Tuesday, 15 July 2014

London for All: Opening up Debate on London’s Economy

For more details about this event see this link:


Yesterday afternoon I attended London for all: opening up debate on London's Economy, hosted by the Bromley-by-Bow Centre and organised by Myfanwy Taylor from UCL Department of Geography, collaborating with Just Space - a London-wide network of voluntary and community groups working together to influence planning policy. If you want to look up the Tweets made from the event, search #londonforall and #justspace.
Divided into three quick fire sessions, with speakers talking for a maximum of ten minutes, yesterday afternoon was a thrilling discussion about the many facets of London’s economy: its present, future, and how should we measure the value of what it contains. A main theme emerged: the dysfunctional relationship between The Economy (a global-scale phenomenon in which constant growth is desirable, and is measured in money) and the human-scale building blocks of that economy - the small and medium businesses that fill every nook and cranny of London’s industrial estates and high street hinterlands.
James Meadway, New Economics Foundation
It was generally agreed that the London Plan places too much emphasis on housing growth, at the expense of industrial land. The NEF's James Meadway described the huge inequalities of wealth in London, with simple but powerful graphs. The phenomenal house prices (a house costs 10 x average earnings) leads to a ‘wealth effect’, job creation and pressure on the housing stock, in a self-reinforcing system of unsustainable growth. Roy Tindle from LTGF also criticised the conflict between industry and housing, in which housing tends to win. London relies on its industrial estates for almost every system of distribution and it is this infrastructure that underpins our massive and hugely successful service sector.
Michael Bach from the London Forum astutely pointed out that impact assessments are lacking in the drive to increase housing density in London. The economies of most boroughs are based on small businesses, which require spaces that are both appropriate and affordable. While technically the London Plan is accountable (it is consulted on), Opportunity Areas are not accountable, resulting in the construction of something in the region of 250 new residential towers in the coming years. Although planning policy often stipulates mixed use at ground floor, residents do not want noisy or smelly work taking place at their front door. Similarly, as Sue Terpilowski from the Federation of Small Businesses pointed out, business cannot be forced to locate in inappropriate locations or premises, as exemplified by the doomed schemes where the ground floor remains resolutely unoccupied. This is no problem for the developer, who has already reaped their profit from the lucrative enterprise of house-building, but disastrous for place and the local economy.
The London Plan also ignores other key issues. Dianne Perrons of the LSE argued that supporting reproduction and gender equality through child- and elder-care produces growth comparable to construction of new roads, which is also contained within particular geographic area (and local commitment is a prerequisite for ethical city-making). The Women’s Budget Group highlights the issues nationally, but Perrons argued for a specific focus on London. The Chair of the London Assembly Economy Committee, Jenny Jones, pointed out that for Lloyds of London and Price Waterhouse Cooper’s, climate change will be the biggest factor impacting the future of London. It is a systemic issue, which will affect everything (from food, to land, to production), yet it is notably absent from the London Plan. She pointed out that we need measure of adaptation, not mitigation, to cope with the spectre of climate change, but that nothing is happening because “Boris doesn’t believe in it”.
An unusual mix of academics, business owners and other interested parties attended – and its rare to see these people in the same place. It was great to hear from the owners of small businesses in the second session, who have an embedded and embodied experience of what it means to run a business in London under growing pressure from increased rents – and whose voice is often absent from the debate. Truman Brewery is due to lose its Hackney premises in 5 years as the landlord plans to develop the site as housing. Patria Roman-Velazquez from Latin Elephant made the excellent point that much ‘regeneration’ (developer-led house and flat-building) is taking place in areas where migrants have settled (Hackney, Harringay etc. – this is particularly true of Tottenham). Migrant entrepreneurs contribute approximately £30 billion to the UK economy, and nationally migrants start 1 in 7 new businesses (in London this figure is much higher, I’ve met few UK born traders in the survey of small businesses on Tottenham High Road). Yet migrants also lack power and a voice, and their businesses and the places they have collectively crafted are undervalued by local authorities, in the face of the tempting potential for gentrification.
‘Where do we go from here?’ focussed on potential solutions. Jones suggested that land should be set aside for informal, community-led industries and economies, particularly those with low carbon impact. Ben Rogers from the Centre for London argued that London is THE global city, and that we should seek to maintain this position, as it is it hugely beneficial to all. To facilitate this, he suggested more autonomy for the London government, such as the ability to set property taxes appropriately (and gave the shocking fact that the penthouses at 1 Hyde Park pay about £1600 annual council tax). Terpilowski pointed out that accelerated growth is actually bad for small businesses, it is better to grow slowly and sustainable, and ‘scruffy is good’ ie. it’s what’s behind the façade (the human lives and their commitment to their work) that matters. It’s easy to confuse the symptom of economic and ethical success (tidy, nicely painted shop fronts) with its cause (positive, fruitful and sustained interrelationships between people and place).
Considering the London Plan is about spatial planning, space and place were not discussed concretely, although their presence underpinned the majority of the presentations. The small businesses who spoke clearly had a grasp of spatial issues, and how they are embedded in a particular place. According to an individual from the GLA, planners do not understand these issues, as they are reluctant to leave the office. As Tindle suggested, you need to visit your local industrial estate to truly understand what is at stake. From my own experience, you need to speak to business owners to comprehend the rich metabolism of which they are part, because disparate scales of economic understanding are brought together through the physical place and the topography of the city.
This was most well understood by Rachel Laurence from the NEF, who is undertaking a research project exploring new economics in practice. The problems we face are integrated, but the solutions we are devising are ‘chopped up’ between many different agencies. She presented a series of succinct and powerful diagrams, showing the ‘pizza’ of the economy, with concentric rings representing places, society, institutions and the myriad of other bits, connecting between the micro and the macro scales. She argued that in order to devise systemic solutions you have to beg

Rachel Laurence, New Economics Foundation
in by asking: what do we want the economy of London to achieve?
Planning is reactive, rather than proactive, allowing destruction of the delicate balance of the micro-economies of London and replacing them with mono-thematic developments. As a contrast to this, the ‘traditional’ high street is almost endlessly adaptable, with typologies and depth of block that can accommodate almost any enterprise. A 2 bedroom high rise flat can only ever be a 2 bedroom high rise flat – it can never be a solicitor’s office or an off license.
It is deceptive to look at flows of goods and wealth and consider economic growth as a good measure of the value of a city. The economy is not just about flows and movements of commodities, but of human lives, families, relationships and commitment to place. Well-being should be the focus and measure of the success of economic planning, rather than growth. Ultimately, the problem is that planners and government – both local and national – do not have the resources to build the city, and rely on private interests to do it instead. We need to find ways to moderate and control this process to the advantage of all.

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