This lecture was originally given on the 2nd April 2014, at Level 39 of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf.
‘Two Futures for London’
Visiting Professor Lecture, Queen Mary, University of London
At Canary Wharf, 2 April 2014
This is an amazing view. We look down on the world’s greatest city, and we see layer upon layer of our history.
In this lecture I want to look at London’s more recent history, over the last 350 years since Christopher Wren, and ask the question: what next?
Some thank yous to start with. To Queen Mary’s and the Mile End Group, brilliantly led by John Davis, for asking me here. To Sir George Iacobescu and the Canary Wharf Group, for so generously hosting. To Professor John Rentoul, for chairing. And, of course, to Michael Heseltine and Tony Travers, nicknamed on twitter I saw as: the Mike Tyson and George Foreman of London policy.
My title is “Two Futures for London” and my argument is this. As our population grows by 100,000 a year, with intense pressure to expand towards 10 million over the next two decades, we face a choice. The choice is between patch and mend, or radical reform. To make a city of 10 million possible and desirable.
Edmund Burke famously said: ‘People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their
ancestors.’ So I’ve been delving into the history of London since Christopher Wren, and it is clear to me that when London has expanded successfully in the past, there has always been a plan.
There’s this notion that we English don’t do big time planning. Paris has its Hausmann; Barcelona its Gaudi, but London’s piecemeal, even where the results are individually dramatic, like St Paul’s, or Tower Bridge, or Canary Wharf. Which is why – goes the argument – we’ve got an international airport in the wrong place, railway termini which don’t join up, a North Circular but no real South Circular, tall buildings at random, and, in amenities, a city of parishes and boroughs yielding one postcode lottery after another.
But I don’t think this story is the right one. Rather, from Wren to Ken, when London has expanded successfully and dealt with its problems, it has been driven by reformers with big plans. By contrast, when it has failed- be it the slums of the past, or the overcrowding of today, reformers have either been absent or powerless, and it’s been patch and mend at best.
Three periods of reform are especially striking. (1) After the Great Fire. (2) The century before the First World War. (3) And the last 25 years. In each era the big challenges were met by big reforms.
We all know that after the Great Fire, Wren’s St Paul’s rose like a Phoenix.
What I hadn’t realised was that after the fire of 1666 – which destroyed an incredible 12,000 homes, making one in five Londoners homeless – a debate about the rebuilding of the City raged almost as intensely as had the fire itself.
Wren proposed a complete redesign.
Wide radial streets super-imposed on a grid!; not just a new Cathedral and churches but new institutions galore!, all built in brick or stone, not wood; and a huge new quay fronting the Thames!
This made London, in Wren’s own words, “the most convenient City for trade in the world.” Wren’s mentor, the royalist John Evelyn, proclaimed Charles II a second Augustus who would make London a new Rome with Wren was his Vitruvius. Positively Boris-esque in grandiosity!
Parliament rejected Wren’s full scheme as too costly and too dictatorial. But in rebuilding the City, much of Wren’s planning was adopted. As well as St Paul’s and more than 50 new churches, all the rebuilding was in brick and stone; the streets were widened and paved; gradients reduced and the waterfront raised. “It was a stride out of medievalism … an extension of the standards of the new estates in Westminster and its outskirts … For the first time since the Romans [it was possible] to walk along a street without being forced out to avoid a pillar, a buttress, or a whole house projecting out.”
So Wren succeeded. And London entered the 18th century as one of the most convenient cities in the world for trade.
Moving on to the century before the First World War, London’s population rose at an astonishing rate from a million to 7.5 million. 7.5 million! That’s only a little below today’s level almost a century later.
Best known are the national railway pioneers: Brunel, Stephenson, et al. And by the way, London’s unconnected rail termini were actually planned that way: by a Royal Commission no less, which in the 1840s banned main lines from the centre.
However, when it comes to the development of the capital itself, it is four other bold reformers who stand out– John Nash and Joseph Bazalgette, amazing in the scale and sweep of their vision and their ability to implement it; and two extraordinary Americans: George Peabody, whose Trust invented modern social housing; and Charles Yerkes, who forged the London Underground.
