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British Council for Offices annual conference 2010

Rory Olcayto reports from this year’s British Council for Offices annual conference, held in London for the first time in 17 years. Main image by Cityscape Digital

‘Others are trying to steal our mantle as the premier world city,’ warns Gerald Kaye, chairman of the 2010 British Council for Offices (BCO) annual conference, as the two-day event begins. This simple declaration sets the tone that will dominate the conference, centred in Powell & Moya’s bunker-like Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, London – a kind of nervous bullishness.

‘If you choke off London’s infrastructure, you’ll slow the [economic] recovery,’ says Simon Milton, deputy mayor of London, during opening session ‘Money’s too Tight to Mention’. At the closing session the next day, a debate entitled ‘The World in 2020’, Hamish McRae of the Independent says the capital will benefit from any shift to the East. ‘London is the choreographer in this rebalancing of global economics,’ he explains.

And should there be any local pretenders to London’s throne – Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow, let’s say – then forget it. ‘London is a city chained to a third-world country,’ says City of London planning officer Peter Rees. ‘Let’s junk nation states. They don’t get us anywhere.’

Champions league

It’s been 17 years since the BCO last held its annual conference – 48 hours of seminars and site visits, walking tours and intense networking – in London. On ‘home turf’, as Kaye puts it. The theme this year is ‘capital recovery’ (pun intended), so the civic tub-thumping on show and the focus on London’s place in the world order post-recession are no surprise.

Alongside debates on the future of office development, staple fare for the BCO, global marketplace forecasts and their impact on the sector hold sway. As we learn from McRae, the world is at a turning point: the G7 has become the G20. China is now second only to the USA in economic might and India is the second largest investor in the UK. Where does that leave London as a financial centre, and is the rest of Britain really as desolate as Rees would have us believe?

These are big questions and the BCO conference, if not the place to find direct answers, is somewhere you can find the kind of advice the new coalition government might seek as it wrestles with the task of reviving the nation’s economy. So when Milton, just three days after London mayor Boris Johnson published the Outer London Commission’s final report, talks of a green enterprise zone for East London and adds that he expects public sector jobs to migrate to outer borough offices, ‘and not just Croydon, but new centres like Stratford’, delegates’ ears prick up.

London versus the UK

Everyone present is keenly aware that the massive expansion of London’s office space since the last London-based BCO conference was built on the city’s pre-eminence as a financial services powerhouse. So much so that, in one session, London School of Economics director Howard Davies dismisses the idea of kickstarting London’s manufacturing base as a ‘romantic delusion’. The recovery will ‘build on business and financial services’, he says. Despite new prime minister David Cameron pledging to rekindle the UK’s manufacturing base in a speech that very day, no one bothers to disagree.

There are audience grumbles, too, when the subject of state-sector support for ‘the North’, and in particular the devolved UK nations, is raised, sparked by Rees’ controversial comments. But as Simon Jenkins, National Trust chairman and former editor of The Times, makes clear in an earlier session, London’s recent success was built with massive government support. Canary Wharf cost the public £4 billion and Crossrail is set to swallow another £17 billion. A lone voice – Jenkins’ – declares it a ‘fantastic waste of money’.

Francis Salway, chief executive of Britain’s biggest property firm, Land Securities, backs the idea of a ‘northern Crossrail’, linking Liverpool with Manchester and Leeds. London’s status would be enhanced if we had a ‘second economics sector’, he says. But funding it, Salway adds, would mean mothballing HS2, a high-speed link from London to Glasgow. Yet data shows that regional cities have outperformed London’s GDP growth in recent years, and Leeds, Cardiff and Glasgow are the UK’s most productive cities, according to economist Bridget Rosewell, chairman of Volterra Consulting.

Gay bars & misfits

So which cities, then, are attempting to ‘steal London’s mantle’ as the world’s capital and the development opportunities this status brings? ‘London is still at the top, level-pegging with New York,’ says LSE’s Davies, but the financial crisis has sped up the eastward trend. Hong Kong and Singapore are gaining ground, and Sydney, adds Davies, is well placed, positioning itself astutely relative to Asian markets.

Shanghai, though, is the real threat. ‘It has the ambition to be the main world city,’ says McRae, while Rosewell gives McRae’s point a construction context. ‘There are 102 tunnel boring systems at work in Shanghai – more than is available in the US and Europe combined,’ she says.

But is slick infrastructure and office development enough to make a world capital? Stuart Fraser, chairman of the City of London’s Policy and Resources Committee, thinks not. ‘Shanghai can’t attract enough creative and talented people to work there,’ he says.

And as Rees makes clear at the close of the conference, this is something London excels at. ‘As I explained to Beijing officials asking for tips on how to become a world city recently, it’s simple,’ he says. ‘All you need to do is attract a multicultural population and have better gay bars. London is full of the world’s misfits, like me, and it’s misfits that lead change.’

Holding on to the mantle

Speakers at this year’s BCO conference highlight barriers to London’s growth and suggest ways to retain its world capital status

Dos

‘Insist on full government support for a 12-car Crossrail. Do not downgrade to 10-car trains. Shovel-ready now, Crossrail must be complete by 2017.’
Stuart Fraser, chairman, City of London’s Policy and Resources Committee

‘Encourage the government to devolve housing from the Homes and Communities Agency to the mayor’s office.’
Simon Milton, deputy mayor of London

‘Allow the mayor to expand office development for both the public and private into the suburbs.’
Simon Milton

‘Consider Birmingham, rather than the Thames Estuary, as the location for London’s new airport.’
Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

‘Demolish Battersea Power Station to enable real development of Nine Elms.’
Stuart Fraser

‘More small-scale enabling developments like the revamp of Oxford Circus.’
Tony Travers

‘Allow pre-let office development to flourish.’
Chris Grigg, chief executive, British Land

‘Invest in post-occupancy evaluation of buildings to improve sustainable design requirements.’
Chris Grigg

‘Let the public realm take some of the pressure off building design. Good street design makes architecture look better.’
Francis Salway, chief executive, Land Securities

Dont’s

‘Don’t over-regulate banks. It makes Asia more attractive and could inhibit growth.’
Stuart Fraser

‘Don’t ignore London’s airport capacity. Axeing the third runway was a mistake. We have accidentally made a decision to export our hub airport status to Amsterdam and Paris.’
Tony Travers

‘Don’t deter international workers with immigration caps.’
Stuart Fraser

London’s towers make you happy
A report by David Partridge, joint chief executive of Argent, on one of the conference’s many on-site seminars, held at office projects throughout London

London’s towers make you happy: this is the message that came out of the BCO’s tour of London’s current tower schemes. We were hosted by British Land at SOM’s Broadgate Tower (AJ 19.03.09), and from a window we could see KPF’s Heron Tower (AJ Specification 03.10), Renzo Piano’s Shard and the sites for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Leadenhall Building (the ‘Cheesegrater’) and Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street (the ‘Walkie Talkie’). Chaired brilliantly by Ken Shuttleworth, the seminar explored each of these schemes with the architects, developers and agents who have been toiling to get them underway.

What came across in every presentation was the commitment of all concerned. Public access and amenity was a constant theme, and though there were many plan variations on show, it seemed that the special planning constraints of the City of London make for the extraordinary variety of shapes displayed by these, the ‘tallest flowers in the garden’.

The talks ended with a couple of fantastic ‘fly-through’ animations, showing how all of the towers will interact together. British Land’s Paul Burgess captured the mood, declaring that the skyline of London, when all of these buildings are complete, will be a remarkable manifestation of the confidence and ingenuity of the office sector in our capital city.

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