Last night HS1 Ltd welcomed a panel of experts for the second annual debate at St Pancras International station – this time, the topic for discussion was how London can stay great. Chaired by City AM Editor, Christian May, the panel featured a distinguished line-up including James McClure, General Manager for Northern Europe at Airbnb, Alexandra Jones, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, Rowan Moore, Architecture Critic for the Observer, and James Cooksey from the Crown Estate. Josh Lambkin gives the round-up.
Loosen our Belt
Interestingly, the panel were fairly united in their rejection of the idea that the green belt should remain totally sacrosanct. Rowan Moore pointed out that the original purpose of the green belt was to be a space for Londoners to enjoy outside of the urban centre. With a multitude of parks and recreational areas within the city, we need to question whether it is even fulfilling this purpose. Further, as Alexandra Jones argued, the reality of the greenbelt is far removed from public perception – it is not a scenic vision of undulating countryside and rural imagery but, in many places, a rather desolate landscape with significant potential for targeted residential development. While none of the panel advocated scrapping the greenbelt entirely, it is clear that our penchant for keeping the green belt ‘pristine’ is hampering the city’s development and adding to the pressure on housing.
Give us shelter
On the subject of housing, it was not surprising to learn that were was no ‘magic wand’ solution to what many people are now calling a crisis. James Cooksey alluded to the fact that we Brits have a fixation with property ownership – a sentiment that is not shared on the continent, as many commentators have pointed out. This is born out in the sort of policies that successive British governments have deployed, most recently exemplified by the right-to-buy scheme, which offers significant assistance to young people looking to get on the property ladder. Rowan Moore sees this as underlying cause of the housing crisis as effective social housing policy is hindered at the expense of helping people buy property. Alexandra Jones echoed this sentiment, calling for the government take supply-side approach to housing policy – encouraging smaller developers and investing in utility infrastructure. James McClure had a different take on this issue and pointed out that more effective use of space could be one way to tackle the housing shortage. As Airbnb’s business model has shown, making better use of what you have (whether it is office space or residential space) can not only benefit the individual but also the leisure industry and the wider London economy.
Let us fly
Breaching the topic of airport expansion, the panel agreed that, above all else, London needs certainty and decisiveness. Unlike the mayoral candidates vying for election next week, the panel agreed that London needs to expand its airport capacity, whether this be at City Airport, Gatwick or Heathrow. While James Cooksey declined to comment on where expansion should be, Rowan Moore saw Heathrow as the most viable option, despite admiring the prospect of developing a hub east of London. James McClure noted that, when it comes to the tourism industry, those who visit London value reliable infrastructure and if that the city cannot compete with other European destinations then it will ultimately be to its detriment.
Despite concerns over specific issues, the panel were united in their view that London is, and will remain, a great city. They were confident in London’s ability to overcome challenges such as air-pollution, congestion, connectivity low wages and housing, and remain a great place to live, work and visit. James McClure had the final say here. Asked what makes, and will continue to make London great, he responded amiably, “Londoners”.