London’s urban environment must evolve if we are to thrive in the future
Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 public health emergency over. But while the darkest days of the pandemic may be officially behind us, its enduring impact means that our city faces a once-in-a-generation inflexion point if it is to remain successful and meet the changing needs of Londoners.
In the last three years, the capital has changed irrevocably. Lockdown restrictions dramatically shifted our ways of working, living and enjoying everything London has to offer. We forged new patterns of routine and adapted to new methods of doing business.
Prior to the pandemic, few would have predicted that London’s population would dip, albeit briefly, for the first time in decades or that hybrid working would become the norm for many. And while central London has been hit hard, working from home has done more to reinvigorate high streets elsewhere in the capital than numerous well-intentioned public policy initiatives ever have.
A defining quality of London throughout its history has been its ability to adapt and bounce back. To do so this time, the capital needs a fresh vision to ensure its urban environment — the backbone of our city and its economic success and global competitiveness – evolves to meet the post-pandemic needs of businesses, workers and residents.
A new report from the BusinessLDN Place Commission – underpinned by research and analysis from Deloitte and based on insight from 20 senior business leaders – will next week set out a blueprint to achieve this.
One piece is improving our transport network. The Elizabeth Line has been a major catalyst to bring people back to the city – over 100 million journeys have been made since it opened – but Transport for London’s (TfL’s) financial challenges remain. There is less than a year to go until TfL’s existing funding deal with central Government — agreed after a lengthy political dispute — runs out. A new model is needed to secure TfL’s financial future over the medium term. This must respond to the changing patterns of travel demand, new technologies, the need to decarbonise, and the role of transport in enabling economic growth. New revenue streams could be found by letting London keep more of the tax that London pays, giving the Mayor new taxation powers, developing the next generation of road user charging, or capturing more of the uplift from transport-related development. Crucially it must be a model that supports day-to-day operations – including ensuring that they remain affordable and accessible – and enables the enhancement and expansion of TfL’s network. A serious pipeline for capital investment would also help to address the capital’s biggest challenge: the housing crisis.
We are failing to build anywhere near enough new homes to house Londoners, so a new long-term plan is needed. The elected Mayor of London should lead this, but to be successful, the Mayor needs the powers and resources to deliver a step-change in housebuilding. If London is to remain globally competitive, housing must become more affordable to all Londoners, helping to retain people already in the capital and attracting people from around the world. This will require better use of the city’s limited land supply through a mix of good design and, where appropriate, building more densely, as well as developing those parts of the Green Belt in London that lack any civic or environmental purpose.
Finally, London must use its urban environment policies to become a world-leading net-zero carbon city. Buildings account for more than two-thirds of London’s carbon emissions, so policymakers must determine carbon performance on a whole-life cycle basis with rising standards and financial incentives used to drive innovation and investment.
New development and changes to London’s urban environment must be a bridge to a more equal and inclusive city. If we fail to act now, the capital will fall behind our global counterparts. The Place Commission’s vision will deliver a London that works for business, for Londoners and for the whole of the UK.