New London Architecture

Housing, Green Belt, ambition and integrity

Wednesday 31 May 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Sadie Morgan

Senior Advisor on voice and influence at political level

Introduction by Sadie Morgan, Sounding Board Chair
 
Opening the meeting with a ‘quick fire’ question relating to possible outcomes of next election, was in hindsight a little over optimistic.
 
Rather than curtail the subsequent discussion into the allocated 15-minute time slot we engaged in a rich and surprisingly diverse conversation.

The overwhelming hope was for a focus on inequality and a drive towards equity through social investment. The need for a more interventionist role for government yet a wish for increased devolution and autonomy; the Importance of partnerships and the collective voice; a notion that levelling up has passed its sell by date; the potential of 'opening up' the debate on the Green Belt won the hot topic of the day. Regulatory change was seen as an affordable way to enable change when ‘there was no money for anything’ with innovation and closing the skills gap also part of the solution.
 
Suffice to say our identified themes of collective responsibility, building trust and providing clarity were relevant throughout.
 
The following presentations by Lucy Musgrave and Binki Taylor on Embrace diversity and focus on people’s health were both insightful and poignant. A reminder of how far as industry we have to go to deliver on what has become an overriding theme/what often feels like a dream of an equitable London.

Housing, Green Belt, ambition and integrity – the next government’s checklist
 
The next government’s early days will most likely be shaped by significant policy shifts and low-cost regulatory changes governing topics such as housing and the Green Belt. But the new regime should also have a clear direction on artificial intelligence and show the ‘need for ambition’ in London. And restoring honour and integrity back into the political process would also do so much to set the tone for a new era for England and its capital city.
 
That was according to the latest meeting of the NLA’s Sounding Board, which met last week and also discussed key ways forward as part of its New London Agenda on diversity and health. 
 
But it was Network Rail’s Anthony Dewar who kicked off with the thought that in this period of ‘winds of change’, the capital needs ambition as a ‘super-important’ principle, whatever the flavour of government voted in at the next election. But within that there needs to be work done on how we manage, celebrate and enhance heritage across London, looking at it in ‘holistic’ ways beyond the listing process, he added.
 
Perkins and Will’s Sunand Prasad looked back to the last time there was significant political change when there was resultant massive public investment and an increase in interest in design and urbanism. How much was the incipient administration interested? ‘Not at all’, answered Sounding Board chair Sadie Morgan. But Prasad added that similar levels of investment in the schools estate would be welcomed, as would the wish list on climate change points suggested so far by Labour, even if Prasad was ‘pessimistic’ about adaptation. 
 
There has been an under-appreciation of the role of government, said Homes England’s Elizabeth Rapoport, and a likely shift towards government intervention and subsidy for the industry. But London has also been ‘re-remembered’ following levelling up moves and can capitalise on high land values by leading the way on design adaptation for climate. For London and Partners’ Laura Citron, the key areas to watch will include on foreign policy – particularly regarding China and the Middle East – with ramifications for the flow of capital and large scale infrastructure. ‘We’ve seen Chinese money fall off a cliff’, she said. But artificial intelligence, too is at a complete ‘inflection point’ with its massive potential effect on the high skill, high wage workforce in technology and creatives, and on the London economy more generally. ‘It’s not a tomorrow thing, it’s a today thing’, said Citron. The migration policy will be the third area to note on policy issues that might shape London. While the Brixton Project’s Binki Taylor pointed towards social investment, Avison Young’s Kat Hanna noted that hybrid working will be significant, not least since the amount of time people spend working in London is now 2.3 days a week. NLA adviser Robert Gordon Clark and Argent’s Robert Evans pointed to Keir Starmer’s recent announcements on the Green Belt and ‘hotting up’ debate around empty homes, Evans adding that there were far-reaching, ‘massive’ implications for the built environment from the Infrastructure Levy and its up-front extraction of value.
For U+I’s Martyn Evans, though, it was something deeper – honour in public service, rather than the lie-telling we have become used to from politicians in recent years. For LB Lambeth’s Nabeel Khan one of the key points was retrofit and making the numbers add up, and for British Land’s Emma Cariaga that political changes are still some way off; London needs quicker actions on a number of fronts. 
 
