New London Sounding Board

Wednesday 27 April 2016

London needs an Assembly made up of council leaders if it is to truly reflect the city and chart its course effectively. And the new Mayor should also focus on creating a simpler London-led system to fund affordable housing together with other public facilities.

Those were just two of the issues to emerge in a wide-ranging meeting of the NLA’s New London Sounding Board, chaired for the first time by Robert Evans, Partner of Argent, who took the reigns from Michael Cassidy CBE, chair of the Board from 2011-2015.

Taking place just a week before the Mayoral elections, the New London Sounding Board put forward some of the key issues facing the future of the capital to the new London Mayor.

Affordable housing

The first topic of discussion was the deliverability of affordable housing and transparency around viability assessments.

Is it time, Evans asked, to move to a flat system, a simpler tariff? If every scheme could create a surplus for a named priority, that would be helpful, said Grosvenor Executive Director Richard Powell. Especially since extra housing creates such significant pressures on other services such as schools or other social infrastructure. ‘So for me, allow priorities for the city to be catered for’, he said. Planners, though, are not well trained in negotiating viability assessments, and, said London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies Chair Peter Eversden, this whole area has become ‘an industry’. Few authorities have the expertise in house, leaving developers with ‘the upper hand’. The government claims affordable housing is being delivered, but, actually, what is it, even? The subject has been muddied when a so-called starter home is considered but can cost £450,000.

All the good that development can do can also be undermined by people’s lack of faith in the viability process, said Westminster’s Executive Director for Growth, Planning and Housing, Ed Watson. It would be thus beneficial if the industry could come together and agree a single, standardised approach that everyone worked to and which could be more easily implemented across boroughs. ‘Members would then be able to understand, articulate and defend and support the development industry as being part of the solution rather than part of the problem’, said Watson.

Currently, viability is ‘an art’ with all parties feeling their way towards it, said Pocket CEO Marc Vlessing. GLA must become a real leader across the boroughs to try to find better settlements for London, he added.

For Heather Cheesbrough, Director of Planning and Strategic Transport at LB Croydon a flat rate could work – what is local politics about if it is not to have to make decisions? But resourcing is a major issue, and it is very difficult for boroughs to recruit the right expertise, not least because the private sector can pay that much more.

Simplicity of charging is one thing, said David Shaw, Head of the Regent Street Portfolio at The Crown Estate, but simplicity in the question of the profitability of schemes quite another. What works in a boom period for a certain type of scheme may not in a bare period – such a measure may simply reduce the amount of development taking place.

The affordable nature of London with a small ‘a’ is a bigger subject behind all of this, said Digby Flower, Head of London Markets at Cushman & Wakefield. People are moving out of London, with big firms like RBS and Citibank taking considerably less space than they did pre-financial crisis; people are moving to places with cheaper jobs. The same is true of the professional sector, he said, with every lawyer moving in the last five years taking 30% less space. ‘In 10 years we will have a major problem with an absence of skill’, said Flower. ‘We have got away with this for the last five years because of the tech boom.’

There is a risk of unintended consequences, said Lyn Garner, Director of Regeneration, Planning and Development atLB Haringeywith knock-on effects elsewhere as a result of the drive for units, potentially resulting in the remaining stock becoming more expensive to pay for the affordable and pushing out the middle market. But better transport links will help, and TfL will have to be part of the solution, said Director, Strategy and Planning, Surface Transport, TfLBen Plowden, becoming more of a delivery body in terms of housing, even if a lot of its land is operational.

Recommendations:

Two possible solutions to delivering affordable housing were proposed for further interrogation:

  • Create a clear priority of how to spend development surplus on a London-wide basis and on items other than just affordable housing;
  • Treat affordable housing as infrastructure either within CIL or with a CIL-like tariff, as a high-ranking priority.

Outer London’s role – density and the suburbs

So what of the suburbs? As London’s major central Opportunity Areas are built out, how can we deliver new areas of regeneration and development in the outer boroughs, from zones 3-6? Can the message to move towards densification shift to outer London?

One of the biggest problems, said Peter Eversden, remains politics. Densification is unpopular because of the way it is perceived to be delivered as ‘tall towers on tiny plots of land’. We must look much more carefully at land assembly – looking densification within the context of the wider area. 

One solution to the nub of the problem is to fix London’s governance, to bring council leaders to the table, said Lyn Garner. Why isn’t the Mayoral Assembly made up of elected borough leaders who represent their communities and play a major role in delivery? 

Indeed, said Anna Mansfield, Strategic Projects Director at Publica, ‘we really don’t have a vision for London’. The principles for a higher-density London aren’t in the public domain, so people don’t know what higher-density development will mean for them. The consultation process is ‘discredited and broken’ in many areas, she added, where negotiation only takes place on a site-by-site basis. To be more sustainable we have to build more densely, using less land, but this is harder in the suburbs. ‘Somehow we have to change the way people think about change’, said Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners partner Bob Allies. 

And yet when it comes to densification, town centres could provide a useful catalyst and opportunity for suburban areas, said GL Hearn Planning Director Giulia Bunting, with more housing as part of a strategy for town centres and high streets. For Heather Cheesbrough, suburban stations provide a significant opportunity to provide housing alongside a huge range of services.

Certainly, though, in terms of the public’s understanding of what is going on in their city, there is much work to be done, said NLA chairman Peter Murray. The Paddington Pole appeared to come out of no-where, and no-one has an idea of the vision for what places will be like in 10-15 years time, compared to cities like Toronto. The sort of city we are creating has to be communicated better, Murray added.

