We all knew it was coming and here we are. The Prime Minister has issued strict instructions for the vast majority of people across the UK to ‘stay at home’ until further notice, to help curtail the spread of COVID-19.
As with last week’s edition, LDN brings you the headlines on how the pandemic is affecting the capital, with a focus on London’s regional and local authorities, as well as the city’s wider built environment sector. But as ever, we also cover a number of issues relatively untainted by the virus, including the latest estate regeneration ballots, neighbourhood planning and more.
The pandemic has, meanwhile, overshadowed other sombre news. 22 March marked the third anniversary of the 2017 Westminster terror attack, which saw four people killed and 50 injured. Separately, we were saddened to hear of the death of Richard (Dick) Tracey, a veteran London politician who was Conservative MP for Surbiton (1983-97), Minister for Sport (1985-87) and more recently a London Assembly Member (2012-16).
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COVID-19 IN LONDON
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a UK-wide lockdown on 23 March, in an attempt to halt the rapid spread of COVID-19. Measures include a broad direction to self-isolate where possible and an order mandating the closure of all bars, restaurants, and non-essential shops. London, being the UK's worst-hit city, has responded accordingly. In a sobering statement, Mayor Sadiq Khan has implored Londoners to follow the government’s rules in order to ‘stop more people dying.’
In relevant developments:
- More or less all public events scheduled for the next few weeks have been cancelled or postponed. Indicatively, all events in Trafalgar Square have been cancelled until further notice, the London Borough of Culture’s programme of events has been postponed, and the London Festival of Architecture’s core public events – due to take place in June – will now be taking place later in the year.
- The Mayor of London is working with London boroughs, central government and the private sector to ensure that rough sleepers are able to comply with government rules and get the support they need.
- While most London Assembly meetings have been cancelled or postponed, Assembly Chair Jennette Arnold has reassured Londoners that ‘there is much that Assembly Members can and will do to continue to raise matters of importance to Londoners with the Mayor of London.’
- It was also announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock that the Excel Centre in East London will be hosting a new field hospital from next week, initially with 500 beds, with plans to expand this capacity to up to 4,000 patients. According to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, the military is also exploring other possible facilities to treat patients who cannot be accommodated in normal NHS facilities.
London’s transport authority continues to be in the eye of the storm. One does not envy TfL planners’ lot in life, as they seek to balance immediate public health concerns with the need to provide transport services to key workers, all in the face of a dire financial situation. Here are the headlines:
- It was confirmed on 19 March that Mike Brown, due to resign in May, will be staying on as TfL Commissioner during the coronavirus crisis, saying ‘the Mayor has asked me, and I have willingly agreed, to remain as Commissioner for a longer period to help lead us through the coming months.’
- TfL has suspended congestion and Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charges as of 23 March, to enable key workers to travel around London. The Mayor has stressed that this was ‘not an invitation’ to drive around London and that rules against all non-essential journeys still apply.
- TfL is meanwhile operating reduced Tube and bus services in an attempt to reduce crowding while enabling access to public transport for essential workers, but images of crowded trains on Monday morning have led to questions about the effectiveness of the approach.
- Critics of the reduced service schedule unsurprisingly include Conservative Mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey AM, but also Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and Health Secretary Matt Hancock and even Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell – but Khan has insisted that TfL cannot run more services, because growing numbers of staff are off sick or self-isolating.
- According to the latest TfL figures, passenger journeys on the London Underground have meanwhile fallen by 70%, and bus journeys have fallen by 40%.
- And only yesterday, Mike Brown announced that TfL and Crossrail would be bringing all construction sites to a temporary Safe Stop unless they needed to continue for operational safety reasons (read on for more on the closure of construction sites).
THE VIEW FROM THE BOROUGHS
London’s local authorities are meanwhile playing a vital role in safeguarding Londoners’ health and wellbeing, as well as in supporting businesses and charities through this difficult period. The boroughs continue to soldier on under difficult circumstances, fighting to deliver not only the more obviously ‘essential’ services such as social care and waste collection, but other functions that are vital in their own right. Planning and parks services (covered in stories below) are but two among a bewildering array of services that councils are still called upon to manage under extremely difficult conditions. Every single borough, from Hillingdon in the west to Havering in the east and from Harrow in the north to Croydon in the south, are offering extensive advice and support to the people and organisations in their area. All are putting maximum effort into tackling the virus and its effects, with recent initiatives that caught our eye including Islington’s new helpline, Lambeth’s crowdfunding campaign and the City of London’s rent relief measures for its small business tenants.
Meanwhile, London Councils continues to advocate on behalf of all 33 local authorities in the capital, as well as coordinate and foster joint action in key areas – most recently issuing guidance for a ‘pragmatic approach to enforcement of parking and driving offences’ to better serve vulnerable people and key workers.
