Can urban planning suck the life out of your city?

It can if done poorly

London is gloriously un-plannable and horribly unplanned. From the Romans to the Romanians, the immigrant tribes who now call themselves English have been drawn to our uniquely cosmopolitan capital. This heterogeneous cultural mixture may help to explain the lack of appetite for plan-led “improvements” or urban reshaping. There is no common cultural foundation upon which to create a formal grand plan.

On my bedroom wall hangs an artist’s perspective of the plan Wren touted for the City after the Great Fire of 1666, fleshed out with buildings of classical design, looking like a beaux arts continental city. It is the first thing I see when I wake every morning and provides a constant reminder of the dangers of “master-planning”. If Wren, or any other planner, had had their way London would have ended up like Paris, Bath or Milton Keynes – architecturally inspired, but difficult to adapt to changing and unforeseeable future needs. Paris is formally planned, lacking in cultural diversity and inward-looking – no one can become a Parisian. London is unplanned, culturally diverse and a world business centre – anyone can become a Londoner.

Of course un-planning only takes you so far as the author continues.  Without planning (more specifically, land use restrictions), your entire city will suffer.

But while gloriously un-plannable the capital needs to be loved if we want to avoid the phenomenon of “lights-out London”, with homes just used as boxes for spare cash. It cannot survive without careful management and subtle control. Left to untrammelled market forces it will become an unstoppable nuclear reaction. George Osborne has claimed our dizzying house price inflation as his miracle of “economic growth”. Long gone are the days when planning was the bag of a politician of intellectual calibre, such as Michael Heseltine.

He goes on

Workers and residents want comfortable accommodation near the ground, with attractive spaces and facilities close at hand. Manhattan, the City and Canary Wharf can justify building office towers because their land area is constrained and demand for commercial space high. Office towers can be built in tight, sustainable clusters. This minimises their environmental impact and maximises their economic advantage – if they are serviced by a high-capacity public transport system.

The same does not hold true for housing. The highest density residential neighbourhood in London is Chelsea, which is gloriously free of towers. In the 1970s, the Greater London Council created some of the highest density housing estates. These six- to eight-floor redbrick developments were built around the edges of their site, leaving attractive central gardens. Lillington Gardens, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, is a fine example, beautifully maintained and highly popular with its residents.

A residential development in Central London is now likely to make four to six times more profit than an office scheme. Without planning control, much-needed offices have given way to piles of “safe-deposit boxes” rising across the capital. These towers, many of dubious architectural quality, are sold off-plan to the world’s “uber-rich”, as a repository for their spare and suspect capital. The purchasers are attracted by London’s rocketing residential prices, born of our unusual fixation on home-ownership. But many chose not to live here.

Rented housing is a much more efficient use of scarce urban land, because people only rent what they need. London’s house price inflation is also being fuelled by that “buy-to-let” property boom, which has aggravated the situation by reducing the security of tenants. We need an expanded, professionally managed, residential rental sector with dependable tenant security if we are to have any chance of addressing London’s housing crisis. This would provide equal scope for development investors and the construction industry but also provide Londoners with what they need – not just a global financial laundry cum bank vault.

The Treasury now controls the policies, delighting in the destruction of the last tools of planning. The Use Classes Order has been neutered to let offices, and soon shops, be turned into homes without planning permission. Rather than stimulating the reuse of empty buildings, this measure has seen the rapid disappearance of much-needed office accommodation in prime locations. Without land-use control, planners are powerless.

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