As working from home or “hybrid” working begins to look like the “new normal”, and international travel continues to lag well below pre-Covid rates, the beleaguered heart of the capital should be looking to increase its permanent population to boost post-pandemic recovery, according to Remixing London, a report from think tank Centre for London launched today.
Underused car parks, vacant shops and less desirable “sub-prime” offices across central London should all now be considered for conversion to residential use, the report argues, and if demand for some types of shops and office space remains below the pre-pandemic average, creating mixed neighbourhoods, with more homes alongside offices, shops and leisure spaces, could be exactly what the city’s centre needs.
“Much of central London’s success as an economic and cultural hub has been due to its rich mix of businesses, existing alongside a variety of institutions, residents, commuters, and visitors,” said the centre’s research manager Josh Cottell.
“These characteristics need to be protected, but we also need new approaches to help the area recover. Enabling more people to live in the city centre could be part of the solution. Residents who spend time in their local area not only spend money in the local economy. They are also likely to play a ‘stewardship’ role in their neighbourhood and add vibrancy to an area.”
The central area’s residential population was already on the increase, growing by four per cent a year since 2011, according to a previous Centre for London report, with some 360,000 people now living in the central activities zone (CAZ) covering the West End, the City and part of the Isle of Dogs.
But as the think tank’s research also highlights, the CAZ has been a major driver of the economic strength of not only London but the country as a whole. Home to 40 per cent of jobs in the capital and 25 per cent of its businesses, it contributes nearly half of London’s economic output and more than one-tenth of the UK’s.
That has seen long-standing planning policy at borough and City Hall level prioritising business functions over residential development. And while the report challenges the continuing appropriateness of those policies, it also warns against “unfettered” changes of use.
“Getting the right mix of uses for buildings in central London is crucial to its success and has never been more important than as we look to recover from Covid-19,” said Sadiq Khan’s deputy for planning Jules Pipe, commenting as the report was launched.
“A free-for-all to allow residential use through permitted development would undermine the economic and cultural eco-system which is critical to London as a global city and business hub. Instead, we must work in partnership to proactively plan for central London’s ongoing evolution, drawing people back to high quality, mixed-use neighbourhoods.”
New housing should therefore be “carefully planned and controlled” to protect the city centre’s economic and cultural functions, the report recommends, with a focus on retaining high streets, developing underused rather than viable commercial sites and prioritising rental homes for a wide range of residents and family sizes.
Potential tensions between residents and businesses – as seen in Soho last year when “al fresco” eating and drinking took over streets where some 3,000 people live – must also be managed, the report says.
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