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Why the City wants no residents

The tent citizens of Occupy London are not the only unwanted residents in the City, writes Christine Murray

The Occupy London movement is currently outside St Paul’s Cathedral to protest against corporate greed. Their agenda, as set out on their website, is ‘reclaiming space in the face of the financial system’ to ‘voice ideas for a future free from a political elite who ignores its citizens’.

While the City has agreed to temporarily tolerate the presence of these tent citizens within its curtilage, last week it released a report to stave off any more unwanted residents.

The City of London Corporation is currently petitioning for immunity from proposed sweeping changes to the General Permitted Development Order, which according to a report by research group Quod would potentially see 1.2 million square metres of City office space converted into flats over the next five years.

‘Evidence shows how sporadic residential uses can remove the ability of the City to adapt through preventing development due to their longer lease structures and inhibiting its scale through their entitlement to rights of light and privacy,’ says the report.

Or in the more forthright words of Jack Pringle of Pringle Brandon, ‘It’s not that the City wants to keep poor offices; they don’t want residents. The City is an office factory. It’s well-named as the Corporation. The last thing they want is residents who will demand a say in how it’s run.’

The City of London knows that every resident is a potential Nimby – as much of a nuisance as the protesters camped outside Wren’s work. But whereas many of you likely support the protesters’ call for regulation in City banking (architects having suffered acutely from their sub-prime gambling), you also believe the City of London should be exempt from changes to the planning act.

There are exceptions to every rule, and it is true that a thoughtful and considered approach to planning is always better than knee-jerk, wide-sweeping change. As Graham Morrison of Allies and Morrison puts it, ‘In the case of the City of London, their wish to be exempt is justified; it would be good to have more people living in the City, but not at the expense of its position as a world trading centre.’

Still, it’s hard to imagine that the City’s status is really under threat by having a few extra locals. The Corporation is adept at guarding its territory and supremacy – whenever change is mooted, from taxes to the listing of Broadgate, we are subjected to PR scaremongering, threatening the demise of the UK’s economic engine.

With just 10,000 residents and 300,000 employees, it’s hard to believe locals will ever have much of a voice, especially as every City business can register to vote, and firms are allocated votes according to how many people they employ – a remarkable exception to British law.

The City should be exempted from this planning change, but it should also be pushed to think harder about how it can accommodate a greater number of residents. The idea has a historical precedent – nearly 4,000 more people lived there in 1921 than today. You only need to walk through One New Change on a Saturday to realise how desolate this centre of London can be – even with a few hundred protesters around the corner.

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