Time for towns?
London’s towns face an intriguing next decade of shifts and choices. The potential for population and job growth, new amenities and better connections, reduced carbon, enhanced environment, and increased vibrancy, has never been greater.
London’s population continues to grow and with many of the larger sites in inner London already regenerated, the majority of new redevelopment activity will now be in zones 4, 5, 6, and 7. This is where new housing will come, with ambitious schemes that combine mixed-use, mixed-income, medium-density and high-amenity locations, with low carbon systems, enhanced connectivity, and richer design.
Universities, creative industries, and innovative clusters are also spreading out across London, creating new jobs, and anchoring new district identities. The climate imperative requires that ‘outer London’ transforms into a network of more vibrant and compact hubs, and new mobility patterns must emerge that are more attractive and responsive to residents, in order to reduce dependence on cars.
So, with these opportunities that London’s Towns and gateways now face, what is necessary to optimise them in the decade ahead? How can they be magnets for investment, and what do local place leaders need to do to capture the new imperatives, and what are the risks? This was the quest that we sought to shape at a special NLA gathering of zone 4-7 stakeholders, aiming to support the New London Agenda and Opportunity London.
One hundred Villages and a Concentric Park
Unlike many cities, London’s outer zones are not ‘monotonous suburbs’ or ‘dormitory towns’. Our city has evolved differently. London is housed in a river delta where historic ports and trading centres and 100 villages have evolved together to form a great city. Public transport has been used to shape a serviced and connected ‘Metroland’, which would otherwise not exist. This is a very diverse set of locations, and they have rich, complex, and overlapping relationships with other places.
We can observe the sharp differences between towns such as Croydon, Ealing, Barking, Bromley, and Harrow with distinctive populations, assets, and orientations. They literally ‘look’ in different directions.
These boroughs are full of university towns (Lewisham, Uxbridge, Hendon, Roehampton, Kingston, and more). There are evolving industrial hubs (M4, M11, and A40 Corridors, The Cray Valley, Dagenham, Merton, for example). Some are sports HQs (Twickenham, Wembley, Wimbledon, Putney, and Crystal Palace) and many others are indeed interchanges for railways, roads, and routes to airports, ports, and distribution centres, and much of the rest of the UK. Croydon, Hounslow, Ilford, Motspur Park, Upminster, Swanley, and Edgware are gateways to destinations beyond London.
In 1944, London adopted a Metropolitan Green Belt that reserved 1.25 million acres of land for nature, recreation, and agriculture. A spectacular policy innovation in its day, it has been copied by other intentional cities in search of a good growth model. That Green Belt is widely recognised for determining the character of the special relationship between Greater London and the surrounding Home Counties. It creates a ‘concentric park’ rather than a central park, between the metropolitan core of London and its inter-dependent neighbouring counties. It fosters a ‘leap-frog’ effect, it both separates and connects them at the same time.
These days, with almost 9,000,000 people, a severe housing crisis, and a sector mix that is less dependent on polluting industries, there are good reasons to review how this green land bank can work, and how small portions could be used to solve wider challenges. No-one publicly advocates the abolition of the Green Belt.
In the boroughs that neighbour the Green Belt the sheer abundance of rivers, canals, waterfronts, parks, farms, commons, and green spaces, traditional markets, village and maritime history, industrial heritage, former ports and docks come together to make this space rich. We add to that the fun that can be had from being in London, but close to places that are ‘not London’. London life and county life can go hand in hand.
Two key relationships were highlighted in our discussion. First, many of these parts of London have more important relationships with those other towns in neighbouring counties for which people ‘leave London’ each day to do business, work, shop, recreate, or visit friends (with Watford, Chelmsford, Southend on Sea, Royal Tonbridge Wells, Reading, and Maidstone, for example, where many businesses in Bromley have key supplier and distributor relationships). Second, there are increasingly important working relationships with many other places in the UK through work, distribution, family ties, and students. These parts of London do not simply serve central London, they serve a more complex web of flows and exchanges that are not much recognised. They need to always work beyond borders and boundaries.
New patterns and potential
Changes in demand patterns accelerated by the pandemic, and the growth of digital platforms for hybrid work, online consumption, and remote services, mean that there has been an abrupt loss of office, retail, and associated activity in many parts of our city.
More people working from home, more of the time, has potentially given London’s towns and suburbs a new source of disposable income and vitality. The old 5-2 sequence of our city, is being replaced by new combinations of 4-3, 3-4, and 2-5 patterns enabled by hybrid working. Inner and Outer London are both now increasingly hybrid locations with richer combinations and greater inter-dependence. The old ‘day-time’ and ‘night-time’ population patterns are now in a new flux.