The crucial theme in much of this discussion, said Marc Vlessing, is that there is no collective bargaining between the boroughs and the GLA. ‘At the heart of the crisis is a crisis of governance’, he said. ‘Until we have the leaders and mayors of councils sitting on the London Assembly, until the Mayor of London has a fiscal base that he can use with collective bargaining for the allocation of resource to the boroughs, none of this is going to change. The glue isn’t there.’ London could learn from cities like Amsterdam and even Manchester to ‘glue’ the city together with such collective bargaining.

In addition, any possible ‘Homes for London’ agency that might crop up must adopt some of the attributes that TfL has shown, said Tony Travers, which even had to force through a bike scheme. ‘Unless Housing for London has some of those attributes, it will be a committee’, he warned.

Recommendations:

Though no clear conclusions were agreed, two overall recommendations emerged from the discussion:

  • The city needs a clearer vision of what a ‘higher-density’ London means, which can be more effectively communicated with Londoners;
  • Council leaders need to brought to the table, in order to ensure more effective bargaining between the boroughs and the GLA.

 Leave or remain – Brexit

 So, Brexit. According to Travers, it is hard to work out whether a reported slowdown in overseas money coming to London is because markets are risk averse to change or responding to a perception of a damaged market. Voting to stay will likely result in a micro recession but bounce back in five years – the big question is what the long-term effects will be. ‘It’s hard to see a period of uncertainty being anything other than problematic’, he said. Would we need visas to travel around Europe? The impact on immigration could have ‘profound’ implications for London, and the construction sector could lose a significant proportion of their labour force, added Vlessing.

Brexit is all about uncertainty, said Savills’ Director of World Research Yolande Barnes, affecting a city such as London which has hit a ‘high plateau’ and may become less competitive against cities like New York and ‘second tier cities’ having their time in the sun. For as long as there is uncertainty there will be less investment in London, she added, and much of the affordable housing has been delivered off the back of private. But then, said Robert Evans, a positive flipside will be that we may see a real opportunity for build for rent. ‘Suddenly I think the game has opened up very slightly’, he said. ‘I do think economics will start to help it.’

NLA programme 

With NLA’s forthcoming programme Insight Study around the subject of Work later this year, the Sounding Board members were also canvassed for their views on what subsets of this wide-ranging issue might be of interest. On such was the loss of ‘dirty’ industry but rise of ‘making’ industries – artisanal craft, 3D printing, sourdough bread production, micro-breweries, or the number of bike frame makers that have cropped up in the capital but find workspace hard to come by.

Communities want jobs as well as homes, said Peter Eversden, and government’s dictats that anything should be converted into homes is proving ‘disastrous’. Permitted development rights and its impact across London was thus another theme considered worthy of further research, as well as how offices are designed to win the war for talent, and for wellbeing.

Marc Vlessing said he was interested in establishing reliable, accurate figures as an annual index on the flight of 20-30-somethings – now a net migration for the first time – from the capital. What of the impact of the rise of the small ‘alternative’ city across the globe, asked Yolande Barnes, with the Londons of the world becoming more reliant on the Margates or the Bristols as strong, more affordable, linked city options. What is the role of these second tier cities?

Further topics of discussion were put forward for further investigation, including: a guidance note on estate regeneration; how we will manage a rising population in the inner city with people living and working in the same place; business rate system reform; the phenomenon of architects being commissioned to design schemes up to planning but being jettisoned further down the project line; and of course, the replacement London Plan.

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Notes

 

The New London Sounding Board was established by NLA in April 2011 to provide a single, cross-industry voice that contributes to the debate surrounding major change in the capital. Inspired by the Urban Leader's Forum set up by San Francisco's Center for Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), the board’s members are drawn from across the professions involved with urban change and are all industry leaders with expertise in delivery across all sectors of the built environment, as represented by NLA’s year-round programme.

This report presents the views of individual members and does not necessarily represent the views of all those on the Sounding Board.

Members in attendance Toggle

Robert Evans, Partner, Argent and Chair, New London Sounding Board

Bob Allies, Partner, Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners

Yolande Barnes, Director, World Research, Savills

Guilia Bunting, Planning Director, GL Hearn

Heather Cheesbrough, Director of Planning and Strategic Transport, LB Croydon

Carolyn Dwyer, Director of Built Environment, City of London Corporation

Peter Eversden, Chair, London Forum of Civic and Amenity Societies

Digby Flower, Head of London Markets, Cushman & Wakefield

Lyn Garner, Director of Regeneration, Planning and Development, LB Haringey

Robert Gordon Clark, Executive Chairman, London Communications Agency

Anna Mansfield, Strategic Projects Director, Publica

Peter Murray, Chairman, New London Architecture

Ben Plowden, Director, Strategy and Planning, Surface Transport, Transport for London

Richard Powell, Executive Director, Grosvenor

David Shaw, Head of Regent Street Portfolio, The Crown Estate

Tony Travers, Director, LSE London

Marc Vlessing, CEO, Pocket

Ed Watson, Executive Director, Growth, Planning and Housing, City of Westminster

Members not in attendance: Toggle

Pat Brown, Director, Central

Malcolm Smith, Global Leader of Masterplanning and Urban Design, Arup

Michele Dix, Managing Director, Crossrail 2

Sue Foster, Executive Director, Housing, Regeneration and Environment, LB Lambeth

Pat Hayes, Executive Director of Regeneration and Housing, LB Ealing

Benjamin Lesser, Development Manager, Derwent London

Stewart Murray, Assistant Director, Planning, Greater London Authority

Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner, HTA Design

Sarah Cary, Head of Sustainable Places, British Land

Michael Lowndes, Executive Director, Turley

Fred Pilbrow, Founding Partner, Pilbrow & Partners

Tom French, Development Manager, Derwent London

Nigel Barker, Planning and Conservation Director London, Historic England

 

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