Is London too small – and how should we fund city services?

Is London too small?

Recently there has been some talk around the question of whether London is too small and if its political boundaries need extending. Some (if not much) of this talk is based on data which shows that there are some commuter towns which are very dependent on London to supply their jobs.

I feel that extending London’s political boundaries will not be politically acceptable to the people who live in these outlying areas; even minor changes to rectify local anomalies yet alone major extension to, say, include places like Dartford into the Greater London Authority. Even now many of London’s existing outer boroughs feel that they are neglected with too much focused on central London, and I imagine this feeling would be even stronger in places outside of the M25 which may be included in an extended Greater London Authority.

So, I can’t see London’s political boundaries being extended.

However, it is vital that those outside of political London, who use its services, do pay a fair share towards the costs of providing these services. There are plenty of examples in the USA where the centre of cities have become problem areas because too many of those who use the services in the core have moved out to surrounding lower taxed areas – they want the benefits of a city without paying the costs.

How do we ensure that those who use a place’s services pay towards the costs of supplying these services if we can’t get the political and economic boundaries to be co-terminus? We could allow the ‘core’ city to charge some sort of tax surcharge to the outlying areas (a precept of some sort), but there is no political or democratic control (from the point of view of those being taxed) in doing this, so to me this is a non-starter.

Although we can improve some of the political and economic boundaries so that they more closely match each other to minimize the amount of ‘free loading’, I think the complications and grey areas are so great that on the whole this cannot be done with any great accuracy.

Therefore, I think this stresses to importance of the role of central government in collecting taxes and re-distributing them to make the whole country and its constituent parts work for everyone.

It is this continuing need for re-distribution from the centre that needs to be recognized by those who seem to believe that localization of tax raising powers to local government is the solution to under-funding problems. In a nutshell the issues are: Firstly, the political boundaries (and thus taxation boundaries) do not match the economic boundaries and although can be improved will not be changed to any great extent; Secondly, most places in the UK outside of London do not have sufficient tax base from which to raise more taxes and so depend on transfers from central government; Finally, the last thing we need is for neighbouring local authority areas to enter into a complicated tax versus services bidding war – the UK is too small for this not to end in tears.

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Where is Mid-Town?

This is an old gripe of mine – but where is ‘Mid-Town’?

Midtown Poster

This is a continuation of the any-town, ‘clone town’, approach to London which will eventually remove the very things  which makes London such a great and successful city.






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Erith Riverside Gardens – Community Fun Day

I have written before about Riverside Gardens, Erith, and how I helped the local community save it from being built on by turning their emotional objections into Planning ones, the strength of which made the Local Authority change their minds.

Despite this the local community don’t believe that this is the end of the matter so are determied to use the gardens as much as possible and, as part of this effort, held another community festival on the gardens. I thought I would post a few photographs.

Fun Day 1

Fun Day 2

Fun Day3

We had about 40 stalls, a display arena and had the official unveiling of The Alexander Selkirk Signpost (Erith is where he landed in England after being rescued from his island). It was a good day, with fine weather and lots of families enjoying themselves. The Port of London Authority also attended making children aware of the dangers of Thames mud at low tide.

This was all set up and run by volunteers, and with very little money. 

Local businesses and groups helped out with sponsorship and we had support from The Rotary Club of Erith, The Erith Group, NatWest, Batt Cables, The Aleff Group, Erith Riverside Shopping Centre, and Erith Town Forum.

The gardens are in the heart of Erith’s Western Gateway ‘regeneration’ area and we are determined  that they get improved as an integral part of these developments rather than built on, and that any developments nearby are of high quality with integrated public realm and open space.




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East London River Crossings – are they the correct transport approach?

Recently I responded to TfL’s consultation on additional East London River Thames crossings. My first set of thoughts were that, yes, we need more crossings. But then I began to think that this was a knee-jerk reaction and perhaps we need to look deeper at the communications network before spending a lot of money. The following is the core of what I ended up saying:

Given the high level of growth which is being planned for within the area to the east and south east of London close to the River Thames, it seems logical that the area requires new and additional road transport links across the Thames. As someone who lives in this area I know full-well that the inadequate transport links across the River Thames to the east of London restricts and constrains travel, employment and business options, with possibilities often not even being considered because of the difficulties.

