The heatwave is now blessedly past, but London is in no way cooling down. Between the pandemic’s slow burn and heated political developments, the last two weeks make for a sizzling (not to mention a tad longer than usual) LDN edition.
'Next week sees the start of September, which in a 'normal' London year is usually diary-crazy as we juggle attendance at party conferences with many London property events, parties and public exhibitions on planning applications, held back to avoid consultation in the summer holidays. In addition the phone rings as clients, returning from their summer breaks, decide to start work on a site and want some advice - quickly. But this year the September diary is not as packed as usual. I have one dinner with Tony Travers and… well that’s about it (at present!). The only significant events, apart from virtual party conferences, are the launch of The Changing Face of London at the NLA on the 9 September and a new report by Centre for London later in the month (see details below). And how much the phone will ring will be just one small indicator of whether life is really starting to get back to normal. Meanwhile, read on as there’s a lot happening nationally, regionally and locally across our beloved capital city.'
- Robert Gordon Clark, Executive Chairman
LONDON RECOVERY LATEST
Our last edition on 12 August coincided with confirmation that the UK’s national economy was technically in recession. In the two weeks since, increasingly detailed data on the pandemic’s impact on London specifically has begun to emerge. It suggests that the capital’s economy overall is indeed fairly resilient compared to some other parts of the country. But it also emphasises that within London, many groups of people, geographic areas and economic sectors have been hit just as hard (or even harder) than anywhere else. For example, the latest excellent issue of Centre for London’s London Intelligence, published last week, shows that many of the Outer London boroughs’ high streets fared better than the Central Activities Zone’s international shopping destinations – but also that Outer London has seen the greatest increase in the number of people claiming unemployment benefits. These findings are corroborated by other recently-published research, from the Brent Poverty Commission’s final report, to a London Assembly survey of Londoners on housing. It is clear that any strategic approach to London’s economic and social recovery will have to take a nuanced approach, tailored to meet each borough’s particular needs – and it is encouraging to see that understanding reflected in a rare but welcome public intervention by Nick Bowes, Sadiq Khan’s Mayoral Director of Policy.
LONDON TRANSPORT LATEST
In news which does not bode well for London’s economic recovery, Crossrail Ltd last week confirmed, following a meeting of its Board, that the central section of the new railway will now be ready to open only ‘in the first half of 2022’, having originally been scheduled to open in December 2018. This latest setback is not that surprising, as it is in part due to construction being brought to a halt during the lockdown, while the introduction of safety measures including social distancing on now-reopened construction sites has further reduced productivity. The delay is now estimated to incur an additional cost of £450m, which will bring the total cost of the project to almost £19bn. The response from the GLA and Transport for London (TfL) was one of disappointment. New TfL Commissioner Andy Byford in particular had previously said that the opening of Crossrail is one of his two top priorities. Furthermore, the announcement comes at a particularly awkward time for TfL: a review of its finances by KPMG – one of the conditions attached to TfL’s government bailout – should be delivering its report next week.
RIVER CROSSINGS KERFUFFLES
Bridges and tunnels across the Thames seem to bring Sadiq Khan nothing but headaches. The Mayor has been compelled to reiterate his support for the Silvertown Tunnel scheme, which will connect Greenwich to Newham, after the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition’s latest salvo against the project. It has meanwhile emerged the Mayor did not include proposals for the Cremorne Bridge, which would connect Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham, in his a list of ‘shovel ready projects’ submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Local councillors and London Assembly Members alike are up in arms about the project’s exclusion from the list, as the scheme has already been granted planning permission and key parts of its structure have even been built already. Meanwhile, with two other existing bridges already out of action due to repairs (namely Hammersmith Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge), Tower Bridge was also closed to traffic for over 24 hours, due to a ‘mechanical fault’ which prevented it from closing after allowing a ship to pass through. While some London Tories sought to pin the blame for the Tower Bridge closure on the Mayor, many neutral observers have noted that it belongs to the Bridge House Estates, a charitable trust overseen by the City of London Corporation.
