29. Shaping local London

A lesson from history

The rejection of Sir Christopher Wren’s grand plans to re-shape London with monumental avenues and piazzas following the great fire of 1666 set the tenor for London’s development ever since, a history in which the grand plan has rarely held sway, and instead London has been shaped by the incremental efforts of many largely private hands and by the efforts of municipal authorities running to keep up with the unstoppable force of private innovation and investment.  For most of London’s history the model served the city well, but in the second half of the 20th Century it all went wrong.

The rot firs set in with an over-ambitious public sector, seeking to re-shape the structure of London (Wren-style) from the 1950s onwards, although this time in a Modernist canon.  The period lasted until the early 1970s and did un-told damage to the historic fabric of the city, not least though attempting to rebuild London as a city for the private car.  The next period moved from one extreme to the other.  Whilst the 1970s increasingly saw a general disinvestment in London, the 1980s witnessed the abandoning of any London wide government, and a period of drift and retrenchment in the Boroughs.  The impact of this was most noticeable in the fast deteriorating physical fabric of the city.  Thus by 1988 Judy Hillman reported to the Royal Fine Art Commission that “Too much of London has become dirty, degrading and depressing”

A traffic choked Trafalgar Square, the city can’t afford to go backwards

 For Judy Hillman, improvements required popular pressure and involvement, political will and imagination, and it was the political will to do better for London that eventually led to the creation of the Mayor and GLA in 2000.  The powerful advocacy for London that this allows has secured significant public sector investment for the city, alongside the significantly larger investment that the private sector continues to make.

Although the new London-wide government structures are laid across the existing Boroughs of London, these (with a few notable exceptions) have shown themselves consistently ill prepared to grapple with questions of place quality; an issue which the London Plan makes clear is of key strategic importance to the future of the city.  Arguably, therefore, it falls to the Mayor as London’s final guarantor of quality to ensure that the physical fabric of London never again reaches the nadir of the recent past.  The lesson from history is that heavy handed planning is not required, but instead an intelligent use of public resources locally, coordinated within a broad spatial strategy and creative local design and management frameworks.  With the right place shaping skills in place the ongoing processes of city development and change can be actively harnessed to help shape the city for the better, for all its citizens.

But London is lagging behind

The new London Plan includes amongst its key objectives:

“A city that delights the senses and takes care over its buildings and streets, having the best of modern architecture while making the most of London’s built heritage and which makes the most of and extends its wealth of open and green spaces and waterways, realising its potential for improving Londoners’ health, welfare and development”.

This objective explicitly links the quality of the city’s physical fabric to the social and economic outcomes enjoyed by Londoners; in other words, to their quality of life.  Unfortunately, despite its great assets, London is lagging behind many of its competitor cities in this regard.  In the Mercer ‘Quality of Living’ survey, for example, London languishes in 39th place behind the other key financial centres of Europe – Geneva (3), Frankfurt (7), Paris (34) – and many of Europe’s capital cities – Vienna (1), Copenhagen (11), Berlin (17), Stockholm (20), Oslo (24), Helsinki (35).  It is clear that to deliver on Mayor Boris Johnson’s determination to see London become “The best big city in the world” requires much more than setting London once again on the path to economic growth.  The city needs to become a more liveable place, and this (as the Mayor’s own Annual London Survey shows) will require that the spaces and infrastructure of the city, as well as the amenities and services provided to its citizens, are of the very best quality that they can be – in other words, they need to be actively shaped as they are in London’s competitors, old and new.

