Level 22

While we wait for the forever-delayed Levelling Up White Paper, a “levelling up mindset” is starting to take hold across Whitehall. Just before Christmas newspaper reports suggested that the latest Department for Work and Pensions review would explore whether pensions could be paid earlier in areas with lower life expectancy.

It is an intriguing idea. There are big differences in life expectancy across England. Between 2017 and 2019, a man born in Richmond-upon-Thames could expect to live in good health for nearly 72 years – almost 20 years longer than a man born in Blackburn. A woman born in Wokingham would have a similar advantage over one born in Nottingham.

But it’s a bit odd too. Faced with these yawning inequalities and the worrying fall in healthy life expectancy since 2014-16, you might think that addressing the causes of ill health and early mortality would be the focus of policy, not making sure everyone gets a comparable return on their national insurance contributions.

Allowing people to take their pension earlier in some parts of the country could also have strange consequences. Is a workforce that has been shrunk through early retirement really what economically disadvantaged places need? Would a wave of pension-seekers moving to northern seaside towns really act as a catalyst for revival?

But there is a bigger problem too. Health inequalities can be just as sharp within as between regions or even local authorities: data at “middle super output area” (MSOA) level show that in Kensington & Chelsea there is a 25-year gap in healthy male life expectancy between North Kensington and the area around Sloane Square. If we really want to target earlier retirement dates at those areas where people are likely to have least time to enjoy their pensions, should we not be looking at individual wards and MSOAs rather than large geographical areas?

Of course we won’t be doing that: such a system would be fiendishly complicated and deeply unfair to poorer people living in wealthier neighbourhoods. But it does highlight one problem with the levelling up debate. Health and other aspects of inequality are often presented in terms of geographies because we have good data collected on a geographic basis. But geography is not necessarily the primary issue, as anyone who has seen the wealth of the Vale of York or the poverty in north Westminster will attest.

This is not to say geography is irrelevant: the 2020 Marmot Review of health equity argued that, while life expectancy in richer places was pretty similar across the country, poorer places in London had better life expectancy than poorer places in the north. The review suggested that a mixture of economic and policy factors (particularly the impact of austerity) had hit northern areas particularly hard and had therefore widened the gap since 2010.

But the Marmot analysis is still comparing places – which in London contain a diverse mix of people, and may have become more mixed in recent years – rather than classes of people. Londoners on the poverty line may be only a block away from an artisanal coffee shop, but that may not help their health or other life chances.

There is research indicating links between income and health (for example, people in the poorest 10 per cent of households are ten times more likely to report poor health than people in the richest households), but it is more scanty. Most research on health inequality (and other forms) continues to use place as a proxy for a whole suite of characteristics that may offer or deprive particular people of opportunity.

My hope for 2022 is that we develop a more nuanced discussion of “levelling up”. I think this means southerners acknowledging that there are regional imbalances that do need addressing. I’d suggest that two of these are the need for investment in strategic transport schemes (rather than the apologetic bodge-job of the Integrated Rail Plan) and in research and development. But it also means that we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that every inequality is primarily regional in character when that may simply be a result of the basis on which we collect and publish statistics.

Originally published by OnLondon.

Noel!

I’ve been enjoying Kaptin Barrett’s playlist, Now That’s What I Call A Renaissance Christmas, filled with old and new interpretations of Christmas carols from 1400-1600.

There is something quite otherwordly about the older carols. It is partly the Latin and the polyphonic structure, but also the exuberance and sense of mystery that is tonally very far away from the standards (‘Once In Royal David’s City’, ‘Hark the Herald’, ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘While Shepherds Watched’).

The older carols (of which ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ is probably the most commonly sung example nowadays) seem to celebrate the sheer miraculousness of God made flesh and the virgin birth, and rejoice in the promise of redemption – in the depth of winters that would have been full of fear, hunger and death for many. There’s a lot of allegorical greenery reflecting the promise of spring’s eventual return, and a carnivalesque element of “It’s midwinter, we’re alive, Jesus is born, so let’s have a party!” (see, for example, the Boar’s Head Carol or Sir Christemas).

The Victorian crop, by contrast, seem much more formal, even staid. They focus on the details of the nativity, on the holy family as some sort of sentimental exemplar (my parents always used to stare at us pointedly while singing, “Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he”). The ‘humility’ of God’s incarnation and the attendance of the shepherds is underlined. The carols are more interested in the humanity of Jesus – in his ‘relate-ability’ – than his divinity.

One reason for the difference may be the hiatus in carolling that took place after the Cromwellian suppression of Christmas celebration. From this brief history, it seems that carols were only really revived in the 19th Century. That’s quite a jump intellectually from the time of the Protectorate. To remain respectable, ‘true religion’ had to be filtered through enlightenment values, and to eschew mystery and saturnalia. The Victorian Christmas carol celebrates a properly ordered society, where dignity could be found in the lowliest conditions, where trumpets acclaim the majesty of God, and where the family is held sacred as the foundational unit of social structure.