GLA ON NOTICE?
Party-political squabbles over transport issued are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the frosty relationship between City Hall and No 10. A brief thaw in the early days of lockdown proved all too fleeting and the past few weeks have seen the conflict between London’s Labour Mayor and the Conservative national Government snowball to alarming proportions. Polarised party politics, the perceived ‘North-South divide’ and ‘levelling up agenda,’ an extended Mayoral election campaign and of course the clash of egos between the current and former Mayor have all contributed to a perfect (snow)storm. The stakes are high, as this is no longer simply a contest over which party controls City Hall. As underlined by several articles over recent days (see for example pieces in The Observer, BBC and OnLondon), this fight is looking increasingly like a struggle for the future of the Mayoralty itself. Whatever one’s party-political views, freezing or rolling back the devolution process would fly against the Government’s commitment to localism and undermine the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) critical role as a strategic, city-wide and elected institution. 20 years after its creation, the GLA may well be in need of a facelift. But hobbling it won’t do anyone, much less Londoners, any good at all.
CITY HALL PLANNING LATEST
Planning is one key area where the Mayor may see his powers curtailed (more on this in Our Week, below). But in the meantime, the GLA’s work in this area continues apace. Deputy Mayor for Planning Jules Pipe has backed plans for ‘the capital’s largest film studios in Dagenham East’ through a Stage 2 decision allowing Barking & Dagenham Council to determine the application itself, although a tenant for the studio is yet to be confirmed. A public hearing on plans for the redevelopment of the Former Master Brewer Site in Hillingdon, called in at Stage 3 by the Mayor, appears to have been rescheduled for 3 September (it was initially set to take place this week). Amended plans for Stag Brewery in Richmond, a separate brewery redevelopment project also called in by the Mayor, have also recently been publicised in advance of their public hearing, which should take place on 26 November. Meanwhile, Chair of the London Assembly Planning and Regeneration Committee AM Andrew Boff has written to the Communities Secretary, outlining the findings of an investigation into local planning changes as a result of COVID-19.
As LDN readers will know very well, one area where the Mayor has expressed a desire to see an ambitious expansion of the GLA’s powers is in drawing up and imposing new regulations for the private rental sector, an issue long championed by Deputy Mayor Tom Copley. While it is highly unlikely Sadiq Khan will get such powers any time soon, he was gratified when the Government decided to extend a standing ban on evictions which was due to expire on 23 August, announcing that renters will continue to be protected from evictions for another four weeks (until 21 September 2020) and pledging to require six months’ notice for tenants until at least the end of March 2021 in all but extreme cases, ‘such as those involving anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse perpetrators.’ With a disproportionate amount of Londoners on low incomes dependent on privately rented homes, Khan and Copley (as well as London Councils, health bodies, charities and others) have repeatedly warned against a premature lifting of the evictions ban. For its part, the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) has accused the Mayor of unnecessarily stoking tensions between tenants and landlords and has branded the last-minute extension of the evictions ban ‘totally unacceptable.’ They do have a point, as most landlords will have been doing their best to sort things out amicably with tenants and many will have their own debts to meet.
Following repeated warnings by London Councils that local authorities in the capital are facing significant financial difficulties, Croydon Council has reportedly become the first local authority to actively seek emergency financial assistance from the government. Local media have for several weeks reported on the council’s mounting financial difficulties, but it was Property Week’s print edition which first reported that Croydon is requesting a ‘capitalisation directive’ allowing it to use funds normally restricted to capital spending for day-to-day expenditure. As clarified by the Financial Times today, that is not the same as declaring bankruptcy per se (the dreaded Section 114 notice) and unnamed local government sources cited by the newspaper said that while ‘some other councils in London are in difficulties … none [are] as bad as Croydon.’ Nevertheless, this is an ominous development for the capital and certainly for this South London borough, which is proceeding with a cost-cutting drive, overseen by a financial review panel. Measures implemented already include a hiring freeze and plans for up to 175 redundancies, with ‘some senior management departures … expected within weeks.’
