Oxford Street pedestrianisation has been one of the most talked about and speculated initiatives in the capital over the past 20 years, but finally it looks like actual progress could be made – with Westminster, the GLA and the New West End Company coming together on plans to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality on the gridlocked thoroughfare.
In housing, Shelter has continued its focus on viability assessments publishing a report highlighting English local authorities (including Brent, Southwark and Kensington & Chelsea), where it claims VAs have been used to avoid building affordable homes. And on the local political front, we’ve seen the launch of a new party in RBKC, Advance, which hopes to appeal to disaffected residents at the local elections next May and take seats from both Labour and the Conservatives.
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WALKING THROUGH OXFORD STREET
After being mooted by City Hall and TfL since at least 2006 – and an initial consultation earlier this year – ambitious plans for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street and the transformation of the wider area were unveiled on Monday by the Mayor of London and Deputy Leader of Westminster City Council. The proposals aim to restrict all east-west traffic on ‘Oxford Street West’ – between Orchard Street and Oxford Circus – but will maintain the north-south routes across this stretch whilst raising the existing street to pavement level and providing more taxi ranks and public seating in the surrounding area. The primary aim is to support businesses and create jobs, as well as reduce air pollution levels, improve road safety and boost security. The public consultation is open until 17 December 2017 and depending on the response, the idea is to have these measures in place by December 2018, to coincide with the launch of Crossrail services. Other sections of Oxford Street will be subject to separate consultations and transformation work in later phases. TfL is currently working to reduce the number of buses operating down Oxford Street and the idea is for this to continue until there are just two routes providing the east-west connection (re-routed down Wigmore Street if and when pedestrianisation is introduced). The plan appears very attractive on paper, but as even ordinary Londoners cited by the press have already pointed out, its ultimate success hinges on guaranteeing that traffic and public transportation measures offset the blocking off of a key surface road at the heart of the West End.
LONDON LIVING WAGE
It is Living Wage Week and the Mayor has announced an increase in the London Living Wage from £9.75 to £10.20 per hour – a 4.6% raise for the lowest-paid employees of those businesses and organisations in the capital which commit to paying their staff a living wage. In the last year, 470 more employers in the capital have pledged to pay their staff at least the Living Wage, bringing the total in London to 1,502. LCA is proud to be counted among them. The Mayor is calling for more organisations to sign up, in particular to address in-work poverty and the ethnic pay gap in London. Research undertaken by the Child Poverty Action Group with the Living Wage Foundation has found the councils that are Living Wage employers have more Living Wage companies in their borough (see map above). But there is still much to be done to ensure that all Londoners are paid a decent living wage: According to a KPMG report published only last Friday, London has a relatively low proportion of jobs paying less than the Living Wage (19%) compared to the rest of the country, but in numerical terms it is the highest of all UK regions (750,000).
SHELTER vs VIABILITY
Housing charity Shelter has published a report accusing big house builders of using Viability Assessments across England as a legal ‘loophole’ to justify building less affordable homes and maximise their profits. According to the charity, 2,500 affordable homes which could have been built last year across 11 local authorities in England were ultimately not provided, specifically in schemes where the developer submitted a viability assessment – including an estimated 153 in Brent, 117 in Southwark and 163 in Kensington & Chelsea. Shelter goes on to call for more transparent viability testing at earlier stages of the planning process and faster planning approval for schemes which comply with council policies. For its part, the Home Builders Federation has defended bigger developers, saying that affordable housing targets are not set in stone and that individual planning applications are always negotiated with the competent local authorities. Meanwhile, planning lawyer Simon Ricketts argues that the entire premise of depending on private sector developers to deliver affordable housing which the government itself refuses to fund is inherently problematic; he also points out that Viability Assessments represent a complex, expensive and unpredictable prospect which developers themselves do not relish.
COUNCILS USING TECH TO CUT COSTS AND RAISE REVENUE
A new report by the Mayor of London's Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell and David Cameron's former speechwriter Max Chambers argues that given the heady mix of challenges and opportunities particular to the UK, ‘urbantech’ can increasingly help local authorities deliver their services more efficiently and effectively. This emphasises the potential of SME tech firms to positively ‘disrupt’ the way councils work; indeed, according to former Camden councillor Blackwell – appointed in the summer – councils must “fundamentally and permanently change” the way they work in regards to everything from strategic leadership, decision-making and citizen engagement to HR and use of data. The report also showcases London’s role as a hub for the ‘smart city market’ and the proactive approach of many local authorities in the capital. These examples include the Mayor’s partnership with the SpaceHive crowdfunding platform, the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham’s integrated and secure online customer self-service portal and London Councils’ London Ventures partnership with EY which matches boroughs with innovative technology.
