A PENNY FOR THE PICCADILLY LINE
Today, no new cases of COVID-19 were reported in London. Tomorrow and the next day? Who knows.
A crisis forces us to think in days and weeks rather than months and years. It is so hard to think long-term in the face of so much uncertainty and the latest business surveys – a sample of which we have covered below – attest to that fact.
Last week it was clear that Transport for London (TfL) was on its knees and on Friday, the network that until two months ago was the very lifeblood of the capital, pumping its inhabitants to within metres of their destination of choice, received a government bailout that politically, structurally and socially will have enormous repercussions. But this week, next week and probably the week after that, it will get our key workers where they need to be.
Life is tricky for anyone trying to plan beyond the fortnight – will some children be back at school in three week’s time? - let alone next season’s sport or theatre. Luckily, there are smart minds on the case and as well as covering the short term implications for London’s cultural landscape below we also have a round-up of some of the blue sky thinking happening now to try and build a better place in the years to come.
We hope all our readers are doing well and we would love to hear how you and your organisations are starting to think about the post-lockdown future…
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On Friday, the Government announced a long-awaited £1.6bn bailout for TfL, comprising a £1.095bn grant and a £505m loan to ‘run until October 2020’, with provisions for a further £300m in grants and loans ‘if revenue loss is higher than forecast at this time’. The package comes with stringent conditions, outlined in the Department for Transport’s initial press release and a subsequent statement by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. The Government recognises that TfL’s financial woes are primarily caused by the pandemic’s dramatic effect on fare revenues. However, according to Shapps, ‘…an important secondary factor was the pre-existing poor condition of TfL’s financial position as a result of decisions made over the last 4 years.’ In case anyone was left in doubt about what that implies, the Conservatives enlisted Mayoral candidate and AM Shaun Bailey and others to hammer home the message that they think Sadiq Khan is responsible for having put TfL’s finances on an unstable footing in the first place. For his part, the Mayor has reluctantly accepted the bailout, clarifying that this ‘is not the deal [he] wanted’ and vehemently rejecting assertions that he is to blame for TfL’s current predicament.
As City AM political correspondentStefan Boscia has pointed out, it looks very much like the Government is using the bailout as an opportunity to dent Khan’s public profile, in the leadup to the Mayoral elections now postponed to May 2021. However, this is a complex debate and LDN readers should certainly take everything they hear and read on this subject with a pinch of salt (make that two). Indeed, so far we have more questions than answers, which we hope to unpick further in the coming weeks. Setting aside the issue of political responsibility and blame, the bailout and its conditions – which include government observers on TfL’s board – raise serious questions about the independence of London’s devolved authorities. Ultimately, they also create wider uncertainty about how TfL continues to serve London’s evolving needs in future.
A WALKING CITY?
Following the announcement of the bailout (and after the launch of a new streetscape strategy the week before), the Mayor and TfL announced plans to transform parts of central London into ‘one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world’. New measures are being introduced to minimise the use of cars and public transport and ensure that more people are able to walk or cycle instead. The Congestion Charge, Ultra Low Emission Zone and Low Emission Zone were reinstated (also partially hiked and expanded) on Monday in an effort to prevent London’s roads from becoming unusably blocked, while various streets in central London will be limited to buses, pedestrians and cyclists, and others converted for walking and cycling only. The City of London Corporation has also announced similar plans for the Square Mile. While many have welcomed these plans on air quality grounds, others have complained that they will drive more people to public transport networks that are already struggling to meet social distancing requirements.
LONDON ASSEMBLY AGM
Meanwhile, the London Assembly held its Annual General Meeting for the 2020/21 municipal year last Friday. The session was convened in a part-remote, part-conventional format and was a remarkably collegiate, as well as brief, at barely a half-hour long. Members unanimously elected Labour's AM for Brent and Harrow Navin Shah as their new Chair, to succeed Jennette Arnold, who is currently shielding from coronavirus in line with Government advice. Members selected Conservative AM for Hounslow, Kingston and Richmond Tony Arbour to continue as their Deputy Chair for a second consecutive term. The Assembly also formed its various Committees, notably appointing its two new Londonwide Labour AMs Alison Moore and Murad Qureshi, as Chairs of the high-profile Transport and Housing Committees respectively. The session additionally saw AMs approve a new schedule of meetings for the May-August 2020 period, including three Mayor’s Question Time sessions. Finally, as part of new arrangements enabling the Assembly’s work to be carried out remotely and more flexibly, a new reduced quorum of three AMs was agreed for all committees consisting of more than five Members, for the duration of the 2020/21 year only, assuming two or more party groups are represented.
