The Mayor’s Design Advisory Group has delivered its long-awaited challenge to the next incumbent of City Hall via a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring London retains its essential qualities as it grows.
The Growing London report, which is downloadable here, is the first of four in a series called ‘Good Growth’ produced in association with the NLA. It forms a ‘bunch of ideas’ that are a ‘provocation to a debate’ to the next mayor as well as the broader built environment industry in the run up to a new London Plan, according to MDAG chair Daniel Moylan.
And although much of the debate about London’s growth has been to do with numbers, said report author Sunand Prasad, ‘our concern is actually about quality – where things will be, what they will look like, what sort of neighbourhoods they will make, who will build them and who will live there.’ Unlike ever before, London has to contain its growth within its existing boundary, but Prasad said MDAG did not ‘buy’ that the shortfall in providing housing was all to do with the planning system. ‘That’s one of the myths we’d like to clear away’, he said. Last year just 26,000 units were built in the capital, and the ‘woeful’ imbalance between supply and demand remained a puzzle. ‘But we think local authorities must be part of a solution that needs to be fixed. Let’s make it glamorous again for councils to build.’
Jobs too, are important, especially in the light of a loss of around 1m sq ft of space through permitted development in two years since May 2013, so MDAG recommends resisting PD rights where possible. But growth in housing should be a group effort, with new accommodation built in town centres, opportunity areas, suburbs, and estate redevelopment, along with ‘bits’ of the Green Belt, but with better understanding of the tools used. ‘The knottiest problem is actually not the Green Belt but the suburbs’, said Prasad. Running through the reports like words through a stick of rock is this issue of density, and, said Prasad, there is nothing ‘un-London about high densities.’
Tall buildings guidance tended to be about what cannot be built, rather than what can, so a 3D model is required to assist, with a return to being more plan-led, rather than reacting to tall buildings on a case-by-case basis.
But one of the key issues in the report leapt on by Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright was the need to improve how the development process is communicated to the public. ‘The first impression you get is the crumpled sheet of paper at the bottom of a lamppost’, he said. ‘How about an image of that development? How about a 3D model? I’m shocked boroughs don’t have them in-house.’
Savills’ head of world research Yolande Barnes said the focus had been about buildings rather than neighbourhoods. ‘None of us live in just a building. We live in a place.’ But the politics of developing in suburbia at higher densities were, said Barnes, ‘enormous’. We also do not realise how ‘absurdly reliant’ we are on a very few methods of delivery when it comes to housing, she said, in comparison with other countries enjoying many more long term players, including custom-build.
Other points raised at the event included the possibility of a land tax, diversity in the way we release land, and that from executive director at Grosvenor Richard Powell, who stressed a need for an alternative economic model to funding public infrastructure through private development, a system that he felt is ‘really broken’.
MDAG deputy chair Pat Brown said the report was a process rather than a static document. ‘We’re only going to do this in partnership….The communication, the consultation and the long, patient approach to developing these neighbourhoods and communities is what we have to move onto next’, she said. ‘For me that is the most fundamental part of building a great capital.’