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Journalist Dave Hill has been writing about London's politics, development & culture since 2008. Prior to founding the website OnLondon he was the Guardian’s award-winning London commentator between 2008 and 2017.
London is often said to lack community spirit. But the charge is misplaced. The issue is building that asset within the patchwork of neighbourhoods (or “villages”, if you insist), while dealing with the dramatic scale of its physical development, cultural transformations, and population boom and churn.
The staggering growth of London over the past 30 years has brought pain as well as gain and the impact of Covid-19 could now create a whole new set of dilemmas and tensions. So how do we ensure the next wave of neighbourhood change works for the best for all the people it will affect?
Those who own and manage parts of the city have particular powers to shape and nurture transformation in the right ways - and a growing responsibility to do so. Addressing this issue, Grosvenor’s new community charter speaks of finding ways to “evolve neighbourhoods together”. It says that “good estate management is rooted in a long-term understanding of how to curate and develop neighbourhoods. It’s about seeing a complex tapestry and appreciating all the things that interlink.”
It’s hard to disagree: there is so much to be said for seeking common ground among those who have London ground in common. But what’s the best way to go about it?
A key objective should be seeking consensus about the best relationship between continuity and change. Landlords of estates of every kind possess both the hard powers and the strategic influence to identify, foster and be guided by it. That goes for any kind of landlord, be they London’s most illustrious private landowners, its local authorities or housing associations, and for every kind of estate, whatever its physical components, social character, or mix of tenures or range of uses.
Our starting point should be to spot and value good things that are already there. Too often, these go unrecognised. The webs of solidarity, responsibility and mutuality that draw residents of housing blocks or adjacent streets together, bind local businesses to the people they serve, and find expression through the voluntary sector are often informal, organic and intangible. They are sometimes best left to follow their own paths. Other times, they should be helped along. But they should never be forgotten and ignored.
And yet, finding out what people really think and want is easier said than done. Tenants or traders’ associations and other neighbourhood groups are obviously important, but are they always representative? We have all seen public meetings dominated by single issue groups or local councilors putting politics first. Too often, too many in the community go unheard – particularly those who are receptive to change but fear making it known.
Surveys by independent bodies can help. And why not set up a citizens assembly to identify genuine concerns from loneliness to environmental problems, and basic things like disrepair? The everyday and incremental are crucial.
Being tuned in and responsive to local sentiment is vital to securing trust, which, in turn, is so important if curation and development are to command goodwill. Much can be learned from the regeneration of council-owned housing estates, scenarios where conflicts and anxieties can be at their most fraught. Nice brochures and consultation drop-ins that highlight “enhanced connectivity” and new “mixed communities” may not actually console people who fear that a familiar way of life, even if it has shortcomings, is to be taken from them against their will.
But the best aspects of these schemes, that start and end with resident involvement, show what can be achieved. Suddenly, those promises of righteous renewal start to seem like something other than warm words designed to hide the profit motive. In a climate of suspicion about development in which “regeneration’ and “gentrification” have become dirty words, persuading people that change can be in their interests may not be easy or, in their view, ever true. Grosvenor’s own mission to restore trust in placemaking and developers initially encountered some stern tests in relation to its plans for Cundy Street in Belgravia.
It is hard to know how much and in what ways London’s neighbourhoods will alter in the future. The terms of the debate about what Sadiq Khan calls “good growth” might soon become very different. Worries about the climate and the long-term effect of Covid-19 could combine to create demand for quite different kinds of places from before.
In seeking to meet that demand, you will never please everyone. You will never get everything right. The quest to find the right balance between Jane Jacobs’ view that city neighbourhoods create their own ecosystems of order and evolution and the belief that large interventions are for the greater good will never end. Coalitions cannot always be convened. But landlords need to rise to the challenge and help secure common ground among those who have London ground in common.
We are grateful to the London Society for their help in commissioning this essay and always championing these issues.
The views and opinions expressed by the author in this blog are the author’s personal views and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions, policy or position of any member of the Grosvenor Group. The Grosvenor Group has not independently verified the information contained in this blog or the completeness and accuracy of it.