Development of London’s brownfield sites could accommodate 400,000 new homes within walking distance of capital’s town centres


Almost 90 percent of brownfield land in London – more than 2,000 hectares – is within 1.5km of a town centre, which could provide more than 400,000 new homes within 15-minutes of important civic and transport hubs, says AECOM. As London recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, the world’s premier infrastructure consulting firm argues in a new report published today that revitalising the local high streets and town centres of London and the wider South East region will be key to rebuilding the capital’s economy in a more balanced and resilient way. Building on the opportunities for thriving town centres in the region would reduce overheating on the regional economy and help London to retain its position as a leading global city, says AECOM.

AECOM’s “London 2070: Our vision for the future city region” report calls for greater emphasis on the re-use of previously developed land and underused buildings as a short-term focus to support the delivery of new homes in the best locations for sustainable new growth. AECOM argues that no new urban home should be built without access to local facilities and sustainable transport modes.

According to the report, to meet the housing delivery challenge this brownfield focus must go hand-in-hand with the need for an ambitious new programme of 21st Century garden communities. From the outset, these developments should be designed for active travel and public transit and look to be climate positive, balancing the demand for new homes with a lean use of resources.

Tougher policies are needed to underpin future sustainable growth and better balance environmental, community and economic growth ambitions, says AECOM. The report calls for a reassessment of how and where to grow that puts environmental net gain and social considerations on an equal footing to the economy and productivity. This includes the need to create incentives for investment and protection of the unbuilt environment for environmental enhancements, strategic biodiversity net gain and nature responsive solutions.

Reimagine London’s town centres as civic hubs to secure long-term growth

Reinventing the role of facilities away from the retail dominant model of the past 40 years is essential, says AECOM, with reimaging town centres one of its ten big ideas for the long-term growth of the capital and wider South East region over the next 50 years. As new ways of working and living become more prevalent, the report identifies an opportunity to initiate a renaissance of local high streets and town centres with integrated urban transport at their heart, to help these valuable land resources regain their role as important employment, social, entertainment and civic centres.

Andrew Jones, AECOM’s City Programme Director, said: “London consistently falls short of building sufficient homes in sustainable places. Intensifying the re-use of previously developed land close to existing transport options and social infrastructure would help support the swift delivery of new homes and support a renaissance of town centres. Our research shows there is the potential for nearly half a million new homes on brownfield land close to existing hubs in the capital.

“For the long-term success of London, this strategic urban growth must happen in parallel with a longer-term focus on reimagining local town centres and high streets. Enabled, in part, by changes in the way we are choosing to live and work that have been accelerated by the pandemic, there is a real opportunity for town centres to return to their traditional role as civic destinations. Forward-looking authorities will work hand-in-hand with retail investors to set new visions for their centres with smaller, contiguous shopping cores that are distinctive, attractive and viable for the future.”

Contributing to the wider debate on housing, economy and infrastructure, the report outlines the key challenges that future patterns of growth, development, protection and investment should consider, focusing on inequality, resilience and connectivity. AECOM’s other nine big ideas for the future of London cover the economy, community, homes, healthcare, transport, energy and resources, food, water and environment.

Coordinated plan for growth beyond city boundaries is needed

The report calls for a joined-up approach to guide successful, resilient growth and infrastructure investment, identifying an urgent need to look beyond the current administrative boundaries of the capital. Recognising that London’s reach goes well beyond Greater London and the M25, the report incorporates a ‘London City Region’ that includes all places within a 60-minute travel time from central London.

According to AECOM, the current decision-making system is not designed to optimise the potential of this highly productive wider London City Region. Its report is calling for a new approach to guide growth beyond the boundaries of the city, linking transport and infrastructure investment, community development and economic strategy to understand how investment can benefit the broader metropolitan region and the UK more widely. Mention of a new strategic partnership to support housing, economic growth and the environment across the interconnected transport network in London and the South East in the recently published Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is a promising move.

Andrew Jones added: “For too long the lack of an overarching spatial planning framework for London and the South East has made region-wide issues with long term consequences impossible to address. The challenges of redefining the London City Region post-pandemic and proactively addressing climate change are not being looked at holistically. As the Mayor and government plan the priorities to support the capital’s recovery from the pandemic, there needs to be a coordinated plan. We need to make bold moves that focus on compact growth in the city and embrace the interconnected future of the wider metropolitan region.”

National levelling-up risks exacerbating London’s inequalities

AECOM’s report argues that the challenges of growing inequality in the London City Region demands intervention alongside the national levelling up agenda. Growth in London and parts of the South East has been intense and led to often-hidden inequalities, with the capital and wider city region home to some of the most deprived communities in England. These issues are not confined to urban communities, with inequalities also pronounced in peripheral coastal and older industrial towns at the edge of London’s sphere of impact.

While re-balancing the UK economy is the national priority, the structure of the Levelling Up Fund will mean that the London City Region will likely receive less public investment, with only two London boroughs and seven city region authorities featuring in the first 123 priority places eligible to receive support and investment. Levelling up the country should not mean levelling down London and the South East, says AECOM.

AECOM argues that inequality can often be hidden in a region of relative prosperity and calls for investment decisions to focus on deprived parts of London and the South East too. To optimise economic potential and avoid leaving deprived communities further challenged, the report highlights a critical need for regional investment in digital, transportation, environmental and social infrastructure.

Inequality through a failing housing market

Inequality in housing risks the capital’s future economic and community health, says AECOM’s report. 82 percent of authorities in the London City Region have property-price-to-earnings ratios above the national average, making living in London unaffordable for even relatively well-off residents.

While this pattern was disrupted in 2020 as Londoners fled to the suburbs and country towns during lockdowns, early signs suggest the return of a business-as-usual approach as the development market recovers. The pace and location of new housing will once again fall short of meeting identified need, reinforcing historic inequalities, warns AECOM. As a result, London and increasingly the wider city region, will fail to contribute fully to the recovery and sustainable growth of the UK as the very employees who will fuel that growth will not be able to live within commuting distance of work.

The report calls for a fundamental change to community development and placemaking across London and its commuter belt, with London authorities working with their neighbours in the wider metropolitan region to bring about a balanced polycentric urban structure, with infrastructure investment aligned with planned housing and economic growth.

The report also calls for a strategic review of the role of the Metropolitan Green Belt and how this may need to evolve looking to 2070. Without a reassessment of designations around the capital, AECOM warns that this critical environmental resource so close to the city will remain undervalued and poorly used, and will lead to urban growth patterns that create unsustainable communities, threaten good quality agricultural land and encourage more long-distance commuting.

Andrew Jones added: “Nationally, the focus is on the disparities between London and other regions of the UK. But there are also profound inequalities and challenges within the London City Region that should not be overlooked in this national debate. Across the UK and no less so than within the generally prosperous and productive London and South East, inequalities are greater within regions than between regions.

“To secure the future sustainable growth of London, inequalities must be addressed. The issues of affordability, demographics and housing choice, compounded with the potential shifts to when and where we work, necessitate the greatest change in community development and placemaking across the London City Region for a century or more.”