This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Prospect
Boris Johnson has been very adept at selling London abroad. But after five years as Mayor, his Achilles heel is clear: he doesn’t have a credible plan to deal with the capital’s rapid expansion. The city, growing at nearly 100,000 people a year, is heading fast towards a population of 10m. Johnson’s response? Reams of warm words, but little attempt to put in place the housing, transport and other infrastructure that the city requires.
London needs a plan—both to become a bigger world city and also a better place for those who live and work there. Those who say that a city with ancient roots, like London, cannot be planned are wrong. Christopher Wren in the 17th century and Patrick Abercrombie after the Second World War both showed how it can be done.
In June, Johnson published his “2020 Vision” for the capital. This was not a plan so much as a blowing of London’s trumpet, a guidebook and a collection of suggestions for supporting the city’s growth with scant assessment of priorities and no timescale or programme for delivery.
On infrastructure, the 2020 Vision simply promises that there will be a plan for upgrading transport and communications. This may, says the Mayor, be published next spring, but it may take longer. On new housing, the biggest challenge facing London, one part of the 2020 Vision refers to 32 “opportunity areas” where, it says, “there is scope to build hundreds of thousands of houses on brownfield sites.” Another part refers to 19 opportunity areas with pen portraits of a selection of them, but with no plan worthy of the name for their development.
The predecessor of the 2020 Vision, the “2009 London Plan,” refers to 33 opportunity areas and 10 “intensification areas.” The distinction between the two is opaque—indeed Canada Water, an intensification area in the 2009 plan, is reincarnated as an opportunity area in the 2020 vision. So depending on which document you read, Johnson is sponsoring anything from 19 to 43 priority areas for development.
But the 2009 London Plan is not an intelligible plan either. For each of these opportunity and intensification areas, it simply gives back-of-the-envelope numbers for housing and jobs and promises “planning frameworks” at some point in the future. Three years later, most of these planning frameworks still don’t exist. Only 10 have so far been published.
Another document, the “London Plan Implementation Plan,” was published earlier this year. Quite what it is implementing is not clear. The document states: “The Mayor is planning to undertake further work and mapping the strategic infrastructure required to deliver the optimum level of Opportunity Areas and Areas of Intensification… to ensure some degree of consistency and over time to build up an overview of the cumulative infrastructure requirements of these growth areas.” In other words, Johnson is still planning to plan.
Separately, there is a draft Mayoral Housing Strategy, published 18 months ago, which states that “the pipeline of homes with planning permission is large enough to meet the Mayor’s new London Plan target.” But most of these homes are manifestly not being built. There is also a London Enterprise Panel, chaired by the Mayor, which in April published a “Jobs and Growth Plan for London,” promising on its own account to produce at some undefined point in the future “a clear view of areas such as housing, transport, aviation and schools… important to the delivery of the jobs and growth agenda.”
So in the sixth year of Johnson’s mayoralty, when a plan for London’s growth is imperative, we have a “vision” without a plan, a succession of documents called “plans” which aren’t plans, some of which promise actual plans, although when, they don’t say.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For inspiration, we can go back to the great plan for postwar London drawn up by Patrick Abercrombie, who was professor of town planning at University College London. The first volume on inner London, which he wrote with a small team reporting directly to the Cabinet and the London County Council, was published in 1943; the second, on Greater London and development beyond, followed a year later.
Abercrombie had clear objectives: slum clearance and sustainable prosperity. His key recommendations were for a surge in home building and a blueprint for the socially mixed communities in which those homes would be located. He proposed a radical “decongestion” of inner London, including the creation of 10 new towns 20 to 50 miles out of London, learning from the two prewar “garden cities” of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, together with 10 major extensions of existing small towns and extensions to other towns. The brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, the garden cities demonstrated that large, attractive and successful socially-mixed towns could be created from scratch in the densely populated southeast, relieving pressure on London while strengthening the regional economy.
Here is Abercrombie on London’s housing crisis at the end of the war: “Housing must claim first attention… It is possible for a city to have an ideal arrangement for its industry, commerce and transport, to be equipped with magnificent public buildings and yet to fail as a social community through the lack of suitable housing conditions for large numbers of its inhabitants.” That was in 1943. The same could be said, almost word for word, 70 years later. We need similarly bold but practical policies today.
