The New London Sounding Board and NextGen Sounding Board recently met to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the Central Activity Zone (CAZ) and the recently published National Model Design Code and its impact on London. Both were lively discussions filled with cautious optimism from both Boards, who shared their thoughts and focused efforts in response to the pandemic and the opportunities that had arisen in the last year.
There was a resounding view that for the CAZ to continue to thrive as it has historically, there needs to be continued emphasis on the synergetic nature of the activities that occur within its ecosystem, allowing for a space that is adaptable to users in the near and distant future. “Inclusivity” and “accessibility” were the most repeated words, as the NextGen Board reflected on the pandemic’s impact on the CAZ, and where we go from here.
Whilst no one at the NextGen Sounding Board had ever referred to going into the ‘CAZ’, it was felt that there was a natural focus to the types of activities that would and could occur within Central London, which would ultimately dictate the level of accessibility and inclusivity of the CAZ. Both Boards agreed that the level of investment and leadership needed to ‘level up’ to ensure that the world leading environment that attracts so many businesses, visitors and investors to London continues.
While the NextGen group appreciated COVID-19’s severe impact, members also see an opportunity for the built environment industry to use the ensuing emphasis on “building back better” to respond to long-standing issues of affordability, gentrification, inclusivity and sustainability; at the same time acknowledging this will not be easy.
London’s diversity, with its multitude of different areas supporting a vast array of uses was seen as a key reason for the capital’s enduring success. In this, they broadly echoed some of the thoughts from the New London Sounding Board on the same topic a week prior.
The NextGen members were however, generally in favour of an emphasis on local, citing the opportunity for investment and development in outer London, particularly Zones 2 and 3, creating strong local communities across the capital, and the need for more mixed-use development creating residential units bringing in people who work in Central London to live in Central London. While this was echoed to a degree in the New London Sounding Board, the focus was more so on London’s international reputation, standing and financial attraction.
Calling for strong leadership for a careful long-term vision, members were cautiously optimistic for the future, citing London’s centuries of resilience to all manner of shocks.
There was a heavy emphasis across both Boards on collaborative partnerships and the requirement for local government, the mayor’s office and central government to grow initiatives in a meaningful and holistic manner, avoiding dramatic shifts that could lead to negative changes in the framework that supports inner and outer London.
The key theme of revolutionary leadership flowed into thoughts regarding the National Model Design Code, with both groups concerned about the limitations of the code and its relevance to London. Both Boards also recognised the requirement for there to be significant investment in local authorities to allow them to attract the right skills and people to appropriately manage the codes and develop the aspiration for exemplar spaces.
It was felt that the Code fell down in the practicality of implementation, falling short of the ability to speak to complex urban spaces and commercial requirements for occupiers and developers. There was also concern about creating a potentially damaging ‘tick box’ exercise, which could lead to ‘ugly’ developments under permitted development rights, limiting the opportunity for diverse and innovative buildings and spaces.
Overall, however the group agreed that the Code provides a thoughtful directive, aiming to develop good practices for design in the search for ‘beauty’. Providing foundations to build upon the progress already made which committed to collaborative design, investment in local authorities and key stakeholder engagement. All of which will require strong leadership to recognise that these are intrinsic to the continued success of the improvements to date and for setting positive next steps in motion.
The New London Sounding Board and NextGen Sounding Boards will be working closely over the course of the year to further unpack issues facing London in 2021 and beyond. We look forward to it!