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A Vision For London

April 4, 2005

A Vision For London

1 London – a city like no other
London is a global city. Its outstanding success is based on its unique diversity – a rich mix of people, innovation and energy, which has served London so well over the two thousand years since its foundation. London has always been different from other British citi…

A Vision For London

1 London – a city like no other

London is a global city. Its outstanding success is based on its unique diversity – a rich mix of people, innovation and energy, which has served London so well over the two thousand years since its foundation. London has always been different from other British cities and architecturally London’s growth over the centuries has been characterised by haphazard physical development. In all parts of the Capital people are increasingly eager to relate to the identity of their local community and be part of something more tangible. Having chosen to live or stay in the city, Londoners invariably wish to preserve the essence of what is unique about their own district. Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, London benefits from tolerance, eccentricity and variety as well as the impact of entrepreneurship and creativity on every corner.

London’s historical position at the centre of the UK’s political, commercial and cultural life makes it unusually important even amongst leading world cities. Truly if London fails, the UK fails. When London’s economy or cultural spirit suffers, so too does Britain’s as a whole. However, the continued success of London cannot be taken for granted. As Shadow Minister for London I believe that one of my tasks is to map out a vision for the future of our Capital for at least the next twenty or thirty years and this is now set out below.

2 Some of the Challenges Faced

London faces a number of challenges in the early years of the 21st century. London’s infrastructure and standing as an early leader in the field of transportation is overripe for renewal. The London Underground network, which was initially designed for a different era, has been patched together incrementally whilst the road system was largely built before the advent of the car. London’s built up nature, including many listed historic buildings that cannot be easily altered, makes development difficult, particularly in its central districts.

Today’s global terrorist threat challenges urban policymakers here as it does throughout the world. However, London is a highly strategic target and accordingly subject to particularly great threat. The desire and passion that Londoners have for freedom must not be lost, however, as London counters this threat with reasonable security measures.

Globalisation has an all-embracing effect ? for as well as from its traditional rivals in Europe, North America and Japan – London faces new challenges especially from China and India, the two emerging economic powerhouses of the twenty-first century. Yet alongside the new found affluence derived from globalisation in London, there is a sense of unease at the rapid pace of lifestyle change and the growing realisation that this is only likely to accelerate in the years ahead. The era of social change through which we are now living means that we have changed our environment more quickly than we know how to change ourselves or our attitudes.

Too little thought has been given to promoting communities which in some part of London have been under great strain. Community hinges on a degree of social cohesion, requiring shared traditions, attitudes and language. Such familiarity of outlook is threatened by the haphazard throwing together of people too quickly in areas that already face the challenges of deprivation.

This, coupled with wider social change, has created an increasing sense of powerlessness by urban dwellers, especially in the Capital, coupled with a desire for the reassertion of a stronger sense of civic awareness. The well travelled, cosmopolitan and internationalist Londoner increasingly craves the security and neighbourliness that comes with civic engagement in small geographical neighbourhoods.

3 The Sense of Belonging

In common with other British cities, London has declined as an industrial centre over the past half century but has developed instead as a beacon of commercial activity, consumerism and modernity. The decline of heavy industry, best illustrated by the collapse of London’s working docks, contrasts with the emergence of converted warehouse districts as highly sought-after residential centres with leisure and cultural opportunities. We should all recognise and embrace the constant reinvention, rejuvenation and diversity of life that makes London such a great place to live, visit and experience.

The nature of communities is changing. People no longer live their lives in one place, work in one job (or even in the same career) and a highly consumerist outlook is having profound implications on inner-city life. There is a vague yet uncomfortable state of disconnectedness that many London dwellers feel. I believe that community bonds need to be restored to revitalise the social capital of our cities. In order to facilitate this new civic engagement we must begin at a young age by ensuring that schools and businesses are less divorced from the community at large.

How then do we commence the refurbishment of community institutions in our cities? First we need to recognise that the city is a living organism with a common culture and identity. London’s population is set to expand by some 800,000 in the period to 2016. Voices of reaction can often hark back to a golden age. Yet we must be practical. The real issue is not “Globalisation yes or no?” but rather how we can and should develop, reform and reinvigorate institutions to secure the enduring value of our traditions.

A sense of engagement, similarity of experience and the ethic of participation are very important to many who live in the city. Evidently these aspirations are more easily fostered in a small close-knit locality than elsewhere. Over the past decade the concentration of personal wealth and corporate power has raised some fundamental questions about democratic institutions and their place in the world of the future. Whilst our era may be more affluent than any before it (although in fairness the same could be said for virtually every generation in history) there is impoverishment of many living in the Capital who are disproportionately drawn from the ethnic minorities and immigrant groups.

