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Farrell on London: ‘The big problem is getting some cohesion’

In his first interview since becoming design advisor to mayor Boris Johnson, Terry Farrell talks to Merlin Fulcher about gaps in London’s planning, localism and the death of the Thames Estuary Airport

What are the main issues you want to tackle in London?

There’s a whole scale of urban planning missing from our planning frameworks system. One of the problems we have with London is that the political boundaries of the boroughs do not coincide with the planning issues. The South Bank from Battersea Power Station to the Design Museum is spread across three boroughs. That is Zone One and it should be planned as one thing.

What do you think of mayor Boris Johnson and his powers?

London needs a stronger mayoral role. The biggest problem for the city is trying to get some cohesion. People marched against the poll tax, but nobody marched when Margaret Thatcher closed down the mayor’s office. Could you imagine telling the people of New York or Paris that central government is going to eliminate the post of mayor in those cities? We’ve now got the mayor back, as promised by the Labour government, and they’ve put in the weakest role they could get away with – a role that didn’t disturb the boroughs and didn’t disturb national government.

To give credit to former mayor Ken Livingstone and Boris, they made more of it than ever was given to them by making a lot of noise. But they and the boroughs should find planning entities that have power to do something.

What are your views on the Tories’ planning green paper?

I’m apolitical, but I think localism is a good term – it’s quite of the age. The urban renaissance of the 1990s under Labour had the interesting effect of helping regenerate underprivileged and post-industrial cities and towns. Nowadays, the idea of going down a scale of localism is very interesting. We’ve been making planning decisions in the last 30 to 40 years, the consequences of which haven’t been fully realised, like big shopping centres.

Look at high streets that are struggling in London, but we’ve just built White City. Improving London’s high streets is now of strategic importance. It’s about real issues of place and identity.

You were on the steering group for the proposed Thames Estuary Airport. Will it go ahead?

I don’t think that it will happen. The mayor of London should ask, what is the relation of London to its airports? The inevitable answer will be that it is a disproportionate investment for the return. It would be unviable.

The initial Thames Estuary Airport idea came from one of the engineers after they saw my bridge and estuary island proposals. I was proposing a much lower Thames crossing across the estuary that could be combined with flood management and energy generation. It’s no longer an estuary airport committee – it’s now an estuary area committee.

So what is the alternative?

My preference is to link the existing airports together with high-speed rail. We need to look at a constellation hub. And London’s airport capacity should be increased by linking existing airports with an ‘outer M25’ high-speed rail link.

The idea of building one single super-hub is not on the cards for Britain. We could lead the way in a constellation hub. If you have one big super-hub and there’s a traffic accident, a terrorist incident or a weather incident, you don’t have any flexibility, whereas with a constellation hub you can move from one to the other. My theory is that London has as many runways – nine – as any other city in the world, but just not all together.

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