London Councils chair and Camden Council leader Georgia Gould is uniquely placed to assess the condition, governance and needs of the UK capital and to come up with bold proposals for its future.
As well as running a borough in which London’s greatest strengths and most pressing problems exist side by side, she works cross-party to find policy solutions that work for every part of the city and she co-chairs with Sadiq Khan the London Recovery Board, a body which brings together local authorities, businesses, trade unions, the third sector, the Greater London Authority and others, and which will evolve for the post-Covid era.
For all those reasons the London Society – of which I am a trustee – was delighted Georgia accepted its invitation to deliver its annual Banister Fletcher Lecture last night at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Portland Place before an audience of nearly 300, composed of London Society members, On London supporters and figures from London’s planning, design, academic and political firmaments.
In her 50-minute address Georgia described a range of imaginative, already-emerging new approaches to working with London’s varied communities, together with proposals for building on those initiatives, for transforming relationships between London and other UK cities and national government, and for ensuring that the capital continues to be a magnet for international investment.
Celebrating the borough she grew up in, where social housing stands close to the British Museum and where tech giants Google and Meta have set up in the inner urban King’s Cross neighbourhood, she said “all of this is at risk because of our failure as a country to nurture and protect what we have in London and ensure that it is an engine of growth for the whole country”.
Though noting that “London is holding its own” in terms of inward investment at a time of increasing trade barriers, she was emphatic that this success is endangered by growing threats to the city’s social and economic fabric. “The cost of living crisis has exposed how fragile things are for so many in our city,” she said. “I really believe that housing costs, poverty and inequality are the greatest risks”.
Along with bleakly familiar statistics about high rates of in-work poverty, rising housing costs – notably in the private rented sector, which in the past has accommodated middle-income families in central London – and the struggle to maintain existing social housing stock, she highlighted new concentrations of deprivation and unaffordability in some outer London boroughs, such as Croydon and Brent, and a mismatch between London’s high number of job vacancies “and residents with many significant barriers to employment” contributing to high levels of long-term unemployment.
The growing problem of affording central London accommodation raised the unwelcome prospect of parts of central London “becoming tech parks with no links to communities”. In addition to this, Georgia cited a wider danger of economic growth becoming stalled, affecting everywhere from the West End to Hounslow and Bromley in different ways.
A recent concentration of office space demand on “best in class sustainable buildings particularly in prime locations” suggested to her “a huge risk of stranded assets” – workspaces deserted in the search for superior premises in prime locations at the same time as greater numbers of workers cannot afford to live close to them.
‘The challenge facing London is enormous – to grow our economy and to do that in a way that lifts our communities and tackles stark inequalities,” she said. And she argued that to bring to reality an imagined London of 2030 in which parks have replaced roads, with “civic universities”, better insulated homes, celebratory arts festivals and no street homelessness means “we need to invest in democratic renewal, in a deepening of collaborative leadership and a new compact with business and national government“.
Making the “overwhelming” case for democratic renewal should include “drawing on the energy and creativity of every part of our community” to help solve problems from the climate crisis to health problems, Georgia said, and she praised solutions that have emerged from her borough’s citizens’ assemblies: “They always come up with ideas and consensus that go beyond what we could have achieved as a council alone, demonstrating the power of collective imagination.”
Revisiting themes of her Joseph Chamberlain lecture for Cratus last year, she praised Camden’s children’s services department – judged “outstanding” by Ofsted – for “leading the creation of a more relational, humane service powered by love” which is achieving exceptional results. Georgia saw this as demonstrating that “people are desperate for more power and agency over their own lives, and if we can’t enable that then we will continue to see the growth of divisive politics as they look for it elsewhere”. In a section about “municipal imagination” she championed a new form of “imagination activism” to focus on “building the new over fighting the old”.
Responding to Covid fostered forms of collaborative leadership across London, Georgia said, with daily meetings between Sadiq Khan and groups of follow political leaders from different parties and others: “When the pandemic hit London we had all sorts of different structures and boundaries and a pandemic that didn’t care about any of them. We needed a new dialogue with our communities and with each other….the power of deep collaboration and relationships is often undervalued.”
The London Recovery Board has put together a “shared economic recovery framework” and is working with Metro Dynamics to put together a London infrastructure plan to help the capital speak with one voice to national government and potential investors about needs ranging from energy to transport. The promotion of sustainable development is is being worked on by London Councils, City Hall and the City Corporation alongside New London Architecture, London Communications Agency and London & Partners. Reaching beyond the capital, the board has joined with other UK cities in a partnership called the Cities Commission for Climate Investment (3ci).
Georgia characterised a better relationship with national government as “even more critical” than this within her proposed new compact with business and national government. She reprised the pro-devolution argument that national policies for regions or local areas are “too often designed in a vacuum and handed down in a way that pays no attention to their context” and called for Whitehall departments to shed a “silo” mentality, citing from experience departmental rivalries leading to competitive bidding for Treasury favour rather than thinking collectively about solutions to area-specific housing, health and employment strategies.
She called for “stronger connections between cities especially in the north of England” with “networks of cities growing together and supporting their regions” and a national industrial strategy that links cities together through national missions. A “completely new settlement with our regions and local government is needed,” she argued. “The centre’s problem overall is a tendency towards overreach. It tries to do too much but without the capability to deliver.”
New powers for London and elsewhere are needed too for dealing with long-standing problems such as fragmented and opaque land ownership and properties left empty, including a more straightforward compulsory purchase system and the ability to “curate retail and office uses so we can grow thriving places”. Georgia suggested an online sales tax which could produce a fund for regions to invest in “innovative placemaking” and changes to the status of pension funds to link them to infrastructure investment.
“London should be known globally as the place where complex challenges are solved, where growth is inclusive, where we are at the forefront of science, technology and art and where communities have a true stake in their city,” she said. With their populations still growing all over the world and people increasingly dependent on them economically, cities, rather than nation states, have “a huge opportunity to re-imagine how we live, to find new ways of governing, and communicate to solve problems of urban governance and national social problems,” with London playing in important role.
In summary: “We can imagine and create a city that is growing without deepening inequalities but using the mix of our communities to strengthen social solidarity and our social safety net. We can be the first net zero city, the first city to see a true social guarantee, the most cohesive diverse city in the world. I feel deeply excited about what we can achieve together over the next seven years.”
The London Society Banister Fletcher Lecture: Georgia Gould on cities, the capital and her vision for renewal