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Richard Upton: Enhancing London’s future by embracing its past

26.03.19

The planning process, you might say, is about choices. Love it or loathe it, it is a system for making decisions about what is most important. 

Do we want to retain open space at the expense of building more new homes? Will creating places for new businesses damage the fabric of the existing community? Do we want to allow for new, bold design, or would we rather something which is similar to the buildings already in an area?

It is dilemmas like these that the new London Plan must solve.

Over the last year, we’ve participated in helping the Mayor shape his emerging plan. In our original response we focused on the areas where we know that as a developer, we can really make a difference. We talked about our imaginative housing solutions, the importance of working in partnership, prioritising worthwhile use that benefits communities, intelligent use of the Green Belt, particularly where these are brownfield sites, and, crucially, how we can embrace London’s rich heritage and culture.

Heritage and culture are things that I have always cared deeply about. If we want to create truly great places – places which don’t just physically exist, but which also have an atmosphere, which feel alive and where people can create memories – then heritage and/or culture must be part of the mix.

So I was delighted to be invited to take part in the Examination in Public session on Heritage and Culture for the draft London Plan, appearing alongside others at City Hall to help address key development questions facing the capital. How can we conserve and enhance London’s historic environment? What approach should we take to protecting and promoting World Heritage sites? And how can we protect and enhance London’s strategic and local views?

These are big challenges. But to bring the change the capital needs, the London Plan must be bold and mark a step change in the way we think about how London’s future merges with our rich heritage.

To give London a future, as well as a past, we need to retain the city’s diversity, the culture and quirks that make it such a vibrant place to be. We need to ensure that in every development providing more, much-needed homes, offices and infrastructure, we also keep hold of the things that give our city personality and make it special. Samuel Johnson famously said that if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, but that will only remain the case if we can prevent London from falling into the monotony of identikit developments which fail to take inspiration from the rich heritage that surrounds them.   

This is why heritage and culture are not an afterthought, something that we tack on to a development at the end with a statue or a blue plaque. They are in the DNA of every site. At U+I, our approach to placemaking puts culture and heritage right at the heart of development. This is exemplified by our heritage-led transformation of Deptford Market Yard, transforming a derelict 2-acre site into a new space for Deptford’s community with new homes and retail spaces. Our plans included a 1960s carriage transformed into a meanwhile café and community event space, before full restoration of the ‘at risk’ Grade II listed carriage ramp, the oldest railway structure in London. Our work is not finished in Deptford – to fulfil our promises, we have retained the market yard and commercial spaces, making them available to local businesses. 

I am often frustrated when people talk about heritage in a stuffy way, as though it is something to be preserved in isolation, a moment of the past frozen in the present. It is something that is living and breathing, which interacts with the here and now. This ethos is alive and well in our development at The Old Vinyl Factory in Hayes. The site was once the beating heart of EMI and His Master’s Voice, the place where ground-breaking records from the Beatles, Pink Floyd and more were pressed. We quite literally brought this rich heritage back to life when we acquired the site in 2011, bringing in up and coming musicians to film The Old Vinyl Factory Sessions. We’re also bringing the spirit of the site’s past back through our final plans for the site, weaving in nods to its architectural, cultural and industrial heritage in the buildings and spaces we’re creating there.  

For the London Plan to be truly successful, we’ll need to do more of this across the capital. As we set out in our responses, we will continue to work with the Mayor and others to develop a best practice approach to ensuring that London’s culture is not eroded by insensitive development.

The emerging London Plan, and the positive conversations so far around it, are a good start.

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