As a case study in how to build new settlements rapidly, the creation of the new towns takes some beating. Abercrombie set out the case for new towns in late 1944; Clement Attlee’s government took office on 26th July 1945. Lewis Silkin, MP for Peckham and the new Minister of Town and Country Planning, immediately engaged John Reith, the founder of the BBC, to develop a blueprint. Reith’s first report came out within six months of the 1945 election; his second, on finance and land acquisition and development, including far-reaching compulsory purchase and development powers for the new town corporations, followed 10 weeks later. A month after, on 8th May 1946, Silkin introduced the New Towns Bill implementing Reith’s entire legal framework. Passage through parliament took place while Reith worked on his third and final report on the proposed social and physical structure of the new towns—published on 25th July 1946, a week before the New Towns Bill became law on 1st August. On the day of royal assent, Silkin designated Stevenage as the first new town. Crawley, Hemel Hempstead and Harlow followed shortly afterwards, and Basildon, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield and Bracknell were all designated by 1950.
The contrast with today’s Mayor could not be starker. Homebuilding in London, which stood at 18,000 completions last year, is less than half of the 40,000 a year that Johnson’s own 2020 Vision says is needed, and a third of the 52,000 estimated by property consultants Knight Frank to be required if we are to keep pace with the growth in households. The coalition government announced two years ago that it would be publishing a policy on new towns, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both spoken in the last 18 months in praise of new “garden cities,” the Prime Minister specifically invoking Abercrombie. But the policy has still not been published. Apparently there is a Whitehall impasse: some ministers favour new towns, others are afraid of Nimby Tory councils, and the Prime Minister has let it drift. In the two years it has taken the coalition not to publish a policy on new towns that it was committed to publish, the Attlee government had planned, legislated for and created six new towns.
Similar clarity and boldness are required on airport expansion, which is crucial to London’s growth. It was Abercrombie who recommended Heathrow as London’s main international airport. His rationale, reasonable in 1944, was that Heathrow’s location struck the right balance between local impacts and proximity to London and its economic hinterland.
Heathrow opened in March 1946, less than a year after the war. It is now operating at 99 per cent of capacity with its two runways, and London has effectively put up an enormous “closed” sign for new business flights that require an international hub airport. New services to cities in China and other growth markets won’t generally go to Manchester, Stansted or Gatwick if they can’t access Heathrow; they are already going instead to rival international hubs in Europe—Schiphol in Amsterdam with its six runways, Charles de Gaulle in Paris with four, or Frankfurt which has just opened a fourth runway as well as a high-speed rail link.
In the time it took Abercrombie and Attlee to identify, plan and build Heathrow, the coalition has merely appointed a commission to examine airport expansion. The commission has just published 50 possible plans and isn’t going to report for another two years. This is a serious betrayal of the national interest.
One finds a similar story of inaction in the case of another of London’s major infrastructure priorities: crossings of the Thames east of Tower Bridge. There are 16 road bridges spanning the 20 miles of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Kew. In contrast, east of Tower Bridge the Thames remains a chasm with only the Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels and the Dartford Crossing for the next 20 miles. These are three of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country. The impossibility of crossing the Thames east of Tower Bridge is costing London and the national economy billions in lost jobs, regeneration and housing. The Mayor and central government are responsible. No one else can secure planning permission for a major new bridge or tunnel.
Johnson’s first major decision as Mayor was to cancel the Thames Gateway Bridge, which his predecessor Ken Livingstone had been about to build. The bridge would have connected Greenwich and Newham, two of the most deprived boroughs in London, at a point close to City Airport and Royal Albert Dock on the north bank—one of the Mayor’s 33 opportunity areas. Thamesmead, on the south bank, would have benefited hugely, and there would have been a new route through to the A2, M20 and M25. But for Johnson’s veto, the bridge would be opening this year. Newham and Greenwich councils were strongly in favour, but a faction of Bexley Conservatives swayed the Mayor against it, though a recent Transport for London survey found a majority of those consulted in Bexley to be in favour.
As an alternative to the Thames Gateway Bridge, Johnson proposed a new tunnel at Silvertown. Five years later, there is not so much as a planning application for it. All we have is the Emirates Air Line Cable Car which conveys 4,000 passengers a day, fewer than the Gateway Bridge would have carried in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, every vehicle seeking to get through the Blackwall Tunnel in peak hours is delayed by an average of 20 minutes. Taller lorries can’t even go north through the tunnel because of the four-metre height restriction, a legacy of its Victorian origins.
Equally urgent is a new Thames crossing further east to relieve and supplement the M25 Dartford Crossing, which opened 22 years ago and is now desperately short of capacity. The Highways Agency describes the Dartford Crossing as “the least reliable section of the strategic road network nationwide,” yet it is probably the most economically important short piece of infrastructure in the entire country, apart from those two Heathrow runways. Half its traffic is freight or business, one huge snake of trucks and vans to and from the Channel ports and going round the M25. The bottleneck is also holding back housing growth.