But the long list of things I am inexpert in includes carols, enlightenment religion and medieval theology, so please take these musings as no more than that.

And, Merry Christmas.

Richard Rogers

“Did you really just tell Richard Rogers to buy you a pint of Guinness? Do you even know who you’re talking to?” my partner Alex said down the phone.

It was 2001, and I was following Richard into the Marquess of Granby, round the corner from the Mayor of London’s temporary offices in Marsham Street. I had just started working with Richard and knew he was an eminent architect, but don’t think I got quite how important he was to a whole generation of architects and designers (of whom Alex is one).

That’s probably a good indication of why I’m not the right person to write an appreciation of his buildings, even though I had rushed to see Centre Pompidou in Paris on a teen holiday with two schoolfriends, a sole moment of cultural enrichment in a week that passed in a haze of gauloises and gut-rot red.  His best buildings are effervescent with ideas, imagination and delight, engaged in playful if sometimes spikey dialogue with their surroundings, and opening their arms wide to users and passers-by. I find them entrancing to this day.

But I’m not going to write about them here. I want to write instead about working with and becoming friends with a truly incredible man.

Nicky Gavron, London Assembly member and tireless advocate for better urban planning, had brought Richard into see the newly-elected Ken Livingstone. Ken waved a copy of Richard’s Urban Task Force report, which had been published the previous year, saying “I want you to do this in London.” I had been working in the Mayor’s Office, and Ken asked me to work with his new Chief Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism (“Big Richard and Little Richard!” he grinned) to make that happen.

Together with Ricky Burdett, Director of LSE Cities, and Gale Valentine, we set up shop as the Architecture + Urbanism Unit (A+UU), recruiting Mark Brearley, John Fannon, Emily Greeves, Jamie Dean, Tobi Goevert and Eleanor Fawcett.  Richard had been an advisor to the Mayor of Barcelona, whose City Architect was a powerful figure overseeing large departments, and saw this as his model. We didn’t have the battalions for that, so had to persuade him to adopt a more subtle approach. We tried to intervene selectively in projects being promoted by the boroughs, Transport for London and the London Development Agency to push them to a better place, “catch and steer” in Mark’s phrase.

Architecture + Urbanism Unit at City Hall in 2002 or 2003. 
Top: Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers, Gale Valentine, Jamie Dean, Eleanor Fawcett. 
Bottom: me, Mark Brearley, John Fannon.
Architecture + Urbanism Unit at City Hall in 2002 or 2003.
Top: Ricky Burdett, Richard Rogers, Gale Valentine, Jamie Dean, Eleanor Fawcett.
Bottom: me, Mark Brearley, John Fannon.
Photo: Tobias Goevert

Faced with the trundling beasts of public sector procurement, Richard often became frustrated (“Where are my million trees? Where are our 100 Public Spaces?”), exploding that he was wasting his time, or more amiably deciding he had had enough, and we all needed to go out for lunch or to the pub. He took no salary, but came in two days a week, chasing progress but also deploying all his skill and persistence at meetings with the Mayor and other bigwigs – to do deals on how architects would be selected and briefed, on what role design would play in the planning process, on how east London could fulfil its promise.

He stuck with it too, continuing to harry projects long after the rest of us had sounded the retreat, and showing patience and persistence with a bureaucracy that could be unfathomable even to insiders, where other architects would have packed up and retreated to the studio. Quite often, he would ask me to draft him a ‘tough’ (favourite term) note to the Mayor, demanding a project be stopped or an official sacked. As is the way of bureaucracies, these notes would then find their way back down to me from the Mayor’s Office, with a request for me to draft a response for the Mayor to sign off. I could keep these correspondence volleys going for weeks.

From 2004, I became increasingly involved in the London 2012 project, so saw less of Richard for a few years. A characteristic encounter was at the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he was awarded a Golden Lion in 2006. We greeted him in the street, and were scooped up and led to a lunch in a wood-panelled restaurant, down a side street I have never found since.

Flying back that evening, we were on the same plane as Richard and Ruthie, though they were in Business Class. I said hello as we got on, and expected they’d be long gone by the time we got out – that’s why you pay for Business Class after all. Instead, I found them waiting as we came through baggage reclaim, to see if we needed a lift anywhere. When we got into the Addison Lee, Richard told the driver “Chelsea, via Brixton.”  The driver muttered that Brixton wasn’t really on the way to Chelsea. “It is now,” replied Richard with a familiar mix of charm and steel which precluded much argument.

Richard continued to advise Ken, and then Boris Johnson for a couple of years, though took less of an active role as the A+UU morphed into the larger Design for London, headed by Peter Bishop. I think Richard saw his time at the GLA as something of a missed opportunity. We did not build his 100 public spaces or plant his million trees, and City East did not transform Docklands.

