THE BLOG
30/11/2017 13:24 GMT | Updated 30/11/2017 13:24 GMT

Can Planning Save London’s Soul?

Beatrice Gabor
Hackney Wicked Art Festival

I know, it’s an odd proposition. My straw poll revealed that when we think of urban planning, word association extends to roundabout, tower block, bureaucrat and ring road. No spiritual references, it’s fair to say.

City planners seem to preside in the shadows, as the author Tom Campbell wrote “While the cult of the star architect has soared over the decades and property developers have displaced bankers as the new super-rich, the figure of the local town planner has become comic shorthand for a certain kind of faceless, under-whelming dullard”. We can reasonably conclude that planning has a bad rep. But I think it’s time for a rebrand. Why? Because planning matters.

Have you ever walked past a lamppost, seen one of those laminated planning notices and thought to yourself – this is probably important, it might alter the local neighbourhood character, I should care about it? Fired up at the prospect of becoming a responsible local citizen you start to read it and, instantly overwhelmed by meaningless gobbledegook, you wander off and buy a coffee instead.

How many times have you had a conversation about the things you love about London and bemoan their disappearance? From local pubs, to music venues, skateparks and heritage sites. It’s clear Londoners care about these things and it’s not surprising we are agitated - over the last decade we’ve lost of grassroots music venues, 50% of night clubs, 58% of LGBT+ venues, 81 pubs close every year and we are set to lose 30% of artist studios in the next few years. We are losing the things we love about our city, but we’re totally perplexed about how to fix it. It seems like an unstoppable trend as London grows and develops. Well, listen up people – it’s time embrace your inner nerd, befriend a bureaucrat and get to grips with planning. This week the Mayor of London has launched his new London Plan – it is a fascinating document which sets out a vision about what will get built and how London can grow in a balanced way.

My inbox has been full of change.org campaigns trying to save local venues. Earlier this year, I even appointed a ‘Culture at Risk Officer’ at City Hall to investigate the constant stream of distress calls from Londoners, artists, venue managers and club owners. We’ve been firefighting case by case, but now the cavalry has arrived. Sadiq’s new London Plan sets out how we can deliver much needed housing and infrastructure, but this time ‘good growth’ is the Plan’s guiding principle, the idea that growth must also benefit communities, enhance London’s competitiveness and protect the Green Belt. For the first time, it comprehensively threads culture throughout which makes total sense because to leave out the grassroots creative activity that brings London to life would be to miss the point of what the capital is all about. Culture is London’s DNA and so it follows that it should feature in our urban plans. There are brilliant anomalies – like the 1976 Theatres Trust Act of Parliament, which protected London’s world class theatre district in the West End. Without it, all those glorious theatres, where millions enjoy a night out every year, would be gone today, turned into hotels or high-end apartments. The problem now is that our popular grubby grassroots music venues and clubs often lack notable historical features and struggle to get heritage protection. However, these spaces are where the energy in our city lives. They give us our edge, they break new ground and new talent and they are an essential part of London’s vibrancy.

Creative tribes have defined London through the decades and artists are often described as the ‘shock troops of regeneration’, moving into unloved cheap spaces and inadvertently acting as a catalyst, breathing life into run down areas of town. We’ve seen this cycle repeat itself all over London whether in Hackney, Shoreditch or Peckham. Land values rise, organic coffee houses spring up and creatives are priced out. Some people say this is part of the natural cycle and creatives will continually colonise new areas of the capital. However, the situation is becoming unsustainable and it’s increasingly difficult for artists to find affordable places to work. To add to the pressure, our competition is looking increasingly attractive – places like Lisbon and Athens have great affordable spaces, good weather and are also staying in the EU (the creative industries’ biggest market).

We need to keep creatives in London. That’s why Sadiq’s new London Plan will hardwire culture into the capital for the first time. New ‘Creative Enterprise Zones’ will help creatives put down roots in communities they have helped build. The ‘Agent of Change’ principle will mean that pubs, music venues and nightclubs need no longer fear closure when new developments spring up next to them. And finally, affordable creative workspaces will get protection. One of my heroes is Jane Jacobs, an activist with no formal planning training who managed to save Greenwich Village in New York from becoming a dual carriageway. She said “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” Sadiq’s ‘good growth’ vision is also people focused. The capital’s growth needs to benefit all Londoners, it should bolster communities and build neighbourhoods with character and this is what the London Plan will do. Culture is an essential ingredient, because while we absolutely need great transport and roads, London also needs its soul.