Aside from its direct impact on their work, councils will doubtlessly be frustrated by the pandemic’s knock-on effect on longer-term policymaking and funding streams. Expected White Papers on Devolution and Planning are likely to be delayed and we now know that the Comprehensive Spending Review (whose results were due in July) has again been delayed to an unspecified date.
Liberal Democrat-led Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames announced on 24 March that Councillor Caroline Kerr has replaced Councillor Liz Green as leader. In its relevant statement, the Council said that Councillor Kerr, who previously worked as an ITN correspondent and who now runs a media training company, has ‘extensive experience in the media and managing crisis communications’ and underlines that she has advised, among others, ‘Britain’s leading public health professionals on how to encourage effective behaviour change during pandemics.’ Councillor Green will continue to serve as Councillor for St Marks ward.
WANDSWORTH AND RICHMOND CEO
Meanwhile, the CEO of nearby Wandsworth and Richmond upon Thames councils has agreed to withdraw his resignation in light of the pandemic. Paul Martin has been at Wandsworth since 2010 and additionally became Richmond's Chief Executive in 2016 (the two boroughs are run through a shared staffing model). As per reports in the MJ and LGC, Martin has agreed to stay on ‘in the light of the current crisis', despite having announced in February he would be stepping down.
As LCA works right across London, we have been closely watching how different local authorities' planning committees and officers are adapting to the new state of affairs. While in many cases committees continued meeting until last week, scheduled sessions have now been cancelled pretty much everywhere, for at least the next two months. The Government has released some guidance on how local authorities’ planning (and other) functions’ work can continue, but much remains unclear. However, Part 1, Section 78 of the Coronavirus Bill, which is now making its way through the Lords, contains provisions empowering the Communities Secretary to draw up new rules for how council committees can continue their work. Meanwhile, planning officers in boroughs such as Westminster, to cite but one of many examples we are aware of, are carrying on with whatever work can be done remotely. LCA is liaising with local authorities to agree the scope of engagement programmes compliant with ‘social distancing’ requirements – looking at digital, virtual and all other non-face-to-face methods, so that pre-application and other public consultations can continue. We are continuing to tailor our approach for the needs of each client, scheme and area, building on our work over recent years, with our four-strong in-house design team continuing to prepare all web-based and other materials.
Enclosed public spaces run by councils, such as gyms, libraries and leisure centres, are now closed across the city. However, parks have proven to be a more complicated issue: while individuals following social distancing advice should be able to safely use parks for a jog or to walk the dog, reports of large numbers of people congregating in open spaces over the weekend have generated widespread concerns. In some cases, including that of Hammersmith & Fulham, parks have subsequently been shut but elsewhere they remain open. Yet even in the case of the latter, councils such as Camden and the City of London have warned that this may yet have to change if social distancing advice is not followed by the wider public. With stricter measures now announced by Government, the police are also now empowered to break up larger gatherings in public spaces.
PRIVATE SECTOR PITCHES IN
Businesses are facing immense challenges as investment stalls, consumption falls, and most employees are simply not allowed to come into work. Notwithstanding some cases of unscrupulous – or indeed, simply desperate or ill-informed – employers, the private sector is playing a critical part in tackling the pandemic. The NHS has struck a deal to secure almost the entirety of private hospitals’ capacity, at cost; in London, this amounts to 2,000 beds, more than 250 operating theatres and critical beds, and thousands of doctors and nurses. As briefly mentioned above also, City Hall has partnered with InterContinental Hotels Group to provide 300 rooms for rough sleepers to self-isolate, as well as the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, many of whose members are volunteering to help transport people between support services. We are also seeing many companies in the property sector step up to take action above-and-beyond their legal obligations. LCA client Labtech is one such firm, having this week announced several initiatives, including extending the use of vacant apartments across its estate in Camden to NHS workers and their families during the pandemic.
Businesses aside, individuals and communities are springing into action to help the NHS, other emergency services or even just their next-door neighbours. Literally hundreds of established and new groups - many operating under the umbrella of Covid Mutual Aid UK - are doing sterling work to help people in need, across the city.
One area where employers and employees alike have been left bewildered by the Government’s latest advice (or rather, the paucity thereof) is construction. Shortly after the Prime Minister’s ‘stay at home’ speech earlier this week, the Communities Secretary issued ‘guidance’ by means of Twitter, to the effect that building sites can continue operating so long as workers can ‘follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.’ Contractors and workers alike responded with dismay at the Secretary of State’s Sphinx-like advice, which raises many questions about what they should do to effectively comply with public health advice, while protecting themselves from considerable financial risks. The Construction Leadership Council has been liaising with Government and has drawn up Site Operating Procedures (which are being updated on an ongoing basis) to help clarify which work sites can continue operating in accordance with the Government’s rather airy advice. Multiple contractors and developers have meanwhile opted to simply cease work on building sites as soon they can be made safe – including Multiplex, ISG, Taylor Wimpey and Galliard.