This is all true. But, as I said to him, those concepts had a long afterlife, and the cultural changes in how design and planning are done in London government were subtle but profound. The legacy of A+UU is still there in the current Mayor’s Good Growth by Design programme, in his panel of ‘Design Advocates’, in boroughs’ design review panels, in the Public Practice scheme that places newly qualified architects in public sector jobs, and in the inspiration he gave to a generation of planners.

After Richard left the GLA, I started working with him again, intermittently helping him to write articles or letters to the papers protesting against suburban sprawl, against toy town designs, and against the impact of austerity on the public realm – the ‘Continuity Urban Task Force’ as I used to call it. And it was very hard to pay for a meal at the River Café if he spotted us eating there. Richard enjoyed the good life – the River Café, the holidays in Mexico and Italy, opera and art – but he sought to share it as widely as possible, and was genuinely upset and angry when people were denied access to decent housing, food and healthcare.

In 2013, the Royal Academy hosted Richard Rogers: Inside Out, an exhibition that was as much about Richard’s political and civic beliefs as it was about his buildings. This caught the interest of Katy Follain, an editor at Canongate, and she asked Richard to write a book with the same blend of the personal, professional and political. I was trying to find something new to do after ten years on the Olympic treadmill, so was flattered when Richard and Ruthie asked me to help (especially given Canongate’s offer of some real writers).

The experience was hard going to begin with, when some early draft chapters came back covered in red scrawl. Richard’s dyslexia may have meant that he struggled to write long-form prose, but he knew what he wanted and knew what was good. We played around with structure, between timelines and topics, and ended up with a book that started narrow – focusing on a boy’s birth in Florence and his arrival in cold grey England in the 1930s – then widened its scope, using projects as jumping off points for discussions of urban development, public space, politics, inequality.

At first, Richard was reticent about the autobiographical elements; he wanted to look forward not back. But over time, he relaxed into the process, with long interviews where he reflected on his life, influences and ideas, recorded in his house in Chelsea, in his Hammersmith offices, on the terrace of the Tuscan farmhouse he and Ruthie rented every summer. The conversations were inspiring, a comfort to me as my own parents slid into ill-health, and often great fun. One taped interview, on the train back from Manchester after a party conference, starts structured and gradually dissolves into giggles as the free Virgin Rail Rosé takes effect.

As the chapters of A Place for All People were edited and finalised, Richard turned his attention to the design. I think Canongate were used to authors who would turn over a manuscript, fret a bit about the cover photo, then shut up until the proofs arrived. Richard had other ideas. He called up Andy Stevens, the graphic designer who had worked with him and his son Ab on the Inside Out exhibition design, and negotiations with Canongate began (Tracing paper? No. Different coloured papers for different sections? No. Spiral binding? No.) Once a format was agreed, pages would be laid out and reviewed again and again, by Richard, Ruthie and Ab, until Richard was happy with the flow and interplay of the textual and photographic narratives.

And this, I think, was at the heart of Richard’s genius. He was notoriously bad at drawing and struggled with writing, but he had brilliant ideas, acute judgement, and – an overused word but right in his case – a vision for what places and societies could be. He searched out the right partners and collaborators, and used all his powers of charm, persuasion, encouragement and menace to bring out the best in them and make the results of their work together as good as it could be.

Richard was so full of life, so endlessly curious, so excited about the possibility of a better world, and so tireless in trying to bring it about, that the world seems to have lost a little of its colour with his death. I’ll miss him enormously.

Retro first, last and always?

For a decade or more the redevelopment of London’s social housing estates has been a flashpoint. Councillors have lost their seats and council leaders have been deposed. Plans have been challenged in court, in council chambers and on the streets.

Boroughs have pushed forward redevelopment schemes, often in partnership with private developers, as a way of meeting housing targets and avoiding the huge repair bills that have accrued for older post-war estates. Campaigners have countered that demolition and rebuilding disrupts communities, can displace residents and replaces social rented homes with unaffordable intermediate and market housing.

Underpinning these debates are deep-seated issues about community and mobility, trust in public authorities, the roles of public and private capital, and what sort of housing London needs to offer its growing population.

Now, another ingredient can be added to this volatile mix: an increasing focus on embodied carbon generated by the energy-intensive production of materials such as steel and concrete suggests that retaining older buildings may be more environmentally as well as socially sustainable.

The issue is not binary. In some cases, particularly over the longer term, demolition and replacement with a building that uses less energy may make more sense than spending substantial sums on retrofit , even when embodied carbon is taken into account.

But thinking about embodied carbon tends to tilt the balance towards retrofit. At COP26 in November architects, property and construction firms signed a pledge to reduce embodied as well as operational emissions. A campaign led by the Architects’ Journal is championing retrofit and reuse.

So, if retrofit makes sense for people and planet, why are demolitions still taking place? Discounting the possibility that London boroughs actively want to inconvenience and displace their citizens (an accusation that has been levelled at some in the past), I believe that housing targets, financial incentives and complexity work together to push councils towards demolition and redevelopment.

