Old Kent Road Area Action Plan

I have just submitted our response to the London Borough of Southwark to its draft Area Action Plan for the Old Kent Road Opportunity Area. This is what we said:


“Southwark Council’s vision for Old Kent Road Opportunity Area talks about the Old Kent Road becoming a high street with shops, cafes, restaurants, leisure, and other facilities, with residential homes above. However, there seems to be no mention of the Old Kent Road being a major road transport route into central London and how this will be dealt with in the future: there is mention of public transport and, quite rightly, its increasing importance as the area intensifies, but it ignores the private transport which will in the future continue to use the Old Kent Road as a mayor route into central London from the edge of and beyond London.

The Draft Area Action Plan talks about the Old Kent Road itself be transformed into a modern boulevard. We wish to see more details supplied about how the character of the road and its buildings will change, and how this will be obtained, in order to psychologically break up this road to those travelling along it. As a long road it should be different in character at the northern end (where it is 1 mile form London Bridge) from the southern end (where it borders Lewisham) – the character needs to show transition from being a part of central London to the edge of the inner suburbs, and there needs to be a succession of ‘landmark’ buildings to provide legibility and visual clues to provide a sense of journey for those travelling the length of the road. We need more information on how the Old Kent Road will remain a mayor road route into central London whilst improving environmental quality.

The Draft AAP mentions new links stitching together neighbourhoods on both sides of Old Kent Road, but these links must also extend into the neighbouring Action Areas and Opportunity Areas (for example, Ayslebury Action Area; Peckham and Nunhead Action Area; Lewisham, Catford, and New Cross Opportunity Area; and the Bermondsey Action Area). We would like to see these links being planned for, considered and co-ordinated at a pan-Action and Opportunity Areas level. These links are especially important for pedestrian and cycling routes in order to encourage and enable modal shift for relatively short journeys.

The Draft Area Action Plan talks about heritage buildings and parks being sensitively incorporated into new developments thus enabling the story of Old Kent Road to be better appreciated. This aim and aspiration must be taken seriously; developers must not be allowed to water-down or avoid this aim by claiming ‘viability’ issues. In addition the definition of historic buildings must not be restricted to only those which are ‘Listed’. Furthermore, good urban design depends on a range and mix of building ages so large scale demolition must not be allowed. In general, we feel this policy is too weak and allows profit maximisation to trump heritage-led regeneration and place making.

The Draft Area Action Plan talks about new Parks at Mandella Way and the gasworks, and of a green route on the alignment of former Surrey Canal. It strikes us that the route of the Surrey Canal could be reinstated to form part of an area-wide and integrated Sustainable Urban Drainage (SuDS) strategy and we would like to see the feasibility of this explored. In any event there needs to be, and we would like to see, an area-wide SuDs strategy which is integrated with green infrastructure in order to deliver a Blue-Green Grid. This Blue-Green Grid and strategic SuDs strategy should also be integrated with neighbouring Action and Opportunity Areas.

The Draft Area Action Plan talks about the need for environmental sustainability including district heating networks to reduce carbon emissions; measures to tackle poor air quality, and SuDS to reduce flood risk. As previously mentioned in this response, there needs to be an integrated, area-wide, SuDs strategy: leaving developers to respond to urban drainage on a site-by-site basis will lead to sub-optimal solutions, and opportunities for integrated land use (eg Blue-Green Grid) will be lost. Likewise, District Heating or District Energy Networks should not be left to individual developers, nor should it be assumed that this must be delivered or operated by the private sector – it could be community owned, and community ownership can help to provide ‘buy-in’ from the local community.

There are around 9,500 people working in the Opportunity Area in some 750 businesses and other organisations. There is an existing population of around 32,000 – with 43% of the population born outside of the UK. Deprivation is high, with several areas in the most 10% deprived wards in the country. There is a lower level of full-time employment than elsewhere in Southwark and higher proportion in lower skilled occupations. It strikes us that the Old Kent Road Opportunity Area is being developed without sufficient regard to the opportunities for these people and businesses, and with too much regard to the opportunities afforded to investment capital. Re-development of Old Kent Road needs to be approached so that it works for people, the environment and productive business – instead of being seen as a way of making returns for rentiers (i.e. not as a means of sucking rents, commercial and residential, out of the area and the profits being spent elsewhere). In short, the plans seem to be too focused on property development, and the needs of property developers, and not enough on the development of people. This needs to be rebalanced, and one part of this rebalancing needs a strong, integrated and ambitious education and skills system to be put in place now – in advance of the property development.

