Sunday, 18 February 2018

Eat yourself fitter?


The health stories came on like a rash last week. Kitchen sprays cause COPD, yoghurt stops heart attacks, processed food gives you cancer.

The outbreak was partly the result of the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, always fertile hunting grounds for ‘things that will kill or cure you’ stories. But the fascination of these stories for the media never seems to fade, even though they miss two big issues.

The first is, without getting too Lenten about it, we are all going to die. Every person saved from a heart attack – where rates have dropped dramatically in recent years –  is one more waiting in line for cancer or Alzheimers.  While dying before your time is a tragedy, the slow drawn-out processes of decline that accompany diseases of ageing are miserable too.

But perhaps more seriously these stories peddle a myth of control, suggesting that we can cheat death through our behaviour.  We do, of course, know much more than we used to about the damage done to health by our own behaviour – smoking, drinking, poor diet and inactivity – as well as by environmental factors like air pollution.

But these behaviours only load the dice; they don’t determine the outcome.  Bad diet, for example, is associated with about 15 per cent of deaths from cardiovascular disease, smoking and inactivity with another 10 per cent. So three out of four deaths from heart attack and stroke have nothing to do with any of these. Of course, we shouldn’t neglect health, or downplay its impact on the quality of our lives as well as the manner of their ending, but most people dying from ‘diseases of lifestyle’ are just unlucky.

There seems to be a certain ironic obtuseness in the amount of effort we put into trying to influence the one thing that is beyond our control – our mortality and its means – while neglecting the huge threats posed by climate change, or any number of social evils, which are firmly within our grasp collectively if not individually.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Urban growth forever?

[Original published on OnLondon, 3 January 2018]

In his foreword to his draft London Plan, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan writes of London’s population growing by 70,000 every year, to reach 10.5 million in 2041. Population growth has been London’s big story for the past 30 years. Growth assumptions underpin the business case, and increasingly the funding strategy, for everything from affordable housing delivery to major infrastructure projects like Crossrail 2. But could these be wrong? Could a toxic mix of falling immigration and priced-out professionals slow or even reverse London’s growth trajectory?

Population projections – like all predictions – tend to be either lucky or wrong. As Tony Travers observed in a recent edition of Centre for London’s London Essays, population projections underestimated London’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s, then missed the first signs of recovery in the mid-1980s when London’s shallow growth was dismissed as a blip in the pattern of decline that cities were expected to pursue. But growth continued, gathering pace through economic cycles of boom and bust.

London’s population growth is not a single process, but the product of great surges of people arriving and departing, at airports and stations, maternity wards and hospices. In mid-2016 London’s population was estimated, on the basis of passenger surveys and NHS registrations, to have grown by around 110,000 in the preceding 12 months. The components of this growth were as follows.
Births 130,000 80,000 110,000
Deaths -50,000
Domestic in-migrants 580,000 -95,000
Domestic out-migrants -675,000
International in-migrants 220,000 125,000
International out-migrants -95,000

This pattern has been pretty consistent in recent years: young UK residents move in to London from across the country, but more move out every year – generally to south east England. This domestic net migration from London is countered by international migration to London, and the city’s young age profile is reflected in a surplus of births over deaths.

There have been variations: in the years of the financial crisis, domestic out-migration slowed, perhaps because the credit crunch meant thirtysomethings were unable to get mortgages and so were stuck renting for longer. And the years since 2014 have seen a spike in international in-migration, potentially driven by the lifting of restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian workers.

Could Brexit disrupt these flows? There are already some signs that things are changing. In November 2016, the Office for National Statistics’ latest estimates of net long-term international migration showed a sharp fall of 38 per cent in London. The figures are only estimates, with wide margins of error, but the ONS assessed the fall as being statistically significant. It may be a blip, but could it signal a longer-term change? Other indicators certainly suggest a slowdown: the number of foreign nationals registering for a national insurance number when they arrive to work in London dropped by 20 per cent between the beginning of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, with European nationals accounting for most of the decline.

