How can the wider south eastern region of the UK complement and help London’s growth whilst still maintaining quality and avoiding the alienation of its existing communities?
The NLA conference – ‘Beyond London boundaries – Growth in the Wider South East' – sought to find out.
The issue, said Design South East director and conference chair Chris Lamb, was a ‘vexed’ one, especially without a regional plan, and his organisation had seen an ‘extraordinary difference in quality’ in terms of what is built inside and outside the M25. We are at a ‘tipping point’, said Lamb, but at least there is a huge opportunity to create strong communities throughout the region.
Keynote speaker Sadie Morgan, deputy chair of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission which reported last week, said that the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government James Brokenshire had been ‘incredibly supportive of the work we’re doing. ‘I hope he will reflect that with some cash, but we will see’, she said. The plan was an attempt to create something ‘deliverable’ that was ‘greater than the sum of its parts’, encouraging communities and local authorities to work together. The report, which garnered 100 responses in consultation and some 400 separate ideas, provides a ‘very clear case’ for investment in the area, particularly on infrastructure to address existing constraints and help create a ‘tapestry of productive places along the river’. Priority projects it recommends include three new Thames crossings, the ‘absolutely critical’ extension of Crossrail to Ebbsfleet, airport expansion at Southend and a supercentre of health and wellbeing in North Kent. ‘It will only happen if the governance is right’, said Morgan.
GLA planning manager Darren Richard detailed how London is now talking to the wider region through various arrangements, bodies and working groups, set against a background where migration to the region has been increasing and numbers commuting into London growing – and from further away. But what is the boundary of the region anyway, wondered Chris Lamb. How do we define it, and is the region more polycentric, rather than London-focused?
For Arup economist Alexander Jan, the way London’s ‘volcanic effect’ has of sucking people and talent into the capital before disgorging it to the rest of the south east was a ‘remarkable phenomenon’. It was, he felt, progress that conversations were now happening in earnest between London and the south east, but it was important to look to the soft infrastructure too. Furthermore, ‘who pays is incredibly important in this equation.’
Martin Watt, senior urban design consultant at Essex County Council bemoaned the lot of today’s planner but showed how the authority is seeing regeneration, particularly with estate schemes in Southend, while corporate director of growth, environment and transport at Kent County Council said it was crucial to look beyond just housing numbers. ‘We did not just evaluate schools and roads’, she said. ‘This was about what was the price of all infrastructure going forward. What was the true prop cost of growth?’ And it was important to mine all available sources of funding from central government and beyond. ‘I’m a complete and utter tart’, said Turner. ‘I will chase whichever horse has the saddlebag’.
The conference also heard from Design South East head of design advice David Tittle, who questioned central government’s shying away from key decisions on national policies such as Green Belts (‘unfortunately Green Belt policy is seen as untouchable’, said Jan) claiming that the closest there is to a national policy is that ‘a field in every village will get built on’. But the quality of accommodation being provided in communities is important ‘because it determines whether those high-density places are really communities or purgatory’.
AECOM director design, planning and economics Patrick Clarke described the three levels of place – Garden Cities of 15,000 homes, Ebbsfleet being one the only one designated by Government so far; Garden Towns of 10-15,000 homes and Garden villages of 6000 or more homes. But the region needs better planning of strategic infrastructure provision, said Clarke. Proctor and Matthews Architects director Constanze Leibrock showed 10 principles for a liveable neighbourhood, including a coherent narrative, boundaries and thresholds and inclusion of space for interaction, including effectively dealing with cars, bicycles and refuse. And finally, Tibbalds director Jennifer Rose showed how the practice’s Velocity scheme aims to ‘shift gear and put the bike first’ in the creation of new clusters of villages in the Oxford Cambridge Corridor. There was time for other thoughts, including on how you deliver on quality as well as quantity, and Max Camplin’s contention that people support more housing in their neighbourhood, but that the issue is not design but infrastructure – the need for more schools, nurseries, play spaces, and dealing with issues like traffic. ‘It’s a slight red herring that if we just build beautiful we will be able to build more’, he said. Camplin suggested that more should be done with VR so people can see what it might be like to live in a place and even floated the idea of instigating a kind of citizen’s jury – 12 people alongside a planning inspector to ensure community buy in and endorsement.
Summing up, Lamb said it was clear that we need to engage better with the people delivering schemes across the region, particularly volume housebuilders; that perhaps there was a model for this ‘megalopolis’ we could look to; and that maybe it was time to set up a design charrette for the south east of the kind that NLA helped to run for the new draft London Plan.
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