LONDON: TOO BIG TO SUCCEED? 15 September 2015

‘A successful city isn’t a question of size but a sense of whether you want to go there’ Bridget Rosewell OBE

 Our 21st Century Challenges programme kicked off to a great start this month with a busy house in the Ondaajte Lecture Theatre. This exciting new series of public and policy discussions tackle the big social, environmental and economic challenges facing the UK today. First up was a look at London’s future as a city and whether a rising population, projected to increase from 8.6million currently to 11 million by 2046, means London is already or will become ‘too big to succeed’.

Guided by our Chair for the evening, Pippa Crerar (City Hall Editor at the Evening Standard), an esteemed panel of experts, including leading economist Bridget Rosewell OBE, Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe CBE and former Secretary of State for Transport and Labour Party politician Lord Andrew Adonis, considered questions such as: Is London’s economy diverse enough? How will population growth affect the affordability of housing and will the city’s infrastructure hold up? Will anyone get left behind? And what does this mean for air quality and green space in the city?

Pippa kicked off the discussion by asking members of the audience ‘Is London too big to succeed?’ The majority, feeling optimistic about the city’s future, disagreed. Bridget Rosewell argued that the city was currently succeeding but was at risk of failing if we didn’t grasp opportunities, given that more people continue to move to London, particularly for jobs in creative industries, accountancy and marketing, where it is argued productivity increases when people get together. Jules Pipe agreed that London is not too big to succeed but instead is too centralised to succeed, and argued for policies which are more place and space specific, unlike some of Whitehall policy today. Going forward, Jules was concerned that London may miss out on a devolution of powers plan under The Chancellor, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse agenda to rebalance the UK economy.

Despite London’s status as a global powerhouse, Bridget pointed out that the city, in comparison to places like Hong Kong, is not overly dense. But, using the example of Bazalgettes’s sewers, argued that an important factor in keeping London moving has been the availability and flexibility of spare infrastructure capacity, unlike those found in some northern cities. And so, rather than being a numbers game – is London too big or too small – Bridget argued that the success of a city was about the level of forward planning and ability to adapt to changing circumstances, in other words, to succeed as a city, you must reinvent yourself or die.

Explaining the success of Hackney, Jules Pipe shared how 15 years ago the once dysfunctional council administration which had uncollected waste, uncollected taxes and an education system on the verge of collapse, now boasts a successful education system with 9 out of 10 schools considered Good or Outstanding at Ofsted, following an investment of £0.5 billion.  The opening of the East London line prior to the Olympics in 2012, teamed with huge growth in the scientific and technical industries has also had a transformative effect in facilitating the economic activity in the area, leading to a fourfold increase in usage of pre-existing stations above ground. Car usage on the other hand has dropped and bike use has doubled – third only to Oxford and Cambridge for commuting numbers by bike. This, as Jules described has led to a pleasant, cleaner and easily accessible Hackney ‘vibe’.

So does this mean that Hackney is the new Utopia? Should the rest of London follow suit? According to Jules, not necessarily, since the Borough still has deeply entrenched problems including a lack of housing, despite being one of the most active house-building Borough’s in the country. With more than 2,000 people homeless and 400 people being housed outside the Borough, the problem is likely to be exacerbated if predictions in population increase, from 263,000 in 2015 to 335,000 by 2041 are correct.

Homeownership in London as a whole was raised as an issue, which has declined from 40% to 30% in recent years. To meet increasing demand, it was suggested that 49,000 new houses need to be built a year, when we currently only see 17,000 builds a year, since 1980. Jules also suggested that London was facing a skills gap with an estimated one quarter of London businesses needing to employ staff outside of Europe due to a lack of qualified people in the UK.

Lord Adonis bought a historical perspective to the discussion making reference to the Abercrombie Report in 1944, which saw the creation of 30 new towns on the premise that London had become too big and was suffering a huge sense of hopelessness due to the lack of jobs post-WWII. He agreed that today London still had major issues around sufficient infrastructure, particularly housing.

Lord Adonis then set out some recommendations on how the city could improve. These included:

  • The public sector must plan, develop and build on their own land, in particular low-rise council       estates, including through public-private partnership, for example Transport for London, who own     6,000 acres;
  • The building of Crossrail 1 should lead directly into the building of Crossrail 2 to ensure skills are not lost between projects;
  • Smart technology is needed to deal with bottlenecks at traffic junctions;
  • The congestion zone should be extended.

So, in conclusion, speakers agreed that, in light of projected population growth, investment to increase the capacity of housing and transport to keep London moving was an absolute must if we are to avoid a crisis in the near future. To close, Pippa asked the three speakers to give their one recommendation on how to improve London. Bridget advocated for Crossrail 2, Jules Pipe respectively for housing, whilst Lord Adonis voiced support for expanding the airport at London Heathrow, suggesting there was more debate to be had around the precise responses required to increase capacity effectively.

This event was organised under the 21st Century Challenges Programme at the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). For more coverage of the event, including comments from our audience, please visit our Twitter Page @21CC.

If you have a professional interest in this subject you may be interested in our Policy Forum called ‘Cities, growth and rebalancing the UK economy’ happening on the 21st October 2015. For more information and to book, please visit the 21CC Policy Forum website.

Watch the talk online

[Photo credit: Nando Machado]