Firstly, demolition makes it more straightforward to increase housing numbers in response to London’s persistent housing crisis and tough housing targets: even if Covid slows or reverses population growth, the capital has a backlog of need and a yawning affordability gap. As big “brownfield” sites become scarcer, boroughs and housebuilders are searching for ways to build more within the capital’s already built-up areas – hence sporadic eruptions of tower blocks across the city. Building denser in privately owned streets is part of the answer, but large post-war housing estates offer the advantage of single ownership, even when this has been eroded by right-to-buy.

Many post-war estates currently under threat are also relatively low rise (though not that low density) by today’s standards. Last week, the redevelopment of Central Hill, a widely-celebrated low-rise 1960s estate designed by Lambeth borough architects Rosemary Stjernstedt and Ted Hollamby, took a step forward when Homes for Lambeth (a council-owned development company) announced a shortlist of firms to prepare a masterplan.

Assessing options for Central Hill in 2017, Lambeth estimated that redevelopment could add more than 500 homes to the 456 already on site. Alternative plans prepared by Architects for Social Housing (ASH), who campaign for alternatives to demolition, proposed refurbishing the existing stock and adding 242 new homes through infill and roof extensions – half the number proposed by the borough.

Refurbishing council housing can also be an expensive process, with limited scope for recovering costs. Refurbishment is funded through the ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account, which relies on rents for income. In 2017, Lambeth estimated that refurbishment costs at Central Hill would be £44,000 per socially rented home, compared to a benchmark of £18,000.

Redevelopment has a different business model. It can be undertaken in partnership with a private developer or through an arms-length housing company with more freedom to borrow and the potential to cross-subsidise, enabling social housing to be replaced by building more for market sale or rent. Lambeth aims for its redevelopment of Central Hill to be cost neutral overall, while its assessment of the ASH plan found no potential for cross-subsidy of refurbishment works. The imbalance is worsened by unequal tax treatment: new builds are VAT free while refurbishment is usually charged at the full rate.

And long-term carbon implications of new build compared to refurbishment are rarely quantified or considered. Even where “carbon costs” can be calculated, local authorities do not benefit from any carbon savings achieved. The government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund has been designed to help improve the energy performance of socially rented homes, but even its maximum grant of £16,000 would not close the funding gap that Lambeth estimated for Central Hill.

Lastly, I think there is a complexity challenge. There is a mature market of developers who can enter into joint ventures with local authorities and deliver a programme of “regeneration” (demolition and redevelopment). By taking control of the site, they can manage risks and adjust the pipeline of development to respond to changing market circumstances and viability reviews. A local authority-owned housing company is in broadly the same position.

But a programme of refurbishment and infill is trickier, particularly where substantial structural work is required. As anyone who has had builders at home knows, refurbishment is disruptive, and budgets need flexibility to cope with unexpected costs, which can rise sharply. Managing disruption to tenants, different teams of contractors and the risks of spiralling costs will sit squarely with local authorities, which have seen their planning and development budgets slashed over the past decade.

Decisions on refurbishment and redevelopment are genuinely complex, balancing the needs of existing and possible future residents, and juggling financial priorities and environmental imperatives. However, despite their declarations of “climate emergency” boroughs lack the incentives and many have been stripped of the skills to invest in and add to their existing housing stock, rather than bringing in the bulldozers again and again.

Originally published by OnLondon.

It started with a Zang

‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles was released in September 1979, a couple of months before The Clash asserted that “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. Both songs mark a watershed, but their tone couldn’t be more different. The Buggles song, fronted by producer Trevor Horn, is more playful and ambiguous than The Clash’s tub-thumping anthem – wistful about the past, but also avid for a future “rewritten by machine and new technology”.

The song could be a statement of intent. It sets the scene for a decade in which Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records was a persistent if mercurial innovator, blazing trails that sputtered out or reignited years later.

From the outset, the label (co-founded by Horn, Jill Sinclair and self-described ‘semiotician’ Paul Morley) was deeply “serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious” (to borrow one of Susan Sontag’s aphorisms from Notes on Camp). It was a pop label named after the sound of machine gun fire (‘Zang Tumb Tumb’), as transcribed by Italian Futurist (and Fascist) Filippo Marinetti. And one of its first big hits celebrated nuclear annihilation with a catchy but dumb-as-you-like chorus of “when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score” over a Hi-NRG beat, with remixes sampling civil defence instructions for the disposal of corpses.

It’s astonishing to recall now how Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ZTT’s first big success, dominated the charts in 1984. They seemed to come out of nowhere, but their first three singles – tackling sex, war and love – soared to number one, aided by Paul Morley’s marketing talents and Radio 1 DJ Mike Read’s refusal to play ‘Relax’, and selling in numbers unknown to modern popcharts.

