London | blue doughnuts

London, a city of 33 boroughs and 1 Boris. With a change in mayor, it seems a change of course for the city is at hand. Or not? Are we just heating up the “blue doughnut”?
Lev sharpens the discussion about the “best city in the world”, in his first dispatch.

London, a city of 33 boroughs and 1 Boris. With a change in mayor, it seems a change of course for the city is at hand. Or not? Are we just heating up the “blue doughnut”?
Lev sharpens the discussion about the “best city in the world”, in his first dispatch.

Two recent events have helped clarify the new London mayoral administration’s urban and spatial policies. The first was an exhibition at the Building Centre in Store Street, a construction industry funded showroom/gallery. The canapés are the main reason to attend events here, and this time they were ingeniously selected to stand for different conceptualisations of London – pizza slices and doughnuts. The exhibition blurb and speakers suggested that the election of Boris Johnson as mayor had begun a change in the geography of investment and urban development. The new mayor would look after the interests of the “blue doughnut” of outer London boroughs who had voted him in.

The Blue Doughnut | London 2008 Elections
The Blue Doughnut | London 2008 Elections

However the exhibition was full of the familiar mixed use town centre intensification projects from the previous mayor Ken Livingstone’s era. Even London Overground, which would link outer town centres to each other and make them more attractive office locations was said to be part of this refocusing, although it was also initiated by Ken.

Admittedly central London had been over hyped by Ken. Repetition of the phrase “world city” was calculated to lead people to believe that “London is the best city in the world”, rather than highlighting the problems and divisions inherent in the term. London was orientated towards the needs of visitors, global business, and tourists, and ignored the places that most people experience day to day.

While a focus on outer London ought to give importance to this everyday landscape, Boris’ blue doughnut looked very different from the typical suburbs we may have expected in the exhibition. This is a shame because there are issues in the suburbs which are all too often overlooked. Architects discuss suburbs with condescending arrogant disdain. They are only interested when creating ‘new towns’, because this gives them an opportunity to exercise their megalomaniac egos.

Suburban change is slow and creeping, too small a scale to register on metropolitan policy, yet fundamental to its fabric. Individual houses being converted into flats, extensions or attics to create a third flat, corner plots or garages being sold to create new blocks, large back gardens divided and built on, front gardens being paved over for off street driveways and parking. And what of social aspiration, national consciousness, the forces of freedom and conformity, communities of passive isolationism combined with letter-writing cake-sale activism?

Croydon - a very urban example of Boris' blue doughnut
Croydon - a very urban example of Boris' blue doughnut

The same stuff?

Processes of urban change take longer than election terms and are heavily dependent on private sector commitment. It would be foolish to expect new projects to be magiced up by new mayors for an exhibition. However a talk by Simon Milton, deputy mayor for planning, at the London School of Economics (LSE) confirmed how little change there was in terms of policy too. He spoke with the manner of a politician, which jarred slightly with an audience of urbanists (particularly since the talk was misleadingly titled). He rephrased the previous administration’s ideas on “skills”, “climate change”, and “transport” with a slightly different tone on things like “crime”. Trees, parks, and public realm were in a priority called “liveability”, while housing was not. So in common with the previous mayor, housing is a separate numeric exercise, not somewhere people live.

London in a Global Context | Simon Milton Lecture | October 21, 2008
London in a Global Context | Simon Milton Lecture | October 21, 2008

When asked about the similarities of the different administrations, he claimed “running a city is not an ideological issue”. Perhaps the Tories do not need to be ideological because Ken had not been as radical as he was portrayed. He had focused on the efficiency of the city for the interests of global capital, and done very little the Tories would disagree with. Or perhaps a moderate and non-ideological Conservative administration is a tactical attempt to remain acceptable to the London electorate in the long term and soften people for a Conservative government. Either way, the lack of any real change demonstrates an irrelevance to democracy.

Simon Milton’s talk was very general, and there was a glaring lack of spatial ideas. He stated that the revised London Plan will be “more strategic and less detailed”. Perhaps the London Plan was irrelevant too. Lacking any spatial ideas, the discussion kept regressing onto the non-issue of ‘tall buildings’. As the Tories don’t appear to have a clear position on tall buildings, one can conclude this story is driven by newspapers to capture public imagination. It was frustrating that so many bright people in the room would fall for this dummy manoeuvre. The only thing that sounded like it might have some significance was the idea of a “polycentric city”. However it was not clear how a more polycentric model would be achieved, other than merely stating it was in line with decentralising power and devolution to the boroughs.

Polycentric devolution

Since the first days of this administration, it was made clear they would support and “work with the boroughs”. Previously the purpose of the Greater London Authority (GLA) had been to demand boroughs act in line with metropolitan priorities and to prevent them adversely affect their neighbours, even if this did not play well to local voters. The devolution of power to the local authorities raises questions. How would the new conservative administration support boroughs if two neighbouring intentions were in conflict?

We must understand “devolution” as code for appeasing the voters of the blue doughnut. If there was a serious intention to help boroughs, one would expect Boris to ask a new Conservative government to abolish the GLA and thereby remove the burden which drains boroughs of resources and their best employees. Instead Simon Milton stated that they would ask for the GLA act to be reviewed in order to get a direct financial settlement for London, which the mayor would control, rather than it being allocated by national government departments. Clearly all politicians seek to expand their power rather than give it up.

Simon Milton quizzed by Tony Travers, Deyan Sudjic and Rickey Burdett at his LSE talk
Simon Milton quizzed by Tony Travers, Deyan Sudjic and Rickey Burdett at his LSE talk

The devolution referred to by Boris’ administration would give boroughs the right to raise a greater proportion of their revenue from taxes collected within their boundaries. The wealthier outer boroughs would find it easier to raise money than poorer inner boroughs. This is clearly a vote winner in rich areas where taxation is understood as a kind of government ‘service charge’, and people expect investment in their public services and physical environment in relation to the amount of tax they pay. Poorer areas would struggle to collect the level of tax needed to meet their greater needs. Devolution reduces the level to which taxation can act as a redistributive tool.

The “polycentric city” is spatial policy derived from soundbites to attract core Tory voters. Devolution will allow the blue doughnut to keep a greater proportion of it’s wealth for itself, while poorer areas decline. Clearly, both political expediency and ideology remain a part of shaping the city. However appealing or sensible a polycentric city may sound, the reasons behind its promotion should not be overlooked.

Lev is an architect working on strategic urban projects in London

LONDON links

Greater London Authority | website
New London Architecture | website
Design for London | website
London School of Economics and Political Science | website
Urban Age Conference | London | 2005
Urban Age Conference | Governing the Ungovernable? by Deyan Sudjic | London | 2005

The BoJo building barometer & further reading

“Boris Johnson’s doughnut strategy for mayoral victory” | Telegraph | April 25, 2008
“New mayor plans to cut skyscrapers” | Building Design | May 9, 2008
“London mayor set to ditch Rogers as adviser” | Building Design | June 4, 2008
“Boris set to keep Rogers as adviser” | Building Design | June 20, 2008
“Boris to ditch 50% affordable housing target in changes to London Plan” | Building Design | July 10, 2008
“100 Public Spaces axed in London design shake-up” | Building Design | August 1, 2008
“Ken blasts Boris for ditching 100 Public Spaces programme” | Building Design | August 1, 2008
“Ken attacks Boris over design policy” | Building Design | August 8, 2008
“Boris Johnson’s London plan” | Building | August 29, 2008
“Boris proposes three-year plan for affordable homes” | Building Design | October 23, 2008

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