The next (2014) London Plan

20 January 2014 addition: the new Plan is now out. To find it and to follow the story and debates go to the Just Space site http://wp.me/P3WY0O-y   I may, though, add some personal observations on the end of this post.

10 December 2013: I keep having to respond to questions about what the big issues will be when the next London Plan appears for consultation in January.  This is an attempt to write it down systematically. So far it is a purely personal statement and if any of it gets adopted by JustSpace or others then I’ll tell you. And it’s a draft with data and references to be added. Thinking aloud.

Already in 2002 I was describing London in the journal CITY as a wealth machine and a poverty machine but I don’t think any of us would have foreseen the extent to which both machines have speeded up in the last decade.  The dramatic explosion of housing and land prices has returned to it’s pre-crash trajectory (and we need to explore whether the crash of 2007-8 has in some ways fuelled that boom, rather than just set it back a bit).  Alongside that ‘asset value’ growth we have seen rapid escalation of impoverishment, worst at the bottom of the income and wealth distribution but substantial through the middle ranges too. The immediate material losers may not add up to 99% but they have been a majority for sure. [all this could be substantiated with good data.]

Economy

In some ways the economy of London—as conventionally measured— has been bearing up compared with the continuing weakening of the UK as a whole.  [We don’t have easy data for the full extent of London because the GLA area, for which it’s easy to find statistics, omits much of London’s outer reaches, including areas where a lot of its manufacturing takes place and where a lot of its people choose (or are constrained) to live.] This relative buoyancy of GDP and employment, relative to the rest of England, probably represents the results of three processes:

  • Insofar as the government bailouts to the banking sector (totalling £xbn) found their way into regional incomes they will mainly be in the salaries, bonuses and investment incomes of people and institutions in London and the South East of England, as Ian Gordon pointed out at the time;
  • Construction and all the property-related professions which took a heavy knock in 2008 have benefitted from the recovery of speculative housing and even office production, with estate agents being the fastest-growing employment category at a national level, so presumably surging ahead in London; infrastructure investment in the UK is also powerfully concentrated in the South East.
  • London as a luxury enjoyed by the global elites suffered scarcely a pause and appears to be going strong, contributing some of that construction demand and lots of other activity, not least providing university education for those elites.

But behind these rather fragile areas (¿bubbles) of prosperity, the rate of exploitation of labour is increasing in the formal economy. Registered unemployment looks not too bad but we know that many of the self-employed are struggling while among employees there is massive under-employment – people unable to get the hours they need for an adequate income – a lot of zero-hours contracts and workfare [ data, refs].  Alongside these hardships in the money economy and reinforcing them are the cuts in social wage, in benefits and in supports of almost every kind alongside mounting insecurity arising from dependence on short-let private rented housing, eviction threats for council and housing association tenants as bedroom tax payments and benefit caps put people in arrears. And for squatters, criminalisation makes life even harder than it already was.

Although the London Plan has always paid lip-service to diversification of the economy of the city, its policy emphasis remains on those sectors of the formal economy which generate high value added per worker (GVA per capita), notably financial and business services. Efforts to persuade City Hall that output growth could equally or better be gained by raising productivity in low-GVA sectors has never succeeded and the present regime is not going to be sympathetic to social justice or equity arguments for doing so.  Furthermore, with labour so cheap for employers (workfare, low pay, subsidies through tax credits and other benefits) why should any employer look for productivity improvements? Indeed it’s a mystery why supermarkets are so busy installing self-checkouts.

Fundamental issues here include how we value people’s work. Could we introduce a critique of GDP as a proper measure of the social product, drawing on all the scholarly work in that field to switch the emphasis towards unpaid and paid care work and all the other crucial unpaid and under-paid activity on which we increasingly depend?  the Just Space economy and planning group is working on these issues and we’ll see where we get to. Joe Ravetz has just sent a link to  a Manchester campaign he is working on: http://steadystatemanchester.net which looks strong on environmental challenge to standard GDP measurement.

At a more practical level we face grave problems from the loss of workspaces, including especially space for SMEs, in lots of sectors.  This loss of workspace stems fundamentally from the absurdly inflated prices which developers are willing to pay for land which can be converted to housing use, even land in rather inaccessible locations and with unsuitable neighbours (data, examples). Although the planning system has powers to prevent these changes of use, they are weakening as…

  • City Hall, desperately keen to identify the maximum possible amount of land available for substantial housing schemes, has been pressing boroughs in the SHLAA (Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment) to release more employment land from protection;
  • Changes in national policy enable retail and office space to be switched to residential use without that change needing permission;

We anticipate that the January 2014 version of the London Plan will propose that the newly-increased forecast housing need should be met substantially by redevelopment and intensification of town centres and other centres where retail activity is conveniently expected to decline.  There is a serious risk that this strategy could extinguish a lot of jobs and the services which those jobs provide.  You may have to drive to Luton to get your car serviced or to Essex for your plumbing supplies.

