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If London is to be the sort of modern capital city Britain needs, councils have to improve, says Owen O'Carroll ...
If London is to be the sort of modern capital city Britain needs, councils have to improve, says Owen O'Carroll

London is at the heart of change - much needed urban renewal is pivotal to the capital's future. But the mayor's plans to regenerate the capital are being blacked by councils' newly adopted unitary development plans and crucially, timing.

The London boroughs are facing cash problems and as an architectural practice we are seeing officers turning down an increasing number of applications, and major planning battles ensuing. Applications that do get through face particular difficulties at committee level. Ill-informed local communities are reacting, the development industry feels burdened and restrained, and central government is failing to fund the planning system.

Collectively, these factors are shaping our urban future. Change needs to be embraced and managed, not resisted. Larger schemes in London, those over 30m high and half a hectare in area, now require various referrals and checks.

Things do not look pretty. For most councils regenerating their areas will be like walking a tightrope, especially when they do not have adequate policy, officers, resources or experience, pushing either political rejection or tactical deferment.

The prime revival fields are invariably either on the edge of town or increasingly within the Thames Gateway and east London. In both, property values have yet to be successfully mined to bring forward the type of regeneration so often associated with the good news stories in the press. In the face of a lack of urban 'structure' and high enough property values, the development industry reacts by producing poorer quality buildings. The pressure on developers is compounded by increasing burdens for contributions and payments

from councils, a drive for greater mixed tenure, which creates more complexity in the type and mix of dwellings needed.

Politicians are demanding more affordable housing: the kind much-needed by young families, key workers, people starting out, people who make the difference for all of us. Councillors in these areas who are motivated to make the changes, face obstacles such as poor government financing, and a development industry acting as frontiersman, building housing schemes that are incoherent and have no long-term future. Without a proper urban design policy or a context within which to integrate their schemes, developers often blindly blaze a trail. Yet, they should be forced to think through their developments so they can create urban landscapes which will last and adapt to the people living and working there.

There is a real sense of repetition, with these new environments mimicking their post-war ancestors - effectively creating a sea of 'housing', lacking urban landscape, infrastructure, and municipal support.

Indeed, London's 2012 Olympic plan, for all its hype, has yet to reveal how its urban framework will work.

What we need is recognition of the fundamental importance of re-combining planning and design within councils to bring forward viable, realistic and forward thinking urban plans. This needs money. London's councils must be able to employ more and better staff who are urban design literate, and able to successfully argue their views on quality. Core officers need training, supported by more and better junior officers.

Better informed councillors would be less likely to overrule officer recommendations. Cutting planning conflicts would improve turnaround, reduce exposure to costs and importantly increase the level of confidence and quality of delivery from the private sector. UDPs - which will become local development plans - need to be forward looking and creative, flexible and responsive.

Ultimately, the planning professionals need to be recognised. The planning officer is vital, yet is paid less than a low-ranking police officer. How can we guard our future if we cannot resource it now? Modern housing has become a moribund ghetto. Are we going to help London capitalise on its brownfield assets a nd create the range of high-quality affordable accommodation, transport infrastructure and sustainable communities its needs? Urban councils nationwide should look and learn.

Owen O'Carroll

Partner, Stock Woolstencroft

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