A month or two ago, deep into crisis mode, we used this space to reflect on how difficult it was to plan ahead under such strange circumstances - noting that there would soon come a time when we would all need to start thinking beyond the ultra-short term once again.
This week’s edition is evidence that our horizons are now starting to expand – a positive sign on its own, but also a signal that we are now grappling with the immense challenges of recovery.
Transport is clearly a biggie; the news surrounding TfL, Crossrail and HS2 makes for difficult reading, but there are opportunities too – in rethinking the role of local government and the renewed focus on sustainable, flexible, mixed-use development perhaps? All considered below, along with lots of politics, policy and people moves as always.
But first, a note from our Chairman:
“It was only two weeks ago that I wrote an obituary of the legendary developer Tony Pidgley. Today, I am writing another about the man who founded Time Out and brought us all the concept of a listings magazine for the arts world. Tony Elliott’s story of how he set up Time Out in 1968 is true – his aunt gave him £75 for his 21st birthday and, rather than spending it on a trip to Paris, he produced a one sheet listing of events in London and distributed 5,000 copies to trendy shops, bars and venues across the capital. The rest of the story, including the expansion of the brand across the world, you can read in any number of obituaries such as this in The Times.
For me, he was both a great entrepreneur and someone who did more for London’s cultural scene over the last 50 years than just about anyone else. I had the pleasure to work with him on their 25th anniversary in 1993, commissioning 25 original artworks on 48 sheet poster sites across the capital – five by famous artists and 20 from members of the public. His attention to detail on that project reflected what all say about him – a man who was passionate about his business all his life.”
LCA Chairman & Partner, Robert Gordon Clark
TFL UNDER MULTIPLE MICROSCOPES
Over two months after announcing the terms of TfL’s £1.6bn bailout, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced further details relating to the ‘strings attached’. First, Shapps confirmed that the Government ‘Special Representatives’ who will sit in on the TfL Board are Clare Moriarty, a former Government Permanent Secretary, and Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s Cycling Commissioner during his mayoralty and currently Special Adviser to the PM on Transport. Shapps also published the terms of reference for the Government’s review of TfL. Set to be carried out by KPMG, the review’s scope ominously includes considering ‘alternative operating models,’ sparking speculation about potential privatisation plans. In response, the Mayor has announced his own review of TfL’s funding and finances, to run in parallel to the Government’s. But TfL also faced further scrutiny from elsewhere today: the London Assembly Transport Committee put questions to guests including GLA’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner Dr Will Norman and TfL Director of City Planning Alex Williams, on the impact of COVID-19 on London’s transport provision. Meanwhile, the Mayor himself, flanked by TfL officials, appeared before the Transport Committee in the Commons to discuss the implications of COVID-19 for transport (more details on these sessions next week). As per an insightful piece by Julian Glover in today’s Evening Standard, it is difficult to see how all this wrangling over TfL will actually benefit Londoners.
…AND OTHER TRANSPORT NEWS
- The DfT has released a rather uninformative annual update on Crossrail. It offers little clarity on further delays to the project due to the lockdown and consequent cost hikes, though promises further update on this from Crossrail Ltd “shortly.”
- HS2 Ltd has meanwhile released its annual report and accounts 2019 to 2020 – with relevant reports in the press taking aim at its senior leadership pay packages.
- Both HS2 and Crossrail fared poorly in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s 2020 Annual Report on the Government Major Projects Portfolio, released last week. They are among five (of a total 32) projects, whose delivery as currently planned “appears to be unachievable.”
- The Mayor has also announced plans to power the Tube with renewable energy, with a view to achieving a zero-carbon system by 2030.
- Meanwhile, TfL is set to trial 24-hour bus lanes to support the ‘shift away from travel at ‘normal’ peak hours’ and make bus journeys more efficient.
- The City of London Corporation has agreed to trial the use of rental e-scooters as an alternative form of transport which allows for social distancing.
- And all of London’s boroughs continue to implement measures to encourage walking and cycling, including the widening of pavements, setting up temporary cycle lanes and closing some streets to cars.
