Looking out for London

Richard Ainsley | 09 Mar 2016 | Comments

London has become a victim of its own success. Its shifting economic trends aren’t being rebalanced. In 2015 it was home to 8.6 million people; by 2050 that number is estimated to reach 12 million.

It’s easy to see what draws people to London. Its history, its culture, its learning institutions, and its tranquil green spaces. Plus of course its excellent employment opportunities. London’s success is undoubtedly driving the huge forecast growth in population and jobs. It is understanding these demographics and job forecasts – that informs robust planning. Not taking steps to ensure that housing, commercial space and infrastructure can support a city’s growth means a number of problems are likely to contribute to its decline.

Over the next few decades, London’s broad economy will start to lose the very diversity that has sustained it thus far. It will become unbalanced. London’s economy is creating higher-skilled jobs, across limited sectors such as banking and finance, and only in the centre. Very few equivalent jobs are found in outer London. So, as this inequality grows between the very rich in the centre, pushing less well-off people to the less salubrious suburbs, first there will be a danger of increased social tension.

London’s environment will become more degraded as the city centre’s reliance on energy sources and waste management beyond its boundaries increases. London will lose its competitive advantage. Its quality of life, that attracts so many, will deteriorate. In short, if we want a future-proofed London, it needs our help.

I believe the first priority for London needs to be making prudent, long-term investment. We need to prioritise investment in infrastructure, taking into account not just the economic benefits, but also the social and environmental benefits, is where the smart money needs to go. Big data analytics can support good decision-making here. I think we should make more use of existing infrastructure, and not always take the default position of thinking new is better; creating schemes that won’t necessarily deliver the best social and environmental benefits.

An important shift is needed to revitalise London’s outlying areas. Outer London could be working much harder than it does at present to accommodate more housing. It can accommodate new jobs. This could be the antidote to the anticipated rise of social inequalities, while boosting quality of life for people living outside the centre of the city.

I’m excited about the opportunities specially created ‘curated clusters’ can offer the city. These are adaptable and flexible areas of economic growth that are well equipped to attract and nurture investment, while creating strong communities that have the foundations to last.

London is valued for its green, open spaces. As it grows this space will become ever-more precious. But London’s future resilience will require more green spaces, so the key here is in making limited green belt land available to help London breathe in the future. A limited amount could be used to address the housing problem, but just as importantly, London could make better use of existing green belt for parkland and leisure activities.

The future of London is in the hands of many stakeholders. From national to local government, the public and private sector, developers and infrastructure providers, and communities and individuals. All of us want to see London succeed and remain the much-loved city it has grown to become over the centuries. But if we really want to see London future-proofed by 2050, it’s time for us to start thinking big.

For more on this discussion, have a read of our report, Future Proofing London – Our world city: risks and opportunities for London’s competitive advantage to 2050 produced in partnership with Centre for London and Oxford Economics.