John Nash is famous for his stucco terraces and the Regent Street curve, but I hadn’t realised that these were but part of a vision to rebuild and extend central London on an imperial scale, which was largely implemented.
In 1810, when Nash got going, what is now Regent’s Park was a dairy farm. Nash persuaded the Prince Regent to turn it into a large pleasure park and the classiest housing estate London had ever known. It became what we see today, including the zoo.
But that was only the start. Regent’s Park became the northern end of a new broad road, bordered by similarly grand establishments, cutting a swathe through old Westminster to Pall Mall, ending up at a grandly remodelled Buckingham Palace, a reinvented St James’s Park, and a great central circus – today’s Trafalgar Square.
We all walk these roads: Park Cresent leads on to Nash’s Portland Place and Langham Place; his All Soul’s church embellishes the kink in the road as it proceeds to his Regent Street and the famous curve intended for ‘shops appropriated to articles of fashion and taste’ for the aristocracy; then on to his large circus – Piccadilly Circus – and Lower Regent Street, complete with his Haymarket Theatre, leading down to Waterloo Place, Pall Mall and what became Trafalgar Square.
After the demolition of the Prince Regent’s Carlton House, Nash added Carlton House Terrace and Clarence House to the design, leading up to his Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park he transformed from an unattractive swamp into today’s gem.
Nash, says one historian, prepared London to become “the world’s first metropolis and capital of the world’s greatest empire.” Not that he got much thanks. The Prince Regent’s profligacy was wildly unpopular and on his death, Nash was sacked. When Nash died five years later his coffin had to be smuggled into church at night for burial to escape creditors intending to seize it as some bizarre form of security.
Twenty-five years later, Joseph Bazalgette was less ostentatious than Nash but equally transformational.
Before reading up on him, I knew that Bazalgette had constructed sewers, and I once glanced at the modest plaque to him on Embankment. But I had no idea that he built “more of London than anyone else before or since.” He was responsible for Victoria Embankment, reclaiming 37 acres from the Thames and including a road above ground, space for the District Line below ground, and a main sewer below that; also the Chelsea and Albert embankments; dozens of new central London streets and thoroughfares, including Northumberland Ave, Shaftesbury Ave, Charing Cross Road and Southwark Street; three Thames crossings – Tower Bridge, the Blackwall Tunnel and the Woolwich ferry; and numerous parks including Battersea Park and Finsbury Park.
But the sewers are the most extraordinary part of the story – the coming together of a reformer, a crisis and a new city government with the power and will to solve it.
The crisis was the 1850s sewage crisis, which had been building for decades as population increased while the means of dealing with its waste didn’t. In the 1850s this became a crisis for an unlikely reason: the introduction of the flushing water closet. Before Mr Crapper and his ilk, there were cesspools under houses, emptied by “nightsoilmen” who shovelled out the contents, loaded it onto carts and sold it as fertiliser.
This system had long been inadequate, but it broke down completely after the WC was exhibited to huge popularity at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Hundreds of thousands of WCs were rapidly installed. The problem with the WCs was that they flooded the cesspools, making it necessary to connect the cesspools to the street sewers, which couldn’t cope and anyway emptied the raw sewage into the rivers, turning the Thames and other rivers into foul, brown, stinking, open sewers. One of the effects was cholera: 30,000 Londoners died in successive cholera epidemics by the late 1850s.
In the face of these horrors, governments dithered and committees waffled, while the responsible civic body – the Metropolitan Sewers Commission – did nothing. Then came a key reform: the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, with Bazalgette as its chief engineer. Even then, it was another three years until the hot summer of 1858 produced a Thames stink so bad that Parliament practically evacuated, before Bazalgette was finally empowered to act.
But act he did. A 1,100 mile network of street sewers feeding into 82 miles of main sewers. To put that in context, the proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel is just 16 miles. The main sewers converged into four huge pumping stations to lift the sewage into the two largest treatment works in Europe at Barking and Crossness. All this took 17 years to complete, amid extraordinary engineering feats.