A functioning transport system is clearly vital to realising the changes announced by the Prime Minister in a major statement last Friday. Boris Johnson said that from 1 August, the Government will “stop telling people to work from home” and “give employers more discretion” to make decisions on bringing employees back to the workplace. On the same day some leisure venues, such as bowling alleys, skating rinks and casinos, as well as all “close contact services” such as beauticians, will also reopen. August will further herald “pilots” for indoor live performances, “larger gatherings” in sports stadia and similar (more on the last below), “with a view to wider reopening in the Autumn.” In practice, all the above presupposes that people can safely (and easily) move about the city. But as underlined by TfL and London First’s distinctly ambivalent responses to the PM's statement, the logistics of achieving this are still fraught with uncertainties. Enabling cycling, walking and “micromobility” may well help, but what of the hordes of commuters, shoppers and other visitors who normally crisscross London (and its wider region) on a daily basis? Public transport capacity is increasing, but still constrained – and no one wants to see a “car-led” recovery. Or do they?
CONGESTION CHARGE CRUSADERS
The Mayor has again taken flak for hiking the congestion charge on cars in central London (to £15) and extending it into evenings and weekends. Most recently, drivers associations have entered the fray, threatening legal action. The Telegraph is also conspicuously on the warpath. Over the past few days alone, the newspaper’s editorial has accused Khan of nothing less than “killing London.” It has also generously given a platform to Conservative AM Keith Prince, who argues that Khan is “wrecking London’s revival” and to celebrity chef Michel Roux Jr, who says Khan is “killing business”. For good measure, the newspaper has also offered up even more wide-ranging doom-and-gloom, bemoaning a London reduced to a “ghost town” as it faces an “extinction-level event”. Transitioning away from car usage to public transport, walking and cycling was – and will be – a difficult process, requiring much trial and error, and anyone concerned by the unintended consequences of hiking and expanding the congestion charge is right to raise the alarm. But why such vitriol for the Mayor, when this was essentially mandated by Government, as a condition for bailing out TfL?
BACK ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL?
Perhaps all the fuss about TfL's finances and the congestion charge have something to do with the (postponed) Mayoral and London elections, which are still a good nine months away. The candidates continue to occasionally trade barbs and in recent days we’ve noticed Sadiq Khan and Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey weighing in on… foreign affairs and national security. The Mayor has criticised the Government for attempting to block the return to the UK of Shamima Begum, the London schoolgirl who went to Syria to join Isis, arguing that she should ‘face justice in the criminal courts’. Meanwhile, Bailey has called for London to end its ‘twinned’ status with Beijing over the actions of the Chinese Government in Hong Kong. Closer to home, the Mayor has been encouraging Londoners to register for postal votes, to make sure they can vote, even if the pandemic is still keeping people indoors next May. Khan’s plans for moving the base of City Hall and the London Assembly from Lambeth to Newham have meanwhile emerged as a new campaigning issue. During a London Assembly Oversight Committee session yesterday, AMs (including Labour members) raised concerns about the plans, notably in terms of accessibility for constituents and the brevity of the relevant consultation period.
VIRTUAL LOCAL GOVERNMENT LATEST
Meanwhile, the business of running London continues. We have touched upon yet another busy week for the London Assembly above and as ever, have been keeping tabs on London's councils.
Lewisham and Wandsworth held their AGMs after we went to print last Wednesday. While Lewisham’s AGM was relatively uneventful, Wandsworth’s saw a mini-reshuffle, with Cllr Kim Caddy named as Wandsworth’s new Deputy Leader and Cllr John Locker as Cabinet Member for Strategic Planning and Transportation (replacing councillors Paul Ellis and Guy Senior respectively) among other changes. Planning policy is also high on the agenda across London, with Hammersmith & Fulham’s Cabinet last week rejecting a community group’s bid to be designated as a new neighbourhood planning forum and Hackney’s Full Council poised to formally approve its new Local Plan this evening. Recent planning committee sessions that caught our eye include one in Redbridge, which last week rejected plans for a 15m 5G mast in response to hundreds of objections on the grounds of its height and (unsubstantiated) health concerns.
Remote committee meetings aside, it should be noted that the Prime Minister’s statement on COVID-19 last Friday also included ‘more powers’ for local councils to implement local lockdowns if necessary (but also a promise that the Government will “intervene” where necessary). The new guidance for councils – broadly welcomed by the Local Government Association – can be found here.
