London’s Lost Decade

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Travelling to work by river, from the Royal Arsenal pier in Woolwich, affords one the opportunity to see many of the cranes which litter the skyline, the evidence of London’s ongoing development and growth.

Next week, I have been asked to impart some of my knowledge of London’s growth over the past 25 years to an audience from Western Sydney. This area, I am advised, has many similar characteristics to London’s East End and the Thames Gateway, of which I was a member for many years and chairman for three.

I shall be sharing a platform with people from the early days of Canary Wharf, English Partnerships and Newham Council. It has forced me to reflect on the path and pattern of growth across the capital.

The things we shall touch upon shall, no doubt, include the development of Canary Wharf, the Greenwich Peninsula and The O2, Canning Town, Stratford and the Olympic Games, the Kidbrooke estate redevelopment and yes, even my starting point in the morning, the Royal Arsenal and its pier.

It will be a story of Docklands Light Railway Extensions, of Crossrail, of strategically targeted government investment, of Deputy Prime Ministers, Heseltine and Prescott, who understood the needs, the agenda and how it fitted together. A story of council leaders coming together to rebuild whole swathes of the capital and ambitious to secure the inward investment which the private sector could bring with it.

I still remember the day I learned that the first developer was planning to set up on the Greenwich waterfront. After decades of decline, when all the private sector was interested in was getting out of the area, the sense of achievement and excitement surrounding that first investment is difficult to describe. It offered the hope of a route out of poverty for our residents. Of new homes, jobs and opportunity. It’s a story which began with John Major’s government and fed through to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But it is a story which has all but ground to a halt.

Many of the cranes I see on my route into London are developments long in the planning. The transport infrastructure which has often proved the catalyst was planned long ago. DLR extensions, the Northern Line to Nine Elms and Crossrail 1, still to be completed.

Yet for a decade, we have stalled on the next things which require investment. We have no movement on Crossrail 2, or the Chelsea-Hackney line if your memory is long enough. In the east of London, long-planned river crossings have got nowhere, in the west, only the most tentative and hesitant steps forward have been taken to expand our airport capacity.

The past decade, even without the confusion and chaos of Brexit, seems a lost decade. We have lacked leaders, vision and commitment. London and the country as a whole have lost out. For a decade, Westminster has lacked the leaders necessary to enable central government to play its part. Today, we have replaced strategy with Trump-lite bluster. We are yet to see where this take us.

As I finalise my preparations to speak to the delegates from Western Sydney, I only hope that my successors in local government, do not find that they have to travel to across the globe in ten years’ time to learn about regeneration and how to grow a City which has seen its growth and development stalled.

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