The Draft AAP talks about the need to consider affordable work-space (especially for existing businesses) but we consider that leaving this to the market (via hope and Planning Conditions) will be insufficient. Innovative solutions and approaches, such as social rented work-spaces, and opportunities for self-build owner-occupied workshops, must be considered. We would like to see exploration of owner-occupation provision regarding employment space in general. Managed space may be too expensive, and the strategies being adopted for the provision of work-space seems to repeat the faults of many high streets, with a few large-scale landlords who can dictate rental levels rather than operating in a true competitive market for rents.

Landownership in the core Opportunity Area is very fragmented and many sites are subject to long leases. Therefore Southwark Council must be prepared and resourced to use its CPO powers robustly. In addition, sites and buildings must not be left empty and unused during any land assembly process and prior to development, so there must be a temporary use strategy drawn up, put in place, and actively implemented.

The Old Kent Road area is, in some parts, characterised by retail sheds with large car parks – this suggests there is demand (or need) to use cars for shopping by the existing community, but the Draft AAP seems to be silent on how this demand will be transformed to being able to shop without cars.

The design of each neighbourhood must be done in such a way that is not seen as the sole ‘property’ of that area and everyone has the right, and expectation, to pass through and visit. Good Urban Design principals must be used to ensure there are no enclaves.

The Draft AAP talks about the need for new homes to help foster mixed communities and include a range of sizes and mix of private and affordable homes, including council homes. We believe that the scale of need for social rented homes has not be recognised in the Draft AAP, and so there needs to be a robust plan for the provision of large scale Council Housing (in the old fashioned, accepted, sense of the term). There also needs to be a proper definition of the term ‘affordable’ and one which most ordinary people would accept as ‘affordable’.

We consider it vital that OKR AAP Area is well planted with trees, especially street trees. Very tall trees (such as London Planes) can reduce the apparent scale of tall buildings and high density. Trees are also useful in controlling and mitigating the effects of climate change. The width of pavements along some of Old Kent Road is enough to allow for planting (possible as part of a rain-garden); building large buildings right up to the pavement line should be avoided – this is already being seen in new development on Old Kent Road and it doesn’t add to the attractiveness of the road and is wasting opportunities.

The Draft AAP says that residential neighbourhoods will feel like central London with high densities which benefit from improved public transport and proximity to local facilities. We wish to see much more clarity about what is meant by this – Central London has a range of densities very often in the same neighbourhood. It is also doubted whether the level of connectivity really will be comparable to central London (which varies within itself in any event).

The Draft AAP says that developments of 10 or more homes will provide a minimum of 35% affordable housing, ‘subject to viability’. Firstly, we wish to see a firm definition of ‘affordable housing’, and one which most ordinary people would recognise as affordable. Secondly, we wish to see the phrase ‘subject to viability’ removed. Southwark Council must have a policy and stick to it: with due notice of the policy there is no excuse for this requirement not to be viable – flexibility will encourage developers to over-bid for land and then claim it is not viable to deliver your policy. It should be noted that Southwark’s evidence shows that they really need half of all new homes to be affordable, so why not make this the requirement? Additionally, it is risky to depend on the private rented sector to supply some of the affordable homes without considering in the strategy what happens when the Government’s policy of reducing support for Housing Benefits is rolled out over the years.

The draft Area Action Plan talks about a Public Realm Strategy: it must be noted that the whole length of Old Kent Road must have public realm improvements – not just have ‘key public realm improvements’ as indicated in the draft AAP.

The draft AAP contradicts itself by saying that large buildings and sites are impenetrable but then says that smaller blocks constrain the need to provide higher densities or tall buildings. There is no mention of the need for good Urban Design to be based on short-blocks as well as active frontages – also ‘natural surveillance’ is just as important as activity generating functions.

We cannot see the point or legitimacy to talk about ideas to ‘potentially remove the flyover’ without a proper transport and movement plan being carried out to show what alternatives are possible and viable.

