CityBites Podcast: Culture + Place

This episode of the CityBites ‘Connections’ podcast series is on the evolving relationship between culture and place. You’ll hear how different types and scales of organisation are mitigating the damage to the creative sector… how society, government and the market are reassessing culture’s value to local identity and economy… and what aspects of this changing world could be with us for the long term. 

In cases like the Southbank Centre, ‘London’s living room’, culture creates and defines place. Normally audiences flock to these destinations, but so do people who just want somewhere inviting to meet, work or pass the time at no charge. Now too many venues – whether single- or multi-purpose – stand empty, and as guest Gillian Moore points out, the generally sensible move to diversify revenue has had awful knock-on effects as the pandemic hit tenant businesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, individual artists and freelancers from fashion to video face an economic cliff-edge, though some help has come – often from each other. For some, this massive disruption could force a change of career. Even if individuals come out OK, will the neighbourhoods where they made and shared creative output be the poorer?

Somewhere between the two lies public art: beautifying barriers, making statements, cheering us up – and in recent years, claiming more space in development and regeneration schemes. It’s worth considering how climate action could intersect here. The creative industries were worth £306m a DAY to the UK economy in 2018 and had been on the ascendant; that talent and investment will be seeking a new outlet, and both climate action and cultural delivery can be very effective at ground level. That’s a topic for another podcast…

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Today’s guests have been working to reduce the pandemic’s damage to culture and place across all scales:

Gillian Moore CBE is Director of Music at the Southbank Centre. She has worked at bringing music and the arts to London and international audiences for more than 35 years, including efforts to integrate education and the arts. She held leadership roles at the London Sinfonietta before joining Southbank in 2006 and was awarded an MBE in 1994 and a CBE in 2018 for her services to music. She also writes and broadcasts regularly about music, and you can find her on BBC3 – or see her championing column on the Southbank Centre here.

“People do happen across the Southbank because they just happen to be wandering along the riverfront. But we can never take that for granted. We know that even people who live half a mile or a mile away, kids who live on local estates, they’ve not seen the River Thames. So we have to make lots of extra effort to be in different places.” – Gillian Moore

Aida Esposito is founder-director of creativethinking, a cultural strategist for cross-sector clients and co-director of the Tottenham Creative Enterprise Zone. She is a passionate cultural and creative specialist who has delivered  innovative strategy, development and projects around the world. Through the pandemic, among other things, Aida has been connecting councils with individual artists and small businesses to generate work and help shape what places can look like.

“I think arts organisations will become much more savvy about how they use digital to augment what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to say, and how they show work. Hopefully we will have a digital world which is complementary, another public space to use and engage with alongside other more physical manifestations.” – Aida Esposito

Paul Augarde is an award-winning placemaking strategist, working with cross-sector clients on socioeconomic and cultural regeneration strategies and focusing on resilient mixed communities. He’s an associate at Coherent Cities and WorkWild and a board member of arts charities ACAVA and UP Projects. Paul was core to the creation of Poplar Works and helped direct the £1.5m Creative Workspace Resilience Fund on behalf of the Mayor and the Creative Land Trust.

What the creative workspace sector has done really cleverly is support their tenant base. So as and when we come out of this, they will still have a strong market and a strong set of tenants. Whereas I suspect within certain parts of the private sector, that won’t be the case and they won’t have built that strength.” – Paul Augarde

Listen to the podcast to hear their lively debate…

or check out these resources:

Catch all podcast episodes on Future of London’s City Bites page.

   

The wonderful Queenhithe mosaic of London’s history seems particularly apt & the far end still has room for our current disaster. Designed by Tessa Hunkin and executed by South Bank Mosaics under the supervision of Jo Thorpe [thanks to Spitalfields Life for the info]

Curb Appeal: Managing Covid-19’s impact on public-private space

Social distancing has been key to reducing Covid-19 transmission, but it’s also been hugely disruptive. As loosening restrictions jostle with public confidence and business risk, what are the implications for urban design and movement, and for business and landlord viability? And can we flex enough to navigate a second wave?

Watch this lively webinar, hosted by RE:Women, to find out:

  • What councils, landlords and planners can do to make the space outside shops & restaurants a pleasant ‘waiting room’
  • What impact retail and F&B occupiers expect on operations and revenue, and what they’re doing about it
  • How area-aware station design for Crossrail and other projects could be impacted – and can help with local recovery.

Speakers:

  • Harbinder Birdi – Senior Partner, Hawkins\Brown
  • Jacqueline Bleicher – Founder/Director, Global Urban Design
  • Ally Reid – Investment Manager, LandSec
  • Lisa Taylor – Director, Coherent Cities (session producer & moderator)


City Bites: What’s at risk in recovery? Tony Travers & Barbara Brownlee on government roles in economic recovery

City Bites podcast: ‘Connections’ Ep. 2

How can UK government tiers interact usefully for economic recovery, especially in contentious cities like London? What support do local authorities need from national government to adapt to the new normal? And what might out city centres look like when the dust settles?

