London’s Cross Rail 2 – can the assumptions behind it be believed?

I have just finished reading the report from The Cross Rail 2 Growth Commission: ‘Cross Rail 2. Delivering Growth in London and The South East.’

I do not intend to write here a fully detailed analysis of the report but will instead just outline a few big issues as I see them.

Essentially it seems that:

1/. Cross Rail 2 is required to allow London to grow; and to fund CR2 London has to grow even more. This seems a very circular argument and looks very much like a ponzi scheme to me.

2/. To deliver the homes, and their associated development profits and uplift in land values to fund CR2, there has to be a substantial reconfiguration and intensification of existing industrial/employment land, and the relocation of existing businesses; as well as Green Belt reconfiguration. This requires a lot of highly skilled planning, design and delivery – as it does to make intensified localities around the CR2 stations work: I just don’t believe this will be done with the level of care and skill required.

I can’t help thinking that some heroic assumptions are being made and don’t believe that these will follow through into planning and delivery.

I am going to end this short piece on something I read early-on in the CR2 Commission’s report which colours their entire thinking about funding and delivery.

They wrote: “Given pressure on central Government funding…….”. This statement is a fundamental misunderstanding of how Government money and funding works. With this lack of understanding how can we have any faith in what else they go on to say?

In short, for these (but not only these) reasons I am not convinced of the case for Cross Rail 2.

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Viability tests; affordable and social housing. No need for viability tests – just refuse planning consent.


For quite a while it has become common for developers to say to Local Planning Authorities that they cannot afford to deliver the number of affordable homes that the local planning policy says are required. Too often the local authorities have accepted these claims outright, or allowed a viability assessment to ‘prove’ that the developer cannot afford to do what the policy says.

Likewise, for quite a while , I have been saying that Local Planning Authorities must stand up to developers and insist that the latter deliver what an evidence based Local Plan and set of Planning Policies has set out.

Local Councils need to stand up to developers and say ‘If you haven’t taken all of our planning policies into account when working out how much you are going to pay for a development site you cannot claim that the site is unviable; it is unacceptable to get the taxpayers and citizens of this council to bail you out because you have over-paid for the site’.

At times I have been told that it would take a very confident Local Council to do this because of the potential costs of the developer successfully appealing against the granting of planning permission on these grounds. I usually reply that once a Local Authority gets a reputation of not being a push-over (and not appearing to have no understand how development appraisals are carried out), potential developers will soon get the message and will pay the correct price for the land taking into account all published policy requirements.

In the last few days two things have happened which, hopefully, will give Local Councils the confidence to say ‘no’ to the viability argument.

Firstly, the Planning Inspectorate has ruled in favour of the London Borough Of Islington in refusing to give planning permission to a development which claimed that it wasn’t viable to deliver the required 50% affordable housing (with affordable meaning no more than 80% of market value).

The Inspector, Michael Boniface, said: “I have had regard to the need to encourage rather than restrain development, and the need for flexibility in the application of planning policy, but this should not be at the expense of delivering much-needed affordable housing.

Nor should an inflated land value be subsidised by a reduction in affordable housing.”

So, it seems quite clear: when deciding how much to pay for a development site, the developer must allow for the costs of including the level of affordable (or social) homes which the local planning policy says is required. By extension, this also applies to the costs of meeting other planning requirements such as providing open space, and contributing to the costs of other social infrastructure.

This decision should now give confidence to Local Planning Authorities to refuse consent to those applications which ignore their planning policies.

The second encouraging thing is what Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said at an event at The London School of Economics on 10th July 2017 (“Good Growth by Design – a Vision for London”)

He said that with only 13% social housing being built in 2015 there can be no more vanity projects with a focus on branding over substance, and that the message to potential buyers of land in London is that a certain number of affordable homes will be required: “so it will be no good coming back to me and saying it’s ‘not viable’ to provide your minimum level of 35% affordable homes, because we will say ‘hard luck’ ”. This is very good to hear, although he seems to be confusing and conflating affordable and social housing.

So, putting these two things together, local planning authorities now have no (or very little) excuse for backing-down from what their policies say they require in order to grant planning permission.

Also, what this really means is that (as I have always said) ‘viability assessments’ are a red-herring and, apart from very few and limited cases, shouldn’t even be bothered with because all they will do is to prove that the developer has paid too much for the site and that is their problem not ours.

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Smart Cities – what problems are we trying to solve?

Many people are getting excited about Smart Cities and the Smart City Movement. Just over a week ago The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, outlined during London Tech Week his ambitions to make London the world’s leading ‘smart city’.

From the beginning I have been a Smart City sceptic. It’s not that I am against technology – far from it – but from the beginning I have seen too much of the thinking based around the holders and gatherers of data trying to work out how they can make money from it. Too little, if any, thinking, seems to be about what what human problems are we trying to solve. There is too much focus on the technology and not enough on the humans. It seems that the technology is in the driving seat rather than the real needs of people – all of our people.

