Revitalising London’s Towns

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Vicarage Field © Studio Egret West

A select group of built environment experts met at NLA yesterday to debate London’s towns, with employment, transport, character and ‘good growth’ emerging as keys to unlock the potential of the capital’s outer reaches.

The group, whose views will help to shape into the NLA’s next Insight Study: London’s Towns: Shaping the polycentric city, began by looking at what ‘good growth’ might be.

For Lewisham’s head of planning Emma Talbot there was a real danger that we might ‘lose people’ in the years it takes to deliver regeneration programmes, so in the name of achieving good growth her authority has completed mapping work in Deptford and New Cross, asking what people like and don’t like about a place. To counter the ‘dirty word’ that regeneration has become in some quarters and its ‘scary’ prospect, Talbot said it was important to communicate, reference what people want, and deliver it.

GLA strategic planner Gerard Burgess referred to Mayor Sadiq Khan’s recent speech at the LSE on good growth and his wish for a more balanced approach where every area plays its part. Faced with an ‘incredible pressure’ on population growth – with around 100,000 new residents expected every year and 45-50,000 jobs up until 2030 – the Mayor wants to deliver more housing, particularly affordable. ‘But it’s not growth at any cost’ said Burgess. ‘Quality is as important, if not more important than quantity’.

In Richmond, good growth is about not squeezing in housing at all costs, said Richmond’s planning policy and design team manager Andrea Kitzberger Smith, but locally there were concerns about becoming dormitories with government’s overemphasis on providing housing over all else, and issues about infrastructure projects like Crossrail 2 – were they more about getting people into central London than local transportation?

In boroughs like Kingston, meanwhile, said the authority’s group manager for strategic planning, Lisa Fairmaner, the battle was often with preconceptions, and not feeling part of London, as well as some elements of the community saying that homes for their children was paramount, others wanting more executive housing to push prices up. But for a lot of people in the suburbs in their two-storey streets with loft extensions, the idea of good growth falls on deaf ears, she added. There is an ‘enormous’ piece of work for the Mayor to do on the idea that we’re all in it together to provide the homes London needs. ‘I’m not sure that’s a universal view’, said Fairmaner.

Brent’s head of planning, transport and licensing Alice Lester agreed, saying that the message resulting from its local plan review was essentially: ‘don’t mess with the suburbs’, and some of the kickback recently has meant the borough needs to rethink its approach to building tall since Grenfell. Croydon, though, is a little different, said Heather Cheesborough, the council’s director of planning and strategic transport. A part of London but which stands on its own feet, towers are part of its character – its local plan message is more to do with the intensification of the suburbs, and with parking a major issue that the outer boroughs need to get to grips with.

Up at Brent Cross, Argent’s senior project director Nick Porzig said that in order to get the density required, the right infrastructure or ‘bones’ need to be put in place before housing, representing a significant financial challenge. But another is to get more people walking and cycling in town centres, said TfL planning policy manager Gareth Fairweather, towards the concept of healthy streets. There is a big role here for improving the connections to town centres, and on working on ‘nodes’ to see what connections can be made so people can change their habits. ‘It cannot be car-based’, said Fairweather, and people need to start to think beyond PTAL to look at cycling accessibility measures too. Perhaps, said WSP director Mike Savage, we also need to recognise journeys to and from transport hubs.

When it comes to trying to regenerate town centres with adequate levels of employment space, would it be possible for local authorities to specify ‘x’ amount of affordable housing and ‘x’ amount of commercial workspace, asked Stitch director Sally Lewis. It certainly is, said strategic director for growth and homes at Barking and Dagenham John East, the borough having set up an artist enterprise zone and specified that new commercial developments let their ground floors to the council to let to artists or creatives at subsidised rents. ‘They have gone like hot cakes’, said East. There are also 12 live/work spaces being created for artists, with Grayson Perry as patron, and with those artists working one day a week with the community. But we cannot divorce the whole issue about affordability from growth in the suburbs, said East, and those boroughs contributing to solving the housing problem should be supported financially.

Character is also important, said Cheesborough. But Croydon’s experience of creating intensification areas has thrown up flashpoints with communities who may not wish to be so. A characterful typology that Harrow has got behind is the mansion block, said the local authority’s head of regeneration and design Tobias Goevert, which fits suburbia well and provides for an intensification without the need to create residential towers. Meanwhile in Waltham Forest, said its director of investment and delivery Jonathan Martin, the authority has been looking at a culturally-led regeneration programme, working with shop owners, businesses, and the Heritage Lottery Fund to bring forward character led regeneration. Having engaged with communities and children, the trick was to go from them accepting development and change to promoting it with advocates, said Martin. Character is thus about areas as well as the design of buildings, said GL Hearn planning director Giulia Bunting, who cited Lambeth’s move to give shop-owners £10,000 each to renovate their shopfronts. ‘It’s about the local authority taking the lead and encouraging that to happen’, she said. ‘It’s about creating place’.

For Child Graddon Lewis director Arita Morris, the creation of character and interest is key, with meanwhile uses providing an effective method, especially where town centres no longer have anchor retail tenants as a given. But we also need to celebrate difference, said Fred Pilbrow, senior partner at Pilbrow & Partners, especially given that it is ‘in London’s DNA to be polycentric’. We should study and reinforce differences between them, said Pilbrow – Companies House provides geo-located data that give an insight into what companies operate in an area which can be useful for studies on clustering.

The discussion also looked at the need to consider retail as a long-term investment, as at King’s Cross; about Crossrail’s potential to unlock office development in places like Kingston; connectivity through important links like the Brighton mainline upgrade – and how effective lobbying through creating the right ‘noise’ might unlock them.  

NLA’s Insight Study, ‘London’s Towns: shaping the polycentric city’ launches in October. Click here for more information about the Study.

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 


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