Crossrail is coming.....eventually!
Next week should have been the week when Crossrail opened. Instead, it has been put back to, a yet to be determined date, next autumn. This is obviously disappointing for tens of thousands of commuters who were looking forward to quicker and less crowded journeys to work and to the businesses along the route, waiting for the boost that Crossrail will undoubtedly bring them.
I was walking down Tottenham Court Road in central London today and noticed the transformation. Just a couple of years ago the road was still dominated by rather dated, 1980's-era shops specialising in electronic goods, many of which themselves were rather dated. Today, those shops have almost entirely disappeared (I'm not sure where they've gone) to be replaced by many instantly recognisable fashion, homeware and restaurant brands. If the new shops were hoping to recoup their investment from the increased trade that Crossrail will bring, they will have to wait another year.
Further east along the line, in Whitechapel, shopkeepers and stallholders are hardly holding their breath, waiting for Crossrail. Indeed, some stallholders in the street market on Whitechapel Road, right outside the station, claim they don't even know about Crossrail! It is noticeable that there have been far fewer changes in the businesses on Whitechapel Road than there have been along Tottenham Court Road. But, in case you think that Crossrail is not having an effect in Whitechapel, you ought to know that property prices are rising faster here than in any other part of London. It can surely only be a matter of time before the rents rise and the small, independent businesses along the Whitechapel Road are priced out by the bigger brands.
Even further east in Custom House, one of London's poorest neighbourhoods, aspirations for the benefits Crossrail might bring are more limited. Council estate residents on Freemasons Road are looking forward to being able to travel to central London without having to change train or use a bus. Until now, their connection with the rest of the city has been via the Docklands Light Railway and even that was closed for the whole of 2017 while Custom House station was improved in preparation for Crossrail. Local businesses, such as they are, including a fish and chip shop, a launderette and a betting shop, are not expecting a bonanza from Crossrail!
On one of our fieldwork days, we ask students to investigate the question, 'Which community will benefit most from Crossrail?' It's a good question because I really don't think anyone knows the answer. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out once Crossrail is up and running....eventually!
Cycling has been on my mind a lot recently. Not least because I am a cyclist! I have been fortunate to have commuted by bicycle for my entire working life. When I started teaching in London almost 40 years ago, only about 1% of commuting journeys were made by bike. It is now estimated at 15% and I feel like one of the crowd. Indeed, when you cycle through London during the rush hour, cyclists seem to be in the majority. All around London, cycle superhighways are being built to cope with the growing volume of bike traffic. Or should that be the other way round - cyclists are venturing out on their bikes because the new cycle routes make it safer to cycle?
Stratford Town Centre is the latest place in London to get the new, cycle-friendly treatment. It has met with the approval of the London Cycling Campaign who have been known to be critical of other new road layouts. Stratford, in case you don't know it, has been surrounded by a one-way gyratory system, isolating the shopping centre from the rest of the neighbourhood. Shoppers take their life into their hands every time they cross the road to reach the centre, with cars speeding around what can feel like a race track. As for cyclists, they either take their chances on the road, or go for the safer option on the pavement, thus irritating pedestrians.
Both pedestrians and cyclists should benefit from the changes, which will create a network of cycle tracks and public realm spaces where people will be safe to loiter. At the moment pedestrians are given ten seconds to complete their crossing at the traffic lights between Stratford Centre and the station, making it touch and go for an older person using a walking stick to reach the other side. They definitely wouldn't loiter! The only people not happy about the changes are drivers, who are going to be forced to slow down to the new 20mph limit, though in the new, two-way system, 20mph might be optimistic.
Another reason that cycling has been on my mind is its potential as a focus for fieldwork. We run a one-day fieldwork programme that asks the question, 'How can cycling in London be made safer?' Students carry out a traffic count on a main road to compare the number of vehicles and cycles. They then carry out a risk assessment at a busy junction and do a more refined traffic count of the number of vehicles moving in each direction. This can later be turned into an elaborate flow diagram. So far, so quantitative! But, to add a more qualitative dimension, they ask pedestrians and cyclists (if they can catch them!), what would make them more likely to cycle or what would make them feel safer.