Organising for Opportunity
Our group of leaders identified much scope in this revised context. The first is that for all towns the big opportunity is to increase vitality through intentional reinvention. This will mean accepting the changes to shopping and working patterns and deciding to shape a transition rather than be victims of a shock, creating a leadership group to take charge of the town centre or high street and avoid the ‘death by 1000 cuts’.
Places that succeed seem to offer a compelling mix of cultural assets, independent traders, co-working and maker venues, fresh amenities, great connections and unique experiences. This means tapping new opportunities for health, leisure, hospitality, culture, entertainment, co-working, and enterprise, and helping to consolidate service provision that many residents need, but whose future viability is now uncertain.
This reinvention process needs to be underpinned by 3 key ingredients.
These elements shape the potential to increase housing supply and grow population base, decouple it from car usage, and stimulate a new cycle of development that increases jobs, amenities, well-designed density, and disposable income.
The second option is to create a fresh generation of ‘New Towns’ within London’s outer boroughs. Focussed on major shopping locations, changes in retail patterns can be a driver to redevelop whole towns into larger centres using commercial property development to underpin mixed-income housing developments, coupled with new amenities, enabled by infrastructure.
This is especially true in locations which are already interchanges between different transport modes, with faster potential for development. In our discussion Brent Cross, Morden, Croydon, Acton, Barking, Walthamstow, Tottenham Hale, Wood Green, Thamesmead, Edgware, and Uxbridge were each discussed as potential locations for this more intensive repurposing, with larger retail facilities being completely re-oriented to create town centres that don’t depend on visiting shoppers driving cars.
The third opportunity is the attraction of a new specialist functions that can change the future potential of place. Whether that is a major office (like Lewisham with AMEX) or a University (such as Hendon with Middlesex or Uxbridge with Brunel) or a knowledge and creative economy play (such as Stratford with Here East) or a renewed or new sports/leisure facility (such as Tottenham or Wembley) these towns have the chance to use a new anchor to shift their trajectory towards being a larger and more amenity rich place that can serve a larger population.
Making it work
But getting all this right doesn’t just happen because it may be a good idea. It requires some specific capabilities to implement it, and it needs to resolve real tensions. Our NLA gathering was sharp on the issues that must be addressed.
Starting with people, the key issue here is that almost all these opportunities require or assume population growth that can drive reinvestment appetite, which in turn means additional housing and better connectivity. The well-understood risk is that existing residents may have limited appetite for changes if they can’t trust that their quality of life will improve with additional neighbours. This would lead to push back and rejections at planning committees.
At the heart of this are valid concerns about the nature of economic and demographic change, how well people are skilled-up for the new jobs created, and can afford the new amenities provided. The demographic mix is many of the outer London Boroughs has been shifting from an orientation towards working families with school age children, towards a much more diverse range of ages, backgrounds, orientations, and occupations. This process of change will be accelerated by the new opportunities. That bring transition risks.
Can we imagine inclusive gentrification? We need to invent new forms of redevelopment that genuinely serves mixed income populations. The issue of jobs and skills change looms large, with age mix and the digital divide in the discussion. The foundational economy must co-exist with an innovation economy, so that retirees on low incomes be able to live well in areas that are rapidly regenerating. We need to demonstrate some places where these revitalised towns show what they can achieve. The discussion suggested that Barking, Brent Cross, Edgware, Acton, Northolt, Thamesmead, and Croydon could demonstrate the combination that others can then adopt.
On planet, everyone in our discussion observed that the net zero journey in buildings is hard without a new cycle of investment, and it is impossible without expanded public transport. The transition requires the expansion of both bus and rail services, and better offers in delivery and distribution. The issue here is not about the desirability of low carbon buildings and transport modes, but more about how quickly we can get them. The transition in buildings needs a bold cycle of private investment which requires investor confidence in the vision and potential of each town.
Thirdly, on place, a key risk is that amongst our 100 London towns we end up with winners and losers. If we don’t want this to play out, we need to create a support framework for towns to aid the adjustment. In addition, we need the ability to both design better and more attractive places and the skill to convene and coordinate them as well. This will require creating new public realm, attractive ground floor mixes, and much better streetscapes.
Boroughs outside the established Inner London regeneration areas have generally not acquired the same place leadership resources and capacity as those who have been shaping regenerative transformations for 30 years or more. With the new scope identified here, acquiring that ability quickly looks both necessary and challenging.
London’s future is not solely or primarily about what happens next in central London. Our towns, suburbs and interchanges have the potential to accelerate London’s reinvention or to retard it. We face a challenging sequencing problem, how to concentrate enough effort in a small number of places to demonstrate the benefits of this transition in a sufficiently timely way that it will trigger a whole wave of transformations across the metropolitan space. That’s no easy task, so let’s get going.