Frankie’s success can slightly overshadow other ZTT acts of the mid-80s. The Art of Noise (another futurist reference) and Propaganda, produced machine-music too poised and chilly to fit easily into 1980s compilation albums, but rediscovered and revered since. And Horn collaborated with fellow-Buggle Bruce Woolley on Grace Jones’ magisterial ‘Slave to the Rhythm’.

By the end of the decade, as Stock Aitken and Waterman’s version of electro-pop crowded the charts, ZTT were finding a new musical inflection point, trying to assemble a techno supergroup with Derrick May, and releasing records by Adamski, Seal and 808 State (it was the death of 808 State’s Andy Barker that got me thinking about ZTT). These were pioneering cross-over tracks but not populist novelties, as comfortable mimed on Top of the Pops as they were mixed with obscure Dutch white labels in a warehouse or disused airfield. The grandiloquent Morley/Horn touch can be detected in the spoken word into to ‘In Yer Face’, 808 State’s jackhammer second single, harking back to the Frankie’s riffing on Hitler and Castro speeches in ‘Two Tribes’ (amazing how much more accepted playing with Fascist and Nazi references was in the 1980s).

ZTT’s records pepper the critical touchpoints of 1980s and 1990s cultural history, as does their iconography of logos, Katherine Hammett t-shirts and album cover design, but the label’s legacy seems curiously weightless – compared to Manchester’s Factory Records, for example. Nobody could call Frankie Goes to Hollywood a one-hit wonder, but like many ZTT acts they burned brief and bright, then sputtered or stormed out in personal and legal disputes (808 State are a rare exception to this rule). Paul Morley describes this ephemerality as intentional. Interviewed by Barney Hoskins in 2013, he said:

“I’ve always been a bit pissed off with people like Weller and the Clash and Killing Joke, these people who say there can be some kind of polemic within pop. Well, Two Tribes was trying to prove to people that it’s impossible. I mean, we get to No 1 for nine weeks with an explicit, extravagant anti-war thing with the real government warning on there, and the next week it’s George Michael taking over at No 1, and that’s the end. Nine weeks, and nothing’s happened. I like that in a way.”

Does London really have the lowest cases and lowest vaccination rates?

As autumn sets in and Covid case numbers drift upwards, there is some good news for Londoners. Having been hit hardest by the first wave of infections, the capital now has some of the lowest case numbers. On 18 October, out of 315 English lower tier (unitary and district) councils, the ten with the lowest case rates were all London boroughs (except where indicated, all data in this article have been downloaded from the excellent Government dashboard).

This isn’t to downplay the terrible effect Covid has had on London. The disease has already killed more than 20,000 people in the capital, and has had a particularly brutal impact on poorer and disadvantaged communities. However, unlike March 2020, when cases shot up in the city and widespread urban flight was predicted, today you are safer from Covid living in Inner London than almost anywhere else in the UK.

This is good news, but it’s not immediately clear why London cases are so low. While the capital has the highest levels of antibodies according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, it also appears to have the lowest vaccination rates. The ten English lower tier authorities with the lowest vaccination rates by 14 October were all in London, and are many of the same boroughs that also have low infection rates. I’ve been wondering how we can account for this, without making spurious assertions about vaccine effectiveness.

Vaccination is not the only way to acquire immunity, so Londoners’ early exposure to the virus will have made a difference. London’s cumulative case numbers are equivalent to around 12.5 per cent of the population, which is higher than the other southern English regions, but lower than the Midlands and North. But in the early days of the pandemic, most cases were untested and unreported unless people became seriously ill, so London’s total cases have almost certainly been underestimated. By July 2020, 13 per cent of working age Londoners were already estimated to have been exposed to the virus, twice the national average.

However, there are also issues about how vaccination rates are calculated. Most Covid statistics use the 2020 mid-year population estimates as their denominator, but vaccination rates use the National Immunisation Management Service (NIMS) database. Reputable commentators have suggested that this database, which has been credited for supporting the rapid roll-out of vaccines, tends to overestimate populations of working age adults – particularly young adults and students, who are most mobile. Using ONS mid-year estimates for 2020 rather than NIMS figures makes a big difference to vaccination rates in London, as shown in the chart below, which shows the position as of 12 October.

Richard 2

(A side note: might the ONS mid-year estimates from 2020 also be wrong? They probably are. Most commentators believe London has lost population over the last year, though estimates vary wildly, from Professor Jonathan Portes’ estimate that around 700,000 people may have left the capital, to the GLA’s more cautious projection that around 100,000 people have done so. If we reduced London’s population by a pretty extreme ten per cent, or around 900,000 people, both vaccination and case rates would be higher, but not dramatically so – though the effect would be greater if population loss was concentrated in the Inner London boroughs.)

What does this all tell us? The first thing, which many of us have learnt over the past 18 months, is to be careful to interrogate statistics, asking what story they are being made to tell and whether there are other stories that might also fit, particularly where there seem to be dramatic differences between places. 

