London: a mistake not to be repeated

Click to follow
IT IS received wisdom among all right-minded people that London needs a central elected authority: that it is somehow absurd that Londoners should not today be electing members to a city- wide body, or maybe electing a mayor for the capital as well as their local councillors.

The absence of a central body, it is argued, has contributed to the city's problems. To quote the conclusion of a study published three years ago (London - World City, HMSO, pounds 24.95), sponsored by the London Planning Advisory Committee: 'Somewhere along the line, London appears to have lost direction and a sense of its own worth.'

Actually there is a powerful case to be made for precisely the reverse: London's comparative advantage against other giant cities is that it has no single central authority, and the diversified structure of the boroughs is a more appropriate form of organisation for world cities in the next century than the fashionable centralised authorities of this one. There are both negative and positive reasons for reaching this conclusion.

The great problem with centralised city management is that mistakes are magnified. Take three great policy decisions that have shaped post-war London: the City's Barbican project; the work of the Location of Offices Bureau; and the building of tower blocks.

There was a perfectly rational case for each. The City's planners believed that cars should be separated from people and the wartime bombing gave them the opportunity to put this into practice. The result was the walkways in the sky of the Barbican - now deserted - and an arts complex that is being expensively remodelled on more conventional lines. Fortunately this particular planning disaster was confined to the City. Had the elders run more than the Square Mile, we might have had similar user-unfriendly ideas all over London.

Anyone who remembers London in the Sixties will recall the Location of Offices Bureau's adverts on the Underground, exhorting companies to 'move out of London and get more out of life', complete with pictures of birds, bees and trees. It seemed sensible to try to reduce congestion in core areas and cut the load on commuter systems.

The trend in most large cities is for office space to migrate from the centre to the periphery, and London is no exception. Between the wars virtually all the office space was in central London. By the Nineties, according to calculations by The Office Network in Houston, the central business district (roughly the City and the West End) had 58 million square feet of space, but there was 66 million square feet in fringe locations like Hammersmith and Croydon.

In a sense, the LOB worked. But it merely used taxpayers' money to reinforce a trend that was in many ways destructive of the core city. During the Seventies the policy was reversed and the bureau, which had been busily destroying central London jobs, started to try to attract offices back - until the whole project was scrapped altogether. While it lasted, it was a pointless and damaging exercise.

Of tower blocks, little needs to be said; the scale of the catastrophe is now widely appreciated. It is a planning error with which London - in common with many other cities in the West - will have to live for another generation at least. Had there been weaker central planning, and had the decision as to what type of housing to provide been left to the market, we would not have ended up with particularly wonderful housing stock, but we would have had fewer buildings that will need to be pulled down, at great cost.

If these are powerful examples of the negative impact of strong centralised power in London's past, there are even more powerful examples of the way decentralisation can bring a positive impact.

One has first to guess at how the use of space in a city will change over the next generation. The key question is the extent to which the telecommunications revolution will reduce the need for workplaces to be centralised. It is ludicrous to use the most expensive land for building offices that are fully used for only eight hours out of 24, or to build urban transport systems that are fully loaded for two one-and-a-half hour periods each working day.

Decentralisation is already happening rapidly. But we are only in the early stages of the parallel revolution of using telecommunications to replace travel: people doing part of their work at home on a screen and coming into the office for semi-social activities.

Looking ahead, it is possible to envisage Londoners not needing to come to the central area nearly as often as they do now, but instead finding both their work and entertainment much closer to their homes. This is already happening: new theatres and cinemas tend to spring up in young, affluent residential areas such as Greenwich, Richmond or Islington, rather than the West End.

It is possible to make centralised cities work by piling money into transport systems - Paris and Tokyo both manage, albeit with congestion (Paris traffic is slower than London) or lengthy commuting time (an average of 90 minutes in Tokyo). But London has potential within its current structure to do better, if it would only allow boroughs to compete against each other. The more power that is given to some central body, be it a reformed GLC, an elected mayor, or a minister for London, the less will be held by the boroughs. What we really need is more powerful boroughs, reinforcing the natural structure of London as a network of competing villages.

They are not such small villages either. London boroughs are the size of nation states: Ealing has more inhabitants than Iceland, and the GNP of Westminster is larger than that of Nepal, Bolivia or Jordan. No one suggests countries like that need a mayor to boss them about - or even a London Residuary Body.

Comments