Tuesday, 12th August 2014

London 2050 sets big ambitions but will it achieve a resilient capital?

The Infrastructure Plan 2050 for London was released for consultation this month. The draft plan is to be welcomed as it goes a long way to articulating the macro trends that will drive very significant changes in London’s infrastructure needs through the second half of this century and well beyond. There is no reason to doubt that London will remain an extremely attractive place to live and work and so, population growth by 37% to around 11 million, is a fundamental point. In addition, economic growth, London’s visitor population and a changing climate are also not to be underestimated as drivers of change.

Growth on this scale, of course, presents many challenges for planning, delivering and funding the new and upgraded infrastructure for London. Equally, there are clear opportunities both commercially to build and run new kinds of infrastructure assets and also for communities themselves to harness infrastructure to help to shape places that really work for communities.

The draft plan is out to consultation until 31 October. The coming weeks should see an important, healthy and, at times, probably pretty lively debate about some of the questions and potential answers that it poses. To contribute to this debate we are using the four elements of our turquoise cities and infrastructure concept to reflect on the mosaic of changes that the draft plan might lead to. You can learn more about the turquoise cities concept here. We have looked at what we think will be two equally important dimensions: strategic intent and deliverability on the ground. Our overall reflections are set out below and will be followed up in September and October with a deeper look at different elements.

The overall strength of the draft plan against the four elements (Liveable & Usable, Water & Climate Resilient, Harnessing Environmental Systems and Innovation Enabled) is illustrated on the grid below. By way of orientation, the top right corner of the grid is the utopian place where the strategic intent and deliverability are performing at the highest level. The grid shows an aggregated view and, most importantly, is intended to help to focus productive dialogue on how the plan could achieve even more.

The draft plan is grounded by the idea that London should become “a better city in which to live, not just a bigger one”. It also recognises some of London’s greatest existing weaknesses in relation to providingliveable places and usable infrastructure such as the shortage of affordable housing that provides access to places of work and over-crowding on our trains and tubes. The links between economic prosperity, competitiveness and quality of life are recognised by the draft plan which signals the role of a collaborative approach to infrastructure provision and the contribution of green infrastructure in achieving them.  It is though hard to argue that the draft plan yet acknowledges or offers a framework to deal with all of the quality of life issues from the city scale to communities and individual infrastructure projects such as topical, cumulative issues including local air pollution and background noise.

In relation to water and climate resilience, the draft plan recognises the need for a joined up approach to water resources and flood risk management. It also considers the potential role for green infrastructure in relation to the urban heat island effect. However, planning for infrastructure needs in 2050 essentially means considering resilience for conditions well into the 22nd Century and beyond. And here, the draft plan does not yet appear to have the strategic ambition, nor the range of mechanisms, that will enable London to grapple with the complex challenges of safeguarding London’s resilience. In many ways this should not be a surprise as a truly cross-industry discussion on this topic is only just coming together as illustrated in this year’s BASE London hosted by the City of London.

In stating that “green infrastructure should be considered vital to the capital’s economy” green infrastructure gets a major speaking part in the draft plan, if not the role of lead actor/actress. London is well placed to harness environmental systems through its green lungs (public parks) and blue arteries (the Thames and its tributaries) and the draft plan identifies other cities from Copenhagen to Chicago that should inspire our future green infrastructure plans. Some new delivery mechanisms for this agenda are also identified such as a city network and the establishment of a Green Infrastructure Task Force.

In relation to the final turquoise cities element, the draft plan sets out a clear intention that London and its infrastructure should be innovation enabled. Using data better and more openly, mobile connectivity, integrating systems and providing leadership via a smart London board are all outlined. New ways of working are also introduced, for example, by introducing new practices and technologies that will significantly increase the reuse of materials moving towards a circular economy.

The first consultation question asks “Do you agree with the need for an infrastructure plan for the capital?” to which I would expect the response to be a resounding “Yes” given London’s importance in the UK and as a leading globally competitive city. That I believe is the easy question. In terms of what, where, how and who pays we look forward to the debate during the plan’s consultation period and beyond. Comments and views on the ideas presented here are warmly welcomed.