My piece in City Metric:
In Boris Johnson’s London, argues Labour assembly member Nicky Gavron, regeneration is just a synonym for redevelopment.
In the capital today, long-standing communities are being bulldozed to make way for luxury developments that most Londoners could never dream of affording. Popping up in their place are residential skyscrapers, with no regard for the character of the local area or the needs of local people. Londoners are concerned that the capital will become unrecognisable.
It does not need to be like this. Regeneration should be about making an area better for the people who live there. It is about offering the chance for a better life by producing more diverse communities with improved public transport; a good range of local shops and other amenities; places to meet and congregate; good schools and health facilities; a range of jobs, and the skills training and education people need to access them. It should be about turning areas which don’t work well into areas which do.
When he came to office in 2008 Boris Johnson was dealt a great hand. He had the London Development Agency. He had £5m for affordable housing. He had swathes of land.
Most importantly, the vision was there: the previous mayor had set out the route to accommodating a rapidly growing population within the boundary of Greater London, by co-locating denser mixed-use development with a vastly improved and expanded public transport system. One of the big ideas was to direct development to the east of London to redress the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity between east and west.
It was a vision of London being an exemplary sustainable world city economically, socially, and environmentally. But Boris brushed it aside, replaced only by the grand but meaningless ambition of becoming the “best big city in the world”.
The mayor of course continued with the Olympics, which has been a great boost to the inner east, but what has he done for outer east London? Cancelled the DLR and East London Transit Scheme. Cancelled the river crossing. Some of these proposals have been belatedly resurrected, but in the meantime we’ve lost years when we could have been moving forward.
The Olympics themselves did not achieve their full regeneration potential under Boris Johnson. There has undoubtedly been a striking transformation of this part of east London, turning a former industrial wasteland into a diverse cluster of shopping, culture, and sport. The park achieves high visitor numbers, and there are exciting plans to move academic and arts institutions and new tech firms to Stratford.
However the ambition to make this a mixed income residential area is being undermined by a mayor unwilling to commit to maximising affordable housing. In the former Athletes Village, now the East Village, 49 per cent of homes are affordable, albeit only half of them at social rented levels. The targets for the later neighbourhoods are slipping; Johnson has compromised from 35 per cent down to 31 per cent affordable housing on the west side, and the split means less than ten out of every hundred will be at genuinely affordable rents. The next mayor will need to negotiate the final totals for the southern neighbourhoods.
There is no better example of what regeneration means under the Johnson mayoralty than Earls Court, the £12b development of 7,600 primarily luxury flats with not even one additional affordable rented home. This was not some derelict and dilapidated site; Earls Court opportunity area was a vibrant area with established communities and thriving businesses.
Yet the plans, which Johnson pushed through, will result in the destruction of an iconic exhibition centre supporting an ecosystem of local businesses and contributing £1bn to London’s economy. It will also mean the demolition of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates, and the potential loss of 550 high-skilled manufacturing jobs at the Lillie Bridge tube depot. Earls Court is not about regenerating an area for the people who live and work there, but about making big money for developers and providing luxury properties to international investors.
Earls Court is one of the 38 Opportunity Areas identified as sources for new housing and jobs. There had been existing Opportunity Areas for which Johnson was very slow to create planning frameworks, but he created one for Earls Court in order to drive through his enormously destructive plan for the area. Meanwhile, other Opportunity Areas with far more brownfield land remain untouched.
Earls Court is particularly outrageous because it is on land owned by TfL. The mayor, as chair of TfL, is the owner of the largest portfolio of developable land in London, much of it around transport hubs and in town centres.
That presents the next mayor with an opportunity to lead on a model of true regeneration across the capital. That land should be developed to provide affordable homes and affordable workspace in walkable, well-connected, mixed-use and diverse neighbourhoods. That is the bare minimum we should demand of the next mayor.
Nicky Gavron AM is Labour’s London Assembly planning spokesperson.