London Plan + research (UoW talk)

Contribution to a debate with Andrew Barry-Pursell (GLA) and Duncan Bowie (UoW) 11 November 2010

Talk by Michael Edwards

Briefly I’ll say what Just Space is and what we have been doing in recent London Plans, most recently the DRLP EiP 2010.  There is a provisional writeup and more will follow.[i] Then I’ll go on to concentrate on some of the research issues which have arisen from this experience.

We have raised some important issues about the Plan and enabled many voices to be heard which would otherwise have been silent. I even hope that we may secure some changes in the Plan, though we are realistic enough not to expect  much.  But the contradictions in the plan are so many and so profound that some cracks may be opened up. For example:

(i)  The mayor speaks of the “step change” needed on environmental issues (DRLP §1.47) but no such step changes are proposed. (NB no mention was made of any environmental issues at last week’s LSE London seminar on scenario planning either.)

(ii) The Mayor expresses fine aspirations about tackling poverty-especially in relation to health outcomes-but in fact the plan is relentlessly driven by the pursuit of aggregate GDP.  The problem of low wages is noted but, apart from the Mayor’s support for the London Living Wage, nothing is offered on this front.  Higher average productivity is to be secured by fostering the growth of sectors which have high GVA per worker.  Nothing is done about raising the productivity (and thus potentially the wages) of the low-GVA-per-worker sectors. (ref to  Crossrail?)  That’s the real challenge.

(iii) On housing the plan is structured in such a way that discussion is focussed on total output targets while it should be focussed on expanding the social rented housing stock. All the government announcements since the election further add to the crucial importance of planning for more social rented housing. If that, or something equally radical, can’t be done then all the fine words about equalities will need to be removed because it will be a plan for rapidly worsening social and health polarisation.

Some of the main research questions arising

Meta-questions / procedure:

Exposing the mythology of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ which at the moment devalues qualitative experience and needs which can’t be quantified.  More seriously it effectively privileges a neo-liberal narrative over other interpretations of the evidence.  For example it makes it almost impossible to challenge evidence about market demand or lack of it in the growth of suburban office centres.  With evidence-based policy making we could never have had Canary Wharf, La Défense, Milton Keynes…

Matters of democratic process. What would be involved in building public understanding of – and informed taking possession – of planning at a metropolitan scale?  Is it true that they do it well in Vancouver?  Why do we have massively popular TV series on ancient settlements (Time Team) and on creativity in making individual houses (Grand Designs) but nothing equivalent on urban issues?  Where are the universities cooperating to support citizens in their study of urban processes? I’ve been part of a tiny project of this sort this year but it feels like an aberration and is only a drop in the ocean of need.

But the big research questions are on the way the city works.  What do we need?

1. Overwhelmingly important would be longitudinal studies of the outcomes for different social classes and categories of change in the so-called regeneration and opportunity areas. At the moment we have a lot of anecdotal evidence of displacement of households and businesses but very little systematic rigorous evidence.  We are far too reliant on comparative static analysis which can be deeply misleading where we have rapid population turnover.  Thus when the Evening Standard reported he latest batch of mortality rates for boroughs in which the gulf between richer and poorer areas continued to widen, it drew attention to Tower Hamlets as the exception.  But even the Evening Standard has the sophistication to point out that this seemingly good result could have been due to the replacement of unhealthy poor people by healthier rich people in the ‘regeneration’ process.

In the new context of the coalition’s proposals on housing we very urgently need studies which would help evaluate the likely movement patterns of low-income and middle-income people who get displaced by the non-affordability of housing.

2. In the same sprit, we badly need studies of the changing composition of what were originally council estates through the right to buy and the growth of private renting.  It is still normal for planning documents to espouse ‘tenure mix’ as an unchallengeable objective in working class areas (not of course in rich areas) when in fact most council estates are now very mixed in tenure terms, and often with perverse and surprising (for some) consequences.   Tenants have been challenging these policies in the EiP but everyone would benefit from a better evidence base.  We could do worse than a lot of high-quality student projects on this front.

3. More critical work on how property markets have operated…  Most of the work we all do in the production of the built environment is driven by the pursuit of rent….

We are a very big sector (but almost invisible in the statistics)

Less and less of the money pouring into the sector actually buys construction; most just inflates the land price / rent

Land problems are the main barrier to an IKEA solution to housing.

It really is important to re-institute new towns.

Hierarchies of shopping centres need to be inverted, and local facilities prioritised, as part of lifetime neighbourhoods.

4.  Further questions on the economy, low pay and low productivity.

probably not in this seminar.

Just Space Network:

UCL activity on the EiP: :

Personal blog:

[i] Michael Edwards (2010 October) Do Londoners make their own plan? in K Scanlon and B Kochan (eds) London: coping with austerity, LSE London Series, paperback, 978-0-85328-459-8, chapter 5, 57-71. Eprint Whole book is about to be a free download at

See also the Newsletter of the London Tenants Federation and other material on the Just Space website.

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