Three big moves to make London’s infrastructure work better for everyone

Andrew Jones, Sarah Elliott, Keyvan Rahmatabadi, Tom Parrish

London faces an unprecedented growth challenge in the coming years that calls for a radical rethink of the city’s development. AECOM city experts identify the three big infrastructure moves that London’s leaders can make in planning, delivery, connectivity and the use of land to ensure a city that works for everyone.

What makes a city work? Ask any of the millions of people who visit, work and live in London and you’ll likely get a range of different answers, albeit with some very important constants.

A successful economy, delivering jobs and opportunities to help them progress. Affordable, high-quality housing in strong, inclusive communities equipped to support them at every stage of their lives. Reliable, accessible transport that gets them where they need to go. Clean air and resilient, green, modern infrastructure to support a secure, sustainable and healthy low-carbon future. And, building on all of this, a diverse and exciting place to be, with access to arts venues, retail centres, leisure facilities and cultural attractions.

It’s a tough challenge for any city to meet. But especially when London’s population is projected to increase by 70,000 every year, and expecting to hit 10.8 million in 2041. This unprecedented growth, alongside significant demographic, economic and lifestyle changes, is intensifying existing financial, social and environmental pressures that must be urgently addressed, with the constraints of limited resources and space.

Nowhere is this, perhaps, more apparent in terms of infrastructure than in London’s lack of housing, particularly affordable housing. In the latest draft of his London plan, the Mayor is targeting 66,000 new homes (at least 50 per cent of which must be ‘genuinely’ affordable) to be delivered within London’s boundary, along with creating tens of thousands of new jobs, every year, just to meet demand.

To achieve this target, the Mayor has introduced several bold new ideas. These include: significant development from small-sites; outer London suburban intensification; creating housing both above artisan maker-spaces and alongside industrial estates and distribution hubs; the easing of density restrictions; and potential for future industrial estates to be stacked warehouses in the sky, with shared multi-storey yard space.

In response, the Government’s Communities Secretary has challenged the Mayor to deliver even more, as per the National Planning Policy Framework.  While Local Authorities have indicated that, without increased funding, they will struggle to hit the targets already set — with only 39,560 completions in London in 2016/17.

At the same time, there are pressures on national and local governments from stakeholders as diverse as the EU, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and the Campaign for Better Transport, to take emergency action to address climate change and other environmental and wellbeing challenges.

Informed by our decades of experience working in London and other global cities, and AECOM’s Manifesto for the city’s long-term growth, here are three big infrastructure moves that we believe the capital now needs to make to address these increasingly urgent challenges, secure success and reaffirm London’s position as one of the world’s leading global cities.

1/ Plan, invest and flex for the long-term  

With the city’s reach extending far beyond the M25 now, London’s infrastructure needs can’t be met by development solely in zones one and two, or even zones one to six. Around 1.2 million people commute between Greater London and its surrounding region, including Reading, Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge, every day. In a number of the areas surrounding Greater London, more people work in the capital than in their home local authority. And, reflecting this, the Mayor’s annual target for 65,000 homes breaks down to include 35 per cent in inner London and 65 per cent in outer London.

The reality on the ground, however, is that the planning process in this region — in part, because of London’s expansion, privatisation of infrastructure services, such as transport, and other issues — is currently the responsibility of 154 local authorities working alongside 13 Local Enterprise Partnerships, the GLA, combined authorities, transport agencies and utility providers.

It points to the need for a more connected approach to infrastructure design and delivery across the London city region. This includes revitalising in a coordinated, collaborative way the suburban hubs where many of London’s commuters live, providing more homes, flexible workspaces, community facilities and efficient transport links and helping to ease pressure on the region’s infrastructure.

It also highlights the importance of depoliticising the infrastructure debate in the UK, which has seen major projects created, reshaped, delayed or scrapped by successive national and local administrations for decades. For example, HS2, Crossrail 2 and runway capacity in the South East are all current, live programmes that highly-politicised.

Authored by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), the National Infrastructure Assessment aims to take the politics out of infrastructure, as far as possible. Based on analysis of the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs, it sets out a 30-year strategic vision alongside recommendations for delivery. And the NIC has been clear that it expects the Government to demonstrate its commitment to delivering this as a priority in the upcoming Spending Review, which is now expected in 2020. As the NIC argues, it’s critical to the UK’s ongoing social progress and economic success. But, given the UK’s ongoing political uncertainty, there are no current legislative guarantees.

Greater public engagement is also required to increase the people’s understanding and buy-in to major infrastructure decisions. This includes improving traditional community engagement and participation in the decision-making process to enable those likely to be affected or interested to influence infrastructure planning and delivery. Early and inclusive engagement is vital to developing a shared vision for the city’s future, and making the benefits of core infrastructure systems and services more visible to people.