The second is to ask why local vaccination rates are being published in ways that seem to make take-up look artificially low in places with younger populations. This might seem trivial, or even a useful nudge for the young and for people in vaccine-hesitant communities to get their jabs, but using questionable data for righteous ends can be toxic. There are enough scurrilous rumours about vaccination effectiveness circulating without allowing people to draw hasty conclusions from the fact that the places with the lowest case rates are also those that appear to have the largest proportions of unvaccinated people.

The figures for deaths in council areas are seven day case rates by date reported, and the deaths attributed to Covid in the capital are defined as those where Covid has been mentioned on the death certificate, as of 14 October. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Careless vistas

So many prime ministers have pledged action on social care before recoiling, that I really wanted to celebrate the PM grasping the late summer nettle of reform. But he seems to have  brushed casually past it while racing after shimmering mirage of making the NHS “the envy of the world”. Providing a ‘cap and floor’ for personal contributions to care is a good thing. It will reduce anxiety and help protect inheritances for many moderately well-off families, though using workers’ national insurance contributions to do so seems pretty well the least appropriate way of achieving that.

Or almost. State-provided adult social care (which London Councils estimate is 65 per cent of home care and 54 per cent of residential care) is currently funded by London’s boroughs, drawing on government grants, and the dysfunctional ugly twins of local government finance – council tax and national non-domestic rates.

Paying for social care accounted for more than 50 per cent of London borough service spending in 2018/19 according to Centre for London analysis (excluding public health, education and police services). London’s older population and younger population with care needs are both forecast to grow over the next decades, so the costs will rise. When he was chief executive of Barnet Council, Andrew Travers drew a ‘Graph of Doom’ showing social care (including children’s services) gobbling up the whole borough budget by 2030. The £3 billion or so (out of a total of £36 billion) left for reform of the system over the next three years would only just close the funding gap in London. It’s pretty thin gruel.

Even putting the matter of funding levels and taxes to one side for a moment, it makes no sense for the service to be delivered this way. People value social care, and see it as a critical service, but also look to councils for housing, planning, waste collection, street cleanings, park, libraries and schools.

The current model also creates an unhealthy tension between the NHS and social services, as older people are shunted gracelessly between home care, hospitals and residential care. I have heard anecdotes about councils employing full time lawyers to argue against hospital discharges into their care, and (full disclosure) I am personally in the middle of an unseemly haggle with the NHS and social services about who should be providing my mother’s care.

The row over the miserly allocation of funding to social care improvement, compared to the sums lavished on the NHS, illustrates the point. It is artificial to distinguish between the care provided to an old person at home and the care she receives on a hospital ward, not least because if you get the former right, you are less likely to have to pay for the latter.

I am generally all for devolution, but I think this may be the exception. The PM announced that the “NHS and social care systems need to be brought closer together” and talks of “integrated care systems”, but we have been hearing soft phrases like that for years. I think we need to be bolder, and nationalise funding for adult social care.

This does not necessarily mean nationalising care homes and care agencies, though in some cases that might be desirable or even necessary. It should mean tighter regulation to ensure decent pay and more consistently compassionate care.  In many cases, services would be provided pretty much as they are now (the NHS is far more used to operating through third-party providers than it was in the past), but decisions would be taken in a genuinely integrated way, where budgets allocations were not the issue.

This is not intended as a criticism of borough social services departments – London has some pioneering boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham, who are I think the only local authority who levy no charges for home care, regardless of care recipients’ savings.

And the NHS is far from perfect; it has a lot to learn from social services about the management of long-term conditions, which often seems to take second place to the more life-affirming business of ‘curing’ people in hospitals. There would still be a role for local authorities, in managing interfaces with housing and other services, in promoting public health and preventative services, and in acting as champions and advocates for their residents – perhaps through continuing to play a part in assessments of need.

There are elements of today’s announcement that should be celebrated, but it is still tinkering with the system rather than seeking to transform and upgrade arrangements that date back 70 years. There has been a lot of talk about better joint working between the NHS and local government, but progress has been limited in London.  I’m afraid that the consequences of missing the opportunity for more fundamental structural change – or at least beginning a debate about it – will become increasingly apparent in the next few years.

Paying the price

Saying that Londoners are underpaid may not win many votes outside the M25, but persistently low pay is a huge problem for the capital and its citizens.

One way of looking at this is to compare Londoners’ salaries to the benchmark set by the London Living Wage (£10.85 in 2020/21), which is calculated as a rate that meets “everyday needs”. The chart below compares this benchmark to London’s 10th and 25th percentile pay rates – that is, the highest pay for the bottom 10 per cent and bottom 25 per cent of earners respectively – for sectors where there are enough workers to enable reliable estimates.

