London – A city full of challenges and opportunities

This guest blog has been provided by Andrew Dorrian, a recent graduate of Future London Leaders Round 6. This post draws on the research behind his group’s Key Questions presentation, a culminating element of the FLL programmeAll views below are personal.

London is growing at a phenomenal rate. The old adages of a tube full of people arriving every week, or of a city the size of Birmingham and Leeds combined being subsumed into the Capital over the next twenty years appear more and more credible. This rapid growth poses several questions around the urban form of our city: Where we will find space to house Londoners? Where will they work? Finally how will they travel around the capital?

These are by no means easy questions to address, but are incredibly exciting ones for planners to work through.

1.       Population boom and house-building

More people than ever will live in the Capital by the 2020s. This growth is expected to be generally spread across the city with particular focus points around east London.

The Draft Further Alterations to the London Plan 2014 suggest that London can deliver 42,000 homes per year between 2015 and 2025 which may not encompass all demand. The challenge of where to locate them raises interesting questions around the future form of London as a city, including how to regenerate inner city sites, the density of schemes, building or maintaining the socio-cultural offer of the distinct places that make up the city, and the connections between the places where people live, work, and socialise,

2.       London’s economic base

London’s pre-eminent global status makes this city so unique. The need to sustain this market-driven status through the provision of workers, appropriate office accommodation, infrastructure and the connections which allow movement around the city is vitally important. The Draft Further Alterations to the London Plan suggest that growth in office space in the Central Activity Zone and northern Isle of Dogs accounts for 58% of the demand over the next 20 years. A 2012 study [PDF] by Roger Tym and Partners for the GLA identified that Central London dominates the office market this is set to continue, with the economic picture looking optimistic. Firms simply like agglomerating, with the central area providing the concentration of employment they desire.

This is not to say that the rest of London is a mass of sleepy commuter towns and villages. The economies of individual boroughs within the capital have a significant role to play in the provision of local employment, leisure, and cultural opportunities. In addition, London is becoming a haven for agglomerations of niche businesses which can support the development of specialised operations. Take Tech City or the Advanced Business Park in the Royal Docks – both are good examples of important emerging sectors.

3.       Politics

The political will at all levels of the political spectrum to deliver growth is an important part of the jigsaw to enable the delivery of homes and jobs. It has been argued that in recent years the UK has been quite pro–infrastructure, with announcements on fiscal support for major infrastructure projects where they support job creation and housing delivery. Paul Connelly, writing in the Guardian, recognised this is a good thing, however he noted projects must go further to meet their planned objectives and be delivered quicker. Taking Connelly’s argument, it is a truly exciting time to work in the field of the built environment capitalising on a pro-infrastructure pro-development government.  This is not without its challenges for planners but is a stepping stone to enabling major projects being delivered where they can add real defined value, in unlocking new growth opportunities.

4.       Social Sustainability

The delivery of growth in London isn’t confined to thoughts around the possible expansion of the city beyond its boundaries in a physical or economic sense or the planning of New Towns outside of the capital; it can be related to the renewal and rebirth of the individual places that make up London. Many communities already have strong physical and social infrastructure. This can be built on by supporting development within existing settlement patterns, allowing these communities to benefit further from the effects of development.

A key challenge is that this can manifest itself as gentrification and can cause increases in for example house prices which threaten existing communities. Getting this balance right is crucial to positive sustainable place development. The move recently by Battersea Power Station to create a new village in the heart of London is an interesting concept of an approach where social functions and interactions are being looked at alongside the physical renewal of the site.

Musings on London’s future form

The analysis undertaken through the Future of London Key Questions session did not point to one single answer. The three options we explored were:

  • Driving Density
  • A Polycentric London
  • A Radial City.

To some extent the future form of the Capital will borrow concepts from each of these different models. What was seen as important is that London’s economic base is protected so that firms retain their interest in the UK.

Providing a plentiful supply of housing to service the economy and address population growth is one of the biggest challenges built environment practitioners face. Utilising concepts from the radial city model, we should use connections with infrastructure to unlock projects and build on the inherent link between projects and their wider benefits through the appraisal process. To some extent this is already happening and is gaining prominence with the GLA Growth Fund and fiscal support for further projects. Perhaps further emphasis needs to be placed on this way of planning through the development of a National Policy Statement on Transport to guide Development Consent Orders.

Development along existing radial connections poses challenges to the resilience and capacity of the transport network – line upgrades and station works are still necessary to maintain a resilient system going forward. Whilst it is important to nurture local economies, it is also important to recognise the macroeconomic forces at play and to support the continued functionality of establish economic centre, e.g., the city. If London is to deliver a greater amount of housing stock, density levels within the city may need to increase. Questions remain as to how dense, and where this needs to occur.

The Draft Further Alterations to the London Plan includes 36 Opportunity Areas and Areas for Intensification. Some areas have gained political prominence over recent years and are starting to see results. Through our presentation, our group argued that other areas (including large parts of the Thames Gateway) have lost their way, and we suggested political re-engineering to install a new emphasis on growth. Following our presentation, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a programme of expansion at Ebbsfleet for a new garden city located along an existing radial route, recognising its importance in the delivery of new housing stock. Both existing and planned infrastructure has its part to play in opening up new areas for development, whilst recognising environmental, economic, social and cultural boundaries. Both HS2 and Crossrail 2 have been cited as having potential benefits for opening up options for further development in the Capital.

The housing crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face. However, through a mix of measures, it is considered that London has the potential to grow in a manageable way, supporting both existing communities and capitalising on the options that new infrastructure provides. To a large extent the forthcoming 2050 Infrastructure Investment Plan will set the broad parameters of what we need now going forward, combined with the alterations to the London Plan. It would clearly be useful to continue this discussion to better understand the future form of the Capital.