London’s traditional competitors such as New York, now emphasise high quality urban space as part of the ‘city offer’ e.g. reclaimed space in Times Square
London’s new competitors e.g. Seoul, making significant investments in public realm

We need a place shaping capacity – five key capabilities

Of course fine words in policy and processes of regulating development will only go so far. Instead of governance for governance sake, and policies for the sake of having them, London needs a greater capacity to shape its own destiny through the ability to positively capture the multiplier benefits from investment decisions.  This type of positive place shaping requires five key capabilities:

  1. Understanding public and private assets and investment decisions in a manner that allows their better coordination
  2. Understanding local community needs and aspirations to enable the active advocacy for them through the development process
  3. Thinking strategically and three dimensionally about London’s complex urban problems, in a manner that encourages innovative solutions to emerge
  4. Communicating ideas in an accessible and flexible manner, rather than though obtuse and overly rigid policy frameworks
  5. Thinking at a scale large enough to capture public value, but small enough to address issues of local quality

Unfortunately, today, decisions on the types of major development in the capital that are likely to generate real lasting impacts will almost certainly cut across the interests and remits of local, London-wide and national government, as well as a host of government agencies. The danger is that this fragmentation of responsibilities acts to further undermine London’s place shaping capacity, particularly as the current austerity cuts will inevitably limit the time (and perhaps desire) for joint working.

Place shaping, coming of age

Despite having long possessed many of the powers to lead this place shaping agenda, so far London’s Boroughs have, in the main, been failing to do so.  Thus, with a few exceptions (e.g. Kensington & Chelsea in Exhibition Road, Tower Hamlets in the Isle of Dogs Millennium Quarter, and Camden at Kings Cross), it has been the private sector that has been most clearly delivering on this agenda; with the Mayor’s own small but influential Design for London also contributing to a wide range of critical space and place shaping initiatives across London (e.g. in Acton, Bankside Barking, Brixton, Dalston, Enfield, Tottenham Hale, Wembley, Woolwich, and across the Thames Gateway).

Shaping new spaces in London – Barking Town Square

The publication of the Localism Bill in December 2010, however, gives communities and their Boroughs a major new opportunity to engage in local place shaping.  The idea of Neighbourhood Plans led by Neighbourhood Forums across London (as elsewhere) offers real opportunity for communities to bypass London’s administrative complexity and to address head on many of its ‘wicked’ problems: the decline of London’s local high streets; the re-vitalisation of neglected suburban neighbourhoods; the local mitigation of strategic opportunity proposals and major infrastructure projects; and so forth.

But haven’t we been here before?

A key danger of what appears an extremely worthy objective – to return decision-making to the local level – is that decision-making may become further bogged down in additional layers of governance or by the agendas of highly active, but unrepresentative local groups.

Post-1997, fragmentation of responsibility certainly multiplied under a similar attempt to return decision-making to localities; in that case in the guise of Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) with their responsibility for coordinating the voice of local business, local community and local government through the production of Community Strategies.  At various scales and in various ways with various influence, these sprung up across London, although the strategies they spawned often represented little more than motherhood and apple pie-type statements, requiring the development plan to interpret their typically woolly aspirations and to give them any sense of spatial meaning or connection to real places. The result, arguably, was even more ad hoc (and less representative) decision-making around which adept private interests continued to weave their way without any notion of positively shaping London’s space.

So who will shape London in the future?

Unsurprisingly, few communities will have the expertise, confidence or capacity to engage with this new agenda unsupported, and it looks increasingly unlikely that significant support will be coming from most of London’s Boroughs, particularly those outside of Central London.  In an environment of public sector cuts, local government has a tendency to fall back on its core regulatory functions which become ever more siloed, abandoning in the process the sorts of value adding and integrating activities that are represented by the design / place shaping agenda, and by localism more generally.  Notably, it took at least 15 years after John Gummer’s first attempt to re-invigorate design awareness in local government in the mid 1990s before any real capacity began to be recovered across London; and now, with cuts across London’s planning departments, it is again being lost, fast.

Surveying the urban design and conservation capacity of London’s Boroughs at the end of 2010 revealed just 69 urban design posts across London (and a further 75 conservation posts) to deal with the outputs of a construction industry worth some £8 billion (on top of London’s 1,000 conservation areas, 40,000 listed buildings and 150 registered parks and gardens).  This represents £120 million worth of development for each urban designer, or an investment by the public sector of around 0.03% of the output of this industry in achieving wider urban quality.  The survey also revealed a set of already announced cuts in even this limited capacity of a further 13.5%, with, on top of this, a wide range of post-CSR local government restructuring exercises yet to report their conclusions for jobs.

