Next-door Neighbours — collaborative working across the London boundary


Cities’ administrative boundaries are – almost by definition – wrong: they rarely match the extent of urbanisation, functional economic geography, or the perceptions and identities of citizens.

London is no exception. Since Greater London was established in 1965, there have been areas within the 33 boroughs that have resolutely clung to a “Kent”, “Essex” or “Surrey” identity, just as there have been towns on London’s fringes that feel far more like urban centres than county towns. The M25 and the Metropolitan Green Belt give London some spatial definition, but there are many districts surrounding the city that have more residents working in the capital than locally. At the same time, the capital’s economy has become increasingly integrated with that of the rest of the Wider South East (WSE), which accounts for nearly half of the UK’s economic output. 1

London’s relationship with neighbouring regions has been reconfigured several times in the postwar period. The intentional policy of depopulation and economic decentralisation envisaged in the Abercrombie Plan (1943) was succeeded by a resurgence of regional planning from the mid-1960s, including the establishment of the South East Regional Planning Conference (SERPLAN) 2 . SERPLAN operated from 1965 till 2001, when it was wound up following the dispersal of strategic planning responsibilities between the Greater London Authority and the East of England and South East England Regional Assemblies, with Thames Gateway bringing the three regions back together.

At around the same time as the election of Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London in 2000, the capital’s population growth – which had been gradual since the mid-1980s – began to accelerate, placing more pressure on London’s housing supply. The Mayor took the decision, followed by his successors to date, that London would not seek to divert growth, leapfrog the Green Belt or expand into it, but would “contribute to sustainable development by seeking to absorb the growth pressures that it generates” through a mixture of intensification and brownfield land development. 3

The first London Plan, published in 2004, set a target of building 30,000 homes a year. Neither that target, nor the progressively higher targets set in subsequent years, has been met, despite a growing pipeline of approved sites. Reflecting on this persistent undersupply, the planning inspector appointed to review the 2014 alterations to the London Plan wrote:

“The evidence before me strongly suggests that the existing London Plan strategy will not deliver sufficient homes to meet objectively assessed need… In my view, the Mayor needs to explore options beyond the existing philosophy of the London Plan. That may, in the absence of a wider regional strategy to assess the options for growth and to plan and co-ordinate that growth, include engaging local planning authorities beyond the GLA’s boundaries in discussions regarding the evolution of our capital city.” 4

In their response to the planning inspector’s report, the government was quick to quash proposals for formal cooperation. Planning Minister Brandon Lewis wrote:

“Authorities outside London face their own issues and challenges in meeting their own needs, which may impact on their ability to meet any of London’s unmet housing needs. This government abolished top-down Regional Strategies, which built up nothing but resentment and we have no intention of resurrecting SERPLAN or the South East Plan from the dead.” 5

Local authorities in the South East and East of England are distinct and independent bodies, but they recognise their future is linked to that of London. They have mixed feelings about the capital. They acknowledge their shared interest in the economic success of the Wider South East, and the contribution made by their residents to that success. They also acknowledge their role in providing homes and infrastructure as part of the shared challenge of managing growth across the Wider South East.

However, as the Minister pointed out, the challenge of meeting housing need is a problem the South East and East of England share with London. Like London, most councils have failed to achieve targets in successive regional and local plans. This shortfall in delivery has meant they struggle to meet local need, a need which has in part been stimulated by the capital’s growth.

Many councils are also fearful that the growth of London will swamp them, destroying local distinctiveness and identity as they struggle with their own challenges in meeting housing demand and providing the infrastructure and services to support growth. Some are suspicious of their larger neighbour, sceptical about “regional planning”, and concerned that their needs may be overlooked or resources squeezed as government seeks to balance the interests of the capital with those of other major city-regions.

Nonetheless, local politicians on both sides of the M25 have seen the relationship between London and its neighbours deepen in recent years: as London has grown, its commuting reach is extending every year, as are the supply chains that bind the city-region economy together.

There has been dialogue between administrations either side of the London boundary to help manage this developing relationship. Governance and partnership mechanisms have evolved in recent years: there is today a formal “Wider South East Political Steering Group” which brings together some key partners, alongside an increasing number of ad hoc partnerships. But it could be argued that formal structures do not yet reflect the strength of economic and demographic links, and have not enabled the type of cityregional devolution seen elsewhere in England.

This report, prepared jointly by Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre, is based on desk research and interviews with politicians, officers and stakeholder organisations. It is intended to provoke debate and discussion about how to strengthen London’s partnership with its neighbours, as the new London Plan is issued for consultation. This report does not look at the relationship between the Wider South East and the rest of the UK, which is the subject of a forthcoming Centre for London research project.

6. GLA (2014). Daytime population. Retrieved from: dataset/daytime-population-borough

7. Centre for London estimations.

8. Brown M. (2016). How many people live inside the M25 but outside London? Retrieved from:

9. Office for National Statistics (2016). Travel To Work Area analysis in Great Britain. Retrieved from: peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/ traveltoworkareaanalysisingreatbritain

10. Centre for London estimations based on Cheshire, P. & Gornostaeva, G. (December 2002). Cities and Regions: comparable measures require comparable territories. In Cahiers de l’IAURIF numéro 135. Retrieved from: html ; and Freeman, A. (2007). Defining and measuring metropolitan regions. In Current Issues note 17. GLA Economics. Retrieved from: sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/current-issues-note-17.pdf

11. See note 6.

12. See note 10.

  • 1 In this report we have adopted a geography that considers London together with the former South East and East of England administrative regions as the Wider South East.
  • 2 Gordon, I. (2015). Functional integration, political conflict and muddled metropolitanism in the London region: 1850-2014. In Cole, A., & Payre, R., (eds, 2016). Cities as political objects: historical evolution, analytical characterisations and institutional challenges of metropolitanisation. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing
  • 3 GLA (2004). The London Plan. London: GLA.
  • 4 The Planning Inspectorate (2014). Report on the examination in public into the further alterations to the London Plan. London: GLA.
  • 5 Letter to Mayor of London Boris Johnson, dated 27 January 2015.