Bringing the UK’s international migration down to “tens of thousands” as the Government has pledged would therefore have a big impact on London’s population, and it looks as if the mere prospect of tighter controls is already having an impact. Would this be offset by more people coming to London from the rest of the UK, and fewer leaving? Previous research has shown that when international migration declines (generally in recessions), domestic out-migration also slows, keeping population levels up.

But this depends on the balance of push and pull factors remaining constant: as long as London offers economic opportunity, people will come here; as long as it remains an expensive and tough city to live in, people will leave. Net out-migration has been rising since 2009 – from 30,000 to more than 90,000 – but it still has some way to go to attain its previous peak of 110,000 in 2004.

So what about births and deaths? The number of deaths in London has been pretty constant – around 50,000 Londoners die each year – but the annual number of births has climbed from around 100,000 to around 130,000 in the past 15 years. However, “natural increase” replenishment of London’s population has also been affected by immigration: 70 per cent of babies born in London in 2016 had one parent born overseas. Reducing immigration levels could, therefore, have an impact, in the long term, on that part of the picture too.

When London’s population started to recover in the mid-1980s after four decades of decline, it was driven first by domestic migration and then by accelerating international migration. Since then, momentum has grown, as freedom of movement, an internationalised economy and cheap air travel have combined to open London up, creating a city where 800,000 people – 10% of its population – arrive every year, and only slightly fewer leave.

But there is nothing inevitable about continued growth. It is perfectly possible to imagine a scenario where falling international in-migration and rising domestic out-migration combine to stop London’s growth in its tracks. If net international migration fell back by 20% a year, it would fall to around 65,000 in three years’ time – only slightly lower than its level in the early 2000s. If this was combined with a growth in internal out-migration to its previous peak, and a slight dip in births, London’s population growth could be reduced to just 17,000 by 2019 and could go into reverse the following year.

This is all highly speculative. We are still in the dark about the nature of Brexit, let alone its impact: London is still creating jobs and attracting inward investment, though business confidence remains fragile. The long-term change in international migration may be negligible, or may be counterbalanced by domestic movement.

London may continue to thrive economically, preserving and enhancing its offer to businesses and talented people from across the world, or its service sector economy may take a hit; academic research in recent months has suggested both that London will be hardest and least hard hit by Brexit. London property prices may resume their stellar trajectory, or may cool off to allow wages to catch up. It will only be in the next few years that we understand whether Brexit checks, stalls or amplifies the phenomenal population boom that London has experienced over the past 30 years.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

It's-a-hard?

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I’m starting to wonder whether there is a remainer case to be made for a ‘hard Brexit’, for severing trade ties completely with the EU, rather than seeking to maintain regulatory alignment, or some type of associate membership of the single market and customs union.

Many remain voters – me included – still hope that the referendum result can be undone, by parliamentary process or referendum, so that the UK can stay in the European Union. As a fall back position, we tend to advocate a ‘soft Brexit’. But, without quacking about “vassal” status, it is worth questioning the value of this option. It would be like a slightly inferior version of what we have today, with no say in the rules governing trade and the development of the single market.

This means that those rules would over time work more and more against UK interests and in favour of those of the EU27 (for example, stipulating that financial institutions must be located within the Eurozone, or slapping ever higher tariffs on the medicines and engine parts that we export). This will not happen in every case, and when it does it will not be the result of malice but of simple self-interest – and the absence of a UK voice at the negotiating table. And every time it happens, the Brexit geek chorus will start up, rattling its chains, bemoaning that we are being penalised by evil and unaccountable bureaucrats, and making Faragist demands for “true Brexit”.

So, why not let the Johnsons, Foxes and Hannans have their hard Brexit, setting sail on the high seas of global commerce to seek our fortune? I personally think that this will be disastrous for the UK – culturally, economically and environmentally. But what do I know? It may be that hard Brexit will lead to a great renaissance of the UK as a prosperous, open and respected nation, and I hope I would have the good grace to be delighted as well as surprised if that was the result.

