London's changing

Niki May Young
Monday 05 May 2008

Capital holds its breath as all powerful Mayor is deposed...

After an extremely tight contest the London populous voted for Conservative candidate Boris Johnson as Mayor over long-serving Ken Livingstone on Thursday.The decision could have a major impact on the future shape of the capital. The issue of housing in London proved a fore-running agenda in both campaigns in the knowledge that London faces a housing crisis as the city's population swells. But the two could not have had more contrasting views on the subject. While Livingstone had developed a detailed 'London plan' during his reign which encouraged the regeneration of London through contemporary statement design and towers, Johnson's brief housing manifesto shows an opposition to Livingstone's approach to development favouring a more traditional approach. His website states: “We must develop more family-sized homes with gardens, and we need to give more Londoners the chance to own their family home.

“We should leave a lasting legacy for future generations. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to reshape what our great city looks and feels like, That means homes and buildings that are not just functional but beautiful. Part of the legacy should be the protection of London's historic views. Yes, London needs development but we should be developing buildings that compliment rather than block these.”

Over the eight years that Livingstone was in power he held planning central to his manifesto when creating his London Plan and appointed leading architect Richard Rogers as his advisor. Johnson is this week set to meet with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who is currently embroiled in a controversial plan to change the level of expertise necessary for the New York Buildings Commissioner following the resignation of Patricia Lancaster from the role after a series of construction-related deaths this year. It is unclear at this stage whether Johnson plans to consult with Mayor Bloomberg on planning matters but he is to receive Mayoral advice from his American counterpart.

During his reign, Livingstone transformed the London skyline and almost doubled the number of homes built from 17,000 in the year 2000 to 33,000 in 2007. A great number of these fit into the 'affordable housing' category in order to help combat the housing crisis where most people have been priced out of the property market. While no-one has defined the limits to which housing could be constituted as 'affordable' there is a general consensus in the UK that much of the population has now been priced out of the housing market and in many cases this means they can not afford to rent either.

Livingstone had pledged in his housing manifesto for this year's election to ensure that 50% of new builds in the capital were affordable and one of reason this could be possible was Livingstone's ability to embrace a vertical expansion of the city. But while Livingstone saw skyscrapers and high-rises as a way to combat housing deficiency and as a way to showcase design Johnson sees such buildings as a blight on the London landscape.

Procuring affordable housing is still high on Johnson's list but he envisages another way. While in his manifesto he pledges to build 50,000 more affordable homes by 2011 he believes that what Londoners really want is something very different to Livingstone's legacy of high-rises. At a press conference the white-haired politician said: “If you look down at Paris or Madrid or Rome or Moscow or even Damascus. you see a centro storico, an old city centre and then spreading out in the suburbs you see blocks of high-rise flats of seven to ten storeys or more. Well, London is not like that, London is a huge constellation of semis and terraces and parks and villages in whorls and serried rows because what the average Brit wants is a house with a garden and front door.”

Instead he wants to concentrate on building of quality rather than quantity and building which compliments the surrounding areas. In his housing manifesto Johnson states that he will “reinstate planning rules that protect the views of St Paul's Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster and reinforce protection around new viewing corridors.”

Livingstone had removed housing powers from the 33 boroughs, a system which was known to slow down planning and development, but Johnson plans to reverse this decision and co-operate with the boroughs in the decision-making process in order to involve locals in the direction of development in their areas. At a speech launching his housing manifesto Johnson said: “I am convinced that we will get the best results if we work with the London boroughs, not bullying and berating them, and not getting too hung up on percentages of affordable accommodation.”

Instead of creating his own version of the London Plan Johnson will retain Livingstone's and amend wherever he sees necessary, in particular he plans to rezone London to ensure that existing commercial properties can be transformed into housing. A central feature which could help ensure that Johnson's reaches his target of 50,000 new homes by 2011 is the regeneration of empty property of which there are 84,205 stagnating in the capital. He plans to relocate £60 million of funding from the 'Regional Housing Pot' in order to renovate these properties.

But renovation plans too will be limited. Johnson's plan will encourage green spaces and while part of this is to plant many more street trees he also states that he will reduce the possibility for private housing extensions into gardens. This presents a problem for private developments and smaller architects and developers for whom such extensions offer great investment potential and room for growing families.

While the decision to work with the boroughs could mean more sympathetic designs integrate into the separate boroughs and limiting expansion into green spaces will allow for a greener city, undoubtedly this will mean that development will be held up and a weaker focus on resolving the housing crisis will ensue.

Livingstone's legacy will live on in the developments he has approved which continue in varying stages of completion, but Johnson's new Conservative regime may see the pace at which expansion prevails in London slow considerably and development threatens to halt indefinitely for any project threatening the historic or green credentials of the city. The development scene in London is set to change but only time will tell whether these proposals will help or hinder design and capacity in the capital.

Niki May Young
News Editor

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United Kingdom

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