It is crucial that the distinctive outlook for our city is characterised as optimistic, energetic and hopeful. The starting point is to reinvigorate the notion of community and recognition of the intrinsic need for a place to belong. We should assist in the re-establishment of the urban village ideal where ease of access rather than speed of mobility will impact upon planning, design and transportation policy.

4 Authenticity and Community

People search for authenticity, the real rather than the artificial, in a world which is becoming ever more commercially and culturally homogenised. This manifests itself in different ways. People look for a greater degree of transparency and honesty in all forms of the political and governmental process both locally and nationally. They want to understand their own background and history, and that of the area they live in. There is a renewed interest in community groups and local customs. There is a search for architecture and housing that reflects the nature of the area where they live. The growth in local and urban farmers’ markets and the organic food movement also represents the desire to recreate a sense of localism.

Londoners are generally more socially engaged than in the past, with greater leisure time and more communal living arrangements. Historically, compared to many European countries, Britain was what might be described as a more privatised society with more individual houses rather than apartment blocks, markedly lower club membership and less tradition for supporting community events and eating out.

Within our cities there were fewer shared dwellings or blocks of flats than in much of the rest of the Continent. Urban Britain is changing in this respect with far higher incidences of eating out over the past two decades and ? largely on economic grounds ? more prevalence of living in flats or other multiple occupation by contrast with the atomisation which comes with having one’s own front door.

The task of London’s leaders must be to inspire, energise and reinvigorate the millions of urban dwellers concerned about civic engagement by blending the best of our traditions and institutions to an exciting, if uncertain, future. We should also ensure that political expression reflects the reality of the districts and communities in which we live in rather than a bland homogenised message.

5 Political Engagement

The fact that bonds between city residents are being forged more through choice than necessity also has an impact on the entire political process. In the age of the Internet and globalisation, local politics whether of the national or local variety, too often appears slow, parochial and unresponsive. The electorate has come to view the entire political process as a market stall where it picks up policies from politicians and bureaucrats. Too frequently this deprives people and politicians of the benefits of engagement. This has created a disconnection with local politics, which is typically regarded as being in the hands of eccentrics whose pet interests diverge wildly from those of the electorate at large.

Indeed much of the appeal of Ken Livingstone in the inaugural London Mayoral election was the fact of his “independence”. A significant residual element of this appeal combined in 2004, even after his rejoining the Labour Party, and it was a tribute to the electorates’ desire for ‘anti-politicians’ that both other major party candidates during the course of that second Mayoral contest sought to disassociate themselves from the mainstream of their party.

The bewildering frequency of local government reorganisation has also helped to destroy the basis of geographical community politics. Here in London much of the political structure, especially in the central districts in the city, fails to reflect the traditional villages that make up the capital. Yet these are the very communities with which people increasingly identify. Even now after several decades of vertiginous decline in voter turnout, the Mayor of London focuses only on bureaucratic and structural reform. The latest idea here in the Capital is to create five super boroughs from the thirty-three existing London local authorities, a process driven by a desire to build bureaucratically convenient blocks with requisite population numbers rather than having the slightest regard to the community ties that bind. Whilst recognising that structural reform alone is not the answer to these issues, I propose a series of smaller local authorities all of which would have a seat in the Greater London Authority. This would create a political structure to reflect the look and feel of village London that we live in today. Choice and competition are best enhanced by personalised and local decision-making. The diversity of provision that comes with civic localism must by definition stand in contrast with the highly centralised desire for equality at all costs.

Although we need to promote civic engagement and social participation in our cities, we also recognise people spend more leisure time in front of the television or computer. The electronic mass media’s advance has led to less direct association. I do not believe that we should seek simply to “turn back the clock” but we should explore new forms of electronic entertainment and communication that through their interactivity reinforce the values of community.

6 Housing

Much is made of the extreme disparity of wealth in our cities and the emergence of the gated residential communities. At the same time as having areas of deprivation, the Capital is home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate. Partly it is this varied environment that makes London such a vibrant city and indeed encourages economic development. However, there are people who are trapped into cramped living in high cost inner city areas through a rigid system of state housing, whilst at the same time there are plenty of empty properties elsewhere in the country and indeed in other parts of London. The inflexible and central government imposed rules for local public housing entitlement are at the core of the problem. In this way the State has actively taken choice away from these people and the effect of social housing and national wage bargaining is to create a poverty trap, where it frequently does not make economic sense to leave state benefits and dependency. We should ensure that there is a more flexible means of transfer between local authorities, so that people can have more of a decisive role in where they live.

However, there is one frequent assertion should be challenged. It is often said that public-sector workers are being priced out of London. This is purely a factor of national wage bargaining which not only provides a raw deal to public-sector workers in London, but also to residents whose services are often of a lower standard than elsewhere owing to understaffing. We need to pay public-sector workers the market rate for the job here in London.