Alternatively, hard Brexit might lead to a short, sharp and shocking decline, rather than the gradual ebb of a soft Brexit. This might be succeeded by a Phoenix-like recovery, or the shock might precipitate a collective volte-face and desire to rejoin the EU.  The terms might not be perfect, but I think the continent would welcome its prodigal home.

And that’s where the irony lies. Given the simmering resentment on both sides likely to result from soft Brexit, its main appeal lies in the ease with which we would be able to rejoin the EU, but perhaps makes that outcome less likely.  A cleaner break would give us a clearer view of what we had left behind, but make it that much harder to rejoin. I don’t want to underplay the damage that might be done by a hard Brexit, but worry that the rule-taking halfway house of soft Brexit may just lead to a slower and more rancorous slide to a similar end-state.

All that said, however, "nobody knows anything" as screenwriter William Goldman wrote about the inability of studios to predict confidently which films will succeed and which will bomb at the box office. As we begin another year of bad-tempered Brexit wrangling, it’s a maxim worth bearing in mind.

Found in the suburbs

[Originally published online by the Guardian, 6 December 2017]

The London plan, the latest draft of which was published at the end of November, is the great ocean-going liner of London mayoral politics. It carries as its cargo all the mayor’s most important policies, as it sails from draft to adoption, navigating the choppy waters of public consultation and examination-in-public on its way.

As soon as the plan’s two to three-year journey is completed, it turns round to begin afresh the process of review and redrafting. It is the keystone of mayoral strategies, and one of the most powerful tools the mayor of London has to define the shape of London. It regulates the use of land – a scarce asset in a growing but constrained city – and over time all 33 London boroughs should ensure that their plans and planning decisions fall in line with its policies on what should be built where.

This concentration of mayoral powers in planning means many policies take on a spatial complexion: while the mayor cannot tax or ban unhealthy fast food shops, he can propose that they are located away from schools. He cannot license nightclubs, but he can require developers to meet the cost of soundproofing if they build alongside nightclubs. He does not manage financial services, but he can preserve land for offices in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf.

If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and if you are a planning document, everything looks like a land use issue.

At the heart of the latest London plan is its focus on annual new housing supply, raised from its previous target of 42,000 to 66,000, with half being affordable. It’s an ambitious target, considering that the present supply of new homes, 29,000, is less than half the new target – but the mayor argues that the capital’s crisis over a lack of affordable homes requires a big step up. Few would disagree with that.

Some of the proposed homes may be built outside London – the plan commits to working more closely with neighbouring councils, a scheme that will be considered in a forthcoming report by Centre for London and the Southern Policy Centre – but the priority will be building homes within the capital.

Alongside investment in affordable homes, which Khan says needs to be increased to £2.7bn, and land at the Olympic Park and Old Oak Common, the mayor must rely on his planning powers to achieve his target. In some cases, he will be able to intervene himself in planning decisions, but can only do so where certain conditions are met, such as schemes with more than 150 housing units or buildings over 30 metres tall.

In most cases, he will have to rely on the policies and planning decisions made by individual London boroughs and some outer London boroughs, who are being asked to double or even treble their speed of housebuilding – and who may be reluctant to do so, given the concerns of local voters.

So the plan seeks to make it easier for boroughs to grant planning permission and harder to refuse it. High density in itself, for example, can no longer be a reason to turn a scheme down – although there is sensible provision for careful scrutiny of the design of the highest density schemes.

There is also a sharper focus on smaller sites, which are expected to account for 25,000 of the 66,000 new homes a year. The plan says smaller sites should be prioritised by boroughs, with design codes drawn up to identify opportunities for new development, particularly around transport hubs, and a presumption in favour of giving planning permission.

