09 Oct 2017
On the eve of World Mental Health Day, it was interesting how mental and social health and well-being featured in several of the speakers’ presentations at the Evening Standard’s ‘Leading London’ conference held this morning at Here East in Queen Elizabeth Park. Whether they featured by way of accident or design doesn’t really matter; the fact they did does.
The conference was about London being at the heart of business innovation – hence the venue – but much of it related to the regeneration and place-making activities of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), this being of interest to me in my role as one of three independent members of the Planning Decisions Committee.
So what about these references to mental and social health and well-being? Mayor of London Sadiq Khan opened proceedings and whilst he mentioned affordable housing and the cost of the London Stadium in passing, he used most of his speech to stress the importance of the new Cultural and Education Quarter, something that George Osborne later was keen to claim some credit for when he was Chancellor.
The new Cultural and Education Quarter will be impressive, with many big institutional names lined up, indeed signed up. The V&A, the Smithsonian, Sadler’s Wells, the London School of Fashion and UCL will make it truly world class and one of the largest such concentrations of the arts and education in Europe. But rather than merely herald such an impressive line-up, there was a parallel message about this forming an essential component of the wider regeneration effort, beyond creating new jobs and new homes to one where there will be a rich diversity of uses, with interaction with the local community and connectivity at its heart. All this is on the back of the on-going success of the Park itself, which now attracts five million visitors a year.
Khan and Osborne topped the bill but Professor Julia Hobsbawm OBE was the most impressive speaker of the day. She specifically mentioned World Mental Health Day but linked it to the concept of social health, one she has defined and talks so eloquently about. She referred to the paradox of how when we have become so well-connected, we have also become less productive and less healthy socially. The massive growth in the population of London since the 1980’s is because people prefer to interact and connect with one another in the environment of a big city - and the growth in this area is a case in point. But she warned of the interrupted episodes caused by e-mail working – 80 a day on average, apparently - and the blurring of work and home life as creating disconnection and dysfunction. She said workplaces must search their souls and it’s ever more important for people to connect personally, as technology takes us in the opposite direction.
Nneka Chukwurah then brought us back to East London and her work at Echo, seeking to “connect people and potential to fuel prosperity”, as she described it. This involves small businesses and entrepreneurs trading in time and skills rather than pounds and pence, to help create networks and grow their businesses in the kind of way that Julia Hobsbawm was promoting minutes before. Nneka’s sense of pride in what she does and the case studies she spoke of suggested that her work does much to strengthen the well-being of those involved, in all senses of the words, through personal and digital connection.
During the panel discussion towards the end of the session, the Chairman of LLDC Sir Peter Hendy was asked for one thought to sum up all that had been said before. Interestingly, he said the key message was the importance of “work and life, and the balance between them”. I had a true sense that much of the regeneration of this area of East London goes well beyond bricks and mortar, to the well-being of the community and with social interaction being at its heart.
24 Jul 2017
Over the weekend there has been much written and spoken about Ruth Davidson's article on the new blog platform UnHerd. And quite right too - it's interesting and well worth a read, as it presents a view on planning as part of a wider commentary about leadership and the need to reform capitalism.
For those who may not know or remember, Ms Davidson was the one shining light in an otherwise rather poor Conservative Party election campaign. She is the Scottish Conservative Leader and the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh Central. UnHerd was launched over the weekend, it being described by the Spectator as a centre-right blog and the brainchild of Tim Montgomerie, the founder the conservative home website.
So what has this rising political star and this new blogging site got to offer, that's caused such a stir?
Ms Davidson's blog is entitled 'Ctrl + Alt + Del. Conservatives must reboot capitalism' and was posted on 22nd July. Her opening gambit is that the world is a richer, healthier, better educated and more equal place because of the developing world's growth and the achievements of capitalism. In order to demonstrate the point she states:
In 1981 42% of the world's population was extremely poor.....By 2013 that proportion had dropped to 10.7%
That seems like good progress indeed.
But her blog then questions how if capitalism has achieved such success why are people, and in particular younger people, losing faith in its ability to make their lives better? And Ms Davidson points to the rise of the populist right and left, in the form of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, as a direct response to this.
Then comes some hard-hitting stuff when Ms Davidson seeks to present a teenager's perspective of an unequal world. She questions, "Is the route for social advancement a degree, student debt, moving to London to spend more than half their take home pay on a shared flat in Zone 6 and half of what's left commuting to their stagnant-wage job every day every day; knowing there is precisely zero chance of saving enough to ever own their own front door?"
Ms Davidson is adept at picking up the mood of the moment - in the same way that Jeremy Corbyn has done recently - and she makes the contrast between the haves and have-nots even starker by referring to some footballers being bought and sold for more than the entire economy of a third world nation!
But what of the future and where does planning fit within Ms Davidson's view of the world?
She says that boldness of the kind we don't often see from government will be required. That seems highly unlikely from a weakened government focussing most of its efforts and resources on Brexit, but maybe she is writing about the future more generally and over the longer term.
Her blog stresses the need for true leadership to deal with restrictive practices alongside enabling and facilitating investment in genuine productive activities. She refers to investment in technical education doing much more for long term wage growth than putting workers on boards and in order to demonstrate where she thinks the priority for action should lie.
On planning it is interesting to note that this forms a central part of Ms Davidson's thesis, reflecting just how acute the housing crisis has become. After taking a swipe at how planning law privileges those who already have a property, she sets a positive agenda for change. She proposes policies of 'help to build' rather than 'help to buy' and seeking to make increasing housing supply a 'thing of beauty' to build local support for extra construction. There is not really that much new here that hasn't been said by others before, but the underlying tenor of the article is about emphasising the need for bold and positive action.
This is all against the background of Ms Davidson calling for the short term, election cycle nimbyism of prohibitive planning laws needing to stop and the government needing to lead, rather than merely facilitate discussions about where next for Britain.
There is a certain freedom about her writing that is refreshing - but it is also seemingly somewhat naive. Calling for prohibitive planning laws to be lifted, for example, will very quickly lead to questions being asked about the Green Belt; and then discussion is then likely as always to be short-lived, as politicians fear that any hint of relaxation of Green Belt policy will be tantamount to political suicide.
But it might not be naivety on the part of Ms Davidson; maybe she is representing the views of the millennial generation and maybe rising political stars, like her, will be bolder in tackling the more difficult issues facing this generation head-on. Jeremy Corbyn's rise in popularity is clearly fuelled by the younger generation and although Ms Davidson's and his politics are different the issues they are both talking about - and the way they are talking about them with such with deep-rooted belief - are really very similar.
I don't think any major changes, along the lines that Ms Davidson's proposes, will occur any time soon. However the more time and effort that is swallowed up by the Brexit negotiations the louder the voices of the younger generation will probably become. And it's clear that housing and planning will be central to any call for action, whether that's inspired by the politics of the likes of Ruth Davidson or Jeremy Corbyn or any others that follow their lead.
Image credit: UnHerd.com