Ken Livingstone's development plan for London is an ill-guided attempt to impose order on the city's creative chaosby Paul Barker / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
London has always thrived on a gentle version of anarchy. It wasn’t created, or much shaped, by royal or imperial edicts. Nor will it be, I now trust, by mayoral ones. Apropos Ken Livingstone and London, Prospect last month asked: “Is his megalopolis out of control?” To which the best answer is: “Let’s hope so.”
To Prospect Livingstone spoke like a wheeler-dealer, who adapts to almost anything. Not quite so: he is a man with a Plan. “The spatial development strategy for greater London”—otherwise known as the London Plan—was published in 2004. Anyone living in London must pray it is never carried through. The Plan, which is very personal to Livingstone, claims it doesn’t “dictate lifestyles.” But it does.
London’s big burst of new energy—Prospect rightly noted—occurred in the years after 1986, when Livingstone’s previous stamping ground, the Greater London Council, was abolished. Boroughs did deals with central or semi-central agencies. Not the best idea—but it preserved us from a grand design.
The best book ever published on London, in 1934, was by an admiring outsider, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, a Danish architect. He entitled it London: the Unique City. The city’s uniqueness lay in its creative anarchy. London burst its medieval walls far earlier than any continental city. From very early on, it was bipolar: money and commerce in the City of London; royalty and fashion in the City of Westminster. It then grew by bolting suburb on to suburb. It abandoned the old European model; it was the prototype of a new city.
For London, plans have always been bad news. For 30 years after the second world war, thousands of acres were cleared of reusable old homes, and replaced with a Corbusian vision of the future. In much of Southwark and Lambeth, for example, modest Victorian terraces, built for craftsmen and clerks, were bulldozed in favour of “the plan.” Decks of flats arose. Later, with my young son, we went to see them blown up, often to the sound of music and little funfairs.
With his planning powers, Livingstone now hopes to force people again into tightly packed houses or high-rise flats. “Like Paris,” he tells Prospect. But what Paris? The Ville de Paris is a tiny, touristy fraction of real Paris and its multitudinous suburbs.
The London Plan wishes to dictate lifestyles, just as those postwar plans did. So much is wrong with the new vision that I despair. It is the kind of document that brings planning into disrepute. We must, apparently, build on “brownfield” land. But much of this is either poisoned by past industry, or in the wrong place for services and jobs, or both. No wonder developers exploit the loophole that, for some reason, urban greenery—allotments, playing fields, small parks—is classified as “brownfield.” One study showed this to be where 20 per cent of “brownfield” building takes place.
Most bizarrely of all, Livingstone is determined to build in the east. But forecasts show that most new jobs are likely to be created in the west. Such forecasts may be wrong, of course. Until the mid-to-late 1980s, no one forecast that London’s population would start to grow again. The GLC’s own plans were based on such fantasies as a revival of the east London docks. But Livingstone shows no signs of thinking that if he was wrong then, he may be wrong now. He assumes that the economy will burgeon unstoppably, that population will keep increasing, and that for some reason it must be crammed into his existing Greater London Authority boundaries (to keep electoral numbers up?), though this has not been possible in the last two decades.
Why should today’s demographic and business forecasts be any smarter than the past’s? The City and Canary Wharf (itself a triumph of Thatcherite non-planning) thrive. But almost every merchant bank, and many utilities and other companies, are foreign-owned. Key decisions are taken elsewhere. When a cold wind blows, it is always the branch-plants which are rapidly shut. Livingstone has no Plan B. A recent LSE study noted: “Trends rarely turn out as expected, and a major issue for a London Plan is its robustness to such uncertainties.”
In any event, will people want to live for long on tight-packed east London estates? Won’t tomorrow’s Londoners follow the continuing exit to outer London, beyond the GLA boundary, which has never diminished? (London’s entire population growth is the result of international immigration and the higher birth rate of recently migrated families.) Families prefer a house and garden, rather than a flat; better out-of-town schools; and a milder, gang-free lifestyle. Will this suddenly change because the mayor of London says he wishes it to?
If this is all pushed through, many lives will be cramped; much building will eventually have to be re-demolished. Like all major cities, however, London is a highly complex, interlocking mechanism, which regularly defeats those who decide they know best how it should change. I keep my fingers crossed.