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Why Sadiq Khan should make time to listen to architects

Paul Finch

Paul Finch offers the new London mayor 12 reasons why he should call on the imagination and experience of architects in developing his vision for the capital

London Mayor Sadiq Khan reportedly has not been able to find time in his diary to meet various architects, including Richard Rogers and RIBA president Jane Duncan.

Since he is my constituency MP, and someone I supported in these columns as the better of the mayoral election candidates, perhaps I can gently offer some reasons why he should not only go through the political routine of meeting people who want to help, but also exploit the talents and commitment of London architects to help create the built environment he would certainly like to see. Mr Mayor:

1. Architects are on your side. Whatever their personal politics, London architects want their city to work well, and in particular to have a sufficiency of housing to help reduce the current grotesque inequalities generated by decades of provision failure.

2. With the exception of individuals like Richard Rogers and Terry Farrell, architects deal in ideas rather than the broad brush of environmental politics. Rather than seeing this as a weakness (note the silly criticism of the excellent New London Architecture exhibition on housing ideas as not being ‘political’), examine the ideas from the perspective of a mayor who has land, finance, planning and compulsory purchase powers way beyond what Ken Livingstone possessed.

3. Now that you have abandoned your minimum 50 per cent affordable requirement (just like Ken), why don’t you engage with talented architects who can approach the problem of housing, land, construction and delivery from a design perspective, ie think about the problem in the round rather than as a series of silos? For example, is housing a production problem or a distribution problem?

4. Why don’t you seek the advice of architects who have designed successful housing estates across the capital in recent years? There are countless examples of useful research based on real-life experience produced by major practices. They find it incredibly frustrating that each new mayor appears to want to re-invent the wheel on policy, when the only thing that matters in the short term is providing on the basis of prediction.

5. Consult architects with specialist experience about the growing requirement for ‘silver-hair’ housing. The double benefit of downsizing for both individuals and the market is not to be underestimated, but to be implemented will require a sophisticated approach which again requires synthetic thinking – which is what architects are good at.

6. Whatever happens, don’t fall for the line (which will be peddled to you by policy advisers, contractors, housebuilders etc) that quality is an enemy of quantity. It is no such thing; the need is to combine both – well expressed in this magazine’s ‘More homes, better homes’ campaign.

7. Stick to your predecessor’s guns in respect of space standards, albeit with some margin for much-needed smaller units – but don’t let bad money drive out good.

Why don’t you re-introduce the old GLC mortgage scheme for first-time buyers?

8. Why don’t you re-introduce the old GLC mortgage scheme for first-time buyers, possibly in relation to developments on public land, commissioned by your own authority and/or the Homes and Communities Agency?

9. And while we’re at it, why don’t you make difficult sites available to architect-led, one-off housing associations, with sites made available cheaply in return for social housing provision?

10. If you haven’t already done so, why not talk to architects like Levitt Bernstein, PRP, Pollard Thomas Edwards, HTA, Terry Farrell and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners about all this stuff? They have forgotten more about housing than the rest of the GLA put together knows.

11. Pay attention to architectural analysis in respect of airport expansion. Terry Farrell has made by far the most convincing case for the expansion of Gatwick rather than Heathrow as a short-term answer to aviation capacity, infinitely more sophisticated than the foolish Cameron-sponsored report, designed to delay a decision. Since you don’t like Heathrow expansion, this should not be difficult.

12. In the longer term, adopt Foster + Partners’ estuary airport proposition. Whatever Jonathan Meades may think, this idea is not that of Boris Johnson, but derives from your own predecessor body, the GLC, which secured planning permission for such an airport in the 1970s. The long-term benefits are as great now as they were considered then.

Finally, it is a mistake to think about architects as simply lobbying in respect of their own economic interest. Don’t forget that London’s first modern leader, Mayor Livingstone, explicitly based his vision for the capital on the urban design ideas of Richard Rogers.

So Mr Mayor, please make the time, not for a courtesy call, but for a serious conversation about how imagination and experience can be called on as London increasingly expands as the New York of Europe – in or out of the EU.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Excuse me, Mr Finch, but while all your architectural advice to the Mayor is spot-on and definitely justified your geographical advice on airport location is rather less so.
    As it stands, all the London airports serve a great deal of the rest of England as well as London - they're not just for London, and the suggested estuary locations would be a great deal more difficult of access from the rest of the country, except perhaps by air.
    Should you wish to pursue this matter with the Mayor, may I suggest that first the City airport be expanded (ignore the current protesters) - and then London could declare itself an independent city state, Singapore style, and rid itself for once and for all of the millstone of the provinces.

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  • I wonder if Sadiq Khan is proposing to attend MIPIM as his predecessors have done?

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