This chapter envisages an alternative future for central London. It outlines a potential “success scenario” for the district, before laying out some key principles and recommendations to help achieve this scenario and address the issues highlighted in the previous chapter.
The opportunity: a central London success scenario
Growth and change in the city centre are accepted and welcomed by those responsible for managing it. Space in the CAZ/NIoD is used flexibly and intelligently by businesses and developers, guided by a joined-up, CAZ-wide vision developed by boroughs and other London stakeholders that gives a voice to a full range of central London’s diverse user groups. This allows local interests to be heard and improves trust at a neighbourhood level, but also ensures a strategic, CAZ-wide approach to investment and new development.
Challenges – from congestion and pollution to homelessness and public realm improvements – are dealt with strategically across existing boundaries, and with openness to innovation. The district’s physical environment is improved, and its impact on climate change reduced through improved sustainability measures across the built environment. Intermediate housing provision encourages the growth of stable, long-term communities, and start-ups can find flexible and affordable workspace in and around the city centre. Development is optimally dense if not always tall.
Central government is convinced of central London’s importance, but also its vulnerability to decline, acknowledging the need for investment and devolution. The district maintains its diversity of function, mitigating some use clashes and focusing on areas of common cause between user groups. These factors enable central London to thrive in the coming years and create a strong foundation for continued success.
What is needed: Four key principles
Embrace change. While the CAZ/NIoD remains the core of central London, the mix of uses and pressures in and around the area is shifting. Continuing change is inevitable, despite the city centre’s historic physical environment, so its leaders and their policies must be flexible and receptive to innovation. Arup analysis for the 2018 report West End Good Growth shows that there is potential for significant densification in the West End without an explosion in the number or size of tall buildings. 141 Comprehensive analysis of the potential of the wider CAZ/NIoD area should be undertaken to examine the potential for such intensification.
Space – and a flexible attitude to its use – is hugely important. Central London must be willing to experiment with and adopt more innovative ideas – from new governance approaches and fiscal mechanisms, to new ways of managing traffic and making the most of existing space. Challenges such as the changing nature of retail and the rise of short-term residential letting must be addressed; at the same time, measures to improve air quality and enhance the district’s sustainability are becoming ever more vital.
Think strategically. A clear vision and stronger co-ordination is needed, given the 10 separate boroughs and other layers of governance, and building on the work of Central London Forward. This area is different to most of London in its purpose, function, and the balance between residents, employment and visitors. Amidst growing residential numbers, it is important to ensure that the district’s more affluent population doesn’t become so transient that its “stewardship” role is lost. It is equally vital that its more deprived communities are not left isolated, and that intermediate housing can be provided for key workers.
Ways to provide affordable homes for stable, long-term communities must be found across the CAZ/NIoD, and affordable space for small businesses and local residents is also needed in and around the district. Ultimately, planning decisions should be based on more detailed CAZ/NIoD-wide analysis of both need and potential for development within the district, rather than on borough-wide policies that focus mainly on the borough and its part of the CAZ/NIoD.
Ensure all voices are heard. Despite its particular stakeholder mix – high numbers of commuters and visitors alongside smaller but growing resident numbers and a strong business presence – much CAZ/NIoD-wide policy is currently set primarily at borough level, across 10 different but mainly residential boroughs. The number of people who work in the CAZ/NIoD significantly outnumber those who live there, and yet only the latter have a direct say in the district’s future. BIDs can help to ensure that CAZ/NIoD-based employers have a voice – although this is not necessarily the same thing as giving their employees a say. Community groups must continue to be heard locally, particularly at neighbourhood level, and more transparency is needed across the whole development process to help build trust between local authorities, developers and local communities.
But London’s core is unusual in that many of its assets are of national importance: no one group owns them, and their impact reaches far beyond the boundaries of the CAZ/NIoD. Central London’s councils should work with each other and with employers to navigate “crunch points” that can occur between different uses, and to ensure the district itself continues to thrive. Alongside ensuring that a wider range of voices are heard, and strengthening the offer to visitors, this should also include seeking new ways for visitors and other users to contribute to the area’s maintenance, for example through a levy on overnight stays.
Convince central government to invest and devolve. Central London is at the heart of the UKs economy and cultural life, but it can sometimes seem politically marginalised. Central London’s boroughs and the GLA often lack sufficient powers and resources to address the challenges they face. Investment is needed in the city centre’s transport infrastructure and built environment; it is also required to address quality of life and cost of living issues from air quality to housing provision. As is the case across both capital and country, central government currently holds the reins over too much of central London life, from taxation to transport. It must be convinced to let go and devolve power, and central London’s various user groups need to speak with one voice in advocating for this.
In the meantime, central government must be convinced to continue to invest in the capital’s core, in order to ensure that the district can continue to generate the taxes that sustain public spending across much of the nation. National government must be reminded to ensure that its laudable aim to “level up” the rest of the country does not come at the expense of the capital’s success.
Central London’s resilience and strength lies in the diversity of its functions and user groups, and its governance understandably reflects this complexity. However, the unique balance between visitors, employees and residents in the CAZ/NIoD, and the potential for clashes requiring delicate management, mean that it is worth considering possibilities for strengthening the governance of this vital district.