What does Johnson’s 2020 Vision have to say about Thames crossings? One solitary paragraph which reads: “There is clearly scope for more crossings… By 2020 we must be well advanced in our plans to build new river crossings.” It doesn’t mention specifically either the Thames Gateway Bridge or the Dartford Crossing. Only the Silvertown tunnel is mentioned by name. An opening date of 2021 is given, although there is no discernible plan for getting from here to there.
Another key component of any 21st-century successor to the Abercrombie Plan must be a realistic policy for what is known as the “Thames Gateway,” a stretch of the river that has been languishing for decades. Both as a name and concept, “Thames Gateway” is unhelpful and should be dropped. An area of hundreds of square miles, it is not one community or even a meaningfully related set of communities which can be developed as a whole. Instead, a small number of specific east Thames projects should be agreed by the Mayor and central government, with a plan for starting immediately, backed by the full authority of the state, as Michael Heseltine did with London’s Docklands in the early 1980s. The London Docklands Development Corporation set up by Heseltine in 1981 covered an area of only 8.5 square miles. It now hosts 120,000 jobs, a population of 100,000, Canary Wharf, City Airport, the Excel Centre, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre, all joined up with a good road system, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and the Jubilee Line extension.
What should those projects be? I suggest five. First, the three new east Thames road crossings already mentioned: the Thames Gateway Bridge, the Silvertown Tunnel and the new Lower Thames Crossing. Second, the development of London Gateway Port, which opens later this year between Tilbury and Canvey Island on the north bank of the Thames, into a world class logistics centre. Marks & Spencer’s decision to build a 900,000 square foot distribution centre in the logistics park there, employing 700 people and with its own rail link, is a breakthrough. Obstacles preventing others from following suit—including infrastructure, skills and housing—need to be addressed case by case.
Third, as well as significantly expanding Basildon, a successful new town which is close to the Gateway port and its logistics centre, and only 30 minutes by rail from central London, the Mayor and central government should consider building a new town in an east Thames location with good transport links, able to support both local and London employment. Ebbsfleet, served by a new station only 10 minutes out of central London on the high-speed line from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel, is an obvious candidate. It is currently a station surrounded by fields and a half-empty car park. Ebbsfleet was supposed, in effect, to be a private-sector new town, but that hasn’t happened because the private sector hasn’t been able to put in the required infrastructure and take on the associated risks. There are also three local councils involved, none of which appears to be in charge.
Fourth, even in the shortest of the lists of “opportunity areas” in recent mayoral documents, six are in east London. These should be priorities for housing and community development: the Lower Lea Valley and Stratford, the Royal Docks, London Riverside, Woolwich, the Greenwich Peninsula and Canada Water. Yet only two of these six as yet have development frameworks.
The fifth priority is to do what the Victorians at their best did for the new London boroughs as they built them out: endow them with great parks and cultural attractions. There is a serious proposal for a £2bn Paramount theme park at Ebbsfleet to rival Disneyland Paris, creating more than 20,000 jobs. It could be part of an Ebbsfleet New Town; though with a 900-acre site and the inevitable planning hold-ups that would follow, it would be likely to happen only if there were a development corporation with strong powers. Disneyland Paris is also part of a new town, Marne la Vallée, it employs 15,000 people and is about the same distance from the city centre as Ebbsfleet. A theme park on this scale would also require that new Lower Thames Crossing, Ebbsfleet being right next to the congested Dartford Crossing.
This putative plan for London takes for granted that the city’s continued expansion is a good thing and that its growth towards a population of 10m is also positive, if done in the right way. You could take the view—indeed this was Abercrombie’s view in 1944—that London is growing too big, both for its own good and relative to the rest of the UK, and that what is needed is to curb it. The latest buzzword for this is “rebalancing,” which is generally taken to mean less London, more provinces, fewer services, more manufacturing, with an assumption that the first will lead to the second in each case, although it is rarely explained quite how.
Politicians need to be clear on what they think about London’s growth. If they aren’t explicit, and simply hint that a bit more or a bit less London will do nicely, then they will never take the tough decisions required to support a population of 10m and its associated infrastructure. And they should be careful about “rebalancing”, too. As the urban analyst Henry Overman has put it: “The evidence suggests that the pure size [of a city] plays the most important role [in its productivity]. Bigger places make it easier to interact with other firms and other people (be that buying and selling from them or exchanging ideas with them). Such ‘agglomeration economies’ (benefits from size) tend to be self-reinforcing.” When it comes to private sector activity, less London probably wouldn’t mean more Liverpool or Newcastle. More likely, it would mean less UK, or more New York, Shanghai or Bangkok. We should be careful what we wish for.
Lord Reith’s motto was: “Indefinite planning is not planning at all.” Indefinite waffle is even worse. London deserves better.