You don't need to come to east London to do fieldwork like this. Cycling is an important issue in every part of the country and one that is particularly relevant to teenagers.
Sweltering last week in Tokyo in temperatures in the high 30s, I felt pity for the athletes who are going to be running there in 2020. Before my arrival, temperatures had been even higher - into the 40s - and old people without air conditioning (or unwilling to use it) were dying in the heat. Unfortunately, the Olmypics will be held from late July until early September when temperatures and humidity will be at their highest. Japanese people I spoke to told me that summers are getting warmer. Temperatures in Tokyo have risen 3 degrees over the last century, 2° due to the urban heat island effect and the other degree because of global warming.
Of course, Tokyo is nothing if not resilient. Through its history, the city has been destroyed by fire (more than once), the great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and American bombing in 1945 at the end of World War 2. In this context, a few degrees rise in temperature could be seen as a minor inconvenience and, as you might expect, there are plans to tackle it. The city government is installing solar, heat-blocking pavement in central Tokyo, which reflects the solar rays that cause the surface to warm up. This could reduce surface temperatures by up to 8°. They hope to install 136 kilometres of the pavement before the Games open.
Whilst I was in Tokyo I couldn't help but make a few comparisons with the 2012 Olympics in London. The most obvious difference is that the Olympic sites in Tokyo are dispersed around the city, rather than clustered within an Olympic Park as they were in London. So, the Olympic Stadium is under construction close to the historical heart of Tokyo. However, it is a long subway ride from the Athletes Village, located on reclaimed land on the waterfront of Tokyo Bay. Many of the other venues, including the swimming pool and gymnastics arena, are in the same Odaiba area of the city. Arguably, with a public transport system that operates like clockwork, Tokyo will be capable of transporting competitors and spectators around the city more easily than London could.
Unlike London, none of the areas where the venues are located could be described as deprived or in need of regeneration. Indeed, this would be hard to say of any part of Tokyo that I saw. So, the notion that the Olympics can be a means by which the host city is able to regenerate, does not seem to apply to Tokyo. Infact, with the legacy of the 2016 Rio Games looking questionable you could argue that the regeneration benefits of the Olympics is something that sets the London Games apart.
However, there is likely to be at least one similarity between the London and Tokyo Games. For once in 2012, a major construction project in London was completed successfully and on time. Given the Japanese experience of reconstruction and their ability to run a railway network with trains that are never late, Tokyo is also certain to deliver the Olympics on time in 2020.
East London inferno
Wanstead Flats is one of east London's best kept secrets. It's not a high-rise apartment block as some outsiders imagine, but a large area of open common land on the edge of Epping Forest, beloved by dog-walkers, footballers and naturalists alike. It doesn't attract the visitors that better known open spaces in London, such as Wimbledon Common, attract but in my opinion it has just as much to offer. More in some ways, because there are no crowds to contend with and you can find remote spots to be alone, with just distant views of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf or Stratford to remind you that you are in London.
This week disaster struck Wanstead Flats when it caught alight and the tinder-dry grassland and shrubs went up like a box of matches. It was described by the London fire brigade as the worst ever grass fire in London. 220 firefighters were called to fight the blaze, similar to the number that fought the Grenfell Tower blaze last year. Fortunately, that's where the comparison ends because there were no fatalities or even casualties from the inferno. Despite fears that neighbours may be evacuated, no one had to leave their homes, although residents had to battle fires that broke out in their front gardens as flames leapt across the road from the main fire.
The fire destroyed about 100 hectares of vegetation but, looking at the birds-eye view from a helicopter, less than 10% of the total areas of Wanstead Flats was affected. That was bad enough. Part of the area that burned was heathland, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home to a variety of rare insects and birds, including skylark. Indeed, Wanstead Flats is the only area within the M25 with a colony of breeding skylarks. Hopefully, the vegetation and wildlife will make a comeback with the arrival of rain in autumn.
It was only four months ago in March that I reported on the severe winter conditions that we were suffering. On my wall I keep a weather tree to track the conditions day by day. This year, so far, we have had five sub-zero days and seven with temperatures over 30 degrees, and more forecast. That makes 2018 a pretty remarkable year for weather. Obivously, we can't read too much into one hot summer, but I was around in 1976, the other record-breaking summer and I can't remember there being such an extended hot, dry period as the one we are experiencing now. Global warming on its way? Wanstead Flats 2018 could be a portent of years to come.
