Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Infrastructure Plan for London lacking in vision

I recently attended the Policy Forum for London‘s seminar on Infrastructure Planning in London. The future for London presented by representative’s of the Mayor’s Office was of an increasing concentration of business and economic growth in central London, with outer London seen as domiciliary boroughs housing the pool of people who will be employed by those businesses. The transport plan in particular sought only to address the increasing capacity pressures resulting from this daily commute.

This was challenged by myself and others who suggested that a move towards living and working in closer proximity could not only reduce the pressures on the transport network of commuting, but also improve people’s quality of life.

The response was that businesses always sought to cluster, and ensuring a wide employment pool necessitated commuting. The plan was just following the market.

To me this showed a disappointing lack of vision or leadership for the capital, nor did it fully appear to ring true.

I have seen businesses choosing to move out of central London and relocate in Sutton in an effort to improve the quality of life of their staff. Other businesses, such as Subsea 7, have chosen to expand their existing operations in our suburban borough because many of their staff live in the area and this maintained their quality of life. We also have businesses clustering outside of central London; again Subsea 7 noted this as a reason for remaining in the borough. We have a world class concentration of expertise in cancer diagnosis and treatment on a par with Oxford and Cambridge life science clusters with the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden, that have significant ambition, and importantly space, to grow. And in Beddington we have a Strategic Industrial Location that is noted in the Mayor’s London Plan. And that is just in Sutton. Croydon is at least registered as an area of opportunity for growth because of its established economic presence, and other outer London boroughs have their own clusters of businesses to build on.

As for commuting, that appears to be less of a choice than a necessity for many Londoners as housing and planning policy seems intent on pricing all but the uber-rich out of central London.

The problem with following market forces is that the market only seeks to serve itself. Surely the purpose of politicians and leaders is to have a vision to shape the country, or in this case the capital, to best serve all its citizens. Allowing market forces free rein sees London as nothing more than a cash cow to be exploited to drive economic growth at the expense of all else.

So if we allow this strategy to follow through what will be the London of the future? The centre will be a hive of commerce and activity, but its only other offer will be as a playground for the wealthy and for tourists. The soul will be lost from the heart of the city. The luxury flats only affordable for foreign investors or as second homes for the elite will be left empty for much of the time, and central London will be a glossy showpiece, not the living, organic, busy city we love. Employment land in outer London will be replaced with housing, serviced by bland retail parks and supermarkets because the district centres and small high streets will have been eroded by poor planning policies and the lack of daytime custom. Housing estates without a clustering around a key shopping area are not conducive to community cohesion or neighbourliness, and so the occupants will become insular and strangers to each other.

London has always been a vibrant metropolis, its charm and success built on the rich living side by side with the less well off; foreign settlers brushing shoulders with Cockney incumbents. Bustling street markets squeezed in between the imposing structures of banks and opulant state buildings. There have always been tourists providing a means to make a living for the industrious and entrepreneurial large or small, and clusters of businesses have always grown organically, often around the diversity of the people and the skills that they have brought to an area. London’s charm has always been its diversity, in its architecture as well as its people. Sometimes that may jar, but it also gives it its edge, its vibrancy and its innovation.

My fear is that the current direction of travel risks eroding all this, and will turn our thriving bustling capital into a bland, sterile showroom. It will be shiny and new, but lacking any soul.

Interestingly the vision and desire to forge new ways of thinking came from other speakers at the conference. The presentation about the Thames Tideway Tunnel was the first to show a real commitment to sustainability, and an understanding of how major infrastructure development can also be used as a force for improving the skills and ambitions of the next generation. The speaker from the London Waste and Recycling Board also gave a forward looking plan which involved shaping the way people deal with waste to achieve a more sustainable capital. Sandra Roebuck from Lambeth Council gave an excellent presentation demonstrating how they were fighting to ensure there remained a supply of affordable housing for people living in the capital, but highlighting the struggle to retain a local employment offer within the borough too. The presentation from BT Group was a good example of the opposite approach, with plans explained about how the company will give the public what they want, but apparently didn’t  need, and with no mention of any actual benefit to the consumer of this offer.

The purpose of politicians is to be thought-leaders, not market followers. We need a vision for the capital, not a free rein for those that wish to exploit London for all they can suck out of it. London is home for many, a marketplace to others. It is a melting pot for ideas and creativity. It holds history and culture, attracts science and innovation. People visit to see, to learn, to do business and to play. We must nurture all aspects of this, and provide room for the capital to evolve. But we can also shape our future capital. We can have a sustainable city,  a vibrant city, and a beautiful city. But to do so needs a vision, and plans to support that vision.

What was presented instead was a fix of extrapolated existing problems, and the factory-farming of a bloated cash cow economy.

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February 5, 2015 - Posted by | Opinion | , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Businesses might once have located in Sutton, but I know of a number which are having to look at moving elsewhere because so much office space is being converted into housing, and there is nowhere else locally for them to go.

    Comment by fred | February 8, 2015 | Reply

    • Sadly I am also aware of commercial tenants being evicted from offices so the property owners can take advantage of the new policies to convert the buildings to residential. This is an example of the poorly thought out policies that risk turning outer London into just domiciliary boroughs with no local employment offer. The Council introduced an Article 4 Direction to try to slow down this loss of employment land.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | February 8, 2015 | Reply


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