But all this relies on developers wanting to build. For 20 years, London’s housing market has boomed, so the challenge has been how much the mayor and boroughs can secure from developers in terms of social housing and other community benefits; where permission has been refused, developers have often come back with a better offer.
At the launch of the draft plan, London’s deputy mayor, Jules Pipe, was adamant that it would not stifle development or undermine viability of schemes. But planning as a tool works better at directing development than initiating it. There is already a growing backlog of planning consents that have been given, but where houses have not been built, and without a dramatic increase in funding, the mayor has only limited powers to get homes built.

The draft plan does want to find incentives for homes to be built faster, and a switch to more rental developments and smaller sites should help, but at a time when London’s housing market is cooling, planning permission will only be half the battle.
  • This article was corrected on 12 December to clarify the mayor’s target of £2.7bn to invest in affordable homes.

London Sounds

[Originally published in OnLondon, 13 November 2017]


Richard Brown is research director at think tank Centre for London and before that he worked for Mayor Ken Livingstone and on the transformation of the Olympic Park. So he knows this city. He also knows a few of its tunes.

Why don’t we sing about our city? Writing here recently, Westminster North MP Karen Buck observed how few songs celebrate London, when so many reference postcodes, districts or neighbourhoods, from Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street to Wiley’s Bow E3.

Given London’s uneasy relationship with the rest of the UK, the capital may simply be reticent, loath to sing its own praises. Like a tall person at a party, London stoops to blend in. Also, as discussed at a recent Centre for London seminar, London identity is a slippery concept; many Londoners identify far more closely with their neighbourhood than with the unexplored miles and unknowable millions of the metropolis.

Newcomers are less coy about celebrating the city, still conceiving it as a singularity, rather than as the patchwork of places that residents navigate, and it is striking how many “London” songs are written by new arrivals or even in anticipation of arrival. One of the earliest, Lord Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me, was written before he arrived in Tilbury on the SS Empire Windrush as it brought the first wave of West Indian migrants to London in 1948.

The Smiths’ London is about the journey south from Manchester, and the Pet Shop Boys’ song of the same name depicts the Eastern European migrant experience. The Pogues’ early hymns to London, including the bleary Dark Streets of London and the boisterously offensive Transmetropolitan, were written from an adopted stance of London Irish rootlessness. Even two of the best-known London songs – The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and Ralph McTell’s Streets of London – were originally composed for other cities, Liverpool and Paris respectively.

But many more songs are unambiguously about London, while never naming the city. Karen Buck picks out her erstwhile constituents The Clash, whose songs are an A-Z of punk reference points, but Woking imports The Jam were also prolific in the key of London: In The City and Strange Town celebrate the giddy excitement and the nervous alienation of coming up from the suburbs, while Down in The Tube Station at Midnight and That’s Entertainment take a more jaundiced view of late 1970s London, and its “smell of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right wing meetings”.

When I arrived in London in the 1990s, punk was long gone, except for postcards of theme-park mohicans on King’s Road. Alongside St Etienne’s electric ballads and Pulp’s class satires, Underworld’s early albums are powerfully evocative of London at that time. In Dirty Epic, sounding like a blissed-out Iain Sinclair, Karl Hyde invokes “the sainted rhythms of the midnight train to Romford”, capturing the queasy hedonism of London clubbing as acutely as Soft Cell’s Bedsitter or the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls did in the 1980s.

The capital looms, even when unmentioned, over all the later phases of Britpop, when Oasis, Pulp and Blur abandoned their regional roots to celebrate the capital’s offer of sex, drugs and existential angst, and – as 2000s war clouds gather – is a powerful presence in Damon Albarn’s subsequent work with The Good The Bad and The Queen. Songs like The Libertines’ Time for Heroes, and Plan B’s Ill Manors chart London’s history as a centre for protest and of rage. They don’t mention the city by name, but they don’t need to. Where London is mentioned, in Lily Allen’s LDN or Elvis Costello’s London’s Brilliant Parade, it is sardonically or even bitterly.

