Wednesday, 27 December 2017


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.