The draft AAP talks of tall buildings enabling more public realm to be provided. We maintain that this therefore means that the area must have:

i/ High quality public realm

ii/ Usable public realm;

iii/ Strong management and maintenance arrangements

iv/ Money to maintain to high standard.

This ‘theory’ (that tall buildings ‘enable’ more public realm) has been advanced in the past (in the residential high rise of the 1960s and 1970s), and too often it doesn’t work in practice because resources for management and maintenance of the public realm are not provided (or are not affordable by the residents). Before we can support a policy and strategy for tall buildings in order to provide high-density we need to be convinced that the mistakes of the past are not being repeated.

The draft AAP talks of ‘Rising land value’ because of competition for existing space or alternative land use. This rising in price for alternative land use can only crystallise through the Planning System, and Planners should not allow speculators in land to dictate land use – we have a Planning System to balance competing uses for the benefit of society as a whole, and Planners must use the Planning System for its intended purpose. It is not acceptable to argue that because someone can make more money by using any particular site for another (different) use that this is sufficient reason to do so.

The draft AAP talks about the vital importance of having High Speed Broadband infrastructure in place, but it is a mistake to assume that the market will provide it. The AAP ought to have a requirement for all developments to have Symmetrical Ultra (or even Hyper) High Speed Broadband with Fibre to the Premises in place. Developers must be made to ensure that the infrastructure is in place, and as a very minimum there must be a Fibre-strategy of having ducts in place linking sites to Points-of-Presence. Planning conditions must be used to achieve this.

We feel that Appendix 2 which talks about how to achieve mixed use, and offers a ‘design guide’, is very clunky and not clear, and therefore needs re-working.

Generally, we feel that the Old Kent Road Opportunity Area is being approached in a way to service central London rather than treated as an area with its own vision and sense of place – what is OKR’s Sense of Place, its Genius Loci? We don’t see anything in here which will make OKR Opportunity Area anything different or distinguishable from an extension of the global property development model of central London. Central London is increasingly becoming (despite the warning about cities becoming so) an international style, ‘any city’, which lacks distinctiveness. As currently proposed OKR AAP seems to extend this blandness (created for the benefit of foot-loose international investors rather than local populations and economies) from central London hot-spots into edge of the city areas. It lacks ambition for people and is overly concerned with the property development model of urbanism. Flourishing places require the mingling of high yield, middle-yield, low-yield and no-yield enterprises, but the model chosen for the development of Old Kent Road Opportunity Area seems to be aimed disproportionately at the high-yield international property development model”.

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Housing Associations – a failed experiment and time to get rid

The following is well worth a read:  from Joe Halewood


It’s hard enough now to find somewhere genuinely affordable to live and will be worse for your children and grandchildren. Here I discuss how Housing Associations are as much to blame for the…

Source: Housing Associations – a failed experiment and time to get rid

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Thames Estuary 2050 Commission – Back to the future or an admission of failure?

The Thames Estuary 2050 Commission has called for ideas to develop and deliver the Thames Gateway area: https://lnkd.in/eBfQ9rB

After about 20 years of this part of London and the south east being earmarked for large scale development; and with each Local Authority dealing with planned growth here in their Local Plans, and the various LEPs co-ordinating these, I do wonder if this Commission will be much more than a talking shop. Or is an accepting that after 20 years the Government is still failing to understand how to turn hopes into action?

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Large Stores continue to move out of Town Centres

It is no wonder that the UK’s high streets and town centres are struggling when the nation-wide chains are continuing to move out of town-centres and into out-of-town retail parks. (Info from Local Data Company’s 5th Retail Market Trend Summit for 2015).

It has been known for many years now that out-of-town shopping centres and retail parks are weakening the UK’s town centres, but our Local Authority Planning system is continuing to allow such sites to be established or to grow and expand.

This is doubling worrying because the growth of new independent stores, which have driven the growth of many town centres since 2010, has slowed down very considerably. If this decline in the opening of independents continues we will be entering a new phase in the struggle to have vibrant town centres and high streets.

It really is time for Local Councils to have policies to prevent the growth of out-of-town shopping, and to robustly implement these polices. Unsuitable developments which weaken town-centres and high streets can be fought off – the recent refusal by the Secretary of State (backing up the local planning authority’s previous refusal) of an out-of-centre retail development in Exeter is an encouraging example.