CITY HALL HOUSING AND PLANNING LATEST
It’s been a mixed week for Khan on the housing and planning front:
- On the upside for the Mayor, he is confident enough in his performance to claim he has broken the GLA’s own record for directly-funded ‘genuinely affordable home starts’ last year. Citing estimates that City Hall’s affordable housing programme has achieved 17,000 affordable homes started on London sites in 2019/20, he says he has met his target and exceeded his and his predecessors’ performance for any other year since relevant records began in 2002/3.
- In less positive news for Khan, the High Court issued its judgement in a planning dispute that had been ongoing since 2018, dismissing the Mayor’s challenge to a development on Metropolitan Open Land. The case concerned plans by Harrow School to demolish existing buildings and develop new facilities to replace them.
- Meanwhile, the GLA has published four ‘pre-consultation’ draft guidance papers setting out more details on new sustainability requirements in the new London Plan (though this is still being wrangled over by City Hall and Government officials).
- Finally, City Hall’s coronavirus housing recovery taskforce is reportedly discussing ‘forward funding’ for large developments so they can go ahead despite the economic risks arising from the pandemic.
LONDON'S 'VIRTUAL' COUNCILS
As ever, the LCA team has been keeping a close eye on ‘virtual’ meetings taking place across London’s boroughs, with a particular focus on councils’ Annual General Meetings (AGM) and of course planning committee sessions. Over the past seven days a number of boroughs have held ‘virtual’ AGMs to kick off their 2020/21 municipal year. Some seem to have heralded few changes, but others have been rather more eventful. For example, out in Bromley, the Conservative-led council’s AGM, held last Wednesday, waved through an almost entirely unchanged cabinet and planning committee. But all the way across London, in Hillingdon, last Thursday the Conservative majority approved two new Cabinet Members and replaced their Deputy Leader in a partial reshuffle which also saw some cabinet portfolios’ responsibilities amended, as well as several changes to their planning committee line-up. Over the past few days, AGMs were also held by Labour-held Barking & Dagenham and Greenwich, as well as Liberal Democrat stronghold Sutton. Sessions initially scheduled for this week by Labour boroughs Hammersmith & Fulham and Newham have been postponed.
As for virtual planning committees, we are aware of at least 20 having been scheduled to take place between last Wednesday and today, by 14 London boroughs and the OPDC. Once Bexley approves a new calendar of meetings at its AGM later today, every single local planning authority in London will have at least scheduled a remote planning committee session, though nine have yet to hold their first. It is worth noting here that the City of London Corporation’s Planning and Transport Committee held its first session last Thursday, proudly approving ‘plans for London’s largest building to incorporate vertical urban greening’, while the OPDC’s first remote planning session approved plans for HS2’s Old Oak Common Station.
- We were saddened to hear that Londonewcastle’s Development Director Baerbel Schuett will be leaving the company – a long-standing LCA client – after 13 years at the end of May, to take a much-deserved career break. We wish her well.
- Property news website React News has appointed Guy Montague-Jones, formerly Deputy Editor at Property Week, as its Analysis Editor.
A BETTER DAY AFTER?
Even as they struggle to address the immediate challenges created by the pandemic, organisations across the wider build environment sector have begun looking ahead to the post-COVID world – with a view to making it a better one.
- A group of housing associations - including London’s G15 group – have partnered with modular housing firms and others to outline how 100,000 affordable ‘Homes for Heroes’ could be delivered for the UK’s key workers in the months and years ahead.
- In the private sector, developer Taylor Wimpey has said that it will offer a 5% discount on homes for key workers reserved in 2020 and which will either complete this year or the next.
- Developer Grosvenor has announced plans to work with the team behind the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew on the redesign of Grosvenor Square to ensure that it becomes a ‘more biodiverse, natural haven in the centre of London’.
- RIBA has meanwhile launched a competition seeking architectural designs for ‘a better post-pandemic world’. Rethink 2025, sponsored by Arup, wants entrants to ‘consider life in 2025’ and how this will affect hospitals, school and workspaces, amongst others.
- New London Architecture only today hosted a webinar on 'what will the City of London will look like post COVID-19?'.
BUSINESS (CERTAINLY WON'T BE) AS USUAL
We always knew the impact of the pandemic on London’s businesses and workers would be significant. The latest evidence on the nature and scale of this impact is, to say the least, sobering:
... NOR WILL SPORT
Despite the Government’s suggestion that elite sport could return from 1 June and the Premier League’s desire to resume matches from 12 June, the Mayor of London has said that it is ‘too early’ and that matches should only resume ‘when it is safe to do so’. It is expected the 12 June date will now be pushed back as at least six Premier League players and staff have now tested positive for COVID-19.
