by Zohra KhanOct 13, 2021
In April, the City of London Corporation, the self-governing body in charge of London’s financial district, launched The Square Mile: Future City. This five-year plan is intended to create “the world’s most inclusive, innovative and sustainable business ecosystem,” and is positioned as a proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which, as it says, has “changed life as we know it”. Although unmentioned, it is clearly also a reaction to the uncertainties of Brexit, which threaten to erode the City’s commanding position among global financial centres. The plan is addressed to a wide range of stakeholders, including businesses, workers, residents, visitors and developers. And, if short on specifics, its priorities are encouraging: sustainability, accessibility, public space, diversity, transport, digital infrastructure, start-ups, flexible workspaces and so on.
One sentence in particular caught the eye of the British press: “We will explore new ways to use vacant space and aim for at least 1,500 new residential units by 2030.” This fleeting proposal headlined articles in heavyweight newspapers including The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian, even making it across the Atlantic to the New York Times. It certainly seemed intriguing. The last year has seen a deluge of miserable articles around property slumps, ghost towns, shuttered shops, empty restaurants and the end of tourism. As half a million workers stopped commuting into the Square Mile and started working remotely, it was hard to escape the feeling that a profound change was occurring. And this just as Brexit poses far-reaching questions about London’s future financial dominance – Amsterdam has already deposed it as Europe’s largest share-trading centre. Could a pivot to a residential population offer a partial solution to these challenges?
For the media, the story had particular attractions. There was an enjoyable schadenfreude that decades of urban decline across Britain had finally reached the mighty financial sector, and that the City was turning to communities rather than cash to save itself. In addition, converting offices and shops to provide new homes is a live issue, and a contentious one, among those seeking to revive town centres –it seemed that retrofitting as a route to urban renewal had hit the big time. Also alluring to journalists was the plan’s suggestion that an increased focus on the creative life of the City would play a role in this process. Specific proposals were, again, limited, although brief mention was made of “bold programming of major events (that) may include traffic-free Saturdays or Sundays in summer, or an all-night celebration” and “low-cost, long-term let opportunities for creatives in empty and low-use spaces”.
The press coverage was, however, largely wishful thinking, and was met with an official rebuttal stating that it “is simply incorrect to suggest that the City of London Corporation is looking to ‘tilt the balance’ away from the primary business role of the Square Mile through converting offices to housing as part of our recovery plans”. Its policy chair, Catherine McGuinness, put it more bluntly: “We are not going to turn office space into flats”. The recent surge of planning applications in the City suggests that most developers remain similarly confident about the limited impact of remote working on demand for floorspace. And even the much-discussed creative tilt in The Square Mile: Future City is, in fact, largely framed as a means to attract weekend and evening visitors in a “cultural and visitor strategy that will focus on economic growth”.
But in any case, is creating a meagre 1,500 homes over a 10-year period really newsworthy? In May, a new office development, 22 Bishopsgate, opened in the City. The country’s second tallest building, it will play host to a “population of 12,000”, adding to the 550,000 workers already commuting into the Square Mile each morning. In contrast, around 7,700 permanent residents are currently scattered among the City’s existing 7,850 homes – an unlikely average of one person per property. As this suggests, many new units are likely to end up as investment properties or overnight pads for those in the financial sector.
The Square Mile: Future City is not intended as a pivot towards an expanded residential population, but as a strong message to commuters and the businesses that employ them: “You belong here and can have the high-quality career you want. This is London’s hub for doing business, socialising and lifelong learning.” And the Corporation’s confidence that it can lure them back is based on more than improved digital infrastructure or transport connections. The term that appears in the plan more than any other is “vibrant offer”, with the City’s culture depicted as a key advantage over international competitors. “Its heritage is unrivalled … its art and culture are groundbreaking”; it has “great places to eat, socialise and shop” and “to enjoy the rich tapestry of life”. In short, it possesses a “unique charm”.
In reality, the pandemic has proved challenging to cultural pursuits. The most striking casualty has been the ambitious and impressive Centre for Music by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, intended as the capital’s first world-class concert hall, but cancelled in February as largely unnecessary and unfeasibly expensive. The Culture Mile has also dwindled over the last year. An initiative launched in 2017 by the Corporation and leading arts organisations, it was intended to help the Square Mile become “a world-class cultural destination” and “in the face of Brexit send a signal to the world that London is ... a welcoming, open, and resolutely internationalist city”. Although two further years of funding have been confirmed, this is to allow the Culture Mile’s transformation to a sustainable business model, presumably drawing on its own reports, which explore cross-sector collaboration and “creativity as part of the solution to real world commercial challenges”. More encouragingly, the famed Barbican Centre is due to mop up a considerable chunk of the money previously earmarked for the Centre for Music. And if precise details of the Museum of London’s relocation to the City’s old Smithfield meat market remain obstinately hazy, most commentators are confident that the move will take place, even if a target date of 2024 is missed.
In future, culture is certain to remain an important part of the Square Mile’s appeal when courting individual talent and international firms. As its planning chair Alastair Moss recently stated, “The City will remain a magnet for world-class talent, as we embark on exciting plans to increase its attractiveness with even more culture, leisure and great spaces.” And it makes an important economic contribution to the City in its own right. Along with leisure, hospitality and retail, it provides employment for 34,000 people, while St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London sit among the capital’s top 10 tourist attractions. Yet, when it comes to the crunch, culture and its affiliates will always be subordinate to the financial sector and the professional services that surround it, just as in other international financial centres.
This subservience is perhaps best demonstrated by the City’s planning policies. To take one recent example, the “Justice Quarter” along Fleet Street has just been approved, and will provide courtrooms, a police headquarters and commercial development to reflect, in the government’s words, “the City’s role as the global centre of justice and legal services”. Designed by Eric Parry Architects, its three substantial blocks may prove to be one of the better recent contributions to architecture in the Square Mile, despite their overbearing scale. However, their construction requires eight buildings in a designated conservation area to be demolished and the City’s medieval street plan altered, causing anger among heritage and environmental groups. Few of these buildings are of high merit, and the façade of one officially listed as of architectural significance is being retained. The most eye-catching losses are a neo-Baroque bank building and a highly glazed newspaper office, both from the 1920s. But round the corner, a Victorian pub and a warehouse are also being demolished – exactly the sort of spaces that offer cultural potential, whether social or artistic. The former is presumably a prime example of the City’s “vibrant offer”; the latter might, in New York, be adapted to house an independent art gallery or non-profit. Replacement white-box units are unlikely to contribute to any singularity differentiating the City of London from other global business quarters.
Similarly, the “elevated public spaces” (or, in common parlance, “roof gardens”) on the towers currently under development in the Square Mile are in no way a replacement for the amenities, heritage, visual interest and, often, public space lost at street level, despite being touted as such by the City’s planning authority. And you can find duplicates in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and elsewhere, usually atop considerably more striking buildings.
But unique charm doesn’t pay the bills. The City of London Corporation governs a major business district. It is not an expert in creating a liveable city – few organisations are. It urgently needs to build high-end offices that meet the requirements of business in a post-pandemic era, with generosity of space and facilities. It seems to be an undertaking fundamentally incompatible with retrofitting Victorian banks or preserving diminutive pubs in inconvenient locations. The Corporation’s commitment to “build back better” is geared to preserving the financial success of the Square Mile – perhaps justifiably so – and in this context we must accept that culture, in whatever form, plays the role of a marketing offer, not an end in itself. But, after all, that is not so unusual.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)