Homeless in Stratford
This week the Daily Mail highlighted the plight of homeless people in the Stratford Centre, the old shopping mall in the shadow of Westfield, Stratford City. The story was taken up by the BBC, but for anyone who lives in Stratford and who walks through the centre late at night or early in the morning, it was hardly news. Fifty or more homeless people sleep there every night, more than the entire rough sleeping populations of cities like Nottingham, Portsmouth and Liverpool. Many of the sleepers are Londoners, but there are also regulars from Romania, Albania, India, Pakistan and Africa (a continent, rather than a country!).
Stratford is probably the only shopping mall in the country to provide a soup kitchen for the homeless. Every Wednesday night, when the shops close, volunteers set up trestle tables to serve food. After the meal, many of the customers settle down for the night in the doorways of the shops, some in sleeping bags, others without, some huddled in groups, others alone. Early in the morning they are roused by noise of cleaning machines, washing and polishing the floors, and disperse among the early morning commuters.
People sleeping in the centre are there for the usual reasons - drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health problems. The mortality rate among the Stratford homeless community is worryingly high. In the past month, four regulars have died from a variety of chronic health conditions. They ranged in age from their 20s to 50s. One evening in April a young Romanian man was murdered in the shopping centre. The centre was closed for two days while the police carried out their investigations.
So, why does the Stratford Centre allow its malls to be used as a homeless hostel while Westfield, only a few hundred metres away, would never dream of entertaining dossers? The answer lies in their ownership. While Westfield is the largest privatised space anywhere in the UK, and can decide who is allowed in and for what purpose, the Stratford Centre is unusual as a shopping centre in that it is also a public right of way. This dates back to the 1970s when the centre was built on the site of the old Angel Lane market. The mall more or less follows the same route and even the old market stalls are now pitched inside.
Newham Council have been complicit in the arrangement, allowing homeless people to sleep in the comparative comfort of an indoor centre because it means they do not have to housed elsewhere. The recent negative publicity from the Mail and BBC may force them to think again. Newham's new mayor said they would be opening a new hostel for 20 homeless people, though this will not even go halfway to solving the problem. And, with the recent publicity, you might reasonably expect more homeless people to arrive to take advantage of the unlikely hospitality of a shopping mall.
Stephen Lawrence Day
Yesterday, marked the 25th anniversary of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. It was announced that 22nd April, the day of the murder, will from now be known as Stephen Lawrence Day. The event has become etched on our national conscience, as we come to terms with the fact that our society could harbour such evil in our midst and that our police so miserably failed to investigate the murder at the time. The particular resonance for me was that my parents moved to Eltham (where the murder happened) in the year I went to college and south-east London became my adopted home for a while. This was before the murder but, nonetheless, I never really took to Eltham as a place. I could never quite put my finger on it. I guess, as a white person, I was fairly oblivious to any racism or the fact that, had I been black, I would have been in a small minority. In 1993, just 6% of Eltham's population were black, compared to 23% of London as a whole.
Just a week ago there was another murder, around the corner from where I live now, here in Forest Gate. Another black teenager, Sami Sidham, was murdered outside his home, stabbed in the back by a gang as he came home from watching a West Ham match. There are some uncanny parallels with Stephen Lawrence. He was 18 and an undergraduate law student at Queen Mary College, University of London. He had no known connection with gangs and the murder seems to have been totally unprovoked. No one has yet been charged, but there is no reason to suspect that the murder was racially motivated. Indeed, in the climate of black on black murders in London this year, that might be less likely. Perhaps, the other parallel with 1993 is that so many murders of black teenagers are happening without there being national outrage or the requisite deployment of police resources to solve the problem. Neville Lawrence, when asked yesterday about the epidemic of black teenage murders recently, commented that this was a modern challenge for the Met Police, equivalent to the racist violence of the 1990s.
