Chapter 2: Perceptions, Collaboration and Partnership

Next-door Neighbours — collaborative working across the London boundary

Chapter 2: Perceptions, Collaboration and Partnership


Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre interviewed 20 officers and elected members from councils and representative bodies to understand their perceptions of the relationships and partnerships that operate across London’s administrative boundary. A full list of organisations we met with is acknowledged at the end of the report. This chapter summarises those interviews.

Perceptions of Cross-Boundary Relationships

All those we spoke to recognised that the Wider South East is growing, and agreed that growth must be managed collectively. The GLA say they are taking collaboration with their neighbours “far more seriously than before”, recognising the challenge of accommodating the city’s growth.

County and district councils outside London face the same challenges in managing growth. Most acknowledge and accept that the impact of London’s growth needs to be part of their thinking, and will play their part in accommodating the necessary housing, business space and infrastructure. However, some are more cautious about what they see as providing for “London’s overspill”.

Shire councils recognise services don’t stop at administrative boundaries, and that the public do not expect the boundary to be a barrier. They also recognise the benefits of being next to London: statements that “there are more upsides than downsides in being near to London” (a non-London officer) or “being next to London makes [our county] what it is” (a non-London member) reflect a generally positive attitude. Many see economic opportunities in their proximity to the capital. Some even see themselves as part of London as a world city.

“London wouldn’t be a global city without its hinterland – it’s more than the sum of its parts”

(A non-London officer)

However, some communities immediately adjacent to the capital fear that they may be overwhelmed by development as London grows. That perception often leads to local political opposition to development, a desire to “hold back” the growth of London. Political nervousness of their big neighbour may be the reason for what some characterised as a tense relationship, described by one non-London officer as being a “love-hate relationship”.

Those in London boroughs and the GLA acknowledge the importance of people, infrastructure and services in their neighbouring counties and districts, to the capital and its economy. They are committed to co-operation, recognising it as an essential part of planning for growth. They also see a challenge in dealing with the diversity of views across county and district councils – some seeking growth, others resisting change – and recognise it can be difficult to get a consistent view from all their neighbours.

On one point there was universal agreement. All interviewees spoke of an emerging recognition by political leaders on both sides of the boundary that the challenges facing the Wider South East cannot be solved by WSE councils alone, and that failure to solve them will be to everyone’s disadvantage.

Existing Cross-Boundary Relationships

Since the demise of SERPLAN there has been no strong tradition of formal liaison across the London boundary. Most cross-boundary relationships tend to be ad hoc, driven by specific issues or particular projects. Informal relationships can often be the trigger for more formal collaboration, but few interviewees felt that such relationships were widespread. One London borough officer said they knew their opposite numbers on the other side of the capital better than their neighbouring county or district colleagues. A non-London officer said “I have more contact with the American embassy than any London borough or the GLA”.

However, there are also many instances of good practice. Many mentioned the Heathrow Partnership as an example of working effectively across the London boundary. The London-Stansted-Cambridge Consortium is a voluntary grouping of London boroughs and other non-London councils with a shared commitment to support business and infrastructure investment. They have proved an effective partnership in driving collaborative working. A number of other examples of bi- or trilateral relationships between councils either side of the London boundary were mentioned.

Also mentioned were initiatives such as the developing relationship between the regional transport body – Transport for the South East – and Transport for London, as well as the shared work programme on infrastructure and other strategic matters under consideration by the GLA and Essex County Council. A joint letter to ministers by boroughs, counties and districts advocating for Crossrail 2 was also cited. These individual examples were suggested as offering a base to build on: several interviewees saw small area- or topic-based partnerships as the building blocks of a more substantive strategic relationship.

Those working in economic development see the boundary as far less of a barrier. Businesses move staff and supplies seamlessly across it, often occupying multiple sites inside and outside of the capital. Some felt there is a better cross-boundary dialogue on inward investment, brokered by the Department for International Trade. Enterprise M3 LEP have identified their relationship with London as a key issue in the refresh of their Strategic Economic Plan. However, one interviewee thought that the economic development strategies of some non-London councils were still catching up with this broader perspective, and were too often based on a narrow, local sense of place or “brand”.

The position was succinctly expressed by one London interviewee, recognising that strategic collaboration across London’s boundary is important, but that it “is nobody’s official day job – and the risk of failure is high since there are so many players”. Without clear responsibility and accountability, and without sufficient incentive, it may be difficult to move beyond the ad hoc to the strategic.

