Future of London founder reflects on London’s future

After 15 years, David Lunts steps down from the board. He believes the organisation is fulfilling its original vision, but wonders if London is rising to its biggest challenges

Like a lot of good ideas, the story of Future of London begins over dinner.

Following a regeneration conference in Westminster, David Lunts and others proposed a new network for planning and housing professionals with a shared interest in London’s renewal.

“A few of us realised we were all trying to make complex public sector-led regeneration projects happen,” he remembers. “But we weren’t actually talking to each other in a structured way.”

Future of London was founded in 2007 as a knowledge-sharing, peer support network for mainly public sector urbanists. The aim was to bring on the next generation of talent. “We realised we were plotting the future of the city, which is where the name came from!”

“David has made a huge contribution to FoL over the last 15 years. As Chair, David led the transition of FoL from an informal network into a successful company that has firmly established itself as a highly regarded leadership organisation for London’s regeneration professionals.”

Lyn Garner, Chair of Future of London

From Foster’s urban taskforce to OPDC

David Lunts is well known in the sector, currently as the chief executive of the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC). OPDC was set up by the Mayor of London to capitalise on a brownfield development opportunity created by the convergence of HS2 and Crossrail.

He has been in on many of the key moments of London regeneration story. Go back 25 years, and David was a member of the influential urban taskforce chaired by architect Richard Rogers. Their recommendations for London development are still discussed today.

“When you reflect on quarter of a century, the urban task force condensed a lot of things that were at the time still quite controversial. The concepts of mixed-use or high-density residential developments or walkable cities weren’t anything like as close to the consensus they have today.”

Political nous

After that formative experience, David spent 20 years moving between national and London government. That included a spell at John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, with responsibility for urban development. He was also worked in built environment roles at the Greater London Authority under all three London mayors. “I’m interested in politics and change,” he explains.

David has evidently a highly effective operator in the charged atmosphere of politically led organisations.

That is not surprising, given his first role in the built environment sector was as a Manchester city councillor. He was responsible for 100,000 local authority houses in the late1980s.

“The housing service was on its knees,” he recalls. “The city was really struggling with that whole kind of post-industrial trauma. The challenge we faced was how on earth to get investment into this city to start repairing some of the damage.”

Political nous and an ability to make things happen – rather than a relevant professional qualification – has enabled him to forge a successful career in London’s regeneration sector.

London’s big sustainability challenges

During this time the focus of regeneration has moved from post-industrial investment to environmental and social sustainability.

He is cautiously optimistic about London’s ability to meet the net zero challenge. He points to the growing emphasis on public transport and active travel as evidence of London’s ability to adapt.

But social sustainability remains a major worry.

“We’re all very aware of the challenge around social equity and economic fairness,” he says. “I’m not sure we’ve got solutions to any of them.”

Future of London’s focus on topics like social value and cross-sector collaboration is very relevant to these concerns.

Future of London – the importance of networks

So has Future of London lived up to its original aim of creating a knowledge-sharing and peer network to support change?

“I would say, yes,” he responds. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have had the longevity and the membership we’ve had. So if the original purpose was to support each other to lead on complicated projects with confidence, I think Future of London has done pretty well.

“People really value having an organisation that facilitates and supports those networks and conversations.”

“You bond with your cohort because you’re going through this intense, enjoyable, challenging experience which at times got quite personal – I valued this a lot. We are still in touch five years later – and still use our WhatsApp group!”

Rumi Bose, new board member and Future of London leadership alumni

What evidence does he offer for the impact of Future of London on the sector?

“I think its biggest success really is the alumni network of people who have been through a fantastic, structured leadership development programme.

“There are now hundreds of alumni, and a good proportion are still actively involved one way or another. To the best of my knowledge, no one else has been doing that. That’s our USP.”