A local leadership gap

Despite London acting as host to the largest concentration of built environment professionals in the World, the time taken to adopt even the most basic Core Strategy documents by London’s Boroughs critically demonstrates the lack of capacity to plan positively for London’s future, even prior to the recent local government cuts. Thus the boroughs had a golden opportunity to put the reinvigorated urban design agenda into effect from 2004 onwards when they were charged with the responsibility of producing Local Development Frameworks (LDFs), replacing London’s Unitary Development Plans (UDPs). These LDFs were intended to move the planning system from a land use planning to a spatial planning system, with the development plan acting as the spatial coordinating framework for all public sector investment programmes, as well as for private investment.  LDFs were to be in place within a three-year period, although seven years later just ten of London’s 33 boroughs have an adopted Core Strategy in place, and just nine (more locally focused and proactive) Area Action Plans have been formally adopted through the process.  Very few have taken a genuinely place-based approach.

London Borough of Tower Hamlets Core Strategy, a rare genuinely place based approach to London’s planning

The Boroughs have often turned to London’s consultancy sector to fill the skills and capacity gap, but their products are sometimes standardised and not derived from the deep and long engagement with place and community that good local planning should bring.  A 2009 review of urban design skills in London’s public sector commissioned from ECOTEC and UCL identified, even then, a growing urban design skills gap, with 90% of practitioners reporting a gap in 2009, compared to 74% in 2005; a figure explained in part by a growing awareness of the importance of place making, and with it an acceptance that much greater skills levels are required in this area than was previously thought necessary.

A key role for the Mayor – three alternative paths

The opportunity of localism and the potential it offers for active place shaping is surely too good to miss.  This may seem like an entirely local matter, but the strategic imperative of building a more liveable and attractive London for Londoners, visitors and investors is the key prize.  It is an opportunity in which the Mayor might play a key facilitating role for London, in so doing building on existing Mayoral initiatives such as the ‘London’s Great Outdoors’ programme.

But further investment is required now in these sorts of innovative strategies if the tools and capacity for sustainable place shaping is to be in place once sustained growth returns.  So what can be done?  Three alternative paths are open to the Mayor:

  1. To save money he could withdraw from this agenda all together, leaving initiative solely in the hands of the Boroughs and the private sector. If past experience is to go by, such an approach will ensure that the opportunity to positively shape London is passed by and London’s local environment will decline once more.
  2. He could continue his existing modest initiatives in this area though preserving the capacity within Design for London (currently under threat) in order to continue a range of London-wide activities, working side by side with the reduced capacity in the Borough’s as and when opportunities arose. In this scenario, the Mayor will continue to play a role, but the reduced capacity elsewhere, together with the increased demand from communities inspired by the potential of neighbourhood planning, will see a critical shortfall in London’s ability to address this agenda, just as it is coming of age.
  3. Alternatively, the Mayor could take the lead across London by offering new leadership and capacity, helping to meet the potential as and when local government falls back to its core statutory functions (which it seems to be doing). This might be done by building on the existing capacity within the GLA family, by better coordinating place shaping activity across the GLA (including in Transport for London), by taking on a key enabling function for both the Boroughs and London’s local communities, and by coordinating all of the above through a strategic priority to better shape local London.

We have reached a critical juncture.  For London the challenges are great, yet the risks of leaving it all to the market (or to chance) would seem too great to contemplate.  The alternative is that we actively invest in shaping local London for the future (path 3 above).  But this will require an on-going investment in design skills and capacity by the Mayor; for the Boroughs to reverse their headlong rush to disband the limited urban design capacity they currently have; and for London to carry on attracting and benefiting from the very best design talent from the private sector.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


February 2011