Sami is one of 55 people who have died on the streets of London this year, most the victims of a knife attack. There seems no end in sight to the problem and I have no more idea than anyone else about the cause, nor what should be the solution. I do suspect that social media plays a part in the problem with the rapid spread of messages or rumours on the street. As for the solution, effective implementation of the law is the obvious answer. But, that is less likely to happen while the proportion of black and ethnic minority police officers does not reflect the population of London as a whole. Most black people still do not think of the police as a career option because of perceived racism going back many years. It might be 25 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered, but the legacy of 1993 still casts a shadow today.
East meets Westfield
This week the new £600 million expansion at Westfield London in Shepherds Bush opened with a great fanfare. Ten years since the original shopping complex opened in west London, it adds another 740,000 square feet of shop floor space, bringing the total area of the site to 2.6 million square feet. This makes it the largest shopping centre in Europe, overtaking Aviapark in Moscow which, in turn, overtook Westfield Stratford a couple of years ago. Once more, east London is left feeling a bit inferior to its west London neighbours.
However, the story doesn't end there. I've heard rumours that Westfield Stratford too is set for expansion. In a recent blog (4th February), I outlined plans for a new concert hall, adjacent to the shopping centre that will be part of the Westfield site. However, the shopping centre may also be expanded. Although the site is constrained by the adjacent railway and Olympic Park, I understand that the car parking space at Westfield is underutilised (this is reassuring because it suggests more shoppers are coming by public transport) and that this space will be converted into more shops. The rivalry between Westfield London and Westfield Stratford to be Europe's premier shopping centre looks set to continue.
All of this begs the question, how many mega-shopping centres can we cope with? This Christmas saw a 3.5% reduction in high street spending on the previous year. Over the longer term, there has been a reduction in the proportion of our spending on traditional high streets from 49% in 2000 to 38% last year. The majority of our spending is now done away from the high street in large shopping malls or online. This is serious for established high street stores that are struggling to stay in business. BHS disappeared last year and other high street names, like Mothercare, are believed to be under threat.
But, there is much more to high streets than the big brand names. After all, many of these brands can be found in shopping malls too. Unlike the Westfields of this world, high streets are public spaces (Westfield Stratford became the largest privatised space in the UK when it was built). They are where people meet each other and are often the glue that hold together communities. Small independent shops as well as other communities services, such as libraries, are found there too. They often reflect the pride, or the lack of it, that a community has for itself. So, as a resident of a comunity in east London where the local high street is struggling, all I can say to Westfield is, a plague on both your shopping centres!
2026 Winter Olympics to be held in London!
Yes, it's a spoof heading - just to make it clear before the rumour goes viral. However, sitting at my window, looking out at the wintry scene in east London today, it seems quite believable.
No sooner had the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang come to an end last weekend than the temperatures in London fell and we became immersed in our own winter. There have been delightful scenes in the capital with the Olympic Park clad in snow, canals frozen over with ice and even Olympic snowboarders trying their luck on Primrose Hill (they didn't have much luck in South Korea). All of which left me dreaming of what would happen if the next Winter Olympics-but-one came to London.
Well, we already have a ready-made Olympic Park. Granted that it was devised for a summer Olympics but, with a little bit of imagination and ingenuity, it could be converted for a Winter Games. Many wise people in 2012 said that the Games were so successful we really ought to hold them here again. Why not in winter? The stadium is still here and, very conveniently, now has a roof on it to keep snow off the spectators. The Olympic torch could come via the River Lea, as it did in 2012, but this time with David Beckham arriving on skates rather than by speedboat. We don't have any mountains as such in east London, but there were plans to turn the Media Centre in the Olympic Park into an indoor ski slope. Those plans could be dug out again. And, in case you are wondering about the bobsleigh, the Orbit tower now has its own slide, which doesn't seem to have many customers at this time of year. A winter Olympics could give it a new lease of life!
Unfortunately, I was woken from my dream by cruel reality. Even before the worst weather arrived, we were greeted by ominous newspaper headlines, "Trains grind to a halt as snow is forecast". Services were cancelled in anticipation of ice on the tracks (as it turned out the snow was 24 hours late and the trains stopped for nothing). When, eventually, the snow arrived, The Beast from the East was closely followed by hysteria (from Siberia?). The media were guilty of hyping the whole event out of all proportion. TV news reporters stood, clad in skiwear, on a remote stretch of motorway at the dead of night (who would do that?), as lorries slid out of control on the ice. As a result, now we are scared to venture out of the front door. Schools around London have virtually all closed in case children were to slip on the pavement on the way there. Life as we know it in the capital has ground to a halt.