A new initiative backed by City Hall has been launched ‘to help tackle the housing crisis and shape places for the public good’. Public Practice, a not-for-profit social enterprise, is supported by the Mayor of London, Local Government Association and Future Cities Catapult, as well as British Land, Berkeley Group and Peabody; it will seek to address the skills gap between the public and private sectors, through the placement of planning and placemaking experts in local planning authorities. This was a manifesto pledge of Sadiq Khan’s and the organisation – led by architect and planner Finn Williams, formerly of the GLA – will act as a recruitment broker to enlist planners, architects and urbanists for year-long placements. Those placed will be paid £30,000-£50,000 per year by their host authorities, benefit from training and mentoring and in return spend 10% of their time driving ‘collective research and development’. The recruitment process for a first cohort of 16 associates is now in full swing. Developers are likely to welcome an injection of industry talent which could help accelerate public planning processes, while enhancing their certainty and quality. The first cohort of placements will be based across London, the South East, and East of England; considering the particular complexity of the capital’s planning environment, London’s boroughs are likely to show significant interest in the scheme.
NEW PARTY TO TAKE AIM AT RBKC
A new political party has launched in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and will stand on a message of improving housing in the borough and the home lives of residents. Advance is led by Annabel Mullin, a former Liberal Democrat who stood in the Kensington seat in the General Election earlier this year and hopes to tap into the success of France’s En Marche movement and campaign for greater transparency in what she views as “an outdated system that favours party politics over what serves our diverse community”. Though RBKC has been considered a ‘safe’ Tory borough since its formation in 1964, with a currently healthy majority of 24 over Labour, there could be further political change coming. Even before the Grenfell tragedy, the Kensington seat went Labour in the June 2017 general election. Is it therefore possible that Advance, which plans to field candidates in all 18 wards of the borough next May, could splinter both the Labour and Tory vote, tap into a groundswell of anger over Grenfell, return the first independent councillors in the borough since 1978 and perhaps increase the likelihood of RBKC going into No Overall Control with no one party having an overall majority?
HOUSING WHO’S WHO
Inside Housing has published a ‘Who's Who in Local Authority Housing Development List’ showcasing ‘council heavy hitters driving the delivery of new homes’. The list features representatives from a number of London boroughs. Philip Glanville (Mayor of Hackney Council, Lab), Peter John (Leader of Southwark Council, Lab) and Darren Rodwell (Leader of Barking & Dagenham Council, Lab) are hailed as ‘accelerators’ who are ‘moving at a rapid pace’ to create new homes. Clare Coghill (Leader of Waltham Forest Council, Lab) and Cath Shaw (Deputy Chief Executive of Barnet Council) are praised as ‘new movers and shakers’. Finally, Sir Steve Bullock (Mayor of Lewisham Council, Lab) and Claire Kober (Leader of Haringey Council and Chair of London Councils, Lab) are pegged as ‘true transformational leaders’ who are spearheading new and innovative approaches to tackling the housing crisis.
PEOPLE’S QUESTION TIME
Last Thursday LCA travelled east to Dagenham for the 35th instalment of People’s Question Time in what was a lively and emotive affair. Last held in March, it was unsurprising that the main theme was public safety as the Mayor was asked what more could be learned from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and about the alarming rise in knife crime across the capital. Housing also provoked a significant audience response and the Mayor described viability assessments as a “con, by and large” and said that his new team of viability experts would stop councils having to ‘roll over’ to developer’s demands to reduce their affordable quota below the 35% target. He also plugged his £250m land fund which could be used to help unlock small, difficult sites for new affordable housing. Conservative assembly member Andrew Boff was quick to challenge the Mayor’s record on housing, accusing him of distracting the public on his delivery record by concentrating on percentages of affordability. Judging by the rapturous applause Khan received in his response to Boff (“I’m not going to be lectured by a Tory about the housing crisis”) it is clear that his public appeal has yet to wane, at least in Dagenham.
SLIDEATRON IS COMING
Something big is coming exclusively to Wembley Park this Christmas. On 30 November, Slideatron, a new top-secret Christmas attraction, will be unveiled and is set to be one of the must-do activities for the festive season. The LCA team is delighted to be helping promote the attraction as part of its wider placemaking strategy at Wembley Park, an area that is coming alive with activity. If you’d like to book your place as one of the first to ride Slideatron then you can pre-register today.
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