As the number of commuters to the Square Mile increases, radical strategies are required, says Paul Finch
As we contemplate yet more chaos in the soap opera that is Brexit (which is what happens when a Remainer prime minister undermines her Leaver chief negotiator), we can take comfort from the fact that there is still plenty of confidence in the City of London about the shape of things to come.
I say this following a conversation with Christopher Hayward, chairman of the City’s planning and transportation committee. He is currently engaged in producing a new transport strategy for the Square Mile, which will specifically complement a development strategy envisaging further growth in workspace on the eastern side of the business district.
The Elizabeth Line is likely to result in an extra 60,000 to 70,000 commuters arriving in the heart of the City each day
The challenges involved will be prodigious, since the ongoing attractiveness of the City to developers and employers alike, plus improvements in public transport access, have planning and management consequences which cannot be properly dealt with on an ad hoc basis.
For example, the opening of the Elizabeth Line is likely to result in an extra 60,000 to 70,000 commuters arriving in the heart of the City each day, adding to the 480,000 filling pavements and stations. When the Lipton Rogers 22 Bishopsgate building opens shortly, it will mean 12,000 people arriving and leaving each day, many of them in the two rush-hour slots in the morning and evening. These space/time events are already resulting in commuters walking in the road rather than on the stuffed pavements. It is a significant hazard, and not just from motor traffic: accidents involving cyclists are increasing in number at an alarming rate, Hayward notes.
Dealing with congestion of all types is likely to involve some radical departures in respect of traffic management. The closure of Bank junction to four-wheel vehicles for much of the day is unlikely to be reversed, and may in fact be accompanied by rush-hour closures of some of the narrower streets that are desire lines for commuters heading for trains and Underground. We can only hope that the overall strategy will look again at some previous closures and see whether they are still necessary. It is bizarre that, when you cross Southwark Bridge into the City, you hit a T-junction. Why?
Another strategy for relieving pressure on City streets and offices is to expand the ‘Eastern Cluster’ of office towers
There is another strategy for relieving pressure on City streets and offices, which is to expand the ‘Eastern Cluster’ of office towers, partly within the existing informal boundary, but more significantly by moving southward. Hayward would like to see a greater connection between the Walkie-Talkie and the rest of the cluster, so that visually it is connected, rather than isolated. Good idea. So is the streetscape and landscape improvement strategy for the cluster, currently out for consultation.
It seems highly unlikely that Tower Hamlets would agree to boundary changes extending the City (Hackney agreed a modest redrawing of boundaries in respect of Broadgate years ago). But there is no reason why the commercial success of the EC3 postal area should not extend. Currently, rents in this insurance zone of the City fall off a cliff the moment the postal district becomes E1, resulting in reluctance to develop new first-class offices there.
But suppose you extend the postal district: more or less free, psychologically liberating and guaranteed to eliminate that rental gap over time. Therefore Tower Hamlets gets new development and benefits from additional business rates at no expense to itself. Streetscape would be funded by the developers of new accommodation.
Which leaves the question of a new name for this expanded ‘cluster’, which has always sounded a bit medical. My proposal: ‘Eastside’ (I know Birmingham has such an area, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on names). This zone would be based on postal address, not a local authority – flexibility in a changing world.