No, perhaps holding the Winter Olympics in London is not such a good idea - even if global warming does allow us to have snow here in 2026.
Pie in the sky?
Not quite a pie, but it is certainly large and round, and it is in the sky. I'm talking about the proposed 130-metre tall, spherical concert hall that could rise higher than St Paul's Cathedral, being planned for an empty site, near the Olympic Park in Stratford. It's not as if we are short of iconic buildings in this part of the world, you understand. We already boast the Aquatic Centre - aka, the Stingray - and the Velodrome - aka, the Pringle - not to mention Westfield, the largest urban shopping centre in Europe, though that is hardly 'iconic'.
The new concert hall, dubbed the Golf Ball, would be just one more extraordinary building to adorn east London, an area that until a few years ago boasted a few scrapyards, two industrial estates and a fridge mountain. Were it not for the fact that I have had to suspend disbelief so many times in recent years (I didn't believe we would win the Olympic bid and I didn't think anyone would come shopping in Westfield), then I might think the latest proposal was just pie in the sky. But, we've been here before and I actually think this might happen.
The venue is designed to hold 20,000 people and would rival the O2 arena as London's largest indoor venue. It's capacity would be four times that of the Royal Albert Hall, itself once a visionary design for a concert venue in west London. It will be 20 metres taller than St Paul's Cathedral and double the height of the nearby Olympic Stadium, designed by the same architect. Seating in the arena would be arranged in a 360-degree bowl within the globe-shaped venue. It would be supported on a tripod of pylons that would allow pedestrians to pass underneath it.
The site on which the venue will be built is, apparently, owned by Westfield and sits on the other side of the railway tracks from the shopping centre itself. Considering the location and land values around here, it is a surprisingly large site. The local planning authority, the London Legacy Development Corporation describes it as a site for 'large-scale town centre use with supporting elements'. Something of an understatement for what is envisaged, I would say.
According to figures published last week, more people are leaving London than at any time during the past decade. In the year up to mid-2016, 292,000 people left the capital - that's more than the population of Sunderland which, coincidentally, is the only city in the UK where population is actually declining. So, is the population of the capital also dwindling? Not at all - it is increasing at it's fastest rate in a century and is now about 8.8 million people, the highest number that have ever lived here. The people who leave are being replaced, more than adequately, by migrants from other parts of the UK or abroad. Furthermore, many of these newcomers are young, giving London a younger population profile than other parts of the UK.
Most of the people leaving London are being driven from the capital by soaring house prices or by financially squeezed councils sending homeless families out of the capital, in some cases hundreds of miles away because they cannot afford to buy housing stock in London. The most popular destinations for people moving from the capital were Birmingham and Brighton, but large numbers of people also moved to Bristol and Manchester. Meanwhile, the traditional drift from London into the Home Counties continues, with many moving to growing towns in Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire.
A significant proportion of the number leaving are people who graduated from university in the 1990s, moved to London and bought homes when they were cheap and are now leaving in their 40s with their children and a large amount of equity behind them. They are not always welcomed by locals in the places they move to, as house prices rise when property-rich arrivals outbid each other to move in. One example is the town of Lewes in Sussex, to which 740 Londoners moved last year. Understandably, such migration fuels resentment in other parts of the country towards both London and the new incomers, branded "DFLs" or "down from London".
But, that is just one side of the story. Another side of the story, which has particular resonance for our family, with three children now in their twenties, is the impact which the explosion of the housing market has on young Londoners. Despite my best efforts to persuade them that, really, they would stand a much better chance of buying a home outside the capital, none of my brood shows any inclination to leave London. Why should they? This is where they were brought up, made their friends and now earn a living. There is little to attract them out of London to a life of long-distance commuting. So, it looks like our house is going to be crowded for some time to come. Not everyone is leaving London. Far from it.