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‘The land that keeps on giving’: the role of industrial land in London

Our Researcher Nikita Quarshie unravels the many uses of London’s industrial land, and outlines why it will continue to remain so integral to the future of the capital.

Ask people what their favourite thing about London is and you’ll probably lose count of how many times ‘diversity’ comes up. The diversity of people, places and employment that draw us here and often means we stay. That industrial land is the last thing we think about in relation to this diversity is unsurprising. The word conjures up visions of large, dirty, and smelly activities that no longer feel relevant to London’s story. However, whether it’s storing the construction materials needed to build our homes, or facilitating a culture of innovation and creativity, industrial land supports a range of activities that contribute to making the city an equitable, desirable and sustainable place to live.  

It’s likely that many of us will be unable to imagine a time when London was a leading industrial centre with different areas known for what they made- from car manufacturers in Vauxhall to print works in East London. Where once large-scale factories could be found dotted in and around the city, a period of deindustrialisation led to the inevitable release of industrial land for the houses, offices and other uses needed for the city’s growing population and changing economy. However, in the last decade especially, the city released three times more industrial land than it had planned for. This rapid release of land has led to rising rents and land prices, pushing the activities that support and service London further out of the city and posing a particular threat to smaller businesses. The increased release land also results in competition over different uses in a city already constrained for space.  

Nevertheless, the city has retained a network of industrial activities and infrastructure that are subtly embedded into London’s geography. Motor repair shops, storage, printers and transport depots are nestled into small sites and can be found around our high streets and at the fringes of our residential areas. They are so intrinsic in supporting our everyday lives that they almost become invisible. Additionally, traditional forms of industry have given way to new types that don’t fit neatly into the heavy industry of the public imagination. Artisanal or small scale makers creating anything from bespoke furniture to tailor made clothing are now more common than large-scale manufacturers. Meanwhile, other critical infrastructure such as waste management centres, water treatment facilities and warehouses are tucked away on industrial estates and outside of view of most Londoners.  

Industrial sites are worth protecting because they contribute significantly to London’s economy. In 2017, the total gross value added (GVA) of the manufacturing, construction, wholesale and repair, and transport and warehousing sectors was £78.1 billion, roughly 16 per cent of London’s GVA. Industrial sites also provide jobs which are critical to supporting and servicing the city such as laundry services and catering companies. Between 2015 and 2019, employment in food manufacturing grew by 48 per cent, in construction by 35 per cent and in logistics, warehouse and distribution by 23 per cent.

The quality of these jobs is equally important, and often require and attract skilled talent and provide competitive wages. In 2020, the average weekly salary for full time workers in warehousing and supporting transport activities was £616- almost double the weekly earnings of those in accommodation and food service activities (£383). Jobs requiring specialist skills also provide training opportunities and access to apprenticeships. And industrial land can help London achieve its sustainability and decarbonisation goals. Having the activities and warehouses London needs within the city will reduce the journeys travelled by freight vehicles servicing and delivering to London. Additionally, if London is going to succeed in shifting to a circular economy able to reduce the city’s waste, it will need to invest in new facilities and source the land to reuse, repair and remanufacture. 

And then there’s the other role of industrial land that’s perhaps quieter and less visible because of how far it is from our idea of what industry is- the way in which it supports innovation, culture and communities. Places like Building BloQs and Light Factory Studios offer workspaces and studios for different types of makers, artists and designers who are able to form a community and test new ideas quicky. Being located within London means that they’re able to form an ecosystem that benefits from London’s renowned institutions and talent. There are also the LGBTQI+ nightlife collectives that find havens in converted industrial spaces that, in being affordable and local, can sustain otherwise marginalised communities. Likewise, faith groups such as the majority Black churches in Southwark, benefit from access to ex-industrial spaces like Copeland Park, and contribute to cultural diversity of the area. These activities, though outside of what we consider to be industry, are important in enriching the multi-layered fabric of city life, even when we don’t participate in them all.  

The desire to retain enough industrial land in London is often considered to be in competition with the louder demand for more affordable homes in thcity. However, the two are complementary. The more homes we build in the city to support its growing population, the more we’ll need the kind of spaces that contribute to the reasons why people want to live in the city in the first place: its diverse communities, areas and jobs. 

Read about our ongoing Industrial Land Commission here

Nikita Quarshie is a Researcher at Centre for London. Read more from her here