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Insights from the Build Back Better webinar
30 November 2020
How much do we want London to change when Covid-19 has passed? Do we want a full return to our old world or is a socially distanced ‘new normal’ better?
It was fascinating to hear a range of perspectives while hosting London First’s ‘Build Back Better’ webinar, where a mix of industry leaders debated the future of the capital with – fingers crossed – a vaccine on its way.
The session was chaired by London First’s Programme Director, Housing, Stephanie Pollitt.
The first thing I noticed was just how much the panellists all loved London and yearned for its revival. There was almost a nostalgia about the capital, as if it was a long-lost friend that had packed its bags and left and which may never come back.
As Tom Darcy said: “We are long overdue a bit of fun. We have a great city to build upon.”
Gerald Kaye said: “Travelling around London when it is empty makes you acknowledge its variety, range of architecture, breadth of uses: we shouldn’t take London for granted.”
And when the subject of the ‘15-minute community’ – where people live and work within one small area – was raised, Helen Evans said: “We don’t want to be stuck in our own neighbourhood.”
But, everyone conceded, improvements can be made.
All the panellists wished for a speedier, more efficient planning system, giving more clarity on timings, boosting sustainable transport, easing the process of building above existing properties and addressing London’s shortage of affordable housing.
One of the few benefits of the pandemic has been the revival of outer London’s high streets which have been turned from weekday deserts into thriving hubs filled with people working from home.
There was a view that high streets need to be places where people can take the Mars Bar approach — ‘work, rest and play.’ The needed to have better community engagement, more individuality and less chains to maintain their current increase in popularity.
The future of the office formed a core part of the debate, with Gerald Kaye saying those who had written off the office are “completely wrong. You learn something every day in the office, particularly young people who are like sponges.”
Helen Evans said: “There is a tangible excitement when people see each other again”, and Philippa Prongue continued: “We can’t forget about graduates and youngsters. They learn so much just travelling to a meeting with their boss – right now that’s all being taken away.”
All concluded that people will work more flexibly, but there is a growing consensus that people will spend more time in the workplace than at home.
The final improvement all the panellists called for when a sense of normality returns is a greater emphasis on sustainability, with Gerald Kaye saying that this is simply good business as tenants demand sustainability and Helen Evans calling for a “massive exercise in retrofit.” And, Helen continued, sustainability cannot come at the expense of affordable homes.
London will bounce back and in a year’s time it is likely to be humming. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all learn lessons and improve our great city along the way.
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