Tony Travers ‘London’s Boroughs at 50’

Posted on 26 January 2016 by Susan Freeman

Tony Travers ‘London’s Boroughs at 50’

Having engaged with Tony Travers at many of our thought leadership debates, I know first-hand his in depth and unparalleled knowledge of exactly what makes London tick – and indeed what makes it malfunction! So I have been looking forward to his latest publication, ‘London Boroughs at 50’ written to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment in 1965 of our London boroughs.

The book explains how and why the London boroughs were set up, providing a chapter on each borough and its history and some thought provoking conclusions. I have focused here on the inner London boroughs. Although I thought I knew the characteristics, those boroughs that my clients deal with on a regular basis, Travers adds much in terms of context and background and explains why certain local attitudes prevail today.

Establishment of the boroughs in 1965 coincided with the fashion for utopian social housing projects. Whilst it is now recognised that where possible refurbishment would have been better, the new boroughs approached slum clearance and the construction of their new, modern housing estates with great enthusiasm. These new estates were seen as light and airy and so a huge improvement on the existing unsanitary tenements. Sadly, that optimism soon turned to urban dystopia and many of the new estates have already been demolished. It is all too easy to criticise those estates but until then many people had lived in complete squalor. Travers explains that the subsidies paid to councils incentivised the demolition of older buildings. It wasn’t until the 70s that subsidies favoured the rehabilitation of housing. All this is very topical with the government now formulating plans to fund the regeneration of the next generation of failed housing estates.

Travers underlines the cyclical nature of some of the capital’s key districts. Hackney illustrates this well. Not so many decades ago it was the neglected, down at heel entry point for various waves of immigrants. Residents lived in sub-standard tenement housing often with no indoor sanitary facilities. Until recently, Hackney was regarded as a failing council which, says Travers, has been turned round by Council Leader Jules Pipe to become a model council. Infrastructure has certainly helped. The London Overground line has in effect ‘put Hackney on the tube’. Hackney is now synonymous with the ‘hipster phenomenon’, a place of complex cultural and religious integration. Its southern areas are considered ‘the most fashionable in Europe’. Amongst all this progress though, some things haven’t changed. I recently took my father to Hackney’s Ridley Road Market and he was astonished to find that it had hardly changed since his father had a shop there some 75 years ago! But, scarily there have been some close calls along the way. According to Travers, the now much admired De Beauvoir estate was scheduled for demolition (perish the thought!) in the late 60s to make way for modern fashionable housing estates that were the order of the day. That would have been an irreplaceable loss!

Many of the inner London boroughs are seen as left leaning. Islington, in common with other boroughs such as Camden and Westminster, is a place of extreme contrasts and both rich and poor have to be catered for. Islington is forever associated with the establishment of new Labour.

Some of the inner London boroughs now collaborate and work together to provide certain services. Westminster and Camden are together responsible for the custodianship of London’s west end and the two boroughs have set up the West End Partnership to further facilitate this. Westminster seems to be leading in the collaboration stakes as it also collaborates with Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham for the provision of services through the Tri-Borough Agreement. The arrangement was apparently in doubt following Hammersmith & Fulham’s change of political leadership last year but is still in place.

It is the ‘traditional’ borough of Kensington & Chelsea that has borne the brunt of the shadow cast by the Westway motorway. Built in the 60s, it was the result of the then pro traffic Government policy and designed to reduce congestion at Shepherds Bush. To make way for it, 700 homes were demolished and 1600 residents rehoused, Local residents were only entitled to compensation if they lived within 15 ft of the new motorway! However, as a result of the ensuing media uproar, over 100 families were eventually rehoused. The road system could have been a lot more extensive. Travers details the London ring road motorway proposal tabled by the government before the boroughs were in place. The Westway was intended to connect to it. Apparently, the M1 was originally intended to plough through Hampstead and Camden and then feed into Hyde Park Corner! Unlike current anti car sentiment, in the late ’60s cities were overwhelmingly pro car and it was only opposition by the new boroughs that prevented London being enmeshed in a series of spaghetti junctions.

South of the river, Southwark is described as having emerged from a complex political past to be one of the most progressive pro-development of all the boroughs. Travers comments that ‘the transformation was a miracle of modern government.’ In discussing Southwark, he outlines an issue affecting most of the inner boroughs, which was the subject of debate at our recent Labour Party Conference Debate, in which both Travers and Southwark Leader Peter John participated. In common with other London boroughs, Southwark can raise substantial resources for housing and community facilities, but only by allowing major development. Local residents find it hard to understand the complex balance between development, ‘particularly of tall and bulky buildings’ and the need for improved services. This is equally an issue for Wandsworth in relation to the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station. As Travers points out, it will consist of large high density buildings ‘of a scale not normally seen in London.’ This is the inevitable result if the government doesn’t fund the tube line, social housing and other amenities. Borough leaders regularly have to defend their borough’s approach against accusations that they fail to deliver sufficient social benefit.  As Travers says, ‘this conundrum continues to affect London borough politics throughout the city’.

Amongst the inner London boroughs, Wandsworth and Westminster are seen as the flagship conservative councils. Travers describes Westminster as the key west end authority responsible for many of the best known parts of central London. London, he says is judged by what people see in streets of Westminster, Camden and the City. He sees Westminster as occupying the role of central London’s ‘primary guardian and protector against massive daily onslaught of development noise and people’. The late Sir Simon Milton, to whom there are a number of memorials around the borough, and planning chair Cllr Robert Davis are singled out for their important role in shaping Westminster’s approach and its built environment

Thanks to Travers, I now have the answer to the often posed question as to why we need 33 boroughs to run London. On his recent London visit, New York’s planning commissioner, Carl Weisbrod asked how we get anything built in London with all these separate authorities. Travers suggests that if there was just one overriding authority we would probably be the beneficiaries of the proposed London ring road motorway system which was staved off by the determined opposition of the boroughs. ‘Death by infrastructure’ roads would have crisscrossed London and the M1 would have extended to Hyde Park Corner (Even though I’m known to be a keen London driver, I would have found it hard to support that project!) There would have been more, larger housing estates as favoured by the old Greater London Council. Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden market would have been comprehensively redeveloped ‘and not in a good way’. It is clear that the London boroughs managed to stop a lot of this misconceived development.

However, it has to be said that a single London authority would have undoubtedly had a more consistent policy for tall buildings. As is apparent, the differing, individualistic approaches of London’s boroughs led inevitably to a ‘scattergun’ approach, which has affected our sky line.