The chart shows where London’s low pay problem is concentrated. Twenty-five per cent of workers in retail, hospitality, admin support (jobs like security guards), social work (bundled with better-paid health jobs above), and entertainment were being paid less than the minimum hourly rate needed to live in London in 2020. Hospitality wages are particularly low: more than 60 per cent of workers in that sector were paid less than the London Living Wage.

There are two other things worth noting. Firstly, low pay may be a national problem, but it is more acute in London. Loughborough University research on “minimum income standards” indicates that Londoners in different household types need between 20 and 60 per cent more than people in other UK urban areas to afford a decent quality of life.

London jobs do pay a wage premium, but this is less than 10 per cent at the bottom end of low-paid sectors such as hospitality, security, residential care work and construction. In other words, the workers who most need the wage premium to live in London are also those least likely to get it.

Second, London’s lowest-paid sectors – industries such as food production (one of the lowest paid manufacturing sub-sectors), hospitality and social care – are some of those with the most acute labour shortages at the moment. (Others shortages, such as of HGV drivers, are complicated by the need for specialist training and licences.) They are also the sectors which have been most dependent on overseas workers in recent years.

The issue of labour shortages is hitting the news – and supermarket shelves – right now,  though some suggest the problem will solve itself over the coming weeks, as the distorting effects of pandemic support measures are removed. The furlough scheme, which has been accused of keeping workers in defunct jobs, rather than pushing them to look for new ones, ends next month. But it has been winding down for a while – the number of furloughed jobs in London halved between the end of February and end of June (though this is a slower rate of decline than other English regions) – while labour shortages have persisted or worsened as the economy has re-opened.

The other element of pandemic support has been the temporary £20 per week increase in Universal Credit (UC). More than a million Londoners were claiming UC in June 2021, three times the number two years earlier. Some of these are people who are out of work, but nearly 400,000 are working Londoners whose pay is simply not adequate to their needs. The removal of the £20 per week increase in UC, also due to take place at the end of next month, might encourage some non-working Londoners into employment, but will also push more working Londoners into poverty.

If people won’t be forced back into low-paid jobs by the removal of state support, can we look overseas instead? As border restrictions relax, London may once again attract workers from around the world, though the new immigration regime will prevent new arrivals for working in some of the city’s most crisis-hit sectors. 

But by debating how we can use imported labour and benefit subsidies to fill jobs that don’t pay enough, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Beyond the question of basic morality, coronavirus has exposed the precariousness of this approach to staffing our shops, bars, restaurants, building sites and care homes. Low pay may even be holding back innovation, as the Resolution Foundation recently observed, and hence productivity growth.

London’s economy is likely to change dramatically in coming years as the long-term impacts of the pandemic combine with the impact of technology and action on climate change. To be ready for these changes and the opportunities and disruptions they will create, London needs to pay workers better (as proposed by my former colleagues at Centre for London) or find smarter ways of doing their jobs. We can no longer afford low wages. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Commuting again, cheek-to-cheek?

People are starting to come back to Central London, even if caution about rising case numbers, new variants and the onset of summer holidays mean the recovery is slow burn rather than big bang.

The graph below compares Transport for London (TfL) data on use of contactless and Oyster cards to tap in and out of stations on three sample days, according to different types of station (more detailed data and the station typology can be seen here). The days, chosen by me, are the last Thursday in July this year and last year, and the last Thursday in February last year. 

Screenshot 2021 08 12 at 14.14.00

The change between July 2020 and July 2021 is striking. Each group of stations saw around twice as many taps at the end of last month compared to the previous July, when restrictions were similarly relaxed, with a slightly stronger recovery for ‘City’ and ‘Tourist’ destinations, though ‘City’ station usage (which includes Canary Wharf, Holborn and Clerkenwell) remains only a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Comparisons with February 2020 show we are still a long way from business as usual, and it will be interesting to see whether change accelerates in September. But the overall picture looks positive for those who want to see people – the lifeblood of Central London – return to its streets, and is in line with the “organic” return to cities that James Forsyth wrote about in The Times last week.  

However, there could be bumps in the track ahead. One relates to human behaviour. Like many people, I have found my recent train and Tube trips a pretty pleasant experience. I’ve had a seat and not been too close to other people, even if wearing a mask is a minor spec-fogging inconvenience.

The closer we get to pre-pandemic levels of loading, however, the closer we will get to crowding levels that we find uncomfortable. It’s hard to say in advance what these will be – standing room only, shoulder-to-shoulder, armpit-to-nostril? – and tolerances will vary, but I suspect each of us could reach a tipping point where we no longer feel so happy using the Tube, however low Covid cases may be. 

More staggered commuting hours may mitigate crowding. And we can expect some reduction in demand from increased working from home, though if everyone works from home on Monday and Friday it will do little to ameliorate crowding midweek. But I suspect there will be a self-regulating brake on levels of Tube usage over the next few years at least, and that brake will apply itself at a lower level than before the pandemic.

