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Bold thinking required to accommodate London’s growing population

Nicky GavronNicky Gavron AM, chair of the London Assembly Planning Committee, discusses the options for accommodating London’s growth. 

Up or Out? That’s one of the biggest questions people think faces our capital – with London’s population projected to top 10 million by 2036. 

But the London Assembly Planning Committee, which I chair, reveals that it is a false choice. The Committee’s new report – Up or Out: A false choice. Options for London’s growth – outlines a menu of options for accommodating London’s growth. 

We can accommodate our growing population, but it will require bold thinking. 

Reading the runes of what the capital might look like in future years is never easy, but there are some real and interconnected issues that need to be grappled with including housing, population pressures, public services and transport. 

Key questions include: 

With a housing crisis already under way – where will all the new Londoners live? 

The current company city approach accommodates London’s growth within the existing boundaries without paving over our green and open spaces. 

It requires higher density (though not necessarily high rise) mixed-use mixed-income development to be located near well-connected transport nodes and town centres to improve access to jobs and services. This allows London to accommodate population growth within sustainable patterns of development whilst regenerating existing communities. If the new mayor continues with this approach we will see London’s population density increase to levels that are double those of Paris, Rome or Berlin.  

This is desirable and deliverable, but only if there is enough space to provide the supporting infrastructure like community facilities and open space. The new mayor will face a real challenge to accommodate London’s population in a truly sustainable way. 

The potential of London’s brownfield sites and Opportunity Areas need to be maximised through co-ordinated action to push the required infrastructure through alongside housing development. The new mayor must not neglect the local communities, whose involvement is crucial in developing plans that are positively welcomed rather than feared. 

Is building up an option – or will we lose London’s special skyline? 

London is about to see an explosion in the number of tall buildings, as investors pour money into London real estate which will have a significant impact on the London skyline.    

A survey by New London Architecture suggests that 263 buildings of more than 20 storeys could be on the way in London, 80% of which are intended to be residential. 

Building upwards is not an answer to London’s real housing need. The economics of tall buildings suggest that new high-rise developments are expensive to build, to maintain, and to manage, let alone to buy or rent. The Planning Committee has heard from a large body of expert opinion which convinced us that this approach does little to address London’s general housing shortage and particularly for affordable family homes.  

The new mayor should not encourage tall buildings beyond a few designated and carefully managed mixed-use areas – and planning policy must be strengthened to restrict the location of skyscrapers and improve their design. 

Can we build at a higher density and maintain quality of life? 

The new mayor will need to turn their attention to the suburbs that cover around 60% of the capital’s land area.  

The intensification of density in suburban London has already begun. But, given the scale and potential contribution of suburban London, the new mayor must continue efforts to resolve the challenge of suburban redevelopment. Suburban town centres offer an opportunity for mixed-use development including a substantial component of residential, with the added bonus of injecting new life into these town centres. This is especially true if green space and Green Belt are not to be paved over development. 

Nothing is off the table in this report. We also consider different approaches, such as building new and expanded towns outside of Greater London. Dialogue with the rest of the south east is vital if London’s growth can be accommodated, and to do so will require establishing effective regional co-operation. It will need serious strategic planning. The new mayor will do well to start this dialogue sooner, rather than later. 

The next mayor – of whatever political colour – will need to start planning for these issues from the day they collect the keys to City Hall. 

Whoever wins in May, I hope they find the Planning Committee’s detailed report helpful in ploughing on with the important job Londoners have entrusted them to do.


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