Matthew Weiner: New Year, New Optimism


I was in New York over the Christmas break. What I saw left me with mixed feelings.

Gloomy, mainly, for New Yorkers. I was struck by a chilling inequality. On the one hand, the sheer number of high rise residential developments that are going up, none of them designed for affordability. The second tallest building in New York (and indeed the Western Hemisphere) is 432 Park Avenue, just one foot shorter than the Freedom Tower.  Sales prices at the highest end reach almost $10,000 per square foot.

In contrast, as I strolled around a frozen Big Apple, I could not but help be struck by the sheer number of homeless people – far more so, it seemed to me, than on my last trip two years ago. It was heart-breaking.

Returning to London, it was clear that our great city suffers from these disparities but I also felt slightly more optimistic that we are beginning to find ways of addressing this, grasping the nettle to ensure we do not turn London into little more than a billionaire’s playground. As developers we have a crucial role to play in closing that gap and I’m hopeful that 2018 will be a year when we make real progress.

The Mayor’s London Plan lies at the heart of this. From that, I hope, will flow a desire by more and more public bodies to work in partnership with the private sector to deliver places that can offer affordable space for more and more people.

The starting point for the plan is, put plainly, sustainable growth that works for everyone. That is not a bad place to start.

A key part of delivering that is the setting of the affordability threshold at 35% - much lower than many thought even if the processes have been changed.  It remains to be seen how this will translate into development plans, but it should give some certainty until at least 2021.

The plan also puts design centre stage in promoting optimal densification. This suggests greater flexibility in allowing developers to find the right solutions that meet the needs of how people lead their lives today.

The three strands of greater design focus, improved infrastructure and improved use of well-connected land point to the growing importance of the town centres that lie on the edge of London’s boundaries – the ‘huburbs’ as we affectionately term them. We have long believed this - not just seeing the opportunity commercially, but also the exciting possibilities to regenerate these areas with mixed use schemes where people really want to live, work and play. Our projects in Deptford, Bromley, Ashford and Ilford provide a case in point, working often in partnership with the local authority or a public landowner.

I hope that in 2018 we see more of these sorts of partnerships, maximising public land to overcome challenges of housing affordability and stagnation in the jobs market, creating better places for people. Also, I hope we’ll keep thinking imaginatively about ways in which we can meet people’s current housing needs, much as we have with our Town Flats approach. They can help bring life back to neglected parts of our city.

In London, at least, there may be some cause for optimism, in a way that sadly seems lacking in New York.