The Wider South East Political Steering Group

The only current forum for dialogue between London and its neighbours that seeks to be inclusive of all councils in and around London is the Wider South East Political Steering Group (WSE Group). It is a voluntary grouping established to improve collaboration, as recommended by the Outer London Commission. 27 It comprises representatives from the GLA and London Councils (who share five seats), East of England Local Government Association (five seats) and South East England Councils (SEEC – five seats). The WSE Group meets three or four times a year and is supported by a “technical” Officer Group. They hold an annual Summit, which is open to all council leaders and LEPs.

Those involved see the WSE Group as providing opportunities for creating greater understanding, sharing data and building trust amongst elected members. It also offers the opportunity for London and her neighbours to make unified, constructive representations to ministers on matters of shared interest and concern. Many recognised that it has built good relationships and facilitated useful debate and dialogue in a relatively short period of time. However, they also recognise that building those relationships is a slow business, and that not all councils inside or outside the capital take part – indeed some outside London are actively opposed, seeing it as a move to recreate a regional body sitting above local councils. It is proceeding as what one interviewee described as a “coalition of the willing”.

The WSE Group is a relatively new body, and is still building the political trust amongst its members so important to closer collaboration. Because some councils inside and outside London are unwilling to engage, it is not always easy for the WSE Group to offer a fully representative view. Participation can be complex for SEEC and the East of England LGA since their members immediately adjacent to London will place more importance on their relationship with the capital, whilst others may question the level of resources that should be devoted to that dialogue.

Furthermore, some interviewees were not aware of the WSE Group, and others did not appreciate its role. There is clearly still a job to be done in raising awareness and establishing effective communication mechanisms. The Group also suffers from a disparity in the resources available to each partner: SEEC, for example, is less well resourced than London Councils (let alone the GLA), and depends more on the voluntary contributions of its members.

Shared Visions and Joint Planning

There are many different facets to collaboration. As London and surrounding areas deal with their growth, local authorities will need to work together to deliver effective transport systems, provide the housing and community facilities the city region needs, support economic growth, and protect the local environment.

The spatial planning process is the mechanism by which councils can identify and accommodate such needs. Responsibilities for strategic spatial planning across the Wider South East are fragmented, with the GLA being required to produce a London-wide spatial development strategy (the “London Plan”), while boroughs and councils outside London prepare local plans. The government’s consultation in September 2017 28 on a methodology for determining housing need shows an awareness of the need for a common evidence base for local plans, though the method used to assess need was controversial.

Mayor Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan was published in late November 2017, following a full review. While undertaking this review, the GLA sought to engage with county and district councils, particularly on housing and infrastructure. The Plan’s review has been a regular agenda item for the WSE Group. County and district councils have welcomed this willingness to engage, although some question whether it is “too little, too late”, asking whether their comments had been sought early enough in the process to make a difference. One officer working outside London suggested: “Dialogue is more reactive – they tell us what they want.” The GLA is also aware that effective engagement is difficult and patchy, with some councils more willing than others to get involved.

Whilst it is only one facet of the relationship between London and her neighbours, the new London Plan has become for many outside the capital a litmus test of the GLA’s approach to engagement. They will be looking closely to see how their comments are taken into account. That cuts both ways: for the GLA, the new London Plan is a test of the attitude of county and district councils to the capital and their role in its growth. They will be looking for a willingness to cooperate to realise a shared future.

Case Studies

London’s competitors are also thinking of different ways to plan for growth and collaborate across administrative boundaries. These case studies give two examples of cross-boundary collaboration in other global city-regions.

Métropole du Grand Paris

Paris Ile-de-France, the Paris city-region – with its 1,267 communes, directly elected mayors and planning departments – is in some ways more fragmented than the Wider South East. In the last ten years, governments have seen this as a barrier to building a more competitive and inclusive city and country, seeking to address these challenges through heavy transport investment – a €35bn orbital rail scheme 29– and by setting up a Greater Paris government, the Métropole du Grand Paris (MGP).

The MGP’s establishment reveals government struggles to find both a geography and an authority suited for Greater Paris. It was designed as a council and executive authority for the densely built core of the region – the City of Paris and the surrounding 130 communes, together making up 7 million residents and 25 per cent of France’s GDP. The French government established the MGP as a weak body in 2016, but scheduled an incremental transfer of powers and resources from other local government tiers, and a direct election from 2020.

