London 2030: An optimist's vision of the next urban renaissance

Andrew Adonis
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LONDON faces acute problems of growth. We are building barely a third as many new homes as we need. Yet there is no credible plan for the other two-thirds. In 17 boroughs, the average rent is more than half the average wage, and the typical first time buyer is 32.

Peak congestion is unbearable across much of the central rail, Tube and bus network. And our major international airport is full with a sign outside: “Closed for new business.” Yet there is no transport plan for London after Crossrail opens in four years’ time. East London ought to be the face of the future. Yet the only way of getting across the Thames by road east of Tower Bridge is by two 100 year-old tunnels. And what of youth unemployment? The opportunities are not there for a generation of teenagers.

We face a choice between action and inaction to tackle these big problems. I’m a professional optimist. Let’s say we go for reform. Here’s London in 2030.

New city villages are London’s growth story. More than a dozen village communities of 5,000 to 20,000 homes, each a mix of houses, mid rise and high rise flats, typically half for rent, half for sale, create vibrant affordable communities, complete with schools, shopping, parks, and cultural attractions. Each is distinct, reflecting local history and institutions; but all are walkable, built around the bike, the bus and the train, not the car. And all are made possible by new or improved rail links, putting them within half an hour of the centre.

Woolwich Arsenal was the model for these city villages – part conversion of the old barracks, part riverside new build, which took off when Crossrail 1 was built with a station at Woolwich Arsenal. The city village movement came out of the great house price explosion of the mid-2010s. It was when the average London house price reached £600,000, and City A.M. raised its famous petition of 2m Londoners demanding 1m homes by 2030, that action followed.

Within a month, the mayor and Number 10 agreed the 2016 Growth Deal for London, which gave the mayor and boroughs more of London’s property and development taxes in return for a commitment to 1m new homes, and London undertaking to pay for most of the transport and other infrastructure needed.

What followed were the city villages now called the “new pearls of London”, strung along Crossrail 1, Crossrail 2 (which opened last year, from Wimbledon and the south-west to Hackney and the north-east), and the three new Thames crossings in East London, which make it as easy to get from Bexley to Barking as from Putney to Chiswick. Most remarkable are the Christopher Wren and Joseph Bazalgette city villages at the Abbey Wood end of Crossrail 1, developed by the Peabody Trust after knocking down much of the godforsaken Thamesmead estate.

Old Oak Common and Euston Park, which include HS2 stations, are hot spots for commuters to Birmingham and the North, particularly since the House of Lords moved to Leeds and the Ministry of Defence to Liverpool.

Education is world class: Stratford Science City, with its Imperial and UCL extension, is a buzz of academics and entrepreneurs; London’s 30 new technical career colleges turn out 100,000 apprentice graduates a year. Then there are the 300 new schools opened in the past decade to serve London’s booming population: all new model academies, each offering something special while providing good general education. There are 50 bilingual academies – Chinese is especially popular in west London, around the expanded but quieter Heathrow. More than 100 have a tech or digital mission, suppliers of talented teenagers to iCity and the Creative Arts Campus in Shoreditch.

London’s cultural scene is richer and more cosmopolitan than ever: the huge new arts and theatre quarter at Kings Cross around the iconic Gas Tower; the stunning new gallery at St James’s Palace, which the King gave to the nation as a permanent exhibition of the Royal Collection; Kensington Palace, a new concert venue; Buckingham Palace Park, open to the public as an ever-changing exhibition by the Royal Horticultural Society. The Museum of Migration in the Olympic Village now has more visitors than Tate Modern.

All this is why London is Newsweek’s 2030 Capital of the World: “The City and Canary Wharf dwarf Wall Street; Oxford Street and Regent Street dwarf Milan and Paris for shopping; Shoreditch and Hackney compete with Cannes and Los Angeles as the international home of the film community; iCity and Tech City are right up there with Silicon Valley for technological innovation.”

Not everything has been a success. The decision on Heathrow’s fourth runway rumbles on. Cost overruns on the central London tram are horrendous. Boris’s extension of the cable car to Downing Street was a security nightmare. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to try to extend Greater London’s boundaries from Southampton to Northampton. Better to have stopped at Ebbsfleet and the four other new garden cities.

What shines through is the spirit of the Olympics – London leading the nation and best in the world, a spirit of unity, urgency, change.

Lord Adonis was transport secretary in the last government. This is from his lecture Two Futures for London at Canary Wharf tonight.