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English Planning in Crisis: new ideas to recapture the purpose of planning in England

Here is an excellent article about the importance of having a proper Town and Country Planning System; how the one we now have in the UK isn’t working; and how we need to go back to why we introduced one to begin with.

It is pointless for me to say more because the blog says what I want to say anyway. But just to tempt you to read it I shall quote the last few paragraphs:

“…..these proposals are underpinned by the values of the Utopian tradition that inspired examples of planning at its best, including garden cities and the 1947 Town Planning Act. These values include social justice, fair rights to participate in decisions, and the fair distribution of resources arising from the development of land and primary resources.”

“In conclusion, the authors of English Planning in Crisis argue that only by reclaiming those essential values can England’s planning system recapture its purpose”

“Our future depends on the discovery of those democratic and altruistic qualities that once formed the ethos of town planning.”


The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Housing estate iStock_000004526499Medium

“Essentially, the values of planning have been stood on their head, to the point where we have to ask whether the system remains fit for purpose.”

This is the stark assessment from the authors of a new book from Policy Press. In English Planning in Crisis, Hugh Ellison and Kate Henderson reflect on planning reforms since 2010, and argue that “the rich Utopian tradition that underpinned the town planning movement in England is dead, and needs wholesale recreation.”

The importance of planning

English Planning in Crisis highlights how essential planning is to the quality of life, noting that some of its key achievements have included securing mixed-use developments, the provision of social and genuinely affordable homes and protecting some of England’s most important landscapes. At its best, the authors contend, planning can provide for rich habitats and green space, good quality design, inclusion and resilience. But now, they argue, the once visionary…

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Economic Growth of the UK’s Big Regional Cities and the implications for HS2

I have just discovered a study which suggests that there is very little evidence that the big UK regional cities perform better than other places (for example towns and smaller cities)- in fact the opposite.

It found that the economic relationship between the big cities and their hinterland is one of interdependence – in other words the big provincial cities and their surrounding towns, villages and other cities work together as a system.

Does this suggest that it would make more sense to spend billions of £s on better linking the UK’s northern and other cities to their hinterlands than on linking them to London via HS2?

The report is:  “Are Big Cities really the motor of UK Regional economic growth?”  by Steve Forthergill (Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University), and Donald Houston (Department for Urban Studies, University of Glasgow).

So far I have only read the abstract, and am trying to get hold of the whole paper.


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Tourism and economic development in the UK, and in local economic and regeneration strategies

I was originally commissioned to write this for ‘Hidden Britain’ a few years ago, but thought it worth repeating here.

Tourism is a major part of the UK’s economy. It contributes £115 billion to the UK’s GDP and provides employment for 2.6 million people, around 9% of the total of each respective measure; 1 in 12 jobs in the UK is either directly or indirectly supported by tourism; with 44% of people employed in tourism aged under 30 compared with an average for the wider economy of 24%. International tourism is the UK’s third-highest earner of foreign exchange and contributed £3.2 billion to the UK in direct taxes in 2012. The UK’s 31 million visitors from overseas spend £18.6 billion a year, and by 2020 the UK could attract 40 million overseas visitors a year, earning the UK £32 billion (all of the above from ‘Delivering a Golden Legacy’ by Visit Britain, 2013).

So, in economic terms tourism is important. Therefore it isn’t surprising that tourism appears as part of the economic, regeneration and growth strategies of many bodies. It is part of the Government’s economic strategy and is outlined in Visit Britain’s UK Tourism Strategy ‘Delivering a Golden Legacy’. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport says “Tourism is central to our commitment to deliver economic growth”.

Tourism was included, as part of a Cultural Strategy, in the Delivery Plan which I wrote for the growth of Ashford under the Sustainable Communities Plan. To quote a section in this Delivery Plan: “Cultural facilities and activities are drivers of prosperity and social cohesion, and culture is what makes places distinctive and memorable. It is essential that Ashford becomes an attractive and inspiring regional cultural centre where people choose to live and visit and where business choose to locate”. This is talking about ‘Culture’ rather than ‘Tourism’ but in reality the two go together. Why would anyone visit you as a tourist if there were no culture or cultural facilities of some sort?