The problem will become a whole lot worse if Transport for London’s funding deal, still being thrashed out with government, forces cuts in service frequency and capacity, as government has suggested it might. A recent national poll suggested that 23 per cent of people anticipate using public transport less, with most of those expecting to use cars more. In London, congestion, the soon-to-be enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone and parking charges may make that less of an option. But squeezing services could increase crowding, and in turn drive more people away from public transport – maybe to walk or cycle, but maybe just to stay away from Central London altogether.

TfL needs a funding deal that recognises how precarious London’s recovery could be, and how easily service cutbacks could push the Tube into spiral of overcrowding, falling passenger numbers and falling revenues. This means looking beyond reliance on fares for the next few years at least, to run the system as a vital amenity for urban recovery, rather than a commercial service to customers. If the government wants people to come back into London and other city centres, it needs to support public transport systems that marry environmental sustainability with economic vitality.

First published by OnLondon.

Bringing beauty back

Sometimes it seems like the government is determined to turn people like me against its planning reforms.

While it is still unclear how the new system will operate in London, planning reform should help with housing delivery. The idea of shifting from “development control” to “zoning” seems inherently reasonable. Too much time and money is spent by developers, consultants, councillors and planners thrashing out permissions for individual schemes, balancing housing targets with local campaigners’ concerns, design considerations, viability assessments and national policy.

Pushing those debates “upstream”, to properly involve local people in preparing local plans and design codes and then allowing councils, housing associations and developers to get on with building, should both empower citizens, and reduce red-tape and delays.

Furthermore, given the shoddiness of some recent housing, the government is right to underline the importance of design quality throughout. Good design will help secure community assent for urgently-needed new development and also create better places, improve everyday life, and ensure that we enhance our landscape with beautiful new buildings that can last, rather than despoiling it with crappy ones which will make future generations scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Speaking at the launch of the Office for Place, secretary of state Robert Jenrick underlined the importance attached by government to design, citing the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which threads “beauty” into policy, and a National Model Design Code, which sets the framework for local codes.

The Office for Place itself, which will initially be based in Jenrick’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and chaired by Nicholas Boys Smith, who headed the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, will support communities and the development industry in creating “popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable places”.

So far, so laudable. But Jenrick seemed unable to resist lunging for the big red button marked “culture war”, declaring that “Poll after poll suggests we prefer the homes built before planning really began with the 1947 Planning Act, not those that came after,” and decrying unspecified “post-war mistakes”.

This broad dismissal of post-war design and planning prompts questions and concerns about precisely how “beauty” will be defined, especially given extensive press briefing about “traditional architectural styles” and local materials. Is beauty to be defined as traditional, and vice-versa? There seems to be a tide of anti-modernist sentiment. In a recently article called ‘Why is the Modern World So Ugly?’, Alan de Botton asserted that “when architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo”.

This seems sweeping to say the least. It is true that Adolf Loos rejected the highly decorated styles of the early 20th Century in his writings, which are often seen as a foundation stone of modernism, and Le Corbusier talked of homes as “machines for living”. But it was gratuitous ornament that they rejected, not the whole concept of beauty. For the early modernists, the beauty of structures resided in the honest and expressive use of good materials, not in applying “lipstick to the gorilla”.

London, like other UK cities, has some great examples of modernist housing, much of it designed by the huge teams of architects who worked for the post-war London County Council, for the Greater London Council and for boroughs such as Camden. Council estates like Lillington Gardens, Alexandra Road, Churchill Gardens, Odhams Walk, Golden Lane and Balfron Tower are very different expressions of modernist style, but all were designed with an eye to beauty in their scale, in the interplay between materials and greenery, in the use of light and shadow.

These schemes are popular with residents too, as shown by recent controversies over redevelopment of Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill in Lambeth. And modernist private schemes such as the Barbican (pictured) and Blackheath’s Span Houses are also highly sought after. “Legions of international tourists normally flock to our market towns and cathedral cities,” Jenrick said. They increasingly flock to the Barbican and Blackheath too.

There are some poorly designed and built modernist housing developments in London –  idealistic vertical villages that now feel neglected and tired. But there are just as many recent horrors that have simply stuck on the coach lights, porticos and ionic columns of “traditional architecture” as lazy ornamentation or that have thoughtlessly and cheaply replicated the glossy glass panels, tiny rooms and appliquéd balconies of so many recent residential towers.

London has a rich modernist heritage of which it should be proud, and the city’s architects – many once again working for boroughs – are continuing to develop an architectural language that incorporates both tradition and innovation. It will be interesting to see how this can be reflected in city-wide and local design codes in coming years.

As Jenrick said, “there is wisdom to be drawn” from past experience. But this shouldn’t exclude modernism. As controversies over redevelopment rage, we need a broader debate to understand and criticise, but also value and learn from, what London’s architects and planners have built over the past 80 years.

First published by OnLondon.