In other sporting news for London, plans for a new training ground for Queens Park Rangers at Ealing’s Warren Park have been scrapped, though the Club has now said that it has identified a new site for a training ground and discussions for its purchase are underway.
... NOR, FOR THAT MATTER, WILL CULTURE
With mass public events and visitor attractions still banned – and likely to remain so for many weeks to come – the wider culture, entertainment and tourism industries are facing an especially grim future. Many of London’s high-profile theatres recently gave evidence to an enquiry by the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on the implications of COVID-19 for their sector. The iconic Shakespeare’s Globe, the Donmar Warehouse and the London Theatre Consortium, (which in turn represents 14 theatres in London including the Almeida, the Royal Court, the Bush and the Young Vic) all called for urgent support to keep the city’s theatres afloat. On 19 May, the Committee also received evidence from the UK’s tourism industry, while organisations including Visit Britain and the National Trust have also called on the Government to announce ‘an emergency October bank holiday’, to encourage domestic tourism and make up for at least some of the revenue lost during lockdown.
THE SPECTRE OF NORTH VS SOUTH RETURNS
The Transport Secretary’s statement on TfL’s bailout self-consciously framed it as one among several intended to support public transport networks across England, faithfully intoning the Government’s ‘levelling up’ mantra. That is perhaps because local government leaders outside London have for weeks protested that the Government’s response to the pandemic unduly favours the capital’s needs and priorities. In a recent broadside on the subject, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham fulminates that the Government ‘has reverted to the default, London-centric mode in this crisis.’ He touches briefly on TfL’s bailout package, to say that while he ‘[doesn’t] have a problem with that, […] where was the deal for Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham?’. He also complains that while the Mayor of London ‘is on Cobra, and rightly so […] there is no place for any mayors from the north, or indeed the rest of England.’ While Whitehall does indeed need to listen perhaps more carefully to local leaders across England, Burnham’s intervention glosses over the nuance on London, which, as shown in a recent report by think tank Centre for London, has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Furthermore, Burnham entirely by-passes the fact that both TfL’s bailout and Khan’s ‘seat at the table’ have come only after acrimonious lobbying and with many, many strings attached…
STARMER-SHAPED RE-START FOR LABOUR?
After a rancorous leadership race and a bumpy first few weeks, it seems as though Sir Keir Starmer has had quite a good week. The newly elected leader has been widely praised for his performance at PMQs, which has been described by the Evening Standard (not exactly what one would call a pro-Labour newspaper) as a ‘terrifying weekly interrogation’ of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Starmer has also scored relatively well in opinion polling, with a recent YouGov poll showing that he has a net approval rating of +23, slightly higher than Johnson’s +22. And he will be pleased that Government was forced to rein in some of its own MPs for spreading ‘far right smears’ about him on social media. Regardless of one’s personal party preferences, it is encouraging to see the new Leader of the Opposition coming into his own at the despatch box and in the wider public arena. Parliamentary oversight and constructive opposition remains a critical feature of a functioning democracy – and Britain needs it more than ever. But politics is neither a sprint, nor even a marathon. Starmer faces something more like a triathlon in having to restore party unity, repair Labour’s electoral fortunes, and secure his own position. All of which promises to be a long, hard slog for the Holborn & St Pancras MP.
NEIGHBOURHOOD PLANNING LATEST
Neighbourhood planning has also been disrupted by COVID-19. While Neighbourhood Plan referenda have been postponed alongside scheduled local government elections, the Government’s most recent planning update interestingly specified that where a local authority has indicated that it intends to grant a neighbourhood forum a referendum, the relevant Plan ‘can be given significant weight in decision-making’ even before it has been approved.
In London, Tower Hamlets has recently confirmed that the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Plan referendum is scheduled for 6 May 2021, the same day as the rescheduled Mayoral and Assembly elections. It is expected to be the largest such referendum to take place in London, with approximately 25,000 people eligible to vote.
FUTURE OF LONDON
LDN editor and LCA Director Jenna Goldberg took part in Future of London’s webinar on community engagement late last week. Phenomenally well-attended, with somewhere around 400 participants (just think of the catering bill they avoided!), Jenna joined a panel of public and private sector representatives to discuss how we can engage with people during this difficult time using digital, traditional and innovative methods to broach the subject of change and hear from as many people as possible even under the COVID-19 restrictions. Future of London is running a whole Learning from Crisis series alongside their usual excellent event programme.
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