After Bazalgette, there was no more cholera and London’s population growth accelerated even faster. 150 years later, we still rely utterly on his sewers.
But sanitation was only the start. Then, as now, there was a housing crisis, and insufficient public transport. Enter two pioneering Americans: George Peabody and Charles Yerkes.
John Nash built mansions for the aristocracy and Thomas Cubitt went on to do a similarly transformational job for London’s professionals and the aspiring middle classes in Clapham, Bloomsbury, Highbury and Pimlico. But who was going to replace the slums with new model working class housing?
George Peabody has been called “the father of modern philanthropy.” Dispensing his immense Anglo-American banking fortune, he set up a trust to provide decent housing for “artisans and labouring poor.” His first estate opened in Spitalfields in 1864, soon followed by others in Islington, Poplar, Shadwell, Chelsea, Westminster, and Bermondsey.
Within 20 years, his Peabody Trust was housing 15,000, and the modern concept of large-scale social housing was born. The pre-1900 Peabody estates all had the same architect: Henry Darbishire. His tenement blocks were spacious, five or six storeys high with good internal sanitation, separated to allow adequate ventilation, with central play areas for the children and surrounding railings and gates – shut at 11pm – to keep the right people in – and out. Today, the Peabody Trust houses 70,000 Londoners- nearly 1% of London’s population!- and it’s planning to add 10,000 more in Thamesmead alone.
The other American, Charles Yerkes was less reputable– a thoroughly shady, at one stage imprisoned, Philadelphia financier. But his imprint was just as great, as the creator of London Underground in 1902.
Although the subsurface Metropolitan Line had been started back in 1863, the breakthough for criss-crossing central London with commuter trains was the combination of electric traction and deep tunnelling technology. These came together in the opening of the world’s first tube line –Bank to Stockwell – in 1890.
Yerkes, fresh from building much of Chicago’s elevated Loop, in the quest for a profitable monopoly, saw a similar opportunity in London. Moving here in 1900, he bought out the short existing stretches within what are now the Bakerloo, Northern, Piccadilly and District lines, set up the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, and within just five years before his death in 1905 got most of these lines – the core of today’s tube network – under construction.
Together with the Metropolitan and Central Lines, this gave London the world’s first, biggest and best underground metro system of the early and mid 20th century. And to put that in context, in the 70 years since 1945, only one a half new Underground lines have been built – the Victoria Line and the Jubilee line extension.
And as the Metropolitan Line extended into the north-west suburbs in the 1920s, its parent company built suburban housing estates all along the line from Wembley Park to Chesham. Plus 18 golf courses! This is a rare case of a major railway promoter building both a railway and housing to serve it, and it may be a model for the future.
To the third and final reform era- the recent past.
The immediate post-WWII decades were an era of London decline, though it should be stressed- which fits into my wider argument- that this was largely planned decline. The Abercrombie Plan of 1944 deliberately planned to diminish London by relocating part of its population and industry. Abercrombie succeeded only too well over the next 40 years as population fell, by two million, and inner London went into serious decline, far beyond anything Abercrombie had intended, with unemployment rocketing.
Abercrombie proposed much else which matters. Two things in particular.
First, Heathrow airport, which isn’t a historical accident, but was deliberately planned by him to replace Croydon as London’s international airport, because it was sufficiently close to central-west London to serve the capital’s economy, while- in his view- tolerable in its environmental impact.
Abercrombie was also responsible for the new towns around London- from Stevenage in 1946, to Milton Keynes in 1967. Between them they now house 1.5 million people, and are an integral part of London’s wider region. The irony is that Abercrombie intended them to reduce London’s economy; now the growth of London and the growth of the new towns feed off each other.
So to the last 25 years – in many ways the Ken and Hezza show. London has grown by 2 million, entirely reversing the post-WWII decline.
Ken’s legacy, in staccato. Crossrail. Oystercard. Overground. Congestion charge. The reinvention of London’s buses. Modernisation of the tube. A bold approach to new buildings – the Gherkin, the Shard and Heron Tower.