Continued growth – with an increasing residential population matched by ever-higher numbers of commuters and tourists – is likely to place further strain on pressure points. And emerging challenges include everything from managing the effects of the growing online market for short lettings and the need to improve air quality by removing vehicles from some parts of the CAZ. These new challenges have the potential to make clashes between interest groups more frequent. The recent shift in national political discourse and focus, away from cities, but particularly away from London and the South East, also means it is even more important that those with an interest in the UK’s primary economic engine speak with a united voice externally, and focus laser-like on the challenges that central London faces internally.
There is a long tradition of joint working and partnership in central London, most recently through the work of Central London Forward. This forms a powerful foundation for concerted action to ready central London for the challenges it faces today and tomorrow. The CAZ10 boroughs and Central London Forward, including its two associate members have interests that extend far beyond the CAZ/NIoD. However this should not obscure the fact that there are common issues and concerns across central London, and scope for the boroughs to work more closely to address these together, and to refine the vision and strategy for London’s core.
This process should also involve London’s metropolitan government. The former Mayor of London issued his supplementary planning guidance for the CAZ in 2016. 142 This must be due early revision, and its development would provide an opportunity for the Mayor and CAZ boroughs to work together, alongside BIDs and other partners, in the way that the Mayor has already worked with smaller borough groupings on Opportunity Area planning frameworks across London.
There is an ongoing need to strengthen cross-district strategic action, involve more voices, and advocate collectively for the CAZ/NIoD:
1. The CAZ10 boroughs, the Greater London Authority and central London’s Business Improvement Districts must work together to develop a clear CAZ/NIoD-wide strategy on:
- Encouraging stable long-term communities, particularly through the provision of appropriate housing, shops and other amenities.
- Ensuring a mixed-use district with increasingly inclusive growth.
- Finding ways to provide inclusive, affordable workspace in and around the district without overburdening developers alone.
- Monitoring the rise in whole-property online short lettings, and mitigating negative effects on the availability of housing.
- Dealing with road congestion across the district, particularly in relation to freight, and the associated air quality challenges.
- Continuing to make public realm and environmental improvements.
- Improving coordination of service provision and planning policies across boroughs.
- Making the case for the district to central government.
2. These groups must also consider ways to strengthen the role of other central London user groups in forming future plans for the CAZ/NIoD.
- Considering an enhanced role for the district’s BIDs (and where possible, other major employers who are not members of existing BIDs) in producing and implementing the CAZ/NIoD-wide strategy.
- Embracing and encouraging neighbourhood forums and plans where possible.
- Improving mechanisms for liaising with residents locally – including brokering with communities via BIDs, neighbourhood forums and other partnership organisations where appropriate.
- Improving transparency of Section 106 and CIL payments, allowing residents to better understand who is contributing, where money is being spent, and on what.
- Considering mechanisms to allow those who use the district but live elsewhere – such as tourists and night-time visitors – to contribute financially to its upkeep where reasonable.
- Sharing best practice with one another and making the case for central London to central government.
3. All groups must make the case for central London, advocating to central government for more devolution in the long term – and for investment in the meantime.
- Ultimately, London-wide government needs more power to make the decisions that closely affect it: this is equally true of the boroughs and their sub-regional groupings.
- The CAZ/NIoD is home to concentrated economic activity and clusters of business specialism across multiple sectors: its continued success is vital to the UK economy.
- Fiscal devolution – from the retention of business rates to incentivise boroughs to grow their tax bases, to the ability to raise a visitor levy in central London – is particularly desirable in order to achieve this (although neither should end the nationwide principle of redistribution).
- Until such powers are devolved, the groups mentioned above must strengthen their joint working to provide a more coherent, louder and more diverse voice for continued investment in central London – particularly (but not exclusively) in transport infrastructure.
Central London remains a dynamic and creative city centre, but needs to respond not only to the challenges it faces today but to those ahead too. There is a strong bedrock on which to build. However, central London’s capacity to respond nimbly and coherently could be boosted by stronger collaboration. In the short term, this could involve joint work on supplementary planning guidance as suggested above, with the GLA ensuring that the CAZ10 boroughs are brought more fully into the process (perhaps through Central London Forward), alongside the district’s 16 (current) BIDs and community groups, using the issues outlined above as a starting point for debate.
In the longer term, the establishment of a formal joint committee of the CAZ10 boroughs (or Central London Forward), alongside representatives of the GLA, the district’s BIDs, and community groups, might be considered, building on existing arrangements and sharpening focus on the CAZ/NIoD. This would enable regular monitoring of key trends in employment, inclusion, demographics and the use of space, strengthening the capacity to act. Such a structure would also provide a forum for collectively advocating for the district and making representations to central government.
New governance arrangements can be costly in terms of time and resources, both of which are in short supply. So we recommend an approach that strengthens existing partnership operation, before considering the more fundamental changes needed to sustain central London as a place to live, work and welcome visitors from across the nation and the world.