London should adopt the approach it took to deliver the infrastructure for the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 as it considers the housing, transport and energy challenges it faces arising from steep population growth.
But it must also start to grapple with the thorny prospect of altering the Green Belt and form better alliances with the rest of the UK, even if it pushes through fiscal devolution to help fund those infrastructural needs.
Those were some one of the main points to emerge from a special breakfast event at the NLA to debate the construction industry’s response to the London infrastructure plan 2050 last week.
In the run up to the end of the consultation period on 31 October,Jeremy Skinner, Senior Manager for Growth and Enterprise, GLA, began proceedings by claiming that London’s infrastructure was not in line with the capital’s global position and that perhaps fiscal devolution – ‘all the rage at the minute’ – would allow it to better invest in growth.
There was a need, he said, for more sustainable urban drainage, capturing more rainwater and reducing the flow through our sewers, which in some development areas was proving a brake on construction. Energy issues, moreover, face three key objectives: over security of supply, affordability and the reduction of CO2. But Skinner said it had not yet been tested how much improving digital connectivity actually also creates more of a demand for transport and ‘crucial’ face-to-face communication.
Skinner revealed he had had early discussions with mayor Boris Johnson on the Green Belt and that, although he is adamant it must be protected, it may be an issue for a future mayor. Similarly, Skinner said his department had started to think and have conversations with colleagues outside London about how the growth of the city may be distributed more widely. Meanwhile, a new delivery group which meets for the first time on November 5 will seek to attend to the infrastructure London needs and driving out costs by connecting chief executives with politicians and sub-contractors. ‘It’s amazing that has hasn’t happened yet, given the lessons of the Olympics’, said Skinner. ‘That is precisely the level of management and planning that is vital to achieve brilliant things’.
The infrastructure plan is merely a contribution to a debate about how we invest, plan and prepare for growth to create a city that is tolerant and civilized, added Skinner. ‘We have a period of the next two or three years to get our policies right to prepare for that growth.’
Alexander Jan, director at Arup, said that in a sense it was more about how politically viable the report’s recommendations are, especially given that the proportion of publicly sponsored investment as a share of national income has fallen from 11% in the 60s to 2.5% projected by the end of the current government. Steep population growth to over 10million will mean that the outer boroughs may see a lot of growth, despite being no fans of development, while meeting demands for 50,000 homes a year will be a ‘step change, amid a funding gap of some £122bn on housing and transport. Getting the funding for that would take us into ‘fiscal devolution territory’, said Jan, but property taxes could raise £80bn over 20 years with a 2.5% rise. ‘If we’re going to do all of this stuff it will need an Olympic-style effort to make it happen’, he said. ‘It needs a more concerted approach…and the mayor and boroughs will need more powers’.
Dr Peter Bonfield, CEO, BRE Group said that what he had learned from working on the Olympic Games was that, despite having a ‘pretty poor’ track record in delivering infrastructure projects, we could achieve a project that was early, below budget, meets all our green targets and with a good safety record’ if the right open, learning culture was put in place. The keys going forward include reducing demand – at the Olympics, all the buildings were designed to be 50% more efficient than current buildings and used 40% less water – being ‘really scared’ about climate change; and being resilient to people, with a population that will be 50% over 65 by 2060.
The conference also heard from Sue Kershaw, Director of Rail for Europe, CH2M Hill and panel member, Mayor’s Infrastructure Advisory Group, who called the report a ‘roadmap’ for London’s future, sentiments echoed by Rob Naybour, Founding Partner, Weston Williamson, whose firm is working on a station the size of Waterloo at Old Oak Common and believes more linkages should be fostered with northern cities. ‘It’s hugely positive, but it is only a start, really’, he said of the infrastructure report.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly