What are the good parts and the inevitable downsides of living in a sprawling metropolis like London? With London soon set to become a megacity, what challenges lie ahead for residents and businesses?
Our panel of experts last night came from diverse professional backgrounds and lent their unique perspectives to different angles of the question, from transport, infrastructure and housing, to culture and professional life.
Oli Barrett, who chaired the panel, is director of the Connector Unit – a professional connection-making service of which he’s the founder. As someone whose speciality is building bridges between people, he was the perfect moderator for a debate that held contrasting and contentious views.
Lifestyle over tradition?
The discussion started with panellists thinking about changes they have observed in London and what this might mean for the future. James McClure, director of Airbnb Europe, used his business stats to provide some initial insight. London, he posited, is no longer internationally famous simply for its Royal Family and historic value, although these are still powerful drivers.
More interestingly, it’s London’s lifestyle that is creating interest for visitors – less Buckingham Palace, more perfect flat whites, great independent retailers, and quirky neighbourhoods. James felt that return visitors from outside the UK were increasingly interested in staying in, and discovering, outer boroughs such as Walthamstow, where the William Morris museum is both a source of local pride and an alternative destination within London.
Infrastructure as a lifeline to the city
Maribel Mantecon, Associate at CZWG Architects in Midtown, said that over her years in London she’s noticed it slowly but surely become less car-dependent. Whether it’s the pedestrianisation of smaller high streets or the construction of cycle superhighways or even increased public transportation infrastructure and Santander bikes – shifting the balance away from cars has improved the habitat for everyone. The panellists agreed that the increased availability of autonomous (driverless) vehicles would have an interesting but as-of-yet unpredictable impact on London’s landscape.
Martyn Saunders, Director at GVA and specialist in urban regeneration, pointed out an interesting tension between the regeneration of outer boroughs, which are less well served by public transport, and independence from vehicles within London. The risk, he said, was the further out in London you lived, the more car-dependent you became.
However, as he later pointed out, ambitious infrastructure can completely transform a derelict neighbourhood. In response to the housing crisis, Martyn said: “When you look around London there is plenty of land. All of this comes back to unlocking the potential of land. But places like Thamesmead are still completely inaccessible to mass public transport.”
Mixed development or more development?
One big trend Martyn considers to be a challenge for the future is how developers have been flipping employment land into housing. An understandable response to the housing shortage, he said it is clearly unsustainable for London in terms of having jobs and workspaces. He believes the future needs to be about having a diverse range of things happening in one particular development, be that studio, retail or industrial space existing alongside flats.
London isn’t just an ideas economy, Martyn reminded us: there’s a lot of manufacturing in the city and we continue to need places for businesses that aren’t just an office environment – for people, as Martyn put it, “to make stuff”.
Lee Mallett, the editor of several planning publications and the founder of Urbik, largely disagreed. He felt that the challenge to affordable housing within London was a lack of land available for development, full stop. “The housing market has been described as broken,” he said, “but I don’t agree with that…. The housing market is what it is”. To politicians, he said: “Expect to be unelected if you don’t do anything about this anytime soon.”
Georgia LA, a journalist, AI writer, native Londoner, and the panel’s millennial voice, said that she thought the most inspiring thing in London for young people is simply the wealth of opportunity. For example, she pointed out that London has plenty of cheap or free employment and vocational training – she herself found a broadcast course that kickstarted her career. She also thinks that London is unique in how it caters to every niche: from music to food to exercise to art.
The challenge, as she sees it, for the future, is that millennials are struggling to afford the property market. As she put it, “I keep coming back to the idea of financial freedom… financial freedom breeds creativity. When you’re not worrying about making the rent every month, you can start your own business, you can make art”. For that reason, she said, many of the young people she knows are finding places outside London an enticing proposition. “If you want to start a family, she said, it’s just not sustainable.”
Many questions and comments by the audience were unsurprisingly about the housing shortage. One of the most memorable contributions came from a man who commented: “I moved to the South Bank 15 years ago and was mocked mercilessly, London cabs wouldn’t even go there…look at it now. London was borne out of multiculturalism. We need to value is everything the city gives us above and beyond money”.
The discussion concluded with many questions about the future unanswered, but also thoughts on the past – whatever is in store for us Londoners, this global capital has always been and certainly will continue to be, a landscape of opportunity, innovation, and continual reinvention for individuals and businesses alike.
If you missed out on last night’s MBIE event, you can still come to the next one, where we will be discussing the controversial topic of Business Values. Our debates always sell out in advance – book your ticket here.