Championing the rights of gay people and ethnic minorities in this city long before it was politically mainstream. As for boldness, Ken was the only member of his own team who supported introducing the congestion charge in 2003. The others all thought he should drop it, or put it off until his second term, when it wouldn’t have happened.
Since Ken, Boris has sold London as never before, but his policies are largely a continuation.
As for Michael Heseltine, like the inscription on Wren’s tomb: ‘Just look around you.’ None of this was here before. Though, I hasten to add, he’s here and he isn’t finished yet.
Equally important to London’s success in the past 25 years has been national government backing growth sectors – especially business services and the creative industries – and investing in public services. Inner London’s state schools transformed from among the worst to the best in Britain; London’s universities racing ahead. The same true of health, transport and local services. And London’s cultural institutions reborn and multiplied, thanks largely to the national lottery.
But big problems are still here; especially the challenges of growth and poverty.
This is the score.
We’re building barely a third as many new homes as London needs. Yet there is no credible plan for the other two-thirds, an extra 40,000 homes needed a year. In 17 boroughs the average rent is now more than half the average wage, and the typical first time buyer is 32.
Peak congestion remains unbearable on much of central London’s rail, tube and bus networks. Try getting on the Northern line at Clapham any weekday morning. Our major international airport is full with a sign outside: “Closed for new business.” Yet there is no transport plan for London after Crossrail opens in four years time.
East London ought to be the face of the future. Yet the only way of getting across the Thames by road east of Tower Bridge is by two century old tunnels, one of them Bazalgette’s Blackwall Tunnel, with its sharp bends put there in 1897 to prevent the horses from bolting when they saw daylight. There’s no plan there either.
And what of mass youth unemployment and the acute shortage of youth apprenticeships and technicians? The opportunities are still not there for a generation of teenagers. The girl in search of an apprenticeship in Hackney; the boy on his way to university from Haringey; they are equally valuable. Both need their opportunity.
Last month I spent a week on London’s buses – 100 buses in 5 days, a whole day stationary on Oxford Street.
The really mad bit was the Thursday night, starting with the clubs in Shoreditch at midnight, then to Trafalgar Square, ending up on the N9 to Heathrow arriving at 4am.
These night buses are extraordinary, part of the public service transformation I just talked about. Thirty years ago there were hardly any; now they are everywhere, more than 60 routes every night, safe and reliable.
I got chatting to other passengers. Generally young. Some out partying. But most of them going to and from work: bar and restaurant staff; cleaners; shop workers; nurses; some of Heathrow’s 30,000 early shift workers on the N9. Almost all of them had moved to London – from other parts of the country or from abroad. All of them loved London and basically what they said was this: great city with the hope of a better life, but a constant struggle to make ends meet which could easily fail.
So again, in our generation, we face a choice. A choice between action and inaction to tackle the big problems of today – housing, skills, congestion, jobs.
In some ways it’s harder to be bold than in the past. We aren’t in the wake of a Great Fire or a cholera epidemic, or eradicating the slums after wartime bombing.
But how we act or fail to act in the decade ahead will decide whether London becomes one city or two, world city or declining city, the capital of congestion or the capital of opportunity. Two futures for London
Now, I’m a professional optimist. Let’s say we go for bold reform, then here’s London: 2030.
New city villages are London’s growth story. More than a dozen village communities of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes, each of them a good mix of houses, mid rise and high rise flats, typically half for rent, half for sale, creating vibrant affordable communities across London, complete with schools, shopping, parks and leisure, cultural attractions, NHS hubs. And a new generation of care homes. Each of them distinct, reflecting local history and institutions; but all of them walkable, built around the bike, the bus and the train, not the car. And all made possible by new or improved rail links putting them within half an hour of the centre.
Woolwich Arsenal was the model for these city villages – part conversion of the old barracks, part Riverside new build, which took off when Crossrail 1 was built with a new station at Woolwich Arsenal.
But as a movement, the city villages weren’t spontaneous. They came out of the great house price explosion of the mid 2010s when house prices in London literally doubled over five years, yet home building increased by only a few thousand a year while successive Mayors and Chancellors vacillated and wrangled.
