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Future Cities Forum's second pre-election debate report

Above: debate participants, clockwise from top left - Professor Flora Samuel of Cambridge University, John Seeger of the Helix Newcastle, Nyasa Beale of Scott Brownrigg, and Ged Couser of BDP

Future Cities Forum welcomed Professor Flora Samuel, Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cambridge, Nyasa Beale, Director and London Studio Principal at Scott Brownrigg, John Seager, Head of Estates, The Helix, Newcastle and Ged Couser, Principal and leader of BDP's Manchester studio to our second pre-election debate.

It was held on the day that Labour launched its party manifesto in the run up to the General Election. While the Conservative Manifesto talked about protecting the green belt, extending its funding for improvements to 105 towns and raising density levels in London to equal that of cities like Paris and Madrid, Labour has promised to prioritise and protect new social rented homes. It has also promised to build a total of 1.5 million new homes of all tenures over the next parliament, and the release of low quality 'grey belt' land.

The Conservative Party has stated it would unlock new urban regeneration schemes by creating locally-led urban development corporations in partnership with the private sector. It has stood by its ambitious Cambridge 2050 Plan, vowed to stop red tape to prevent the planting of trees and allow local authorities to use the new infrastructure levy for roads and local infrastructure to support housing.

Labour's manifesto also said it would take decisive action on building safety to prevent a repeat of the Grenfell fire, create new mechanisms for cross-boundary strategic planning and give local authorities freedoms to make better use of grant funding.

Our discussion covered many of these issues, in particular actions that the next government should take to tackle the housing crisis, the value of digital mapping for cities, simplifying the planning system, how to support more science innovation development as well as preventative healthcare and the struggle to retrofit our older hospital buildings. The best methods for the greening of cities was also debated and the protection of the green belt.

Nyasa explained that there are still concerns over meeting quality standards in house-building:

'The Conservative government has made some progress on housing targets but there is still improvement to be made. The planning system really needs to be simplified first before housing can be allowed to develop. We need to look at brownfield sites for places to create more housing and also discourage developers from land banking these sites. Quality of build and sustainability are key. There are still a huge amount of products that do not meet quality standards and we need to tackle this.

'I do not agree with people who say that we should stop fiddling with the planning system and we need a fast track process. I have worked internationally and believe me the UK planning system is the hardest and most complex to navigate. We need digital tools to streamline the process. We need the skills that are required in the system that will allow us to do this.

'I don't think we have learned our lessons. Housing developments are still often built on isolated sites and we still need to think more about housing and place-making, places that people really want to live in and that creates further investment and jobs. It needs to be much more joined up.'

Cambridge: view down King's Parade towards King's College with Great St Mary's on left

Professor Samuel spoke about the need to create digital maps of cities:

'I spent a lot of time researching around housing and why we have housing estates like they are with all the values - social, economic and environmental - leaking out of the system. The answer is to have community mapping so that we can record what people value in their places and that is the vision that we are working on in Cambridge here and it is in my book, 'Housing for Hope and Wellbeing'. We need to move towards a unified planning system. At the moment, people do not see themselves in the data and it has to be relatable to the world we are working in.

'We need a planning system that is based on maps, rather than an enterprise zone here or some red lines there. We need a system based on evidence and then we can start automating it, so we can achieve what we need. One important area is to create corridors for children because at the moment they cannot move around, they are constrained by land and that has health implications. The mapping system will mean that wellbeing will no longer be intangible.

'There are forces that don't want us to see what is happening. A digital mapping system would speed up everything, it would reduce risk to developers and the community would have a visible say. It would provide information over time and the planning wouldn't have to done every five years. Of course, we need human eyes to check that it is fit for purpose.

'We are creating an 'urban room' here in Cambridge to talk about the future of the city to ensure levelling up but we cannot do it without a swathe of maps and knowing what is there. Cambridge is the most unequal city in Britain. We need a holistic way based on evidence to solve the problems. We need an ecosystem of opportunity and wellbeing and level up the rest of the UK to make cities and places good destinations. At the moment existing communities are being forced out of the city because of the cost of living. Due to our democratic system in the UK, unfortunately governments can make pronouncements around house building and 'Silicon Fen' based on very little evidence.'

Above: Part of the Helix Newcastle campus (courtesy The Helix)

The next important stage of development for The Helix science and innovation project in Newcastle, is to create housing for a range of ages and job roles. John Seager explained:

'The Newcastle Helix was built on a former coal mine and was part of six science cities begun under the former Labour government. It is a cluster based science park and which has developed further under the change over to a Conservative government from 2012. A momentum change has taken place with investment from L&G and we now have leading bodies such as the Institute of Health and Care Research on site. We have a lot of commercial space and collaboration is key.

