NLA Sounding Board

Wednesday 23 October 2013

The New London Sounding Board gathered last week to grapple with issues as diverse as the Thames Gateway; the future for London’s High Streets; and the vision for the capital up to 2020 and beyond.

Centre for London director Ben Rogers presented the first paper on the Thames Gateway, which he said was an area seemingly with no budget, no staff and no public face behind it. Even a Google search had drawn a blank on a minister with responsibility for the area, and in the short to medium term, many Gateway housing sites were ‘stuck’ and with little chance of being unblocked. It is crucial to get the governance of the area right, with the kind of entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that characterised the London Docklands Development Corporation. Discussion ranged from making more of the Gateway’s chief asset – open space, capitalising on the area’s new port, the landscape, its potential as a locale for London’s overspill housing, changing its very name, the fragmented nature of organisations involved, and steering the zone away from how it was branded by Jonathan Glancey – as the Cockney Siberia.

The Future for London’s High Streets discussion was introduced by Jackie Sadek, who is working with ‘retail veteran’ Bill Grimsey on a review, whose key line is that anyone looking at a future for the high streets predicated on retail alone is ‘buggered from the outset’. ‘Anything other than being a local economic hub is missing the point’, said Sadek. The group has come up with 31 recommendations as opposed to 29 in Mary Portas’ review, with a 25-year business plan for town centres, pushing education, residential health and other uses. Alongside case studies on Nottingham and London one idea was that national retailers should have to resource the renewal of thigh streets. ‘We’re trying to instil in these places that they have to work out their USP and sell that in’, she said. ‘Sustainable places are ones where people live and work in the same place.’

One observation on a positive measure for the high street came from Pocket director Marc Vlessing, who reported that in Holland, high street retailing was up, year-on-year, largely because of the bicycle, the safety and ease of cycling there making ‘all the difference’. This was backed up by Pat Brown from Central, who said that in New York retailers had reported sales up 300 per cent in areas near cycling zones.

The last presenter was no lesser name. Deputy mayor Eddie Lister took the Sounding Board through London’s ‘best year for tourism ever’, thanks to the Olympics, something which presented a great opportunity to get investment in and create regeneration projects. ‘I would suggest we have a window when we can attract quite a lot of finance into London’, he said. London needs to ‘innovate and change’ to cope with the extra million and a half people it expects by 2030, and part of that is the necessity for Crossrail 2, road upgrades – even potentially tunnelling the Hammersmith flyover – and new bridges to the east. But there is a ‘real pressure point’ on housing, with the target of 32,000 per year actually being only 27,000 in a good year. ‘We’re talking about closer to 50,000 housing units a year needed in London.’ Local authorities need more flexibility to borrow, and London needs to be given more control over the money it raises for investment, as well as greater consistency of funding that allows it to borrow. But some local authority planning departments have become ‘dysfunctional’, and there have been disagreements with a number of boroughs on their definitions of affordable housing. On opportunity areas, Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea is showing the way forward, not least in the TIF funding mechanism that has brought the Northern Line extension. ‘That’s the model we have to use in the future’.

David Taylor, New London Quarterly

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