The publication of the Mayor’s draft London Plan at the end of November passed largely without the attention it deserved from the communications industry. On the face of it a dry and supremely unsexy town planning document regulating land use, the draft is actually nothing less than a window into the future of our capital, shaping its evolution over the coming decades.
For anyone who cares about maintaining London’s position as one of the most dynamic, creative and successful places on the planet, the London Plan should genuinely matter. It’s a treasure trove of intelligence and insight to help inform decision-making in post-Brexit times. More than this however, for those businesses with the foresight to consider the implications of the changes it sets out and the boldness to act upon them – and certainly not just those in the property industry – it provides excellent opportunities to demonstrate leadership and to contribute to meaningful public debate across the media about a range of the biggest issues of the day.
Following publication of the draft, the popular press inevitably focused on the headline and dog-whistle issues. These include increasing housing supply and affordable housing, the Green Belt, improving fire safety after the horrific Grenfell tragedy… as well as relatively peripheral matters, such as gender-neutral toilets. For those who delve more deeply, the draft examines growth corridors, the future of London’s cultural offer, sustainable transport, innovative solutions for the use of industrial land, the harm of illegal levels of pollution and much more besides. All of this should be of genuine interest to businesses and their employees who call London home.
Yet the inescapable conclusion from careful consideration of the draft and the context in which it is brought forward, is that it is also a fundamentally problematic document. It aspires to a long-term view (the London Plan itself should run from 2019 to 2041), yet is bedevilled by the regularity of revisions arising from the relatively short-term four-year London mayoral election cycle. It deals with the consequences of relentless population pressure (with London’s population forecast to increase to 10.5 million by 2041), which underlies almost every aspect of the draft, yet the Mayor can realistically do very little indeed to reduce this. It expects London boroughs to accommodate the growth it plans for, at a time when these boroughs face previously unimagined and potentially unmanageable budgetary pressures. It relies upon the private sector to deliver the growth it sets out and despite this the voice of business is conspicuous by its absence throughout. Moreover and crucially, a window into the future it may be, but overall it lacks the creativity, excitement and zeal necessary to inspire the wider interest it merits, including from business. It could and should do more to boldly set out a vision for London as the best place to live and work in the world.
Herein lies opportunity however, both for business and communications advisers savvy enough to seize the moment. Business has the ability to influence and shape relevant debate about the future London Plan much more effectively, rather than leaving house builders to monopolise comment. The protracted and ultimately aborted efforts to create the Garden Bridge over the River Thames may be emblematic in the eyes of some of a wider paucity of ambition, short-term thinking and failure of nerve – not least in comparison to international competitors, such as New York. But this need not be the case. In the current climate, more than ever, the business community should be leading the debate about London’s future, rather than following it.
The three-month consultation on the draft London Plan runs until March 2nd. It isn’t an opportunity for communications advisers to help clients undermine their credibility by attempting to build castles in the sky. It is an opportunity for the thousands of us who work in communications in London to think far more seriously about our city’s future, and to urge our clients to do the same.