It seems to me that many of the problems which we have in our villages, towns and cities are not technological problems but are social problems caused through the way we operative our society and the economic policies and philosophies which drive these social choices. We are not going to solve these problems through technology alone.

In the last few days I found a quote dating back to 1961 which I think we can do well to act on when we are thinking of Smart Cities. In the RIBA Journal of November 1961 (page 508) a paper from Henry T Swain at the BASA conference on The Basis for Design, at York Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, pointed out the following:

“Before correct architectural answers can even be thought about, the right human questions have to be asked”.

I think we need to apply this thinking to Smart Cities: ‘Before correct technological answers can even be thought about, the right human questions have to be asked’ – before we all run off and spend a lot of taxpayers’ money, we need to ask ‘What human problems are we trying to solve?’

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Skills Shortages: has the UK construction industry been let down by its leaders and professional institutions?

Over the last month or so I keep seeing reports from various organisations which talk about the immediate and future shortage of skilled labour in the UK’s construction sector.

I am not going to summarise the various reports but will just highlight the following:

  • we have yet to recover fully the 400,000 construction jobs which were lost in the Great Recession;

  • to meet the demand implied from the UK Government’s policies and announcements, more than 230,000 new recruits will be needed into the industry between 2016-20,

  • and this doesn’t take into account the 700,000 existing workers who are due to retire over the next 10 years.

A report from the RICS warned that the skills shortage in the construction industry could threaten 27,000 projects a year by 2019, and that most surveying firms were having recruitment problems because of a lack of suitability qualified candidates.

These skills shortages include skilled trades and crafts, as well as in the various professions.

On top of this we have seen reports about wide-spread defects and sub-standard work in our new buildings (for example, the schools which have fallen down in Scotland; and one of the large house builders having to set aside millions of £s to rectify defects). A survey from The National House Building Council (NHBC) showed that 98% of new-home buyers who responded reported defects and a quarter of those had identified more than 16.

Taken together, I can’t help thinking that this highlights just how much the UK construction industry has been failed by its leaders and professional institutions over the last 20 to 30 years years.


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Building Legibility and Bad Urban Design

On a visit to Edinburgh I saw what I think are good examples of poor and good urban design.

On an evening walk around Leith (a short distance from central Edinburgh) I saw this building

Edinburgh September 2016 (6)

Upon seeing it I asked, ‘What is it? Is it a disused sports centre? Is it a large indoor shopping centre which is either empty or not yet completed?’ I just couldn’t tell. (I actually asked myself in a much less polite way than this).

Not being able to tell what a building is used for is an indication of a poorly designed building and is an example of poor urban design.

It turns out that this building is actually the Office of the Scottish Executive – something I only discovered by a large sign on the other side of the building.

Shortly afterwards I saw this building,

Edinburgh September 2016 (18)

which I immediately recognised as an old  Co-op store and it turns out that this is exactly what it used to be. I could ‘read’ the building from a distance and understand its use. Although it is no longer used by the Co-op I could tell what the building was designed to be, and to me this is good building and urban design as such legibility helps you to understand a place and its history.

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National Economy Slows Down and Local Economies

I have just seen this from an official paper from the UK Government which backs up what I have said here – According to Para 2.32 it is national economic policy which creates jobs:

Regeneration X Blog

We can do some things to help local economies grow and improve, and we ought to be doing these things. But at the end of the day, the success or otherwise of these local actions are affected by the national economy, and it certainly makes local improvements easier if we have a strong and improving national economy. If I think of the changes which have occurred to some of our cities over the last 15 years I can’t help reflecting how 15 or so years of general, and continuous, economic growth has had a huge positive general effect. So, this has led me to giving some general thoughts on the national situation. Nothing new, but I feel moved to say something anyway.

Last week’s economic growth figures for the UK’s economy suggests that the recovery which began last year has been stopped by actions taken by the Government and George…

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Don’t ignore areas of decline – make them better through parks

Hoensbrook, in the Netherlands, is a place which has experienced population decline. Over the last 20 years it has lost over 8,000 residents and this has resulted in redundant buildings becoming vacant and empty.

Some of these empty buildings have been demolished, but instead of leaving their sites empty and leaving a waste land, a new park has been created on these sites.

This is brilliant, and is one of the things which should be done when places change in a way which leaves buildings of no further use. Instead of leaving a waste land, the opportunities of change and population decline at a local level must be grabbed to make places better for those people who remain.

Can you imagine this happening in the UK?

Apart from a few examples ( which I am not aware of) the answer is ‘no’.

In the UK we even have Local Authorities selling off existing parks and public open spaces because they can’t afford to manage and maintain them.

In the UK we seem to find it acceptable to leave people in areas of change living in a sea of dereliction, and experience a poor environment; until some vaguely considered re-birth occurs through some unknown process, at some equally unknown time in the future.

I recommend this here, from World Landscape Architecture, which gives more details of what has been done at Hoensbroek :

In the UK we need to think, and act, a lot more like this.

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