IN OTHER BOROUGH NEWS
Other news underlines how the boroughs are still, despite everything, managing to deliver core services and striving to return to relative normalcy. London Councils recently highlighted the success of the capital’s boroughs in championing apprentices, with a 14% increase in the number of jobs created through this route by boroughs between April 2019 and March 2020. While most public council meetings are continuing remotely to ensure social distancing, Lewisham looks likely to be the first local authority in the capital to hold at least some public meetings in person next month (though many attendees are still likely to be attending virtually). Many boroughs have yet to hold their 2020 Annual General Meetings (AGMs) due to the disruption caused by COVID-19, but Southwark Council recently confirmed that it will be holding its Annual Meeting on 16 September.
BOROUGH PLANNING AND HOUSING LATEST
There’s also mixed news from the boroughs on a range of issues relating to the built environment:
- Several councils are reversing road closures after negative feedback from residents and businesses. In London, this is the case in Harrow, while a row has also broken out between Croydon and Bromley councils about the congestion caused by the closure of roads.
- Newham Council has announced that it is bringing control of temporary accommodation, which had been leased to a contractor, back in house. Residents have been reporting numerous issues in their homes, located in Canning Town and Custom House, with Mayor Rokshana Fiaz saying that relations between the Council and its contractor have been ‘difficult’.
- Westminster City Council has announced that urban design practice Publica will oversee the upgrade of Oxford Street as the project’s ‘design guardian’.
- Plans for a luxury later life development in Kensington & Chelsea have been given the go ahead following an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. The borough granted approval for the development in 2018, but the GLA had rejected the proposals. The 142 homes on the former site of Heythrop College will include just five affordable properties, as well as a ‘raft of public benefits’, according to the Inspector’s report.
- Brent Council has approved plans for a scheme including a new adult education centre, 65 new council homes, workspace, community areas and a café. The development had been proposed by Brent Start, the local authority’s adult education service.
- Rachel Fisher is leaving her role at MHCLG to move to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where she will lead the Land Use Policy team.
- Haringey Councillor Preston Tabois has been suspended from the Labour Party over a complaint relating to allegations of anti-Semitism.
- Former MP and independent Mayoral candidate Rory Stewart has announced that he is to teach a course on ‘Politics in Crisis’ at Yale University.
- Poplar HARCA is on the search for a new Project Manager. Apply here.
NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE LATEST
Last week, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps launched the Department for Transport’s new Acceleration Unit. It will be led by Chief Executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, Darren Shirley, with the aim of speeding up the delivery of transport projects. The Unit will engage with specialists including Highways England’s Chris Taylor and Mace’s Chief Executive Mark Reynolds. Heathrow Southern Railway Ltd (HSRL) has already called on the Unit to prioritise a southern rail link to the airport and it remains to be seen whether it will be deployed to ‘accelerate’ any other major London infrastructure projects.
Highways England has meanwhile published its Strategic Business Plan 2020-2025 which sets out how the Government’s planned improvements to England’s road network will be carried out, including repairs and replacements for motorways and major A roads. It is estimated that these improvements will support 64,000 jobs in the construction industry.
EVERYONE'S PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
For anyone struggling to understand the Government’s various planning reforms and proposals – including but not limited to the Planning for the Future White Paper – researchers at the House of Commons Library have produced a handy briefing. It is however important to remember that the Government’s planning reform drive is not the only show in town! The London Green Spaces Commission (Chaired by Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy Shirley Rodrigues), has launched its final report and recommendations, also summarised in this blog. We’ve additionally watched on with particular interest as the APPG for London’s Planning and Built Environment’s dedicated Suburbs Taskforce (initially launched in March and co-chaired by London MPs Rupa Huq and David Simmons) formally issued a call for evidence, as it starts its work compiling a set of recommendations to boost suburban areas. We hope that decisionmakers in Whitehall will pause to consider these and other perspectives on planning and the built environment, as they proceed at break-neck pace with plans to rewrite planning rulebooks from scratch, on a blueprint they have hinted at but not quite yet laid out in full. All the more so as we are still all wondering what’s happening with the London Plan right now, and how it will be affected by the White Paper (which made no mention of it).
