Shaping the new London Plan – NLA Debate

A remarkable turn-out for a wet Monday evening in January for a three hour debate on the new London Plan, arranged by NLA at Friends House, Euston.

One thing that struck me as surprising/interesting was the repeated message that we need to move away from land use monoculture, “zoning” and the tyranny of the use classes order towards a much more finely grained analysis and understanding of the role different uses have to play.  I have heard Yolanda Barnes speak eloquently on this before – her thesis is, as I understand it, that large, single use, coarse grain buildings are the result of capital seeking easy-to-understand, readily segmented asset classes – but I was interested to hear effectively the same point being made again and again in the room.  Namely, that an unimaginative approach to understanding uses combined with what some described as a lazy, zonal approach is meaning that capacity is underused and areas of the city can become unattractive at actually facilitating human interactions.

This was discussed in the context of the loss of industrial land which, accordingly to Fiona Fletcher-Smith of the GLA, is running at 3 to 4 times the planned rate of 37ha per year, a point also made by Jules Pipe.  This is clearly something that is worrying the GLA team as they prepare the new plan.  Jules Pipe described London’s strategic industrial land as, effectively, low cost business space that is secured as such by the planning system.  This was an interesting use of language given previous comments in City for all Londoners about the need for affordable business space – it seems the two ideas are to be conflated.

I do wonder, though, if deliberately suppressing land values in these areas is the best way of promoting the most economically efficient use of land.  Like failed industrial strategies of the past, protection and subsidy often seems simply to sustain inefficient legacy producers rather than really supporting new entrants.  I wonder if continuing to ensure that swathes of London, especially in the east, remains sparsely used and of poor environmental quality really makes the most of its economic potential.  Whilst it may provide space that is effectively subsidised to those who can use it, what is the opportunity cost of doing so?

Paul Karakusevic convincingly made the point that a far more innovative mix of uses and different typologies of employment and industrial spaces could be accommodate on these sites – as well as, potentially, residential – which would improve quality of life and their economic function.

If even Los Angeles can do multi-level, densely occupied industrial buildings, surely we can?

Given the concern about the need for SME space, enterprise space and flexible space for start-ups – and other companies that are in their post-start-up growth phase – this seems reasonable, and brings us back to the challenge of taking a more imaginative, multi-use, multi-typology approach to land use allocation.

With my Central London hat on Jules Pipe’s recognition and support for the CAZ is welcome.  I suspect something is in the offing policy-wise for residential development at Canary Wharf – both last night and at the launch of the WPA/CPA Manifesto – he referred to the need to ensure housing does not erode this economic base “in Canary Wharf” as well as elsewhere.  So watch this space.

Chris Choa (AECOM) attracted a lot of interest on Twitter with his comment that 2.5m homes could be built on the green belt within 1 mile of a rail/underground station.  I am going to try to have a look at this in a bit more detail – it sounds attractive superficially but, as someone pointed out, at a local level that perhaps inevitably involves a well-loved sports field or green space being lost.

Interestingly, perhaps the most heated section of the debate was on streets and public spaces, largely thanks to Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian, who decried the move towards publicly accessible, but privately owned/managed, spaces which he decried, repeatedly, as ‘garnish’.  His principal objection seemed to be that such spaces were not available to protest in in the same way as they would be if they were adopted (although he did not seem constrained by the lack of a forum for complaint).  There is an issue about the over-zealous management of some of these places – I remember one leading London architect telling me of his sadness at his young son being told he couldn’t ride his bike in the ‘public space’ in the centre of one of Central London’s recent larger commercial developments – but, on the flipside, given local government funding constraints are we really saying that taxpayers should be funding the creation of new spaces to protest through tax revenue?  Such spaces can be delivered by the market and appropriate access arrangements can be created and monitored through the planning system.   Loyd Grossman (yes, that Loyd Grossman, now Chair of the Royal Parks – who knew?!) appeared supportive and emphasised the Royals Parks’ role in providing equal access to green space – but I can see that their policy on protesting is, nevertheless, still quite prescriptive especially outside of Hyde Park.

The walk back across Euston Road after the debate. fighting through the sea of railing, laybys and turning lanes, was evidence in itself that adoption of streets and spaces does not necessarily create or sustain attractive, useable spaces.

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