An interview with Sakina Sheikh AM and Emma Best AM, chair and co-chair respectively of the London Assembly Planning & Regeneration Committee.
I enjoyed making my way to the new City Hall at Royal Victoria Dock last week, and meeting Sakina Sheikh and Emma Best to discuss their experiences and aspirations around all things planning in London.
Both are born and bred Londoners with a longstanding commitment to public service, public spaces and inclusivity. They come to planning & regeneration from highly relevant backgrounds that are different from each other but strongly complementary, giving cause for optimism about their potential impact on the interaction between Londoners and the planning system that underpins the places they inhabit.
Sakina grew up in Lewisham where she has served as Councillor since 2018 and was elected as a London-wide AM in 2021. She studied law at York University and started her political career as a campaigner on human rights and climate justice issues at national and local levels.
Emma grew up between Waltham Forest and Redbridge and worked in marketing for a large construction company for several years before becoming Councillor in Redbridge in 2014 (where she led a successful campaign against the local plan in her ward), moving to Waltham Forest after that and elected as Councillor there in 2018. Like Sakina, she was elected as London-wide AM in 2021, and continues her local council work in Waltham Forest.
Both are enjoying their respective roles on the committee and keen to see it as a vehicle for making the London Assembly more “relevant to Londoners”.
I started out by asking Sakina and Emma what they see as the biggest challenges in planning and regeneration in London.
In Sakina’s experience, national policy plays a major role in the planning ecosystem, and integrating local regeneration with national levelling up objectives is an opportunity and a challenge we’re now facing. She has strong views on the current approach to assessing a scheme’s commercial viablility, emphasising another challenge that must be addressed as it impedes both levelling up and the creation of affordable housing at scale. “Protecting a minimum profit level for developers is not good policy” she argues.
Emma builds on the viability challenge, citing not only its injustice but its threat to community cohesion, inclusivity and even the viability of small and mid-range, often locally-based developers. “The 50% affordable housing target is only happening in London at the large, penthouse-dominated developments built by the large developers,” she says. “Mid- range developers cannot afford to deliver that target, and so their schemes get turned down.”
When asked if developers get too good a deal in London, Emma emphasised this disparity between big developers and those in the mid-range. “They really can’t build what they want, which is family houses”, she points out, but “if you’re big, you can get in, build big, get out, and do very well out of the system”. Sakina refers once again to the viability assessment, which favours developers enormously in her view.
How is this different from 5 or 10 years ago? What has changed?
Emma cited the incentives – led by affordable housing targets – for local councils to build large schemes, and consequently to move away from building family houses – “which is what Londoners want, particularly in the outer boroughs”. This, she feels, is a significant change in recent years. Sakina pointed out that the pandemic has underpinned significant change in people’s attitudes toward space, neighbourhoods and housing. The popularity of concepts like the 15-minute city/20-minute neighbourhood combined with the many community campaigns developing across London mean that planning has emerged from a “quasi-judicial, geeky” pursuit to one that is seen as central to their lives and livelihoods.
She points to evidence of planning being actively taken up by younger Londoners, and describes with great enthusiasm a
young person’s design challenge initiated last year by MOBIE and the Mayor of London. Design Future London is aimed at young people, aged between 11 and 25, and challenges them to “design a home and community of the future in the Royal Docks - sustainable, adaptable, green homes and places that promote wellbeing, quality of life and healthy living”, according to the challenge description.
I asked them about the new guidance on the mayoral call-in process for local planning applications, produced earlier this year by the P&R Committee with extensive input from community groups across London. Do they see this as an exemplar of the committee’s role in engaging local communities and advising change from the Mayor?
Sakina thinks so, and would like to see more of it. “It’s really important to give Londoners respect by bringing them to City Hall and contributing to the development of our knowledge and processes” she says. “It also provides an opportunity for local community groups to link up, keep talking, and build an agenda for us to work with”.
Emma agrees. She cites her experience several years back as a Councillor in Redbridge, when she felt shut out by the GLA when seeking support for a local planning issue. “The Mayoral call-in investigation has shown light on the need for and benefits from opening up the conversation” she says.
The conversation shifted to a focus on inequalities, and inevitably this raised the issue of the government’s Levelling Up agenda. I asked what levelling up meant to them and how they saw its potential to improve the planning system.
Sakina felt that the agenda was punishing London at a national level, and that some of the proposed planning reforms would undermine the authority of the London Plan. She is, however, supportive of the proposed emphasis on local plans and street votes. Emma feels that Levelling Up is an opportunity to tackle systemic inequalities around infrastructure and health, and that promoting growth outside of London “is actually good for London” as it reduces pressure on housing. “As long as it’s not levelling down London” she adds. Like Sakina, Emma sees planning as a discipline emerging as a critical force in London’s future. “Planning has a massive role in preventing urban-suburban gaps” she points out, “and maintaining/enhancing inclusion”, referring to the “missing middle” in large scale developments that fund affordable housing only by building more at the higher end.
Both agreed that planning has an important role in reducing the health inequalities across London spotlighted by the pandemic. “How our city is shaped and developed impacts the health of our population” points out Sakina. “Whether it’s variability of air quality, mental health support, access to transport and green space – these all are now shown to affect health and wellbeing” Emma concurs, and emphasises the Mayor’s statements about integrating health outcomes into planning and housing agendas. “It’s quite clear “ she points out “that housing and health need run along parallel lines – families, ethnic minorities, elderly, disabled …we need to link need to provision more effectively in both”
How do Sakina and Emma see the role of the Assembly in driving change in London’s local communities and places, and their role on the P&R committee in particular? Both are optimistic and positive. Emma emphasises the opportunities for the Assembly to bring in community voices, and for the P&R committee to drive this process through events, workshops and “community space”. Sakina concurs and restates the important role in educating Londoners that the committee can make. “Planning is emerging into something powerful” she says, “and we intend to drive this trend by putting planning at the core of London’s future”.
Listen to Locals
11 July 2022