Private house prices in London are far higher than they need to be partly as a result of the amount of subsidised public-sector housing. An inventive deregulation of public housing alongside shared ownership schemes would help to cut the housing gap between London and elsewhere.

In addition to a right to buy, we should also invoke a right to invest, which would enable housing association and council tenants to buy shares in their homes. Not only would this give them a stake in the properties but also ? very importantly ? it would become lifeblood for business creation.

One of the main reasons for continued relative poverty in London is that many people who might like to set up small businesses lack any liquid capital assets or collateral to obtain a bank loan. Imaginative joint or shared property ownership schemes would certainly be a step in the right direction in rectifying this.

Private property ownership and dependable property rights do matter. The housing market is characterised by over regulation and an absence of opportunities for joint and shared ownership schemes to develop.

Liberalisation enables more Londoners to gain a stake in the property in which they live. It would also re-establish a flourishing private rented sector, crucially important to mobility, vibrancy and growth. Similarly, while ownership and property rights may have key importance in any free society, we need to build up hybrid options which will aid in creating a genuine, flexible, market for housing here in London.

7 A City of Financial Diversity

London has always been home to a vibrant mix of the richest and poorest of Britons. Any strategy to create financial equality will be doomed to failure, for London’s ultimate prize is its innovation and diversity.

London’s overall economic prosperity should be regarded as the major driver for progress and the prospect of worldwide trading opportunities makes it a magnet for businesses large and small. This must not change. If London’s policymakers concentrate their entire efforts on the needs and “rights” of the lowest paid and least skilled (whether by skewing the transport system and its public cost to the provision of buses or by providing low-brow entertainment on the council tax) then we risk turning away the wealth creators.

A loss of such innovative employers and entrepreneurs is more likely to be a loss to the whole of the UK since London’s competitors in matters financial and economic come not from Leeds, Glasgow or Birmingham but from overseas, within and outside Europe.

London’s government must support winners. Only success in and for our capital city will create opportunities for those less well off. We also recognise that stability should never be the watchword for the London economy. It is too fast-moving for that – true innovation requires the taking of risk and with risk must come failure from time to time. London’s commercial past has grown on the back of such mistakes and the Capital’s present and future entrepreneurs should be encouraged to prosper rather have their energies sapped by the fear of failure.

8 urban Design

The design of the Capital’s public domain and open space (whether parks, greenery, pavements or pedestrianised areas) should also allow greater connection with friends, neighbours and fellow shoppers. Let’s promote the socialising effect of cafés and walkways and focus upon the preservation of historical buildings alongside a passion for enhancing good aesthetic design.

It is easy to criticise some modern design without understanding that the central failure of much post-war modern building was that it was implemented by socialist planning principles. Post-war urban designers created buildings that did not reflect the desires of those who wanted to live there. Severe financial restraints resulted in priority being given to quantity over quality. High rise concrete monuments to prescriptive urban planning in the 1960s and 1970s have often – although not always – undermined the fostering of neighbourliness and good community sprit. The young have been especially alienated and we must enthuse this generation to be uplifted by their surroundings.

One radical potential solution aimed at fostering community would be to build within each London borough a kind of Eden Project and encourage a secure, environmentally-rich and cared for place of development, technologically rich, ecologically aware and also capable of handling large scale social events. Children will be able to play, adults can meet safely and wildlife will be there as a calming and healing resource. We need to generate safety and success in this city – the two are vital to our long term growth. We want the energetic and ambitious workers to continue living in London, working here and raising children. Our goal must be to create a secure and nurturing environment for them to stay throughout their lives.

Failures of the past have incentivised architects and housebuilders to be overly conservative in design, which has had the effect of creating dull, homogenous blocks and streets. Architecture should inspire and develop our city. Imaginative design should now be encouraged. Some areas of design, such as homewares, have been democratised with high quality pieces available to all at low prices. We should embrace the huge boom in public interest for aesthetics ensuring that it is reflected in the effort that goes in to designing buildings. We should embrace the way that people wish to reclaim the ownership of the space that is around them and create mechanisms for people to shape their own environment. Where there are poorly or undeveloped districts, public authorities can step in to create an initially positive environment. Canary Wharf is a prime example of being able to lead market development.

9 Conclusion

Londoners are proud of their city and want to hear politicians speak up for the Capital. Its leaders need to articulate the values that our cities represent and a vision for their future. We should be positive and optimistic about urban life. Many people now wish to move into cities, in order to benefit from the convenience, diversity and variety that urban living offers. We should recognise that all too often the regulation and limiting of people’s ability and self-fulfilment have created difficulties in all our cities. Most of all we should recognise that the inner cities are not a “problem”. London, whether central or suburban, should always be regarded as a hotbed of innovation and vision. No one has anything to fear from going out and grasping the opportunities that are there and they must be supported if this great capital of ours is to achieve all its possible aspirations in the 21st century.