Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Set Our City Free So It Can Make Its Own Plan for the Future; No Matter What Ambitions the Mayor Has for the Capital, He Is Still Constrained by His Paymasters in Parliament

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Set Our City Free So It Can Make Its Own Plan for the Future; No Matter What Ambitions the Mayor Has for the Capital, He Is Still Constrained by His Paymasters in Parliament

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Jenkins

ASTRANGE thing happened last week. London got a plan. I cannot remember one before, not since the Great Fire or perhaps the Blitz. The new one was launched at Tate Modern by its putative authors, the Mayor Boris Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. The plan says London should "boom" until it overtakes New York.

That is it. Carry on booming. London can have half-a-million new jobs, 400,000 new houses (almost a house per job), and one day perhaps a new Tube, Crossrail 2. There is no mention of an airport. It is not clear if all this is just going to happen, or if the Government means to make it happen.

The status of the plan is obscure, since there is already supposed to be a London Plan, owned by the Mayor. It tells boroughs to build offices and houses, says where new roads and rail lines might go and what to do about clean air. As anyone who studies London's skyline or its traffic or its housing knows well, this is mostly motherhood and apple pie. But it is, or was, the plan. That two Tory grandees feel they can replace it in an art gallery is mildly humiliating. Sceptical trade unions called it "a preelection stunt". In reality, London is the least planned city west of Cairo. Anyone with money can do what they like outside of conservation areas. They can put up a skyscraper. They can dig up a street, erect a warehouse in a royal park, tower over a heritage site, buy-to-leave west London to Malaysians and Gulf sheikhs. The monarch of the London roads is no longer a bus but an excavator.

But there is discipline even among rogues. People do need to know whether the metropolis is going to be left to grow inexorably. Here the plan has a refreshing simplicity. It says yes, and I agree with it.

Modern London is a city state on whose economy Britain depends. For a half century after the war the idea was for it to "shrink and sprawl". Conventional wisdom held that people and jobs should be moved from the polluted core into the surrounding countryside. This merely ate up land and, since jobs did not move too, commuter services became the most intensely used in the world. It was a bad policy.

Osborne and Johnson have torn this up. They regard big cities as growth points, as magnets for enterprise and for leisure. Digitisation has made urban congregation more rather than less desirable. City populations are no longer declining but rising, and planning must accommodate that.

Hence the new plan's emphasis on housing and land. Figures on housing need in a booming city mean nothing. Everyone thinks they need a better home. What is not meaningless is the under-occupancy of land, with London having the lowest inner-city density of any developed capital in the modern world. As it is, if all London were only rebuilt at the density of Kensington and Chelsea it could house 20 million people, not barely nine. …

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