2/ Build on London’s digital strengths, to give people more choice, control and input

Central to the realisation of these developments is the ability of leaders and infrastructure providers to leverage meaningful insights from the billions of pieces of data being generated by users every day.

Over the last decade, London has emerged as a leader in open data. TfL is just one of the public bodies that took the decision to release a huge amount of its data, including timetable, service status and disruption information in an open format, free for anyone to use, with 42 per cent of the London commuters now using one or more of the 600 apps built using TfL’s data.

This experience and expertise in the use of open data is one of the strengths that London can draw on to meet future demand. A shift in both user behaviour as well as the focus of the capital’s transport investment and planning is required to achieve the goals set in the Mayor and City of London’s transport strategies. This includes to improve opportunities for people to walk, cycle and use sustainable public transport for more of their journeys, reduce car dependency, improve air quality and free up curbside space for community-based and dynamic uses.

Efficient use of big data in applications, such as Project EDMOND (Estimating Demand using Mobile Network Data) — which will be supporting the development and updating of TfL’s transport models — is bringing together anonymised mobile network data with other data sets, including the London Transport Demand Survey [LTDS], to analyse patterns of movements in London. AECOM, in partnership with TfL and other contractors, is helping to deliver insights — some of which were previously unavailable via traditional survey methods, to help provide a better evidence base for future investment and planning. In addition, the use of real-time operational data will transform management of transport facilities and service.

If supported by the development of new capacity and infrastructure, access to this data could also lead to greater control, choice and flexibility for users by underpinning a shift to mobility-intelligent, whole-journey approaches. This includes solutions, such as shared Mobility as a Service where, via a single app and payment channel, users can access different public and private transport modes to complete their journey door-to-door. Public agencies — working with private providers — could secure valuable revenue generated from the use of public infrastructure across travellers’ journey’s and, potentially, incentivise greener transport options.

3/ Use space more creatively to unlock potential and support local communities

Another important element of the mix is to cut the number of journeys that individuals need to take across the city and Greater London region. Changing working habits is increasingly impacting this.

This means rebuilding strong mixed-use, transit-oriented communities that — often utilising smaller, more complex sites — will require new approaches to flexible land uses, design and construction.  Already new, integrated typologies are being created. The revised permitted development order, which came into force in October 2017, enables developers to convert small light industrial buildings (under 500 square metres) into homes without planning permission. And, to enable well-balanced and mixed communities, local councils are now working hard to protect industrial land to maintain the varied employment opportunities it offers, hand in hand with increasing densities and introducing residential uses to these areas.

Mixed-used, transit-orientated developments

But these are half measures — and not always successful. We need to think critically about the planning and design of London’s communities to reflect the changing economic and demographic environment. This includes better access to community-based workspaces, flexible retail outlets capable of adaptation and reuse, blended with social infrastructure, such as nurseries, healthcare clinics and schools, and homes of different tenures for households who want to rent or buy, for all age groups — connected with world-leading digital and transport infrastructure.

This will take a fundamental rethink of what we consider to be a ‘town centre’.

New forms of housing and community delivery

Also critical is the accelerating and adoption of solutions to deliver housing and build our communities at the pace and scale needed. AECOM’s work with Lewisham Borough Council — PLACE/Ladywell — is a prime example of an innovative off-site approach. The temporary housing development provides 24 homes for local people in housing need as well as four ground floor community/retail units. The scheme was manufactured and assembled off-site, and, except for foundations and incoming services, was constructed in just 20 weeks.

However, if we’re to continue to build these new typologies and create future-ready communities and spaces, further work is needed to develop the policy frameworks to support it – from planning through to procurement. Boosting local economic regeneration and essential social infrastructure will create communities for residents to thrive throughout their lives. And, as boarded-up shop fronts become a regular feature on many UK high streets, an important part of this community-focused regeneration must cover measures to revive local retail hubs.

Population growth in London doesn’t just mean new homes, it also means additional employment capacity and industrial land for functions to support the City’s metabolism. The Mayor’s approach is to require the current stock of industrial land to work harder through consolidation and intensification, to provide both some land that can be released for housing and growth in floorspace capacity.

The easier part of this equation (of housing over maker-spaces and workshops) is already taking shape across London, and we expect will be delivered by the market with only small increases in land value (of 5 per cent).

The more-difficult typology of stacked warehousing and consolidated logistics hubs are not being delivered at the same rate. As a result, key players in this sector, such as Segro, Amazon and Prologis question the practicalities of operating this way and whether the land economics outside of the M4 corridor and western boroughs will support this. The Mayor’s own evidence at a recent examination showed that stacked industrial was unviable in the locations tested.

A radical rethink

It’s clear that city leaders, alongside infrastructure providers, must look beyond traditional policy approaches and ways of working — including current methods of building, concepts of currency and value, use of space, and ways of living – to address London’s growth challenge, developing connected communities, empowering residents, helping to improve quality of life, and accelerating future-ready construction, to support the city and its people’s long-term success sustainably.

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