'EVENTS, DEAR BOY, EVENTS'
The gradual easing of lockdown measures and increasing confidence about holding events virtually has contributed to some gradual certainty about key fixtures for London’s built environment sector and the political calendar.
- The NLA launches The Changing Face of London exhibition on 9 September, which we are proud to be supporting (and you can book a place here). Also, the NLA’s Building Centre is now open for visitors.
- The Festival of Place is now scheduled to take place on 13 November at the ‘semi-outdoor’ Tobacco Dock venue in East London, with extensive safety measures in place.
- This year’s London Conference by Centre for London will meanwhile take place wholly online, and will run from 2 to 6 November (rather than just a day). The capital’s leading think tank will also be launching a major new report, ‘London at a crossroads’ at an event on 24 September.
- We normally attend both the Conservative and Labour Autumn Party Conferences and it is disappointing that neither will be taking place as usual this year, though both parties will be holding virtual events in their stead – see relevant information here and here.
- The Liberal Democrats and Green Party will also be hosting online conferences this year.
Of course these and many other events will depend on the vagaries of the pandemic, but we look forward to meeting our clients, associates and friends at these and more upcoming happenings!
LONDON MEDIA LATEST
COVID-19 continues to batter the media sector nationwide – particularly print media and local press outlets – compounding the challenges posed by the continued ascendance of digital ad markets, social media and streaming platforms. This month has seen two of London’s flagship newspapers taking yet more punches. The Evening Standard is reportedly planning to cling on to its print freesheet, while laying off one-third (115) of its employees, in an effort to counter long-standing financial difficulties (it reported a pre-tax loss of £13.6m last year). Meanwhile, it has been reported that the Daily Mail and General Trust, whose publications include Metro (another London-centred freesheet) is poised to cut up to 100 jobs as the pandemic continues to impact advertising revenues. Nevertheless, on the bright side, both the Standard and Metro saw an uptick in circulation this July. We were also overjoyed to see Time Out London – which temporarily stopped publishing its magazine during the pandemic – reappearing outside Tube stations for the first time in six months, though it has now shifted from a weekly to monthly publication schedule. City AM is also planning to re-start its print edition on 7 September.
LCA SELLS IN
We recently helped our client Broadway Malyan broadcast their expertise in a piece on four ways the pandemic could re-shape school design, by the international architectural practice's Head of Education Harry Hoodless, in TES online. We have also worked closely with MSD's comms team to secure coverage across a range of national, pharmaceutical and property trade press media, for our long-term client Precis Group’s plans to create a new £1bn UK headquarters and Discovery Centre for the global healthcare company in the Knowledge Quarter at Belgrove House, King’s Cross. And as part of our work for Quintain, another longstanding client, we helped get the word out about their Wembley Park community fund, which has provided grants to more than 30 charities in LB Brent since it was set up in 2016, in the local media.
ALL ABOUT THE WHITE PAPER
We are continuing to attend a number of webinars as everyone seeks to get their head around the implications of the Government’s planning reform White Paper. A British Property Federation (BPF) webinar offered much useful insight, including from MHCLG’s Director of Planning, Simon Gallagher, although he was noticeably evasive on the issue of the role of the Mayor and the London Plan in the future planning system. Everyone was agreed on the importance now of the next layer of detail before its potential for success can really be judged, with particular concern raised over plans to scrap both S106 and CIL, to be replaced with a single Infrastructure Levy (which could be called, somewhat unhelpfully, “IL”). Separately, a Women in Planning event gave us the opportunity to hear senior local government planning officers’ views on the White Paper, including some much more forthright concerns and criticisms raised about the proposals. We additionally attended Urbanistas London’s latest event, which also discussed the White Paper. Unfortunately, we can’t tell you anything about it, as we are bound by the Chatham House Rule – you should have been there!