Housing, the Green Belt and infrastructure were the hot topics at the RIBA last night as Mayoral candidates - or their representatives – gathered to present their views and take questions on built environment issues.
Housing was generally agreed to be at crisis point with normal Londoners being increasingly priced out of the capital, but neither building on the Green Belt nor creating more tall buildings was the answer, and, against a backdrop of the RIBA wading into the story, the Garden Bridge was never far away.
The event, staged at the Institute’s Jarvis Auditorium and organised by leading built environment institutions, including the NLA, featured Sian Berry, Green party London mayoral candidate, Andrew Boff, representing the Conservative Mayoral team, Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate, Val Shawcross, representing the Labour Mayoral team and Peter Whittle, UKIP London mayoral candidate.
Berry kicked off by saying she had ‘never met an architect or town planner she didn’t like’, adding that it was crucial Londoners had housing they can afford and that the city needed to be designed more for an ageing population. Boff said that Zac Goldsmith represented someone who could encourage investment in the capital and keep that in Londoner’s pockets, while Caroline Pidgeon’s opening remarks included that we desperately needed to increase the supply of all housing but especially ‘genuinely affordable homes’. ‘As a mayor I wouldn’t settle for anything less than world class’, she said. Shawcross branded London the greatest city in the world but one that is ‘at a crossroads’, with Londoners ‘priced out of the city altogether by a terrible ‘Tory housing crisis’, Finally, Whittle said that the debate should also focus on the ‘demand’ side of the population growth equation, with a need to look at immigration policy generally and how it affects London.
All candidates agreed that building on Green Belt land was a no-no – Boff suggested that we should build more New Towns, Pidgeon more Garden Cities, with a construction academy and apprenticeships to help set up a skilled workforce. Perhaps a new use class for public sector housing was also needed, she suggested. Shawcross said more brownfield development and higher densities would help, with climate change another important issue to be grasped including dealing with flooding through more SUDs schemes. For Whittle, London needs a proper brownfield register, more family housing and to retain its ‘soul’, while Berry suggested as many as 70,000 homes could be built on small sites and infill.
Infrastructure issues raised included the need to reduce the need to travel (Berry), and the need to link housing developments to infrastructure to unlock potential but, in a reference to Sadiq Khan, avoid the ‘tax’ represented by keeping travel fares ‘artificially low’ (Boff). Tall buildings were not the answer to the housing crisis, said Shawcross, Pidgeon claiming that there were too many boring, below-average designs, and Berry finding two in particular – Lexicon and Canaletto on City Road – ‘upsetting’.
Perhaps a more strategic approach to housing and growth in London, looking more to the wider south-east, was necessary. Pidgeon and Berry agreed that the Olympic precept should be retained, while Boff said that we shouldn’t be constrained by the ‘artificial boundary’ which was the travel-to-work area of the 1950s. Meetings that used to take place with surrounding boroughs had lapsed, said Shawcross, but how could we plan if we didn’t know how many we were planning for, asked Whittle. London needs more funds, and to raise its own, said Boff, with more done on stamp duty around the Crossrail 2 route, suggested Pidgeon. There was a very strong cross-party agenda on this, said Shawcross, with the work Tony Travers has done with the London Finance Commission, with Berry reminding the audience that London deserves some of the now-hypothecated money now going to Highways England to aid improvements.
There hadn’t been time to, as Whittle put it, ‘slag off the Garden Bridge’, although Pidgeon managed to squeeze in that she felt it should be ‘dead in the water by now.’ But in their final send-offs, Shawcross emphasized that London needed a mayor who could use strategic powers positively and provide ‘huge energy’ to ensuring more affordable housing is built. ‘London is becoming an unaffordable city for the people who live here’, she said. Pidgeon wanted a city that works for everyone, Boff one where everyone can benefit, in a city that he reminded Whittle was ‘made by immigrants’. And finally, Berry said she had run out of time to say more about her plans to close City airport and turn it into a new quarter for London, set up an energy company, offer free insulation instead of the ‘useless Green Deal’ and also relieve Londoners from being ‘buffeted by market forces’.
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ
Organised by: CIOB, Landscape Institute, New London Architecture, Planning Futures, RICS, RIBA, RTPI London, Urban Design Group