City Makers’ Forum: London’s Green Recovery

Covid-19 and the lockdown has sent the UK economy into a nosedive, laying bare economic fragility and deep-seated inequalities. But the pandemic has also given us an opportunity to imagine a different world that’s more resilient to future shocks. While it’s still unclear what shape London’s recovery will take, there’s growing ambition for its colour to be green.

In this City Makers’ Forum event, cross-sector speakers working at the frontline of London’s recovery response discussed the challenges and opportunities ahead for London. To ensure that we capitalise on this opportunity London’s stakeholders must pull together to leverage public support and political will, to deliver a green recovery that is fair and equitable for all.

London in lockdown

“In lockdown, London had a slightly different economic experience to the rest of the UK,” says Caroline Haynes, Director at Hatch – Urban Solutions. Many cities were acutely affected during the pandemic as their economies were more reliant on manufacturing and industrial sectors that couldn’t easily translate their production into home working. In contrast London’s service-based economy adapted well to remote working and experienced a smaller economic dip. However, other UK cities have bounced back more quickly, as manufacturing, logistics and retail have got back to work. London’s recovery has been slower as many people haven’t returned to the office.

But Caroline thinks this presents an opportunity for how we think about London’s recovery. Covid-19 has accelerated the exodus of a growing number of people seeking more affordable alternatives outside of the capital. “We can reverse that trend by investing in a green recovery,” she says. Making London more liveable and environmentally sustainable will appeal to the next generation.

A pan-London approach

This will take a long-term, pan-London strategy to make it work. Morgan Dye, Policy Officer (Air Quality, Environment & Health) at Transport for London asserts that London’s transport infrastructure will have a significant role to play in the green recovery. Working closely with London councils, TfL are working to make walking and cycling more accessible to Londoners to avoid a car-led recovery that would jeopardise commitments to reduce congestion and decarbonise transport.

People are now moving around the city in a different way and connecting with their local neighbourhoods, high streets and green spaces. The popularity of walking and cycling has grown, and infrastructure needs to keep up. The lockdown has highlighted disparities between London’s communities – many of which don’t have access to adequate walking and cycling space.

To achieve an equitable recovery, TfL are keen to return to the Mayor’s 2018 Transport Strategy and accelerate work already underway to reallocate street space to cyclists and pedestrians, and to work with boroughs to encourage low traffic neighbourhoods – despite opposition in some places.

Boroughs leading the change

City Makers Forum: London's Green Recovery, Enfield climate action plan image
LB Enfield’s Climate Action Plan 2020, launched on 10 September.

Many boroughs have been quick to champion the green recovery and demonstrate their commitment to achieving net zero. In 2019, LB Enfield declared a climate emergency and worked with sustainability consultancy Greengage to develop a joint action plan with residents and partners.

Nnenna Urum-Eke, LB Enfield’s Head of Development said that ethical procurement was a priority for the council to achieve a carbon neutral supply chain for their projects and services.

Like TfL, Enfield is an influential stakeholder and can work with other boroughs to lead change. Nnenna advocates for a “London buyers’ club,” with boroughs collaborating to buy new technology at scale and pass on savings to residents.

This approach could also help tackle issues exacerbated by the pandemic. “The need has been amplified, but the means is diminishing,” says Nnenna. Local authority budgets are under huge strain and what government financial support will be available is still unclear. In response, Enfield has prioritised energy efficiency and wellbeing projects that help residents get to parks and local shops, and form neighbourhood networks. They’re taking advantage of green grants and low-cost loans to finance retrofitting of council housing stock and are engaging with modular construction manufacturers to deliver carbon neutral homes.

Delivering London’s green recovery

Like Enfield, many housing associations have a large stake in London’s built environment and, as landlords, a social imperative that informs their perspectives on green issues.

Notting Hill Genesis own or manage 60,000 homes across the capital and the delivery of energy efficiency homes is a long-term priority. However Kylie Bickford, Design and Technical Director for Notting Hill Genesis warns that even before Covid, environmental issues have struggled to maintain profile against other priorities. Brexit and the post-Grenfell fire safety regulation changes are two recent examples that have trumped net zero.

The growing calls for a green recovery could be an opportunity to change this but it’s important to realise the practical implications of delivering this against the political narrative. For example, the GLA’s 2016 Energy Planning Guidance requires that all net zero homes achieve at least a 35% carbon reduction on-site. Kylie must work out the best way for delivering this, balancing development costs with the benefit for residents.

Notting Hill Genesis has turned to low-carbon heating solutions such as heat pumps to meet this requirement but ultimately, energy efficiency savings that benefit residents must also represent value for money for the business, and this is a reality for delivering the green recovery.

Audience discussion

Presentations were followed by an audience Q&A, which raised the following points:

  • The residential market has been stable during lockdown, but the commercial market faces significant challenges. Many occupiers are reassessing their central London office needs and looking to an office/home hybrid model for staff. This has huge implications for central London’s real estate (and its investors) and how it’s used in the future.
  • The perception that younger people who want to leave London have wealth to take with them to other places is too narrow. Poorer people with the same aspirations don’t have the same resources and can feel trapped where they are. It’s vital to ensure that improvements to active travel infrastructure and air quality are implemented in an equitable fashion to benefit poorer communities as well.
  • Feedback on TfL’s Streetspace plan has been positive with people feeling more comfortable and enjoying cycling. This is challenged by increasing car use, particularly in central London.
  • Local authorities can embrace non-traditional procurement frameworks that promote design and build innovation. Unlike private developers that are restricted by their business models, borough builders can take on more risk and test new ideas such as modern methods of construction.
  • After the 2008 financial crash, some developers had to cut development costs and build quality suffered. There is a danger that this could happen again during the pandemic. Carbon reduction measures can be costly and are just one objective, competing with many others such as affordability.
  • Early implementation of carbon reduction technologies like district heat networks haven’t always been well received by the public who must live with their high running costs. Improved design can help but so can training. Operatives who manage sites on behalf of local authorities and housing associations need training but so too do residents, who need more than a welcome pack of instructions manuals when they move in.

Moving forward

Many of London’s stakeholders have declared climate emergencies and embraced the concept of a green recovery – setting ambitious targets. The detail though is often missing. The practical steps to reach each milestone haven’t been plotted. LB Enfield and Notting Hill Genesis have taken steps to do this but a cross-sector vision is required to help people and organisations understand how they can contribute to a pan-London approach. TfL has an important role to play, as do intelligence-driven consultancies like Hatch who can help all stakeholders work together to understand the specific needs of different places and communities.

This event was part of the City Makers’ Forum – a platform for exploring key urban issues with invited guest speakers, delivered by Future of London and Hatch. It’s also linked to FoL’s Achieving Net Zero and Learning From Crisis programmes. FoL will return to the green recovery during its Achieving Net Zero Digital Conference Week (26-30 October). Find out more and register.