I asked Barbara Brownlee, City of Westminster Executive Director of Growth, Planning & Housing and LSE Professor Tony Travers for their perspectives in this compelling – and sometimes surprising – first episode of the City Bites “Connections” series with Future f London.

Take-aways

  • Treasury needs councils to avoid financial crisis, partly for economic recovery but also because local authorities are best placed for testing and managing all aspects of Covid response and relationships on the ground. Further, as Brownlee pointed out, being forced into a Section 114 budget-balancing exercise by these extraordinary Covid-19 costs would mean harsh cuts and no room for flexibility or collaboration. Despite increasing bluster, Travers believes we can expect MHCLG to do its best to help keep boroughs afloat.
  • Watch for councils, property companies and partners to start referring to all that vacant office space as “new” commercial or mixed-use space (Travers credits Arup’s Alex Jan with this reframing). Where landlords are amenable and planning authorities can flex, this could be a great way to bring fresh energy to town and city centres as smaller/ newer/ consortium organisations start to afford cheaper floor space.
  • Brownlee does represent a central London authority, but both make the case for not abandoning central cities (in the UK or elsewhere) in favour of sprawl. They also point out that large, historic landlords in city centres, like London’s Great Estates, have the patience – and patient capital – to make sound decisions, “viewing this as a 200-year thing, rather than a 20-month thing”.
  • In economic terms, both are particularly worried about the huge hole in Transport for London and commuter rail revenues – and the impact of that on investment – and about the terrible losses in the cultural sector, for livelihoods, businesses, footfall and export value.
  • Local authorities have limited powers to take direct action like policing risky queues or offering business rates relief, but they do have unique leveraging powers; watch for – or seek – more of this from them.
  • Both are convinced we will never go back to business as usual in terms of how we work, with Brownlee citing much more direct working on rough sleeping issues, and “100%” certainty that council staff and committees will stay at least partly remote and be as or more efficient than in the past.

Catch all City Bites episodes here.

Funding public projects in chaotic times

This post also appears at Future of London (my sometime other hat). You can find links to key FoL research below.

This post updates some of the findings in FoL’s Paying for Public Projects briefing, the product of three late-2019 roundtables and further research by 2016-20 Head of Knowledge Amanda Robinson. The programme was supported by Montagu Evans, Poly Group and Lewis Silkin.

Get ready to flex. Over the last 10 years, housing, infrastructure and regeneration delivery has been moulded by austerity and political flux; all sectors responded as well as they could. In the last three years, add the tragedy and deep impacts of Grenfell; climate declarations & court decisions; Brexit (remember that?); and now Covid-19, with its awful death toll, its policy and fiscal upheaval, and its economic ravages.

London’s incandescent glow was also starting to fade a bit before the pandemic, with medium-term value growth in the housing market forecast well below other regions and a cooler reception from central government as part of regional ‘levelling up’. That may seem fair in a national context, but it doesn’t help get projects funded.

Through it all, public project leads from all sectors have had to secure finance for upfront costs and funding for operations and maintenance. Budget cuts and housing policy were already pushing the public sector to risk more via joint ventures and council building programmes. Housing associations – partly in response to grant cuts and rent caps – reviewed activity, assets and tenure, embraced shared ownership; merged and morphed; and ventured into modular construction.

For councils in particular, finance has been a rollercoaster: removing the cap on Housing Revenue Account borrowing freed their aspirations; a year later, the 1% hike in Public Works Loan Board interest rates – partly in shock (…) at borrowing levels – slapped the curb back on and sent projects across the country reeling.

We will also lose EU funding – the Structural & Investment Fund alone is worth £5.3bn to England – but the replacement UK Shared Prosperity Fund is not yet defined and could be eroded by the flood of Covid-19 emergency spending.

To assemble finance and funding packages (and critical support), organisations of all kinds have been partnering more – from multinational masterplan partnerships to regional and local projects relying as much on social as on financial capital.

The fitness of other options, including municipal bonds, institutional investment and bank loans, will become clearer over the coming 6-12 months as the UK emerges from lockdown and assesses the economic damage.

Unfortunately, there’s a constant through all of this: a shortage of skills, capacity and understanding.

Whatever the tools, public project leads – especially at councils – can lack expertise, experience or just the time and headcount for effective funding and finance. Across the table, many investor and development partners still don’t understand the political or process realities of public delivery. Housing associations have been able to hire – though watch for the pandemic’s budget impact – but are increasingly challenged on ‘mission’. Having cash doesn’t mean the pressure is off.

Paying for Public Projects report

Early in 2020, Future of London combined its own research on the above with insight gained from three senior roundtables to produce a briefing on trends, risks and opportunities: Paying for Public Projects.

Supported by partners Montagu Evans, Poly Group and Lewis Silkin, the programme was designed to build public sector knowledge of funding sources and to help delivery teams and funders appreciate each other’s drivers and constraints. Covid fallout may shift the dial on best-fit funding, but the principles hold true.

