Great Estates form single voice to stake claim for better infrastructure

Thursday 23 March 2017

The task of improving London’s digital capability whilst preventing the public realm from being continuously dug up was one of the main points on the agenda of a new group formed to galvanise growth in the capital.

The group of central London’s Great Estates, old and new, was brought together by the NLA at Broadgate Estates’ Paddington HQ last week in a session chaired by Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, who suggested that its collective ‘clout’ could make inroads on pressing for change.

Certainly, said Rob Fox, Head of External Affairs,Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, there was a requirement for new partnerships and better conversations about change, to make Mayfair and Belgravia better places through closer collaboration with adjoining landowners and statutory authorities. Part of Grosvenor’s 20-year vision is to raise its game and host 15,000 more jobs over that period, which is a quarter of Westminster’s entire job target total. ‘We’re seeking to understand how the estate could work harder for its communities and for London’, he said. 

The capital’s digital infrastructure is a key issue in attracting those jobs, with so-called ‘DSLAM’ (digital subscriber line access multiplexer) street cabinets having to have been installed across the city to try and improve weak signal areas. Such provision was important to a city where start-ups run from home and small offices are such a vital part of the new London economy, said Mayhew Jonas.

The big issue for small businesses is cloud technology, said Mark Kildea, Finance Director,The Howard de Walden Estate, and perhaps improving digital infrastructure should be seen as part of the public realm to be funded by the estates, with increased rents accruing as a result. ‘I think it is money that is well spent, and estates should choose to be proactive, he said.

This just needs a ‘mindset shift’, said Alison Nimmo, Chief Executive, The Crown Estate – that digital infrastructure is now simply a basic utility. ‘It is such a fundamental part of living and doing business in London’, she said.  For many occupiers, added Carolyn Dwyer, Director of the Built Environment, City of London Corporation, it was more important than water, since many businesses could put up with having no water, but couldn’t put up with no connectivity. Providing better facilities needs keyhole surgery rather than open heart, and the danger is that if BT and Openreach are encouraged to work better, government opens the arena up to more competition. Why not share equipment between the providers, asked Kildea, rather than have a proliferation of apparatus and street furniture that might happen again with the arrival of 5G. Perhaps there was a piece of work to be done, said Lydia Clarkson, public realm partnerships and stakeholder liaison, Shaftesbury, showing how government has not yet solved the issue. In an era when the countryside gets the subsidies for broadband, a good way to start may be through creating exemplars of good practice through all the Great Estates working together to create a strategy and understanding of cooperation, said Mayhew Jonas. ‘Then you’ll have a ripple effect with authorities outside of central London supporting’, she said. 

The City believes it has to invest in digital capability because the government won’t respond fast enough, and investment won’t come if connectivity is not radically upgraded, said Caroline Dwyer. It has signed a concession to provide 1gb wireless across the Square Mile, and BT has added 27 D-slam cabinets, but this is something of a ‘sticking plaster’ for an area that is composed of 98% SMEs. Another problem, said Steve Whyman, Chief Executive,Broadgate Estates, is the lead times companies like BT stipulate to install. ‘That can’t be right good for London’, he said. ‘London needs to compete on the global scale and really, connectivity shouldn’t be a point of differentiation. It really should just be a given’.

One measure is to start mapping the ‘notspots’ – those places without digital infrastructure, as is happening in the City and elsewhere. But another could be to press for installing digital connectivity to qualify as part of S106 agreements, and government could help out in making licenses or leases more straightforward, said Tom Knight, fund manager/director of commercial asset management at The Portman Estate, with a lobbying exercise to be done on tidying up wayleave agreements. 

And yet, said Kildea, the digital sector in the UK is doing better than the US, even with the infrastructure we have. ‘Just think of how much better it could be’, he said. ‘With full employment where’s growth going to come from? It’s going to come from exploiting technology. Central Government needs to understand this too and then real progress can be made’. Other countries with similarly dense environments such as Hong Kong and Shanghai do not seem to have the problems over digital that London has, said NLA chairman Peter Murray – perhaps their ‘can-do attitude’ had a lot to do with their superior technological capability in this area. They have a command-and-control culture and recognise they have to move quickly, said Neil Pennell, Head of Engineering and Design,Land Securities. We have such a big investment in legacy infrastructure; it is difficult to let that go and replace it, but that is what is needed to stay competitive. The strategy should be to look at solutions without letting the perfect get in the way of the good, said Mayhew Jonas. The long-term goal should be of building fibre to every residence, but not digging up the public realm every time. ‘It amazes me that London is dug up more regularly than other cities’, she said. ‘Is it because Westminster or the City is not controlling utilities enough?’ 

Possibly, the problem is to do with having so many providers which are in competition and only tend to act on the trigger of a commercial deal, said Pennell, leading to a lot of disruption. The City tried to solve this problem by experimenting with installing large ducts to stop the roads being constantly dug up, but that had proved ‘incredibly expensive’, said Dwyer: around £1.5m for every 10 metres. The utilities are not incentivised to deal with infrastructure, and the whole industry structure is not dynamic, investment-focused or very commercial. ‘It would really benefit from a complete refresh of thinking’, she said.

The management of the replacement of the public realm is never as good as when you put in in the first place, suggested Mayhew Jonas. But the power of the group could be in attempting to deal collectively with the utilities, with collective ‘joined up’ thinking, often across boroughs, in a bid to counter a fragmentation that is, felt Mark Kildea, slowing growth down.

The group also debated other issues such as pollution in the capital, one of whose chief contributors, said Mayhew Jonas, was the diesel bus, and the way in which Oxford Street was used as a kind of rolling bus park. Capitalising on a new ‘hopper’ fare with a new green sprinter bus up and down the streets to connect services could be one partial solution. But another key contributor to dangerous pollution levels even causing some to consider a new Clean Air Act was the proliferation of delivery vehicles. More consolidation could help here, especially when some 40% of deliveries to offices are not about the work that goes on in those offices, but internet shopping for staff. Services such as Doddle are increasingly being used, and in Broadgate Estates’ case paid for by them in bigger buildings. The use of how we ration and manage cars, cycling and pedestrian movement was another area of concern, with more political bravery needed. We need to shift to electrical/clean vehicles, added Nimmo, an advocate of the sharing economy and car clubs as more innovative ways to make better use of resources in our cities. 

Finally, power was another issue identified to be grappled with in future, especially in a world where district network operators are not legally allowed to charge now to invest for the future.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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