CITY HALL HOUSING LATEST
Only today, the Mayor has published the final report of the COVID-19 Housing Delivery Taskforce – a cross-sector body convened in April and chaired by Deputy Mayor for Housing Tom Copley. The report makes several recommendations for enabling the recovery of London’s housing and construction sectors, largely centred on calling for more funding from the Government. Proposals for an emergency £4.83bn recovery package for London, as well as an expansion of the Affordable Homes Programme, such that the capital alone is awarded £4.9bn a year, had already been floated by the Mayor earlier this month. The full report additionally recommends more collaboration on (and further Government investment in) promoting careers and training in the construction sector, procuring precision manufactured homes, as well as bringing forward land – especially public land and small sites - that is “ready for development.”
Separately, the Mayor has also today announced a £13m Royal Docks Good Growth Fund, to support the regeneration of the Royal Docks in Newham. The fund is open to businesses, organisations and charities which work closely with the local community and can be used to deliver projects including new workplaces, community spaces and street markets.
- MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck (Labour), has been appointed Shadow Minister for Social Security.
- Recent changes to the membership of select committees in Parliament include Ian Levy MP (Con, Blyth Valley) replacing Daniel Kawczynski (Con, Shrewsbury and Atcham) on the Housing, Communities & Local Government Committee.
- Nickie Aiken MP (Con, Cities of London & Westminster) has also been replaced on the Backbench Business Committee and Women & Equalities Committee by Gareth Bacon MP (Con, Orpington) and Elliot Colburn MP (Con, Carshalton and Wallington) respectively
- Robin Budenberg has been reappointed as Chair of the Crown Estate Board.
NATIONAL PLANNING REFORM
It’s been a big week for planning and building safety policy.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has provided further detail on proposed extensions to Permitted Development Rights (PDR). In effect from September, the changes allow homeowners to extend their homes by two storeys through ‘a fast track approval process’, as well as demolish and rebuild vacant buildings and repurpose commercial buildings as homes without the need to submit full planning applications. In a rather awkward turn of events for the Government, an independent review of existing PDR policies commissioned by Jenrick’s department has found that housing provided through existing change of use PDR policies ‘do seem to create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions’. This latest extension of PDR has also raised concerns in the capital specifically, with no less than 22 of London’s councils writing to Jenrick to urge the Government to rethink the proposals.
Separately, Environment Secretary George Eustice’s announcement that there is to be a review of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), has raised the concern of environmental groups, who are accusing the Government of a ‘deregulatory race to the bottom’. And only today, MHCLG has published guidance on changes to the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project regime’s consultation and publicity requirements.
A keystone planning statement (variously described by ministers and Government spokespeople as a ‘Policy Paper’ and ‘White Paper’ on different occasions) is also expected to be released sometime before the end of the month.
BUILDING SAFETY LATEST
With the Grenfell Inquiry still underway – now a full three years since the catastrophic event itself – the Government has finally published its draft Building Safety Bill. Largely based on the recommendations made by Dame Judith Hackitt in her Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, the Bill includes new steps to improve building safety, such as the appointment of a new Building Safety Regulator, tougher sanctions for breaches of building regulations and new powers for the regulation of construction materials. The Construction Industry Council and Chartered Institute of Building are among organisations to have welcomed the draft Bill, but others, from London Councils to leaseholders’ campaigning groups, are not totally convinced.
Separately, the Home Office has also launched a consultation on the implementation of the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which require a change in the law.
COMPREHENSIVE SPENDING REVIEW
Of course there’s policy – and then there’s paying for it. The launch of the much-delayed Comprehensive Spending (CSR) review yesterday is critical in this regard. When its results are published ‘in the autumn,’ they will outline Whitehall departments’ budgets for 2021/22 to 2023/24 (and capital budgets specifically for 2021/22 to 2024/25), as well as block grants for the devolved administrations’ during the same period. The CSR is framed by the Chancellor as being aimed, first and foremost, at bolstering economic recovery, but “levelling up” also features prominently among its priorities. The CSR will have a major impact on all aspects and levels of government and it is especially crucial for local councils, which as per a Local Government Association’s response, “urgently need certainty about how local services will be funded from next year and beyond.”
LOCAL GOVERNMENT FINANCE LATEST
While we’re on the subject of local government funding:
- The Treasury has also launched a call for evidence for a separate, ‘fundamental review’ of business rates, which is especially critical for local Government – and particularly in London, where the future of business rates retention allowing the Greater London Authority and London’s boroughs to directly control a larger proportion of this income stream, hangs in the balance.
