London’s current course of development represents a threat to its communities, says Ellis Woodman


Words Ellis Woodman

On 2 February the Greater London Authority revealed the city's population had reached 8.6 million - a level that it had not supported since the eve of the Second World War. Conscription and evacuation programmes reduced the number during the war years, while planning policies encouraging relocation to new towns impacted on it further in the decades that followed. By the beginning of the Eighties it had fallen to 6.6 million: a drop of as much as a fifth during the course of 40 years.

It was not until the Nineties that the trend began to reverse. Immigration and increasing life spans played a part in that change, but by far the most significant factor has been an escalation in birth rates. The tendency shows no sign of abating. In the next decade it is expected that the number of Londoners will expand by a further million again - equivalent to the population of Birmingham.

The question of where they are going to live is now the most urgent issue facing the city. In March, the Mayor of London published the latest edition of the London Plan, in which he made a commitment to build 42,000 homes a year - an increase of 10,000 on the target given in the previous edition but which still represents a 7000 shortfall in relation to anticipated demand.

The urgent need for housing is giving rise to some highly questionable planning decisions. The green-lighting of a proposal to build 3500 residential units at Convoys Wharf in Deptford represents just one example. Welcome as the redevelopment of this long-derelict riverside site may be, the introduction of a project of such scale in an area with no Tube line and where the small overland station is already crammed at peak hours invites serious doubts as to its sustainability. The London Borough of Lewisham shared those anxieties, but after its negotiations with the developer ground to a halt the Mayor called in the planning decision and approved the project.

Only 15 per cent of the homes have been designated as affordable so the development will clearly function in part as a commuter enclave. The 1800 parking spaces being provided are certain to be well used.

A recent regulatory change enabling the conversion of workspace to housing without recourse to planning approval represents another ill-conceived, quick-fix measure. The stratospheric escalation in house prices that London has experienced in the past five years has prompted developers to take up this opportunity in droves. I spoke recently to an architect based in a workspace in Kentish Town which is one of hundreds now set to be transformed into homes. In looking for new premises he was shocked by his inability to find equivalent desk space anywhere in the entire London Borough of Camden.

Inevitably, however, it is outer London that will experience the greatest change as the city addresses the challenge of housing its expanding population. When Crossrail comes into operation in three years' time, it will transform the prospects of several outer London boroughs very radically indeed. You can currently buy a three-bedroom house in Thamesmead for less than £180,000, but with journey times to Canary Wharf set to be reduced to as little as 11 minutes, don't bet on that being the case for long.

But is the delivery of new commuter districts really the extent of London's ambitions for its development? The city's origins lie in a series of villages which, over the course of the 19th century, converged into a metropolis. That polycentric organisation still underpins the way many of us live in London. We belong to small communities of diverse demographics that depend on the presence of office and manufacturing space as well as functions of value to the city as a whole. Many of us are still even able to walk or cycle to work. The capital's present course of development represents a significant threat to those fragile human ecologies We may be densifying the city's form but we risk reducing it to a more monocultural, not to say suburban, condition than we enjoy today. London needs homes but more than that - it needs communities.