It therefore seems natural, and intuitive, that new bridge crossings are required to the east of London, and I support new bridges at both Gallions Reach and Belvedere because, with the planned for growth, in the long run both will be required. To me it makes sense to have a period of excess capacity in order to encourage the required growth rather than always trying to catch up from already congested infrastructure. It is often argued that building road infrastructure encourages its use – well we might as well accept this in an area where we want to encourage growth to happen, and build to encourage development. Likewise, even if only two lanes are provided for in each direction (which hardly seems adequate anyway), future-proofing must be built in to enable the easy retrofitting of additional lanes and capacity at some time.

TfL argues that these new crossings will help the economic growth in the east and south east of London in areas close to this new infrastructure, with a large number of additional employment opportunities being brought closer together with homes in terms of travel time. However, the economic evidence of the cost and benefits of the east London Crossings is lacking and TfL needs to carry out these studies and make them available before decisions are made.

I am not sure that TfL’s existing studies yet prove the case for the new crossings. The transport studies seem to argue that there will not be a large amount of new traffic, but rather a proportion of existing traffic will choose to use the new crossings instead of those currently used. TfL’s transport studies seem to be saying that demand will be shifted from existing crossings rather than created, so I fail to see how the new crossings will therefore help to create new jobs and help business growth except marginally.

I would like to see (in fact surely it is vital) more-detailed economic benefit appraisal carried out before any decisions are made. It may be that it makes more economic seance to accept that the natural and existing travel routes are radial into London and that these must be strengthened and improved, rather than trying to create new orbital routes used by few but created at great expense. I would like to see more exploration of whether it is better to invest in better public transport radial routes into London (with stops on the way) from east London and south east London, or indeed to provide better road connections between the large development areas north and south of the Thames with their more immediate respective hinterlands and accept that the Thames is a barrier.

So, is the option of turning the areas north and south of the Thames to the east of London into 2 parallel, separate, but equally high quality locations for homes and jobs etc, with top quality radial routes a better way to spend £1.5bn? I don’t know the answer to this but am hoping that TfL and The Mayor of London are looking at this question and will have the answer to it.

In other words, although my gut-feel is that I think we need to build new bridges to the east of London to provide orbital routes, I want to see some evidence from TfL that this is a better thing to do than create new and better radial routes combined with some local improvements linking the radial system into its local hinterlands. As TfL is arguing that the new crossings are not for strategic traffic but rather local residents and businesses, it seems to make more sense to provide better local links with those sites north and south of the Thames respectably rather than spending a lot of money making essentially local connections for short journeys across the Thames.

If the proposed new crossings are provided I am totally against the use of tolls or user charging. East (and south-east) London citizens and businesses contribute to the general taxation pot, and some of this is used to provide, for example, major infrastructure to the west of London, such as additional lanes of the M25 around Heathrow, which is freely available, yet they are expected to pay separately, in addition to taxation, for the use of their vital infrastructure. This is unfair, and puts east London to a disadvantage: adding to the list of disadvantages it already has compared with west London. In any event, it seems illogical to say that new crossings are required to enable the planned for growth to the east of London to happen and then try to restrict demand through user-charging – if TfL don’t want people to cross the Thames then they shouldn’t build the crossings; or the Mayor should not allow so much development to the east of London.

It is understood that TfL intend to procure the new crossings via some sort of Public Finance Initiative (PFI) methodology. I strongly object to this method of procuring the crossings without robust and detailed evidence that PFI is the most cost effective (i.e cheapest) method. The Public Accounts Committee has published findings that PFI and its variants are expensive methods of funding, financing, procurement and delivery, so if it is used I wish to see the evidence that alternatives have been seriously considered and have found to be more expensive across the lifetime of the crossings. Furthermore, using PFI goes against the Government’s public procurement strategy of using Two Stage Open Book Tendering and Supply Chain Relationship methodologies when procuring large construction and engineering projects. In addition the Government’s wish of using ‘Partnering Arrangements’ is also ignored by the use of PFI.

Whatever options for crossings are chosen a ‘Total Landscape’ approach to the design and construction must be taken. Using a Total Landscape approach, which includes ecological, environmental, social and aesthetic issues and considerations, all integrated and being considered holistically, will enable a much better project or programme being delivered and go a long way to answering many objections from local communities.

