Those were some of the key take-aways from an NLA conference held at the Regent Street Cinema (where the first film in the UK was shown) and run in association with the local authority and Westminster Property Association.
Director of place shaping and town planning at Westminster City Council Deirdra Armsby said the borough was ‘a pretty essential place for the UK economy’, contributing some £55 billion in gross value added every year. With some 700,000 jobs and 55,000 businesses in Westminster, it is a ‘big leading light in the economic story’, and with an ‘amazingly diverse’ make-up, despite high levels of deprivation, too.
‘Westminster is increasingly trying to improve its environmental footprint’, challenging people through the planning application process, installing some 145 electric charging points since 2017, 523 green walls and roofs over the last decade, and ‘an absolute shift to pedestrian priority’. Deirdra Armsby
‘It’s not something that we have just turned to recently’, she said. ‘It’s been embedded in our systems and the way we create places’. The council was also trying to be more ‘innovative’ and ‘daring in trying things out’, Armsby added in terms of placemaking in the borough, whilst drawing on key local ‘assets’. ‘Our community invests in this place on a daily basis.’
Director of central London at The Crown Estate, James Cooksey, presented his views on heritage and the diversity of place at One Heddon Street and Regent Street, the latter of which had seen dramatic rises in air quality on its car-free days (Nitrogen Oxide down 82%, Nitrogen Dioxide down 29%), when retailers reported sales that were ‘neutral or slightly up’. Part of the Crown’s work is to ‘give people a reason to come’ to places like Regent Street, but it is also challenging itself on what sort of organisation it is and ‘how it can use its scale to have a positive impact’. In the war for talent it has also recognised that the workplaces it creates are fundamentally important, said Cooksey, and at One Heddon Street, it is aiming to be the first co-working space to achieve WELL Gold recognition; a theme running across the estate. ‘The bigger issue is that we need to face up to air quality and more broadly seek to reduce carbon emissions.’ And who knows, Cooksey suggested, that this could include a future Regent Street without traffic at all, in a London which includes a greater use of consolidated deliveries and energy efficient buildings.
New West End Company (NWEC) chief executive Jace Tyrell agreed that air quality was a critical factor, and one that comes up ‘time and again’ with customers, staff and visitors alike. ‘We need to move faster’, he said. ‘We need to reduce congestion, make it safer and radically improve air quality’.
Green measures NWEC has piloted need to be scaled up and planned across a wider part of central London, building on a 50% drop in bus traffic across Oxford Street over the last four years. ‘We are using the next six months to really think about what a truly sustainable district looks like’, he said. Air quality is ‘one of the biggest challenges we face’ but is not, however, something that can be outsourced to the private sector, Tyrell added.
For Paul O’Grady, director of South Belgravia at Grosvenor, it was culture that played a key part in placemaking, and landlords are now beginning to understand the less tangible benefits that culture brings. ‘We believe culture is not a peripheral afterthought or philanthropic throwaway but rather a fundamental part of the fabric and identity of our estate’, he said, and one underpinned by ‘a very solid business case’. Culture builds awareness, increases spend, dwell time and numbers of visits, O’Grady said, but has to be ‘authentic’. ‘It is no longer just about the buildings.’
The conference also heard from Ruth Duston, outlining the importance of work the Victoria BID is undertaking to provide the transport infrastructure ‘fuel’ to drive London’s growth, through a major plan for Victoria station and environs. And Sophie Thompson, director of LDA design showed what she felt was ‘one of the most ambitious and extraordinary public realm projects in London’ – the overhaul of the Strand to close the Aldwych gyratory and create a ‘truly democratic’ and primarily pedestrian public space in its stead. Heart of London Business Alliance chief executive Ros Morgan showed similarly wide-ranging public realm improvement plans for Piccadilly and Haymarket, along with crucial justification for the moves in monetary terms provided by Arup. Indeed, Arup’s director and chief economist Alexander Jan said Westminster was a key job provider, which was important to hold onto when making the case for investment in the West End, a ‘battle’ that must be maintained with Treasury. Another issue, said Jan, was the need for not just capital expenditure but the ‘relentless’ management and repair of spaces, while the extent to which London roads are dug up – 30,000 times in Westminster alone – is also a problem for business and public realm. ‘This is something that happens in no other world city I have been to’, said Jan.