The report provides cases and resources on trends including:

  • Investment shifting from inner to outer London. From 2015/16 to 2018/19, housing starts in inner London dropped by 57% while outer London marginally increased[1].
  • Investors attracted to assets offering revenue-generating potential and longer-term capital gains[2].
  • Climate issues affecting investor attitudes. Some are divesting from fossil fuels and applying ‘temperature scores’ to grade their portfolios[3]. Others heard the Court of Appeal decision against Heathrow expansion with trepidation. It’s under appeal, but it was a marker.

“Montagu Evans was delighted to support this programme,” writes partner Oliver Maury. “In the context of Covid-19 and its impact on society, our ability to share knowledge and experiences, in this case in relation to the funding of public projects, is more important than ever. As society turns its attention towards the recovery phase, we see organisations like ourselves and Future of London having an important part to play.”

So how can public project leads respond now?

There are still opportunities for public project funding – some perhaps growing as priorities shift…

  • A stronger emphasis on placemaking has been creating more resilient neighbourhoods that build on local identity and respond to local need. This strategic approach to regeneration demonstrates public sector leadership, which in turn inspires investor confidence. What happens now, as battered small businesses struggle to recover or leave shops vacant, is critical – council and landlord actions and attitudes are key to sustainability in every sense.
  • Emphasising – and clearly defining! – social & environmental value are likely to become more of a factor, as are explicit community support and mandates such as estate regeneration ballots. Because of their responsibility to communities, public-sector organisations are more likely to call for projects that maximise these values – and attract the growing number of investors with similar ambitions (viz the rise of Environmental, Social & Governance or ESG investing).
  • Good asset management is linked to both of the above. Rather than selling off, local authorities and housing associations are using mechanisms like income strips[4] to retain control of assets and explore income-generating opportunities as landlords. Again, they need the skills to do this well and the resources to scan the horizon for risks and opportunities post-Covid.
  • In London, engage with the Mayor’s Good Growth theme, with funds and support for projects offering the above and/or citizen engagement and diversified local economies.
  • Look to outer boroughs: There was already a huge amount to do in Outer London ­– and outside the centres of most UK city-regions – as town centres and high streets struggled to evolve. There will be ten times more to do now that they risk being hollowed out – and there will be public and private money ready to invest. What is brought back or built will be critical.
  • “Be shovel-ready”: This from a Leaders Plus candidate in Greater Manchester, but applicable anywhere. The UK will emerge and central government – from Homes England to the Department for Transport – will spend to help rebuild the economy. Moving ahead with deals, design, planning, consultation and procurement will help capable entities stand out when those initiatives kick in.

How do we look further ahead?

Scan. Listen. Learn. Collaborate. Flex.

Stability is never permanent, and the funding landscape will continue to shift. A key takeaway from the last 10 years was that local authorities must be more resilient when it comes to economic shocks. A key takeaway from the last two months is that central government will spend in a crisis. It remains to be seen whether that means a revolution in fiscal policy – with a return to serious housing and care funding, for example – or it means the cost of repayment will drive councils further into the red. What can we do to prepare?

Scan: Public project leads need to understand what funding sources are available, which are emerging, which are safe, and who’s using what. Carve out time for your team to scan good publications – or commission summaries if you have the budget. Room 151 is good.

Listen: Talk with colleagues beyond your organisation, via Future of London, professional groups and live or online networking events. Mentoring and board service across sectors or disciplines are great ways to do this.

Learn: Take courses, read the FT, Economist or HBR, listen to brain-stretching podcasts. Look at successes and failures and go beyond the gossip to what actually happened. Take your CFO for a coffee and ask how things work!

Collaborate: Work with each other. Share knowledge. Share people via secondments. Try using consortia once in a while to keep things fresh. Do a project or have a meeting with a competitor.

Flex: Doing the above, using tools like Future of London’s report and wider network – and having trusted outside help where warranted – can give public sector officers the confidence to take on risk and make fresh decisions. At the same time, those practices can help savvy private-sector operators understand partners and clients better, and by extension help repair public trust in the development and regeneration process.

FoL’s Paying for Public Projects programme brought together cross-sector development, housing, regeneration and funding partners to help build mutual understanding. In 2020, FoL is set to launch a new training programme for public project managers. These courses will be designed to help practitioners enhance their commercial skills by learning about viability, asset management, contracts and negotiation. Find out more here, or contact FoL Chief Executive Nicola Mathers at nicola@futureoflondon.org.uk.

Download the full Paying for Public Projects report here.

Get involved with Future of London’s useful work and excellent 4,600-strong network here.


Footnotes

  1. MHCLG Table 253: permanent dwellings started and completed, by tenure and district. Inner/outer London definitions follow those used in the London Plan. Some figures imputed by MHCLG in the data table. bit.ly/32d7gyj
  2. Hugo James. “The rise of long income property as an asset class,” 15 Jan 2020. www.investmenteurope.net/opinion/4009153/rise-long-income-property-asset-class
  3. Simon Jessop, Matthew Green; Reuters. “Climate change pushes investors to take their temperature,” 20 Jan 2010. reut.rs/2V9PFFU
  4. Clive Pearce. “Freeths Real Estate Law Blog: Income Strip Leases,” 5 Sep 2019. www.freeths.co.uk/2019/09/05/income-strip-leases/