The definition of ‘Culture’ in this Delivery Plan, for Ashford’s Future, was based on that set out in the Regional Cultural Strategy by Culture South East (a body closed down in 2009), which includes visual arts and music; the performing arts; crafts; museums; libraries and archives; sport; tourism, and the historic environment as well as creative industries such as advertising; architecture; design; publishing; television and radio; film and video; software and computer services, and antiques. It also encompasses shared memory, experiences and identity, and ranges from excellence to more inclusive participation. Again, this is much wider than tourism, but these are the things which make people choose a place as their destination and thus become tourists. It is also what helps people choose to live and work in a place and helps to make a full-life for locals.

In addition the success of tourism can help to form and reinforce a place’s image. Visitors who have a good time and are impressed by what they see, do and experience in the UK and specific parts of the UK will be more inclined to revisit, study, move their business, do business, invest, and even settle in these places.

As Visit Britain says “Growth in tourism in Britain would also benefit the UK’s image overseas and in turn enhances soft power. A country’s tourism offer is an important part of the image building of that country. And Britain’s image influences not just whether people come for a weeks holiday, but whether they chose to invest in British companies or relocate their families and their businesses here”.

But we must note that, apart from London, the most important part of the value of overnight tourism income is from domestic overnight trips rather than inbound visitors: with The Rest of England it being approximately 75% of the total value. If we add day trips, domestic tourism is a hugely important part of the tourism and cultural economy.

Income from tourists and visitors can also make it possible for places to have infrastructure and facilities which the local population could not otherwise support or justify on its own: for example airports, hotels, shops, theatres, restaurants etc. Some heritage buildings depend on income from visitors to contribute to their repair and maintenance, although only rarely does the income cover all of the necessary costs, but visitor income does make a valuable contribution.

So, tourism is an important part of the UK’s economy and ought to be part of any economic, growth and regeneration strategy and programme. However, we must be careful not to take an unbalanced view when working up these strategies and programmes, whether at a national or local level. And we shouldn’t pin all of our hopes on just a tourism strategy or a big visitor attraction.

With the advent of post-industrialisation and the changes to local economies which that has brought, many places have seen the potential of culture and tourism to help their areas, using arts and culture as part of a regeneration strategy. The past 15 years or so, with the advent of National Lottery Funding via the Arts Council, The Heritage Lottery Fund and The Millennium Commission, has seen the provision of many new arts, cultural and visitor centres as well as enlarged and improved museums and parks. For example, The Eden Project, The Lowry, The Cardiff Millennium Centre; The Baltic in Gateshead, and more recently Turner Contemporary in Margate and The Hepworth in Wakefield. The early projects have certainly seen their neighbouring areas improve and be regenerated, and this has led many people to claim that arts and culture can work miracles and that all of an area’s problems can be solved by building a museum, art gallery or theatre. More recently some people have begun to question whether arts and culture can really be responsible for regeneration, and even if they do, have we reached saturation point? And, it must be understood that the majority of visitor attractions do not actually make a profit.

In reality, of course, no one thing can solve all of an area’s problems but I think it is fair to point to many of these projects and claim that they have had a positive effect, and have acted as a catalyst for the general improvement of an area, its economy, and changed its image.

Some have failed, for example The Centre for Pop Music in Sheffield, but I think it is possible to identify an aspect of why the successful have been successful. Building a new venue for the arts and culture isn’t enough. It must not be insular and must not be seen in isolation. In addition to linking with its physical hinterland and so assisting with place-making, such projects need to offer opportunities to other businesses via its supply chain; to have a programme of events, a series of ‘happenings’, to reach out and spread from the building into the local area and community. This is exactly what Turner Contemporary in Margate has done and is doing – it has an extensive programme of masterclasses; creative workshops with artists and storytellers; courses and education; events, and out-reach programmes so that it touches people who may not consider that art or culture is for them, and gives opportunities for other artists to put on ‘fringe’ events. It is this, as well as the building, which helps turn around an area’s image and morale, and makes the world think that its best days may be ahead of it rather than in the past. As Mr Punch would say ‘What’s the Way to do it!’. Well, part of it anyway.