The LSE’s Tony Travers said that Labour increasingly looks more like the ‘party of business’ in that it is less anti-development than the Conservatives, also that levelling may be ‘past its sell-by date’, certainly when it comes to policy. If there is ‘no money for anything’, however, regulatory change is the zero-cost way of doing things’, Travers added, on things like the utilities and social housing. The government has suffered six or seven years of policy drift, said Travers, because one thing has dominated, with migration policy one example of how difficult it has been to deliver a coherent approach. London’s housing market will be affected by ‘some tension’ with 200-300,000 extra people expected as the result of recent immigration. 

NLA senior adviser Greg Clark was forthright, saying that the scale of a Labour victory would depend upon its ability to employ integrity, with likely highly intentional policies to come on housing, climate and sub-national governments, and with probably a reunited Ireland coming on board before we see an independent Scotland. Fletcher Priest’s Dipa Joshi also had integrity first on her list, as well as shifting investment into housing and unlocking more of the day to day life of people in London. The GLA’s Louise Duggan said there were both challenges and opportunities in solving the affordability problem of home retrofits but that devolution and subsidiarity should be the guiding principles.
 
The session also had two presentations – the first from Publica’s Lucy Musgrave on diversity, the second from Binki Taylor on health. 
 
Musgrave said it was important to remember that 91% of the population are not white middle-aged straight men, and that over 300 languages are spoken in the capital. A new way of working is required. So we need multiple reflections on the human condition and cities, which were effectively summarised through a series of 10 filmed accounts from various perspectives. What would these invited guests from different lived experiences say if they were in the room discussing the subject? The videos will be disseminated by Publica and NLA once permissions are received, in order to continue the debate and elicit what Danna Walker of Built By Us calls ‘deep, active listening’. ‘What I hear from these contributions is - look – listen - recognise people like me, give me a sense of belonging’, said Musgrave. ‘Because if I see people like me are here and my place in this city has been considered then I know I am welcome. I am included.‘
 
Perhaps there should be more inclusive brief-setting as a requirement, across the board, said Musgrave. Not least since social value and a deep reading of our social needs is a requirement in our ESG-measuring world. 
 
The industries could also build on good ongoing initiatives from the Mayor’s Design Advocates, Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, NLA’s Diverse Leaders Pledge, Public Practice, and Built By Us, and embrace diversity with people and communities - and concern itself more with the mix and variety of land uses and adjacencies.
 
Binki Taylor said that we are at a time where everything is interconnected and that we have to be upfront about how we deal with that; the built environment professions need to connect better with everyone. ‘That’s my main message, coming together with others across health, the social sector, to actually understand how this industry can contribute to the urgent transformations that need to happen’. Passion is the thing that will drive people to change, Taylor added, away from lifestyles that are built on consumption and acquisition toward providing a focus on the health of our population using the enormous influence and power that the built environment industry can use to provide environments that create positive health outcomes, not just mitigate. ‘This is the moment for awakening for us all as to the true responsibility we carry’. 
 
Comments ranged from diversity needing to extend to leadership in the built environment, said Dipa Joshi, who remains shocked by the experiences of marginalised people coming out of architectural education. Evans said it was depressing to even feel the need to have the debate – everyone needs to develop their knowledge and expertise, as U+I staff are doing. Organisations need to reflect the communities they are designing for better, which starts in the HR department. ‘But the thing that wraps all this together is that this is not rocket science. It’s good for business. It’s not about doing it just because it’s the right thing to do’. Prasad reminded the room that often we are confused about the role of class and economics to the shape of inequalities in London to a great extent. ‘I think good will look like all our companies having a genuine representation at the highest level’.
 
Finally, Nabeel Khan said that representation ‘really, really matters’, and that public bodies that do not have representation run the risk of having ‘little credibility’ when it comes to talking about EDI. ‘It’s not about diversity’, he said, ‘it’s about representation. I’ve spent my career veering away from this question but there comes a point where you just have to confront it. I think the question for the private sector is more nuanced but if you’re a public body and you provide services to Londoners, then you need to look like them and speak like them'.
 
On that front, one of the thing organisations could do is sign up to the NLA Pledge, said Dipa Joshi, and then put plans into action. ‘It will make change’.


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Sadie Morgan

Senior Advisor on voice and influence at political level



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