- The Government last week released the detailed allocations of its most recent, £500m round of emergency funding for councils. According to our calculation, London’s local authorities received 18% of this latest tranche of funding (slightly more than in the two previous rounds), though the Greater London Authority (GLA) appears to have received no funding at all this time ‘round.
- However, the Mayor has said that he has secured about one-fifth (£67m) of a separate £266m fund for housing vulnerable people launched this week by the Communities Secretary.
LOOKING TO THE HOME COUNTIES
The Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is plain to see in its framing of the CSR’s priorities and this overly simplistic rhetoric seems to largely ignore one critical factor: the all-important connections between places and in particular London’s role as an engine of the UK economy as a whole. In Bedfordshire, Luton Council was last week forced to pass an emergency budget incorporating £22m in cuts and savings, in large part due to Luton Airport’s collapsing revenues. And in West Sussex, Crawley Council’s Labour and Conservative councillors have agreed to form an unprecedented power-sharing agreement to help the authority navigate financial challenges substantially worsened by the lockdown’s impact on Gatwick Airport. Both of these councils depend heavily on London as a magnet for tourism and in turn offer the capital a vital service. Meanwhile, we hear that Surrey County Council and some District Councils in Essex are eying up the Government’s recent hints of support for local government mergers. These areas directly border London and are home to thousands of workers and consumers who (normally) shuttle in and out of London daily – meaning that a consolidation of their local political authorities could significantly affect how they collaborate with London on meeting key infrastructure and housing needs.
There’s much to worry about these days, no doubt, but also much to be excited with. We’ve been especially encouraged by a number of major development schemes we are seeing coming down the pipeline, in key areas of the city. Grosvenor has just submitted plans to Westminster City Council, for 204,000 sq ft of offices, 67,500 sq ft of shops, restaurants and cafes, a 31-bedroom hotel, as well as 33 homes and new public spaces, on a site tucked away in the West End – just a stone’s throw from the new Bond Street Elizabeth Line station. And in the East End, Canary Wharf Group has submitted an application to Tower Hamlets Council for up to 2.5m sq ft of offices, up to 640,000 sq ft of retail or leisure facilities, and about 700 homes, at North Quay – also adjacent to a new Elizabeth Line station. These and other projects – large and small – seem to reflect confidence in London’s enduring appeal as an investment prospect. They also display an understanding that the future lies in flexible, mixed-use schemes.
LONDON SPORT (GRADUALLY RETURNS)
For those who have been missing sport during lockdown, there is also some good news. In the latest of a series of announcements heralding the gradual resumption of training by athletic clubs and major sporting events, the Government has announced a handful of new events will be allowed, to help trial the safe return of spectators to sport. The rather ambitious aim is to achieve a relative (i.e. while still maintaining social distancing) return to normalcy in October. For now, Surrey CC will be hosting a match against Middlesex at the Oval in London, on 26 and 27 July, with a small number of spectators. Slightly further afield, horse racing is to resume at Goodwood, which will allow up to 5,000 spectators to attend on 1 August. And even further away, a reduced number of spectators will also be able to attend the World Snooker Championship set to take place at the Crucible in Sheffield from 31 July to 16 August.
PITY THE CLAMS
Back to somewhat sadder news, a series of peer-reviewed studies by researchers at Royal Holloway University of London, the Natural History Museum and Zoological Society London have found that the River Thames has some of the highest recorded levels of microplastics for any river in the world – with the quantities of minute bits of plastic and other pollutants, such as wet wipes, exceeding levels recorded in other comparable European rivers, from the Rhine to the Danube. Long-term efforts to clean up the Thames have come a very long way from the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, with concerted efforts since the 1960s serving to dramatically reduce the levels of toxic metals, human sewage and other pollutants from reaching the river, as well as rebuilding the river’s ecosystem. But there is much work yet to be done! LCA is proud to be supporting Thames Tideway, which is building the new super sewer for London. The project’s benefits will include greatly reducing the quantity of sewage-related litter that ends up in the Thames and ingested by wildlife – such as the unfortunate, plastic-clogged clams and crabs examined by the researchers who have brought us the latest on pollution in our big, beautiful, but still rather bilious river.