare supplementary planning guidance targeted towards these areas to provide a clear policy position to the private sector and attract inward investment.

It is important nevertheless to recognise that all cities and towns are unique in character and have their own strengths and weaknesses and therefore the solutions to their problems will have to be found by its primary stakeholders – its residents, businesses, politicians and planners. They are the ones who should empower the planning system. After all, they are the ones who shall suffer its failures and celebrate its success.

Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea (VNEB) OAPF

The preparation of this planning framework started in January 2008 and was completed in March 2012 when it was adopted as a supplementary planning document to The London Plan. The VNEB OA is a large site of 195 hectare located on the south bank of the River Thames and crosses over administrative boundaries of two local authorities. The planning framework proposed the delivery of a high-density mixed use development that would provide approximately 16,000 new homes and a range of 20,000-25,000 jobs. The framework was produced jointly by the GLA, Transport for London and the local boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth. A transport study, which tested impact of the development proposals, highlighted that existing transport networks would struggle to cope with the increased demand. One of its key recommendations was the need for extending underground train services into the area with private sector funding (the Northern Line). Together with a package of other transport interventions that included capacity enhancements to bus services as well as significant improvements to the existing road networks, the study suggested that it was possible to achieve a step change in improving public transport accessibility and build up the transport capacity required to fully realise to support the proposed scale of development.

An indicative masterplan for the area set out five key urban design principles which included a new linear park, improvements to street environments, a new riverwalk, a new pedestrian bridge across the river to improve pedestrian and cycle connectivity and new links to the river. A tall buildings strategy set out the parameters for an emerging cluster at Vauxhall and an energy strategy outlined the creation of a Combined Cooling and Heat Power network.

A Development Infrastructure Funding study was undertaken to inform the advancement of a tariff to fund the full range of infrastructure required. To ensure delivery, a Strategy Board, comprising representatives from planning authorities and other stakeholders, has been established to guide development in the area based on development principles set out in the OAPF. An infrastructure investment package totalling more than -1 billion is set to provide new high capacity transport links to the rest of London and will vastly improve existing services to and from the area.

As of today, the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area hosts the largest regeneration project in the UK and arguably in northern Europe. Various development proposals within the OA already have planning permission or are in the planning process. The OAPF has facilitated the regeneration of one of London’s most iconic landmarks, Battersea Power Station which had been lying derelict for decades, into one of the most desirable and valuable addresses in Central London.

The author is Senior Strategic Planner – Urban Design Opportunity Area Planning Frameworks, Greater London Authority.

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