As noted above, planning authorities’ work may have been slowed down, but they are by no means sitting around! Cue Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration and Skills Jules Pipe, who has called in Inland Homes’ application for a development in Hillingdon. Refused by the Council in February in line with officers’ recommendation, the plans comprise over 500 homes to be delivered on the site of the former Master Brewer hotel and pub, 35% of which would be affordable (70% London Affordable Rent and 30% Shared Ownership). The Council received over 260 objections to the scheme, with critics asserting that the development would not be in keeping with the local area, would have a negative impact on the Green Belt and would be too dense and too tall (the tallest building in the proposals is 11 storeys high). In his letter to the local authority, Pipe noted that while Hillingdon has delivered on its overall housing target, they are ‘below [their] target levels for affordable housing’. A date for the public hearing has not yet been set.
CAMBRIDGE ROAD ESTATE BALLOT
Shortly before London went into lockdown, the results of two more residents’ ballots were announced. Both resulted in a positive vote for estate regeneration plans involving the demolition and redevelopment of existing homes. First, 73% of eligible residents of the Cambridge Road Estate in Kingston (on a turnout of 86%) have voted in favour of the Council’s plans to regenerate the estate. These will see 865 or so homes demolished and replaced with approximately 2,170 new homes across a variety of tenures (including a ‘minimum of an additional 114 council homes’). Meanwhile in Camden, 93% of the West Kentish Town Estate’s eligible residents (on a turnout of 84.9%) gave the go ahead for the redevelopment of their estate. The Councils’ proposals foresee the demolition of 316 existing homes and the redevelopment of the site to provide ‘over 800 homes’ across multiple tenures. It is unclear from the publicly available documents how many of these will be social homes, but an FAQs document suggests that ‘no less than 40%’ of the homes will be in affordable tenures. These are Kingston and Camden’s first ballots and are believed to be the 10th and 11th ballots to take place in London, as a prerequisite for Mayoral funding.
The London Assembly Planning Committee has published a report on Neighbourhood Planning in the capital. The report found that London is ‘severely lagging’ in its implementation of neighbourhood plans compared to the rest of England. It consequently makes a series of recommendations to the Mayor, local authorities and central Government to improve the process and boost the uptake of neighbourhood planning in the capital. The Mayor is urged to ‘explicitly’ support neighbourhood planning by publishing an annual report on its progress, provide more resources and funding and focus efforts on those nine boroughs which are still ‘neighbourhood planning deserts’. Local authorities are advised to more actively advertise neighbourhood planning in local communities as well as boost resources for neighbourhood planners, whom they have a ‘duty to support’. As for central Government, the Committee recommends that it provides more funding and support for neighbourhood planning, both directly to interested groups and via local authorities.
LGBT+ LATER LIVING SURVEY
LCA is proud to be a long-time supporter of Tonic Living, a unique Community Interest Company working to create great places to live for LGBT+ people in later life. In collaboration with Opening Doors London and Stonewall Housing, Tonic Living is now running a research project to better understand the housing and support needs of LGBT+ Londoners who are over 50. If that sounds like you, please inform this research by completing an anonymous online survey by 13 April, which should take only about ten minutes - and do please help spread the word about the survey via social media, corporate newsletters, or any other digital channels at your disposal! The Building Safe Choices Survey report will be published in May 2020 and we expect it will be of huge interest to social and specialist housing providers.
FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER IS BACK!
For some light relief in these trying times, the sixth series of Friday Night Dinner starts this Friday on Channel Four at 10pm, running for six weeks. Why are we telling you this, you may ask? Well, the show is written by Robert Popper, our Managing Director Jonny Popper’s brother - and the hit comedy is based on the life and times of the Popper family. Most characters’ names have been changed, apart from Jonny’s, who is still called Jonny, although the real-life Jonny is keen to point out that Jonny you see on TV is a far more extreme and annoying version than the real thing (not to mention considerably taller). You can watch the trailer here and earlier series are available here or on Netflix.
LCA prides itself on its intelligence-led approach to PR and communications and our dedicated research team monitors London politics, news and issues as it happens. If you would like to know more about LCA or anything in this edition of LDN – London in short please get in touch.
LDN is put together by a dedicated team at London Communications Agency. The content for each edition is developed from news drawn from the last week from every London local paper as well as the regional and national press, from intelligence gathered by monitoring local, regional and national government activity and from the insight and expert knowledge of the entire LCA team.
If you would like to know more about anything covered in this or any other edition of LDN or if you would like to know more about LCA please contact Duncan Hepburn on 020 7612 8480 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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