'Our next phase is in housing delivery. We have 350 rental and 400 homes to buy, planned. There is an aspiration for mixed-age living including later living despite the fact that we haven't even defined what that quite means yet. But we have medical science and start ups here with anecdotal evidence that people are meeting on stairs to further conversations and these are among world-leading scientists. But we don't want to be an oasis and set away from other people with no impact on the region. The North East has some of the most deprived areas of the UK and the wider impact of our work here has to be visibly on display. It is an ongoing process and school kids need to be involved in the evolution of science.

'Funding tends to be grants which are given to innovation led programmes through spin-outs, then processed through an angel investor before venture capital moves in. That does rely on the private sector but these innovations become commercially viable. Venture Capitalists do not attend to the issues of preventative measures in health and we need to work to find ways of preventing the current and future cost of healthcare. So the question is - how do we create the right environment and lifestyles that mean less medical care needed in peoples' lives? Government money needs to be put into that research and development here.

'Levelling up has not touched the sides of most people in the north east. We think it was all about electioneering here and made as visible as possible to gain votes. We have received a significant amount of levelling up funding here but will it work? The best move was the recent combined authority unified under one mayor. He is a Labour candidate. So we think we know where the general election is going.'

Image: Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool (courtesy BDP)

Ged Couser commented on the importance of science and health coming together through data and also the value of devolution:

'When we talk about levelling up, the investment should have been happening anyway. I notice the money that's going into the redevelopment of towns but all the local authorities are competing for funding and it seems difficult. I do think it is good that the government is committed to continuing with that funding but what we have heard about Newcastle becoming the master of its own destiny, seems to be the way. Manchester of course led on devolution and that approach.

'Manchester's success has been through science-led regeneration with our Oxford Road corridor and the university spin outs and incubator businesses that have brough investment into the city. We are about to have our new innovation district on the Helix model. But the interesting point mentioned before is about data. Science and health are coming together in a more cohesive way. The issue is not in building big new hospitals to make people live longer with their illnesses but to educate them for healthier lifestyles with early diagnosis.

'BDP has been very successful in building big hospitals like Alder Hey Children's Hospital and GOSH (Great Ormond Street), but there is no question that community diagnostic centres give us a better health outcome and so we are also focussed on that in our practice. We did Stepping Hill outside Stockport, bringing it back into the town centre and that really helped with regeneration and made healthcare provision much more visible.

'In terms of sustainability, we have to be much more responsible about the long-term operations of hospitals and we need to build them as carbon zero, which means looking at heating and cooling. Retrofitting is also important and is definitely happening in the healthcare system, but there has been such a lack of investment in the last 20 years that there has been a lot of deterioration and backlog of issues to deal with, which now wouldn't be cost effective to fix.'

Image: Barber Surgeons wildflower planting, courtesy of the City of London Corporation

The discussion finished with a comment on the greening of cities and building on the greenbelt. Nyasa stated:

'My company has set up a digital twin to look at stocks of building and ask is it functional? If we were to use data to understand cities better we would be able to find lots of sites for building which would mean that we do not have to go outside. We know that there is a need for wellbeing and we need to access green space, so we need to protect that land around us, but data can help us in that.'

Flora continued:

'The greenbelt is a blunt instrument and we now have the tools to be much more intelligent to develop in the right places. There is a lot of green space in cities and the land outside is often blasted agricultural chemical land that is not suitable for people to live in. The green belt was meant to be used to enjoy and we have lost the plot with it. We need to use data to bring more green into cities and I think there is a GLA project to re-create London as a forest park. I think we need to let farmers diversify into new ways of working and for vibrancy. We could re-purpose farms as science spaces for digital nomads for instance.

In cities such as Oxford and Cambridge, a lot of land is privatised. It is difficult to plant trees because we do not know what is below the pavement. There is a lack of green space for people to be on and the local authorities have no money for adoption of trees. That's where you need to ally with the community and there is a lovely example in Melbourne, Australia, where every tree has an email address and people have been sending love letters to the trees. That's how we can get the community caring about greening with all the need for watering and curation.'

Future Cities Forum would like to thank our contributors for bringing their expertise and insight into a thoughtful pre-election debate.

Image below: Broad Street, Oxford, greening project by LDA Design


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