London – towards a vision
We should always be cautious about waxing nostalgic as rose coloured spectacles obscure rather than reveal. Bearing this health warning in mind, this blog is actually about why it is sometimes valuable to revisit the past. In talking about creating a vision for what a Good London might look like I want to revisit a couple of things that the GLC did some 30 years ago. In particular the way the council got involved in some truly radical, large-scale projects based around collaborative working and community empowerment.
Of my two examples, one is well known, the other largely forgotten.
The Coin Street project is justly lionised as a great example of community ownership and enterprise. But it is worth repeating its story. Coin Street is based on the Southbank. It covers 13 acres between the Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge. Coin Street is owned and managed by the residents of the area, many living in social and affordable housing.
In the 1970’s the area was largely derelict, surrounded semi-derelict industrial buildings (including the famous OXO building and tower), it was mostly used for car parking. The land was partly owned by the GLC and private companies. In 1977 a developer proposed using the land to build a complex of office buildings. These proposals were strongly resisted by local people. They formed the Coin Street Action Group that put together an alternative vision for the area focussing on the creation of housing, shops, and green spaces.
These plans gained the support of the GLC. The council was in its final year and had to move quickly and decisively. A series of covenants preventing commercial development of the land was slapped on the land. And the Council then sold the land to Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB – which had been set up by the Action Group) for £1m. The GLC then loaned CSCB the £ million so they could purchase the land. Within a matter of months a group of residents found themselves owning of some of the most valuable and visible development land in London.
Since then, and step-by-step, the area has been transformed, where the development of a vibrant community with good quality social and affordable housing remains at the heart of the enterprise.
Peoples Plan for London Docklands
My second example is less well known. The ‘Peoples Plan for the London Docklands’ was also the product of the final days of the GLC. The plan was created in response to the Thatcher government’s establishment the London Docklands Development Corporation plan to develop the area as now see it, a monument of offshore and uncountable finance capitalism.
In 1981 the GLC and local borough councils challenged these proposals. Working with numerous local community groups, small businesses, five local authorities, academics and other experts they created an alternative vision for the area. It was an ambitious and detailed plan on how the docklands could be developed to meet the needs of local people in terms of decent housing, thriving businesses and good quality public transport.
Sadly the ‘People’s Plan’ didn’t happen, but what a vision! Just imagine what the area would have been like had they succeeded.
Here is my point about these two projects. The GLC along with local people and other partners were not scared of thinking big and taking on massive vested political and commercial power. It was local people getting together and working with the likes of Ken Livingston and the officers of the GLC that drove these amazing projects forward.
The GLC and some other London boroughs understood the huge challenges facing London. They understood that the struggle between powerful commercial interests and the needs of its citizens could only begin to be answered by the GLC creating alliances of trust with Londoners and other local authorities in order to get the change that was so needed. A relationship of trust where the GLC sought ways to radically empower communities so that they could play a direct role in developing their own futures.
If it could be done then, at a time when the GLC was fighting for its life against a powerful Thatcher Government working in alliance with powerful commercial interest, then it is surely possible now.
It just requires vision, determination, skill and guts.
So my vision of creating the good life in London is that the GLA and local authorities start working directly with local people to develop and then push forward a truly ambitious and visionary programme for change, So we don’t have just one Coin Street, but we create hundreds of Coin Streets and Peoples Plans. Places that are owned by London citizens for the benefit of London citizens. Now wouldn’t that be something to strive for.