By treating design holistically the argument that bridges and their approaches sterilise the surrounding environment and area can be countered and avoided. Good quality design will enable homes, offices and other structures to be built very close to bridges and for the bridges to actually contribute towards ‘Place Making’. I have examples of high quality communities and environments which are directly under bridges of the scale we are talking about in East London. Even if buildings and structures are considered unsuitable for some reason (such as security perhaps) the surrounding environment and landscaping must be dealt with as an integral part of the project and be of high quality (a public park perhaps rather than a dead and neglected piece of land).

To assist with this holistic and integrated approach, and to get maximum contributions to the cost of delivering the new crossings, TfL (or some other public agency) ought to be considering securing the ownership of the surrounding areas and development sites, and work at a very early stage with a development partner to plan development of the area in proximity to the crossings and their approaches. In this way we can plan for, and deliver, developments whose value is increased by the proximity of the crossings rather than are considered ‘blighted’ by it – in this way financial contributions to the cost of the crossings can be made.

I am concerned that the cost estimates of the crossings are not including the total infrastructure changes which are required. It is understood that only those roads which are or will be the responsibility of TfL are included in the cost estimates and programme. However, many of the changes required to the surrounding areas are the responsibility of the local London Boroughs – these must be included in the project costs, and the funds made available. Without this there is not a complete and integrated scheme and programme.

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Housing Design – random thoughts

I have been talking about making cemeteries into useable public spaces and places for some time, and on building homes on the edge of parks and public open spaces in order to provide a degree of ‘Natural Surveillance’. I have some examples of what I mean and what can be done, but they are old fashioned photographs in the depths of my archives and I haven’t got around to scanning them. But I came across this example in Kent last Thursday:

Rolvenden Cemetary

By having the front door facing into the grave-yard, and a low picket fence, the residents can oversee anything which is going on and thus nothing dodgy does go on. The same approach can be taken with parks and other open spaces with homes fronting them instead of the usual arrangement of backgardens and high fences.

Whilst on the subject of homes I will also mention one the the many things which annoy me – the treatment of windows.

The is a newish development:

Rolvenden Small Windows

but look at the tiny windows. The occupants must need to have their lights on all of the time – and if there is a good view they can’t actually get much of it. I know that the small window syndrome has come about because of the need to reduce energy loss and energy use but this is a lazy way to do so, and a way which I think we will end up regretting. It is also another example of something which seems too prevalent today – being able to only think of one thing at a time.

A while back we felt the need to have larger windows:

Rolvenden Large Windows

I know that priorities over energy conservation were different when these homes were built, and I am not saying that the design is good – but it does illustrate how we have had ‘fashions’ in window size.

I also know we are more energy conscious nowadays but it is possible to have larger windows (of harmonious proportions) and still meet the low energy use requirements. To me, the small and badly proportioned fenestration we see all to often in new housing is lazy and something we will regret in the long run.

Also, good design doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.

To me, this is an example of good design:

Good design Rye

and it is good design because of the proportions used. I am not saying that I want to see new homes copying this, but why can’t most developers learn that a simple design, using good proportions, works and isn’t any more expensive than adding fake details?









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East London River Crossing 1997 and 2014 (for 2025 delivery)

I have just completed composing a formal consultation response to Transport for London on their latest proposals for new East London River Crossings.

Purely by chance I was tidying up some papers at the weekend and came across an artist’s impression of a previous proposed East London River Crossing, so thought I would share it here:

East London River Crossing 1997

I think it dates from 1997. Getting on for 20 wasted years because ‘we’ couldn’t come up with an acceptable scheme.

Note the ‘waste land’ around the bridge’s approaches. Another lack of imagination which I hope we will not be repeating. Bridges and their approaches do not have to sterilize an area if an integrated, holistic, approach is taken using a Total-Landscape methodology.

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From Pipes to SuDs – full circle in Lewisham

Just thought I would show people what is happening to the River Quaggy in Lewisham, South-East London.

River Quaggy

The River Quaggy, after being hidden underground in concrete for many years – as per the fashion and thinking of the time, is being opened up to accord with current thinking of making rivers more natural. Does anyone have any photographs of what this area looked like before concrete took over?

It will be interesting to learn whether the whole course of the River Ravensbourne and Quaggy (same river) has been considered and worked up into an integrated SuDs system (it has already been opened up in Sutcliffe Park). Hopefully it has and this isn’t a piece of ad-hocracy.

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