The opening reception for this year’s London Real Estate Forum was focussed on the unknown future of the property industry in London in the uncertain world of Brexit and on how local authorities and developers can work better together in partnership to deliver housing targets, in particular in centre boroughs like the City of Westminster, to create intermediate affordable housing to fill the gap between social housing and housing that, too often, appears to be attractive to overseas investors rather than people who live and work in the city.
By the next day, the first main day of the Forum, London had experienced one of its worse peace-time disasters, a disaster that should never have occurred, where the fire integrity of the 1970’s appeared to have so tragically been compromised by “improvements” of only a year or two ago. As many commentators have said – it is astonishing that this should have occurred in the 21st century in London.
Inevitably, it cast a shadow over the whole premise of tower blocks, though new modern construction, meeting current fire legislation, should be perfectly safe and, many of the projects on display from councils and developers across London, did inevitably include tower blocks of one form or another. It did raise a question about the race by some of the developments to be the “tallest residential development in London”. Is that such an exciting proposition any more?
The Forum provided an excellent overview of current proposals and of aspirations from London boroughs such as Brent, Croydon and Kingston, with much analysis of where and how future housing development in the capital could be developed, linked in with a sense of place, community and cultural facilities and transport infrastructure. There was much discussion too on the changing British culture from owning property to the more American and European model of building to rent and how that actually can result in improved communities as developers retain aa greater interest in the long term sustainability of their properties. Issues raise include the capacity of the house building industry to actually meet the targets, especially when experienced labour may be sent packing back to Europe, post-Brexit, the strong alternative markets of student housing and, still at an early stage, retirement living, a revived focus on design quality and questions about the resources within planning authorities to support major applications quickly. A recurrent theme was the importance of community engagement so that developers work with. listen to, and support communities and gain their support for new developments that will stand the test of time.
One issue which seemed however to take a lower role was where employment should be located. Why do we need improved transport infrastructure to bring more and more people into central London? What happened to the idea of new towns or green cities? The cost for continually increasing capacity on the transport system to bring more and more people into the central zone seems to be old-fashioned, with a touch of madness. We need positive policies to enable companies and start-ups to be located in the suburbs and outside London, perfectly possible with modern technology. We need to encourage strategies where people walk or cycle to work, rather than cram onto increasingly congested trains and tubes, reflecting some good examples such as Nine Elms and Stratford with their mixed developments within overall masterplans where public and private sector partners are working together with common aims.
If this was New York, then the huge land area of something like Clapham Junction would be seen as an opportunity. It has its constraints, but imagine a new place created here with offices, homes and community facilities. Here is a challenge for someone to pick up, especially Government whose role should be to fund necessary infrastructure to enable development to take place, as it has done at Stratford.
A fascinating two days of debate and discussion, which needs to continue, even more so since the tragedy of the past few days.