However, the reform is challenged by some of the existing local government tiers, who have little incentive to transfer resources to a weak institution. The Région Ile-de-France – a directly elected authority with powers over strategic planning, transport and economic development – sees itself as a more appropriate structure for a Greater Paris government, since it matches the functional urban area well. 30 They also note that the MGP has a low profile, because it was set up without community engagement or a strong executive.

Some, including Macron, consider the Région too large to represent urban interests, 31 others argue that collaborative working takes time, and that the new MGP structure may strengthen collaboration in the inner core as communes fulfil a new duty to produce joint development plans.

But President Macron has already signalled to local authorities his willingness to make further changes:

The Greater Paris idea deserves better than what we collectively did of it […] If we want Greater Paris to compete successfully on the international stage, if we want to produce wealth, to then spread it harmoniously across the country, we need to drastically simplify its structures. 32

The MGP experiment may be short-lived, but it shows that national government sees cross-boundary collaboration as decisive to the future of Paris and France; it also demonstrates the importance of securing local government support.

Greater Sydney Commission

The government of New South Wales, Australia, has taken promising steps to address the challenge of planning for growth in Greater Sydney.

While there have been state-led strategies for the Sydney city-region, Greater Sydney has lacked an overarching strategy endorsed by local government at a time of renewed and sprawling growth. In 2014, there was cross-party support for a structure that would improve collaboration between transport and planning state departments and three tiers of local government – and enable the city-region to achieve the state’s sustainable development goals. 33

Legislation passed in 2015 set up an independent state agency – the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) – which was asked to prepare a draft strategic plan for Greater Sydney. The commissioners were shortlisted by local government and selected by the state minister. The Act specified that the Commission should promote housing supply and sustainable development, integrate the state infrastructure strategy with land-use planning, and engage local government and civil society. The order also defines a geography for Greater Sydney. 34

The Commission published its draft plan – a metropolis of three cities – in October 2017, and has been commended for its ambitious objectives and exemplary engagement by the city’s think tank, the Committee for Sydney. The document outlines a 20-year plan and 40-year vision to strengthen the city’s global profile, improve connections within the city-region, and rebalance growth and employment opportunities across Greater Sydney. 35 The draft plan is also underpinned by strong metrics such as affordable rental housing targets and the concept of the “30-minute city”. 36

The Commission is also promoting “collaboration areas” in the districts expected to accommodate the fastest growth. So far, these have been set up as working groups led by local government, bringing together state agencies and large institutions such as hospitals, universities or airports, in order to agree on a set of objectives – “a place strategy” – and to identify the infrastructure needed to shape growth.

The draft plan is not currently policy. If it is adopted by state government, the plan will also be delivered and monitored in partnership with the GSC.

  • 27 Outer London Commission (2016). Fifth report: coordinating strategic policy and infrastructure investment across the Wider South East. Retrieved from: https://
  • 28 DCLG (2017). Planning for the right homes in the right places: consultation proposals. Available at:
  • 29 Armand, C. (2017, 6 October). “Le coût du Grand Paris Express se situera entre 28 et 35 milliards d’euros” Philippe Yvin. La Tribune. Retrieved from: https://www.
  • 30 Schneider, B. (2017, 27 September). Valérie Pécresse: la Métropole du Grand Paris ne sert à rien! Le Parisien. Retrieved from:
  • 31 Vincendon, S. (2017, 30 November). Le Grand Paris en grande panne. Liberation. Retrieved from:
  • 32 Elysée (2017, 18 July). Discours d’Emmanuel Macron au Sénat lors de la Conférence des Territoires. Retrieved from:
  • 33 Griffith, G. (2015). The Greater Sydney Commission. E-brief 20/2015. New South Wales: NSW Parliamentary Research Service. Retrieved from: https://www.
  • 34 Government of New South Wales (2015, 19 November). Greater Sydney Commission Act 2015 No 57. Retrieved from: pdf
  • 35 Williams, T. (2017, 22 October). Statement on the publication of Greater Sydney Commission Region Plan and Transport for NSW’s Future Transport Strategy. Retrieved from:
  • 36 Greater Sydney Commission (2017). Draft Greater Sydney Region Plan. Retrieved from: