Battles for diversity, heritage and the future of the city: Part I

The planning system has a key role in challenging the negative impacts of inequality, extreme wealth and international investment, but it must be strengthened to stop cities being hollowed out by capital

Rowland Atkinson & Malcolm TaitSignificant social friction has been generated by flows of investment capital into the built environment in cities like London.  Protests in the capital over the loss of public housing and widespread anger over gentrification as the precursor to displacement are part of this, as is a more diffuse anxiety about what is happening to the city as the world’s wealthy continue to buy and re-shape much of the city’s skyline and built environment.  One activity that has a significant role to play in managing change in cities is the planning system, yet it often takes a back seat in discussions about urban inequality and in recent years has been denuded by government actions.  This has to change and in the first of this two-part blog we argue that the central question ‘what can planning do for the city and its public?’ should be put at the heart of debates about the future of our cities.

Two processes, among these changes, are particularly notable.  First the significant ‘take’ on prime property by the very affluent, many of them international buyers.  Here the concern is often that the market itself is being made for the super-wealthy and homes are largely traded within a stratospheric market that bears little relation to the ambitions of prospective ordinary buyers literally on the ground below many of the high rise apartment blocks being constructed along the Thames.  The second process is one of the re-making of the built environment of many neighbourhoods in ways that are challenging and remaking the look and feel of these spaces.  In the last two decades in particular the rising verticality of the city has been notable and increasingly linked to construction for the very wealthy.  In neighbourhoods of the established wealthy, processes of demolition and remodelling have also generated significant tensions and raised concerns that the planning system can either be bought, or is emasculated in the face of the raw money power of the super-wealthy.

In this context a repeated refrain has become – what can the planning system do?  What of course is really being asked works on two levels  – first, how can local state powers (and to some extent city-wide governance) be used to arbitrate over and ensure development is in the public interest, and that a genuine public realm is maintained?  Second, how can the excesses and negative impacts of the choices of the wealthy, expressed in aggregate, be eliminated in favour of ordinary mortal Londoners?

Our primary concern here is with the form and powers of the planning system as it currently stands and what it can and cannot do.  However it must be noted that many of the problems associated with these hot flows of capital and temporary residence in fact connect to other spheres of public influence.  These include the need for and capacities of property taxation, regulation and taxation of financial instruments, building regulations, controls on and policing of money laundering operating through the built environment and so on.  But when it comes to planning the first point to note is, of course, that the powers of the local state in general and planning system in particular have been denuded and damaged by waves of legislation under the previous coalition and the current government.  Planning has faced some of the largest cuts in local government as a result of austerity, whilst attempts to deregulate have been numerous and ongoing, leaving a planning system that struggles to manage rapid urban change.

While many angry Londoners look for a planning system that will help to deliver affordable housing there are other citizens who are less concerned about the rhythms of development that have generated massive windfall gains to them as owners.  Some of these residents see planning as a mechanism to halt change.  This reveals split motives among the population itself and such schisms highlight the differing pressures on the planning system, and as such the key question arises – who should the planning system be serving?  Planning is a public, state-mediated activity at the core of which lies a value system ostensibly concerned to promote the public good, but it is often tasked with holding the line between competing private interests and powers.

This begs the further core question – who is London for, and on what terms?  In seeing evidence of the damage done to the skyline, ambience, amenity and public good of this city by the very wealthy and their intermediaries (buyers, developers, solicitors, estate agents, tax consultants, bankers and so on) the real effect is the creation of what is effectively an increasingly privatised city run by and for capital.  Here money flows in ways that are generative and seeking of more money. In this system public goods like social housing are devalued or demolished and low-paid citizens priced-out or kicked-out to other less costly neighbourhoods and cities.  At the heart of these processes is an embedded notion of markets and their logical and necessary tyrannical rule – land is there for the highest bidder, a home can be bought at the price people can pay and, in a market characterised by a global tide of wealthy buyers such competitions are indeed fierce.  In an article in the FT recently Edwin Heathcote observed that one of the signal differences in the kinds of massive infrastructure being planned for the city today compared with the Victorian mega projects has been the scant yield of a decent public realm or amenities, services, and indeed homes for the city’s residents.  How can we recapture the production of these outcomes for all?

London is a city being hollowed out by capital.  The second part of our blog will outline the ways in which our planning system might be repurposed to fight against this trend.