The draft London plan will have far reaching implications for architects, engineers and the property industry. Politicians and property professionals must work harder to effectively work together with communities if demanding housing targets are to be met and London is to thrive. This was the key response from over 1,000 professionals, politicians and community groups at the Big Debate, organised by New London Architecture, to discuss the key policies guiding the draft London Plan.
However, this new draft of the plan to guide London’s spatial development for the next 20 years was given a broadly warm welcome on 5 February as London deputy mayors Jules Pipe and James Murray took part in the debate on how the document might help meet the demands of the city and its citizens.
Jules Pipe, deputy mayor for planning, said that the new plan was ‘intended to be a blueprint on how we can continue to succeed as a world city’, but is very definitely not a war on the suburbs, an encouragement to garden grabbing or a move to try and ‘preserve every last inch of industrial space in aspic’. Neither does greater density mean tall buildings or a drop-off in quality. Something had to be done on the city’s ‘growing inequality’, which will, Pipe said, be addressed through the ‘good growth’ guiding principles and the ‘ambitious, delivery-focused’ plan now out for consultation. ‘Most importantly it means ensuring people have more of a say in the development of their city’, he said, ‘so that growth brings out the best in places, while providing jobs and other opportunities for communities that are already there’.
Polls held on the night found that most (86%) agreed that densifying the suburbs was necessary if we are to deliver more homes and jobs, and that the mayor working with wider south east partners on strategic infrastructure and housing targets would prove effective in providing affordable homes for Londoners (72%). But an overwhelming majority (93%) said there should be more powers to stop land banking and 96% of those polled felt London would fall short in delivering 65,000 new homes a year.
Deputy mayor for housing and residential development James Murray disagreed, declaring it is possible to do so and without building on the Green Belt, asking questions about density and using a mixture of small sites and colocation as well as the volume housebuilder. The GLA, he added, recognised it needs to play a more active, interventionist and muscular role in bringing land forward, since ‘all roads lead to land.’ ‘At the centre from my point of view is a commitment to building genuinely affordable homes’ he said. ‘It is incumbent on us to set out a blueprint of how that can be achieved’.
The event was watched at Friends House by an audience of over 1,000, and streamed live on the internet, including questions to panels both from the room and online. Issues covered ranged from density to the impact of Brexit, and the importance of planning discussions to remember the human element beyond just numbers or architecture alone.
Yolande Barnes, director of world research at Savills, for example, said that it was important to remember that housing density is not a number. ‘We don’t live in housing units, we live in neighbourhoods, we live in places’, she said. We need to pay a close attention to how we design our neighbourhoods, and although the plan is a great start, we need to think of new mechanisms and levers to make things happen. British Land planning director Michael Meadows stressed the importance of community engagement, while dRMM Architects’ Sadie Morgan said that London ‘cannot do it on its own’ but that infrastructure projects like Crossrail Two and East Thames Crossings are all ‘essential’. Create Streets founding director Nicholas Boys Smith said London faces the biggest clean air and housing challenge since the 19th century – the plan needs to ‘come alive’ for the wider public.
On housing, Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation chairman Liz Peace said it was important to use scale to make a dent in housing numbers, with Opportunity Areas like hers offering a chance to ‘think and build big’, with a sellable ‘brand’, perhaps creating a car-free community. RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, moreover, welcomed the plan’s emphasis on design continuity, and that now was a good chance to create a ‘wonderful new vision for our suburban neighbourhoods’, turning Nimbies into Yimbies through financial incentives as set out in his Supurbia project. But land values are not the same across London, which is a problem in the plan, suggested Jo Negrini, chief executive of LB Croydon. Volume sites are important but so are the key small sites programmes such as Brick by Brick, and more collaboration needs to happen to make things stack up. Finally, Claire Bennie, director, Municipal and Mayor’s Design Advocate said that all developers want is simplicity, great growth needs great leadership, but the main problems is tax. ‘Tax is crucial if we are to house all Londoners.’
The final session of the Big Debate was the assembly members’ response, chaired by LSE London director Tony Travers, who pointed out that we are living through a time of a change of mood to large developments and the way they are presented and conveyed to communities.
Labour’s Nicky Gavron said she believed we could build 65,000 units and applauded higher targets of affordable housing. But planning departments need more resources and the density matrix and framework should be revived, along with ‘active state intervention’ to deliver the plan. ‘Bring it on’, she said. Green Party assembly member Caroline Russell admired the plan’s commitment to healthy streets and made the case for no further expansion of London’s airports, while Liberal Democrat Cllr Adele Morris, LB Southwark, said it was a ‘really tough ask’ for people to ‘get deep and involved’ in the plan. The key issue was the affordability of housing, which the plan has acted on but which will still be overridden by viability, she felt. Finally, Conservative assembly member Andrew Boff said the plan did represent a war on the suburbs, with the abolition of the density matrix giving developers ‘carte blanche’ to develop more. ‘I realise how developers are; I quite like greed, I’m a Tory!’, said Boff pointing out that the plan does not include any references to the word ‘beauty’. ‘This is supposed to be an outbreak of peace with the suburbs; no, it’s war on the suburbs as sure as eggs is eggs’, he said. ‘And this is a war that the suburbs must win.’
David Taylor, editor, New London Quarterly