Housing

Housing, as always, will be the central issue.  The City Hall team are clearly hoping to sidestep a major debate on the definition of “affordability” and the policies for delivery of affordable housing – issues which were the core of the debate in the hearings of 2012 leading to the 2013 alterations.  They may plead that the issues are sub-judice since some of the London Boroughs have a legal challenge outstanding against the Mayor’s decision to prevent them using their powers to develop at rents lower than ‘affordable rents”.  The main issues are not, however, subject to judicial review so it is hard to see how this circumvention could be sustained.

Indeed the Mayor promises that in January, alongside the new plan, he will publish the SHLAA and its companion document the SHMA (Strategic Housing Market Assessment) both of which are required by national policy as the basis for a valid housing plan.  It is hard to see how the central issue in the EiP can fail to be the adequacy of the housing policies to meet the needs of Londoners at all levels of the income distribution.  We shall see.

Although there is mounting popular pressure on these issues, many of those groups suffering from the worst effects of the housing crisis are not (yet) very well organised. Much stronger inputs than we have hitherto seen from private tenants, housing association tenants, mortgage payers and would-be mortgage-payers (Priced-out) would be very valuable.

The Mayor has already issued his (2nd) draft Housing Strategy for (separate) consultation. This will be Christmas reading but the initial reaction of the Labour Party’s Steve Hilditch suggests it is a mouse of a document, essentially a thin disguise for the real strategy of abolishing social housing. Sharon Hayward gave a stirring call to the members of the London Tenants Federation just after it was published and I hope that will be online soon.

[more to come] See also a good Jan 2014  article by James Meek in the LRB .

Liftetime neighbourhoods v the concentration of shops and public services

This may seem like deck chairs on the Titanic but it’s a tangle of interesting issues which focus many aspects of daily life and—now—many of the tensions and deprivations we are beginning to suffer. The concept of Liftetime Neighvourhoods is simple: that within easy reach people of all ages should have access to a range of services and housing types so that, as they age, they may choose to stay put. The idea is said to have originated with Age Concern, echoing the established concept of lifetime homes, and found its way as an aspiration into the 2009 draft London Plan (which became the 2011 Plan) with a remarkably high level of consensus. The London Tenants Federation gave it strong support and elaborated it in detail. It means people should have a  range of nearby medical, recreation, library and other public services and basic-level commercial services, within walking distance where densities permit and within easy public transport reach in sparser suburban areas. Because local services are now under such threat from public spending cuts, loss of pubs and shops to residential use, concentration of retailing into malls and retail parks (and online) this policy aspiration will  now be looking rather threadbare.  Since there is so little monitoring of such matters, however, it’s quite likely that no-one will notice the problem unless we (someone – who?) digs up some evidence and focuses attention on it. (Students seeking dissertation topics, please note.)

On Boxing Day Laura Vaughan Ashley Dhanani and Sam Griffiths published an expanded version of their research on the historical evolution and current robustness of London suburban centres, laying great stress on the diversity of services which can fruitfully develop in the structure of main and especially the back streets – just the areas which City Hall planners seem to see as a soft target for redevelopment and intensification.  [I’m not clear about their version of the space syntax analysis, and especially the new term “choice”, but the main argument seems compelling even without that bit.] Maybe they could consider giving evidence…

Transport

There are, of course, masses of transport issues confronting London though it’s not clear which, if any, will surface in this revision of the Plan.

Airports – both the hub controversy and the future of London City.

Crossrail 2 which seems to command wide support, not just from tunnelling contractors and attendant professions and banks keen to carry on as Crossrail 1 ends. This seems to be under consideration (and out for consultation) as a free-standing policy decision, justified by the usual circular logic which has activity in central London growing, partly at the expense of the suburbs, congestion mounting on existing radial routes, justifying further investment in radial capacity, generating further central growth….and so on. The argument for CR2 hinges partly on the relief of congestion and partly on the need to deliver even more labour to the centre. As with CR1, a lot of this labour would be from outside GL, either by interchange from surface trains or by direct routing of medium-haul commuter trains through the new tunnel (there being numerous alternative configurations to consider at this stage).

The alternatives should be more orbital public transport, using a variety of rail, tram and bus improvements but it’s by no means clear that these choices will be offered (London mayors don’t do choices – at least in planning) or even permitted as topics of debate. There are doubtless good professionals in TfL with all the options at their fingertips, CBAs completed and with the schemes ranked intelligently, but forbidden from speaking about it (as there were when CR1 was being considered).

There may also be highway and parking issues. The present mayor favours some road construction and the pressure for one or more new road bridges over the Thames may surface again, prompting strong opposition on air quality and related grounds in which Just Space is bound to be involved.

On the day I’m writing this (16 December) Twitter is alive with upbeat messages from Greg Clarke at a conference on London infrastructure plans – all very gung ho for London to have enough decision-making and fiscal autonomy to build the infrastructure it needs.

Cycling is a hot issue and may come up.

There is an interesting review of the transport issues, and especially of technical fixes, by the Centre for London (Martin Wedderburn) http://centreforlondon.org/publication/transporting-the-next-million-londoners/ though it has no distributional dimension to it and is rather weak on cycling. It’s quite positive on the need to manage density, the distribution of services etc at a local scale (of a few km) but ignores the degree to which this is counter-trend and challenges the market.

Air Quality, emissions, energy
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Author: Ed

Editor

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