Keeping the rich mix

Monday 9 November 2015

Character. Distinctiveness. Diversity. How do we preserve the rich mix of London as it encounters major population growth and change and avoid killing off what makes the city what it is?

That was the broad subject grappled with by a group of architects, developers, local authority officials and other consultants as they gathered at host Sheppard Robson’s offices in Camden, an area that is itself going through many of the same issues.

Sheppard Robson partner Martin Sagar kicked off with a look at the firm’s work for Camden Town Unlimited as the area explored initially how to react to the threats of HS2. But even after the main threat of widespread demolitions were dropped from the bill, said Sagar, they realised that, since none of board member and Proud Gallery owner Alex Proud’s staff could no longer live in Camden, something had to be done. We began to realize that we were losing something precious’, said Sagar. ‘This sense of living and working in the same place.’ They revealed their collective love of the ‘eccentricity of the place’ and the kind of spirit they wished to keep, with the work including suggestions to how some of the retail stores could better utilise the spaces above and at the backs of their premises, driving into each plot to make something unique and create external courtyard spaces.

One of the instigators of the modern Camden, Urban Space Management founding director Eric Reynolds said that the key problem was ownerships - one could not force an ageing owner of a shoe shop, say, from selling up in search of his pension, and too much greed and ‘me too’ prevails. ‘Success kills good things’, he said, which was a far cry from the early days of the market when Reynolds had to buy newspapers for stall owners to keep them there long enough for the public to arrive. But perhaps one answer could be zoning. ‘I think you should discuss a way in which we can do zoning that doesn’t stop change but creates space for change; otherwise we will all be the same.’

It is interesting how the business community is coming together on this issue, said Camden Unlimited’s Simon Pitkeathley, and how we can keep the elements that keep Camden interesting from a collective point of view. From his perspective, things like workspace add a great deal of value for an area. ‘If 100 start-ups employ one more person, the value to the local economy is great’, he said. ‘The value to an individual owner, not so much’. This justifies a different type of intervention.

And yet, said PTE’s Andrew Beharrell, we should acknowledge that the problems of success are better than those of decline. But we have been treating employment space ‘as inexhaustible stock, a bit like North Sea cod’. And permitted development (PD) rights have brought this into sharp relief. We are short of affordable workspace, and so rents are rising steeply in Camden – even by 50% on PTE’s patch in Islington over the last two or three years. And while some work the practice is doing creates affordable workspace in Hackney Wick, helped by a local authority that prioritises the sector through a strict no net loss policy, there is little in the way of funding for artists’ studios to survive, said Futurecity director Mark Davy. ‘If we’re saying culture and placemaking is a big driver for cities, we need to look at what Section 106s and CILs are supposed to be doing.’

A long-term attitude also helps, said Sheppard Robson’s Dan Burr. This is clearly in evidence with the work the practice is doing opposite Hackney Wick on the Eastwick and Sweetwater masterplans, where how long-term quality can be created that will drive value was part of the LLDC brief, rather than piling as much as possible onto the site.

But if London really is a collection of villages, said Davy, with each having their own identity, these are blurring now and it is almost easier to start from scratch, as at places such as Canada Water or Nine Elms. It can be harder, agreed Burr, in places like Camden, where it is more ‘granular’ and where multiple ownerships are the norm. Culture is, however, a way of defining ‘Camden-ness’, said Davy.

With the ‘understandable march for housing numbers’ in the face of London’s largest ever population, said GLA assistant director for regeneration Debbie

Jackson, one impact is on affordable employment space for London’s SMEs. And while the enlightened planning policies employed by Hackney and others are to be welcomed, one of the challenges is the developers who don’t retain a long term stake and therefore ground floor and employment spaces often lack proper consideration. The contrast with affordable housing is a stark one though, insofar as sophisticated thinking is concerned. ‘I feel like we’re almost at the beginning of the curve on employment space, said Jackson. The GLA is undertaking work on what is a finer grain understanding of what employment space means so we’re better equipped to deliver affordable employment space alongside housing to deliver places people want to live and work. Cities are like an ecology, said Maccreanor Lavington’s Kevin Logan. And as with most ecologies, if you tinker with it, you generally unbalance it. There is a need to re-establish value mechanisms, and talk about a blend and a breadth on affordability. Getting developers to be more enlightened and long-term can be very hard, said James Murray, Executive Member for Housing & Development, LB Islington, especially with residential values as they are. But having a plan for a local area and a plan-led system is vital to that, especially given the reforms to PD that are making that trickier still in placemaking terms. In Archway, for example, the authority was developing a mixed use plan for empty towers before PD came along and it instantly became private residential.

For Charlie Green, CEO of The Office Group, his firm provides a different answer, with examples including a west end address on offer to businesses for £350/month or similar in Shoreditch for £220/month. This can be done through selling space 2 or 2.5 times over and then managing the process. But what is affordable, asked Nick Hartwright, Director, The Mill Co Project. ‘I’ve got a lot of people moving out of Hackney Wick into some of my spaces that are cheaper’. And we need to find the incentives and evidence to help developers value creating mixed communities, said British Land’s Eleanor Wright.

But PD is stymying ambition somewhat, said Croydon regeneration manager James Collier. ‘We’ve lost well over a million square feet of office space already’, he said, with the development potential of some major urban blocks now heavily constrained by PD developments either side in Croydon. ‘I don’t think it can be underestimated how negative an impact that can be in terms of creating balanced communities’, he said. One of the inevitabilities is a ‘hollowing out’ of London, said Jackson. But perhaps Camden’s loss is Walthamstow’s gain, suggested Beharrell. Change is both inevitable but also good, he said, and perhaps the good news story is how previously down-at-heel places are receiving more investment and attracting new residents and workers. Perhaps, suggested Sagar, London is just going through another of its major changes and artists studios and the like will simply up sticks to outer London, Hastings or even Berlin. How much can we control this ‘seismic’ shift anyway? A ‘pause mechanism’ is perhaps also required, suggested Reynolds, as well as the avoidance of ‘giantism’. ‘We need enough of a pause mechanism for some of the tide to lose a bit of force. So then it will allow the balance’.

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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