Inner city life, inner city pressure

As the weather improves and lockdown restrictions are relaxed, life is ebbing back onto the streets of central London. People who were commuting in daily just over a year ago are beginning to revisit a city centre that is both familiar and utterly transformed. And to think about its future.

There are still more questions than answers about that future. How much remote working will persist, and how will much-discussed models of ‘hybrid working’ play out? Will employers reduce their demands for workspace, and will any surplus space be picked up by new arrivals attracted by lower rents? How quickly can tourist and international student numbers recover, and how will shops, pubs and restaurants cope if both commuting and tourism remain suppressed?

These uncertainties are likely to persist for some months, but some slackening in demand for office and retail space is widely expected, as working and consumption patterns change, and employers rethink their needs. Some premises might be adapted by cultural and community organisations, for experimental pop-ups and meanwhile uses, but it is likely that new residential development will play a part too.

This could actually help build the city’s resilience. As Centre for London set out just before the pandemic bit, central London’s population has been growing fast over the past decade, but the city centre is still less densely populated than Paris or New York. So when coronavirus brought commuting and tourism to a standstill, central London and its businesses were particularly hard hit by the loss of trade, and have continued to struggle as restrictions have been successively relaxed, re-imposed and relaxed again.

So more people living in the city centre is not only likely but desirable, as was underlined in Arup’s recent report for the Greater London Authority on the future of the Central Activities Zone (CAZ):

“A higher CAZ residential population, to offer more sustainable lifestyles, resilience, increased vibrancy and ‘stewardship’ of the CAZ’s resources for others, and bringing London more into line with its global rivals.”

But allowing more residential development or conversion in central London is not straightforward. The current London Plan and borough planning documents give the CAZ and Canary Wharf special status, to protect the clustering and density of ‘strategic functions’ (for example global commerce, education, culture, government and tourism) and give these uses priority over housing. This protection, the argument goes, preserves the essential character of central London as a truly global city centre and the economic powerhouse of the UK.

How could more housing be brought into the mix without diluting these qualities and this global draw? Should new build and conversions be pepper-potted through the CAZ, or focused in a few neighbourhoods? And can office and retail conversions retain flexibility, or is any switch to housing a permanent change?

Some parts of central London and some building types look a lot more inhabitable than others. Big open-plan offices, as found in the heart of the City and Canary Wharf, are unlikely to be adapted as easily as older buildings in the West End, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and the South Bank, which have switched from houses to flats to offices and now perhaps back to housing over the years.

There are also issues of management and services. How would potential disputes between residents and businesses be resolved over night-time deliveries, late-night crowds leaving bars and nightclubs, parking and vehicle access? And where will health services and schools be located, as well as everyday shops?

All of these factors suggest that a remixing of London’s city centre will need to be carefully managed, not left to the free-for-all of ‘permitted development’ from office to residential uses that government is proposing – and which has led to some truly atrocious conversions of commercial buildings. Central London currently has exemptions from permitted development, but these expire in summer 2022, and London’s boroughs will soon need to start making the case for renewing them.

Central London is a dynamic and creative place. As we emerge from the pandemic into a world that is still being reshaped, Centre for London hopes to explore how we can apply that dynamism and creativity to refresh its mix of uses, as well as to support the national recovery.

[Published by Centre for London, 26 May 2021]

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