A Tale of Three Cities

Which of our major cities has the greatest projected requirement to accommodate homes and jobs over the next 20 plus years? It will come as no great surprise that the answer is London.

Taking population growth as the principal driver, the Capital is required to accommodate twice as many people as presently reside in Manchester by 2024[1].

Yet, whereas Manchester has recently announced plans to release up to 4,900 hectares of Green Belt land to accommodate sustainable patterns of growth to sit alongside ambitious urban regeneration plans[2], London has resolutely refused to consider incursions into its hinterland. Why is that, and how can it be justified? The answer to the former is a mix of politics and due process. The answer to the latter is that it can – provided one backs the stick, rather than the carrot, approach to spatial planning.

There is presently much focus on the Northern Powerhouse and the ‘Midland Engine Room’, especially with the emergence of combined authorities for both Greater Manchester the West Midlands.

Both are expected to see the appointment of an elected mayor within the next 6 months, and devolved power, together with a spatial strategy for the region, by 2018. Yet the reality is that even without devolution, Manchester and Birmingham, at a planning level, are able to exert power and authority beyond London’s wildest dreams.

London is an amalgam of 32 London boroughs, with an elected mayor – and the Greater London Authority – sat above it, but the reality is that the Mayor cannot dictate how it wants the Capital to evolve.  It can cajole, persuade, set strategic policies and impose mayoral development corporations, but it cannot dictate anywhere like as much as its city rivals. The reality is that if a developer wants to get things done in Westminster or Wandsworth, Camden or Croydon, the first port of call is to the respective chief executive, head of planning and leader of the borough council, and typically only after that, to the GLA.

Compare that with Manchester and Birmingham: both cities have council buildings that pay homage to the might of municipal power, and there are a relatively small number of power-brokers to engage with. Can you imagine being a chief executive for the whole of London and having the clout of a Sir Howard Bernstein or Mark Rogers, never mind a politician? So the reality is that whilst London remains in its existing construct, Sadiq Khan, as the incumbent of City Hall, cannot dictate spatial change as he conceivably might wish for.

The other major distinction is what happens on London’s boundaries. Is the Mayor going to put himself up as the one to call for a review of London’s Green Belt, or is he more likely to await the respective outcome of the outer London boroughs local plan reviews, and their assessment of how to meet their objectively assessed need for housing? Recognising that much of outer London is blue, why not borrow from the erstwhile Tory repertoire of localism, and let those decisions come from within?

If I was a red mayor I think I would be tempted to do just that (and back Gatwick’s growth aspirations whilst I’m at it). Couple this with the other major distinction between London and Manchester and Birmingham: London doesn’t have an agreed strategy with its neighbours in the home counties as to how to accommodate its rapidly-increasing population, and the accompanying need for homes, transport, infrastructure and jobs.  So in the part of the country with the greatest requirement for joined-up politics and planning, there is the least.

And that is why London is likely to adopt a stick approach to spatial planning, in spite of Mayor Khan’s pronouncements on delivering an increase in housebuilding and affordable housing. London is going to get busier, pricier, and less accessible to large swathes of people who have historically considered themselves as having a right to reside within the Capital. The Mayor will continue to push for densification on brownfield sites, and better use of publicly-owned land, because in reality, there is very little else he can say or do, either from a planning or political perspective. Those residential schemes, office developments, and transport improvement projects that do emerge will be eye wateringly expensive, and serve high net-worth land owners and developers and the only market that can afford to occupy them; the comparatively wealthy resident, and the multinational corporation. That is not to denigrate any of these parties; it is simply stating the economic facts of life. A landowner is not going to sell for a price below what a site is worth, a developer is not going to build without seeking a reasonable return on investment, and a bank is not going to lend money to a purchaser or occupier if they cannot afford the terms.

London’s planning and political straightjacket potentially plays into the hands of Manchester and Birmingham. Whereas London regards any reference to Green Belt review as a sign of weakness, Manchester confidently strides out on the international stage, with the support of its 10 partnering authorities, and makes the rational case for why it needs to look at both its urban fringe as well as brownfield assets to deliver a balanced, sustainable city region.

The distinction between London and Manchester has been put into sharp context for me, personally, over the past few weeks and months by two events – one macro, and one micro.  Iceni opened an office in Manchester in November 2016,, and as part of our due diligence, we have spent time speaking to various stakeholders and commentators. We have interviewed people, and taken office space in the city, and we have looked into residential property prices. In a nutshell, this has proven that salaries are not significantly below those in London (at least in planning and related consultancies), business start-up costs are a fraction of those in the Capital, and the cost of residential property would make even the most humble of home owner fortunate enough to get onto the London property ladder before 2005 blush.

Conversely, a recent BBC documentary, No Place to Call Home, highlighted the plight of Londoners living within Barking and Dagenham, described as London’s most affordable borough, and the difficulty for people on minimum incomes to get any kind of accommodation, be it council-owned, or privately rented (home ownership is not even on the radar).  This struck a chord, as Iceni has worked on a great number of residential projects within Barking and Dagenham over recent years, including directly for the authority, which when implemented, will help to transform the profile and status of the borough.  But as the Leader of the Council himself noted, the Council simply cannot cater for the requirements of its most vulnerable residents.

The question is not will people move out of London to Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and other parts of the country, but when. Graduates will eventually decide that paying 70% of their take-home salary on rent is not the most sustainable way of addressing £50,000 of university debts – and what’s more, the vast majority will probably choose to put down roots and stay there. Minimum wage earners, by virtue of stick if not carrot, will be forced to move to more affordable parts of the country, save they should choose to ‘sofa-surf’ their way through their 20’s and 30’s. A hundred years ago – maybe even 30 years ago – we probably wouldn’t have blinked at the idea of economic migration, and indeed, enterprise zones and new towns were designed to do just that.  But in today’s age, it grates the social conscience to watch both the plight of Londoners documented by the BBC and to be aware of the challenges facing university leavers.  London’s loss needs to be made a gain for other parts of the country, and that is why the approach taken by Manchester and Birmingham is so vital for us all.

[1] Office for National Statistics (ONS), Subnational population projections for England:2014-based projections, (May 2016).

[2] Joint Greater Manchester Combined Authority and AGMA Executive Board, Greater Manchester Spatial Framework – Draft for Consultation, (October 2016).

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