But a tourism, cultural and arts strategy doesn’t only have to be about buildings. If an area with a vision for regeneration doesn’t have the money for a gallery or theatre it can still put on events with the town as its open-air gallery. Existing spaces, buildings and sites can be used – including those which are currently empty and disused (and temporary, or ‘pop-up’, use should be an explicit strategy). Indeed establishing an events programme is a good way of flushing out those local councillors who are obsessed with building a gallery or theatre (which are often not self sustaining financially, and require a subsidy from someone – often the local authority); and getting them to commit to fund a season of open air events is a good way of finding out if they really will put their tax payers’ money where their mouth is.

In any event, I say that events and facilities for tourists should not only be about tourists from outside of the area in question. We ought to be planning places and providing facilities for the local population as the first priority and the good quality place you create will then be providing many of the things which draw in tourists. In many ways tourists want the same things which locals want and need – a safe and attractive environment, with things to do (formal and informal, paid for and free). However, it must be noted that attracting too many tourists can make life unpleasant for the local community – there have been protests in Barcelona that mass tourism is ruining the city for the locals.

Even if you can afford a big shiny new building, or someone from the private sector comes forward with proposals for a big project, care needs to be taken in embracing these with open arms and without question. Often big projects are sold to the community and local politicians on the basis of the wider economic and community benefits, but in many cases the project’s business plan only works if the vast majority of the visitor spend and economic benefits are kept within the boundaries of the site.

Therefore a large new visitor attraction may not actually, or automatically, help in the regeneration of an area outside of the project boundaries. In these circumstances some may argue that the wider economic benefits of having some jobs are still worthwhile and so they support the big project (sometimes with some tax-payer grant or subsidy), but they ought to be examining what sort of jobs are being offered: how many are low paid jobs which are dependent of tax-payer subsidy in the form of tax-credits and housing benefits; are there currently enough unemployed locally to fill these low-paid positions or will they have to be imported from outside of the areas and, in which case, where are these people going to live, and will more homes have to be built to house them; how will these homes be funded, and is there funding to pay the housing benefits? There is evidence that lots of lowish paid jobs discourage ambition in local people – ‘why try too hard, I can always work in the casino if all else fails?’ Hardly the sort of thing we want when the country has to upgrade its skills, education and its income levels.

The Eden Project, (whose development and delivery I oversaw for its biggest funder, The Millennium Commission), was very careful to pay above the local going-rate for tourism type jobs; support local businesses; make as many jobs as possible permanent and full time; provide high quality training delivering transferable skills, and target recruitment at hard to reach and hard to help people. The Eden Project had its own economic ambitions and policies which went outside of its physical and business plan boundaries – it saw itself as a regeneration project not just a development scheme.

Some commentators have pointed out the importance of the ‘Cultural Classes’ in providing economic growth in a post-industrial age, and many places have developed a Cultural Strategy as a part of an overall place-making and economic strategy and in order to attract tourists. But there has been criticisms of the Cultural Class theory of regeneration. Some have argued, and I agree with them, that culture should not only be for the cultural classes but be for everyone – there should be high culture and low culture – you should be experiencing culture at times without knowing you are doing so. Culture is for everyone (or it should be), and culture should be everywhere not restricted to specific areas. Culture is the icing on the cake but it is not the cake. As others have said – if you have to put up a sign which says ‘Cultural Quarter’ you have missed the point and in all likelihood you don’t actually have one.

I haven’t tried to offer here a full-scale and detailed dissertation on, or critique of, the tourism and cultural industries: it is too big a subject, with too many aspects to attempt that in a blog. But I can say in conclusion that tourism is an important part of the UK’s economy so should be a part of any economic, regeneration and growth strategy. But tourism must not be used as the sole strategy: it must be part of an integrated whole, and it must build on what the local community need to make their life better and more fulfilling. It must be inclusive of the local community, and like any regeneration, economic and growth strategy must be place specific, building on the history, circumstances and strengths of each place under consideration.

Finally, I want to say that I am concerned about the low wage and low skills aspects of the tourism industry which characterise some types of tourism and culture sector jobs. We must be careful not to go far down this road but to select the type of tourism we support in a balanced way; understanding why we are supporting or promoting it, the benefits it brings and how they are distributed. Is there really any point to a tourism strategy, or large project, which relies on lots of low wage jobs to make a business plan work? – I have seen, especially in London, overseas tourists served by overseas labour, employed by companies owned by overseas investors and wonder ‘is London getting enough out of this?’

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