Even among these anonymous appearances, as the backdrop for stories of love and hate, success and failure, positive portrayals of London seem sparse, as Karen Buck argues. We don’t rhapsodise the city; even Noel Coward’s elegant wartime London Pride is a casual and minor key ode to a “grey city, stubbornly implanted, taken so for granted for a thousand years”. But perhaps that’s right: London’s glitter, so keenly serenaded by new arrivals, soon loses its lustre. It is replaced by a deeper, more clear-eyed but less articulate attachment, even a quiet sense of tainted civic pride, which infects and informs whole genres of music.

You can follow Richard Brown on Twitter and read more of his work on London via here.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The hills are alive


I went to see God’s Own Country last weekend, and found it a rare treat.  It wasn’t just the same-sex love story at the film’s heart – though god knows it’s a relief to see a film where gay characters get to do more than nobly triumph over homophobia – but also the bleak but ultimately uplifting portrayal of family and subsistence farming in the hills of West Yorkshire.

Alongside the slow-burn relationship between taciturn farmer Johnny and Romanian hired hand Gheorghe, the film charts the physical decline of Johnny’s father’s, debilitated by two strokes, and shows the unsentimental despatching of sick animals. But the stolid landscape of mud, rock and moorland, the backdrop to these scenes of decay and death, endures in the watery spring daylight.  It’s beautiful, Georghe says to Johnny as they tackle the sisyphean task of repairing a dry stone wall, but lonely too.

A few years ago, recovering from illness but still fearful, I went walking in the Chilterns, the hills of my childhood.  Up above Princes Risborough, I felt a curious elation. These hills, these chalk markings, these beech trees that were here when I visited as a child, they would still be here after my death.  They were completely indifferent to my existence. But their indifference was not daunting, like the vastness of the universe, but comforting, of human scale, an assurance of a future beyond my life.

I felt something like that watching the film. The West Yorkshire hills would still be there when all the characters had gone, as would the dry stone walls and farm buildings. The landscape is indifferent, but not unaffected; the human touch is everywhere – either visibly in built structures or implicitly in patterns of cultivation. And perhaps it is in these landscapes, in the dry stone walls and the cairns assembled by walkers on hill paths, that we non-architects gain some measure of longevity, of immortality even, some sense of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph ‘si monumentum requiris, circumpsice’ – if you are seeking a memorial, look around you.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Transport of no delight

When does 'disruption' tip over into irresponsibility? That was one of the fundamental tensions underpinning the tech manifesto published by Centre for London, with Tech London Advocates and London First, in February 2016. The row over Uber's licence suspension in London shows that we are still some way from an answer.

The Tech Manifesto argued for an approach that balanced "open innovation, with consideration of citizens' needs", and identified "the disruption to the private hire markets caused by the introduction of Uber in London [as] a prime example of regulators failing to keep pace with the scale and speed of a particular innovation".

On Friday, it felt like regulators finally caught up, when Transport for London announced that Uber's licence to operate in London would be revoked from the end of September. But the racing metaphor quickly implodes: the events of the last few days look like an object lesson in how not to do digital regulation. Transport for London's decision to pull Uber's licence appears to have come out of the blue, with little opportunity for Uber to address the concerns about driver and passenger safety that have been raised.  At the same time, Uber, so rich in political networks, has responded with petitions and media campaigns about its 40,000 workers and millions of customers, blowing squid ink rather than trying to engage with the concerns about its systems and policies.

It may be that TfL has announced the 'surprise' revocation to force the pace with a company that would otherwise happily deploy lobbyists and lawyers to haggle for months over sanctions and compliance, and it may also be that Uber is sincere in the sentiment expressed by its CEO in a tweet on Saturday, asking London to "work with us to make things right".

But this clash - more interesting because it is more textured than other cities' decision to ban Uber outright - does not inspire much faith in the future for intelligent discussions about regulating the digital economy. We cannot preserve business as usual for every element of city services, but we shouldn't give 'disruption' a free pass an unalloyed benefit to urban life - individually or in aggregate - either.