It was when the average London house price reached £600,000, and the newly launched tv channel London Live raised its famous petition of 2 million Londoners demanding a million homes by 2030, that action followed. Within a month, the Mayor and Prime Minister Ed Miliband agreed the 2016 Growth Deal for London which gave the Mayor and the boroughs more of London’s property and development taxes in return for a commitment to 1m homes and London undertaking to pay for most of the transport and other infrastructure needed to support them.
What followed are the city villages now called the “new pearls of London” strung along Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2 which opened last year from Wimbledon and the south-west to Hackney and the north-east, and the three new bridges and tunnels in East London which have made it as quick and easy to get from Bexley to Barking as from Putney to Chiswick.
Many of you now live in Old Oak Common, Park Royal, Chessington View, Euston Park, Alexandra Palace Heights, Hackney Marshes, Hackney Wick, Upper Lee Valley, Lower Lee Valley, Royal Docks, Barking Reach. Most sought after of all are the award winning Christopher Wren and Joseph Bazalgette city villages at the Abbey Wood end of Crossrail 1, developed by the Peabody Trust after knocking down much of the godforsaken Thamesmead estate, which the very old amongst you may remember was backdrop for the dystopian film Clockwork Orange, a by word for urban disaster sixty years ago, right back in the 1970s.
Old Oak Common and Euston Park, which include HS2 stations, are hot spots for commuters to Birmingham and the north, particularly since the House of Lords moved to Leeds and the MOD to Liverpool. The Scots are buying them up too now that HS2 is being extended to Scotland.
Education is world class. Stratford Science City, with its new Imperial, UCL and Queen Mary extension, is a buzz of academics and entrepreneurs.
London’s 30 new technical career colleges turn out 100,000 apprentice graduates a year, technicians indispensible to London’s growth.
Then there are the 300 new schools opened in the last decade to serve London’s booming population of young families: All of them new model academies – another London-led reform- each offering something special as well as providing good general education. There are 50 bilingual academies – Chinese is especially popular, particularly in west London around the expanded but far quieter Heathrow. More than 100 academies have a tech or digital mission, prime suppliers of talented teenagers to the expanding I-City and the Creative Arts Campus in Shoreditch.
London’s cultural scene is richer and more cosmopolitan than ever. The huge new arts and theatre quarter at Kings Cross, around the iconic Gas Tower. The stunning new gallery at St James’s Palace, which the King gave to the nation as a permanent exhibition of the Royal Collection. Kensington Palace, an amazing new concert venue. The Museum of Migration in the Olympic Village now with more visitors than Tate Modern. Buckingham Palace Park, open to the public as an ever changing exhibition by the Royal Horticultural Society.
All this is why London is Newsweek’s 2030 Capital of the World. This is what Newsweek says:
‘The City and Canary Wharf dwarf Wall Street; Oxford and Regent Street excel Milan and Paris for shopping; Shoreditch and Hackney compete with Cannes and LA as the international home of the film community; iCity and Tech City are right up there with Silicon Valley for technological innovation.
The most cosmopolitan metropolis in the world. And when people from all over this world think of a land of opportunity, they no longer think of the Statue of Liberty, but of Big Ben.’ End quote.
Not that everything has been a success. The decision on Heathrow’s 4th runway rumbles on. Cost overruns on the central London tram are horrendous. Boris’s extension of the cable car to Downing Street was a security nightmare.
And it probably wasn’t a good idea to try and extend Greater London’s boundaries to Southampton and Northampton; better to have stopped at Ebbsfleet and the four other new garden cities.
So London 2030: what shines through is the spirit of the Olympics – London leading the nation and best in the world, a spirit of unity, urgency, change.
When Christopher Wren put his plan to Charles II, this is what he said:
“Nothing will more Discover abroad the Weakness of our Government … [than] That having an Opportunity in their hands of doing one of the greatest Benefits that can be done to the Publick, They are unable to bring it to Pass, or unwilling to be at the trouble.”
That was the challenge then. It is the challenge now. It is our choice.