Town Hall explores ‘15-minute city’ concept as it grapples with economic fallout from coronavirus

Dalston is one of a ‘number of very vibrant town centres’ in Hackney that make the borough a feasible candidate for the ’15-minute’ model

Councillors are calling on the Town Hall administration to continue to make large-scale interventions to support the local economy in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and lockdown.

The council yesterday ratified its local plan, LP33, aimed at guiding future development in Hackney through to 2033, with planning chief Cllr Guy Nicholson pointing to a focus on town centres as one of the ways in which the Town Hall’s strategy will remain “relevant even in these very changed times”.

One concept being discussed as part of the borough’s economic recovery is that of the ‘15-minute city’, developed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s special envoy Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne, in which a resident would be able to access local goods, services and leisure within a 15-minute walk.

Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, while not minimising the economic and social impact to thousands of the crisis and lockdown, voiced his hope last night that “Hackney is already made up of countless 15-minute communities, and I think that is why we are potentially more resilient to some of the challenges that we face”.

Cllr Nicholson said: “Local town centres are going to come into their own, certainly for the next couple of years. Hackney, fortunately, has a number of very vibrant town centres, currently, where small- and medium-sized businesses have been thriving.

“It’s true they have been struggling over the course of the last four months, as have businesses everywhere, but equally we have many residents living in very close proximity to our town centres, a great culture of walking and cycling, and what we are beginning to see is the concept of the 15-minute city.

“This is not far-fetched. The conversations that are being had about central London at the moment – it is difficult to see when central London’s economy will be back at full strength, if at all, and if it does, what form it will take.

“At the moment, all those hundreds of thousands of people who travel into the capital on a daily basis to fill those spaces in the central business district are not travelling into work. This is having a profound effect on the wider economy.

“That is not what is being replicated in our local centres, where people live as well as work.”

LP33 has moved to ensure “proper planning” within town centres in order for the council to better manage land use within them by preventing developers changing a use class from a shop into residential units, among other things.

The Town Hall is aiming, through the plan, to provide around 34,000 square metres of new retail and leisure area by 2033, with “most significant growth” aimed primarily at Dalston and Hackney Central, followed by Stamford Hill and Shoreditch, with specific planning guidance in place for each of the borough’s many centres, large and small.

Other policies within the plan seek to avoid over-concentration of hot food takeaways and betting or payday loan shops in any one area, as well as a statement of intent to “protect and promote” street markets including Ridley Road, with development resulting in the permanent loss of markets to be refused “unless appropriate comparable replacement provision is made”.

Significantly, anyone who builds a residential dwelling in the borough, even a single dwelling, will have to make a contribution to affordable housing, either through direct finance or by building the new home.

Other aspects of LP33 were also praised by leading councillors, with skills chief Cllr Carole Williams saying that any boost to local employment would be welcomed as apprenticeships see a “significant drop”, and public realm boss Cllr Jon Burke hailing the plan as a “step change” on biodiversity and the integration of the built environment into nature through specific measures to assist nesting birds.

Nicholson has stressed, however, that “a great deal of patience, partnership and collaboration” will be necessary as the council, businesses and residents continue to navigate the often overwhelming challenges presented by the crisis, with councillors pointing to Shoreditch as seeing significant fallout.

Cllr Richard Lufkin said: “Cllr Nicholson has said some really interesting things about 15-minute cities and our local town centres, but we also do have areas of the borough where people are heavily dependent on public transport to get either to work or for leisure, particularly in Shoreditch and Dalston.

“What is the fallout going to be there, bearing in mind we have a massive reduction in public transport capacity of probably 60 to 70 per cent.

“I can see some local centres working, as people will be able to walk and cycle, but I can see areas like Shoreditch and south of the borough really suffering from an employment point of view, as people won’t be able to get there or they are servicing offices with not very many people.”

Quizzed at the council’s skills, economy and growth scrutiny commission, Cllr Nicholson accepted that challenges in the public transport sector were “well beyond” the control of the Town Hall, with the footfall required for a healthy local economy in Shoreditch unlikely to return to pre-Covid levels “for some time to come”.

One challenge faced in the borough as lockdown eases, according to Nicholson, is the clash between businesses desperate to maximise custom through moving their operation out into the streets and locals concerned about this use of public space, overcrowding and an inability to socially distance as a result.

The planning boss added: “The council is in a very difficult position, if I am being candid, in trying to balance these two quite legitimate and genuine interests. How can you ensure space in the public realm is given over to businesses, and yet for those who are passing through or live round the corner, how do they feel safe and keep social distancing?”

Nicholson also warned that the UK leaving the European single market, combined with the crisis, could create a “perfect storm” for the borough’s economy, suggesting that how the council can promote enterprise and entrepreneurship in such circumstances must be reckoned with.

The debate at the Town Hall saw calls for an interventionist approach to economic recovery from Cllr Gilbert Smyth, who pointed to the borough’s anchor institutions as “the economic lifeblood” of communities.

Economy commission vice-chair Cllr Polly Billington called on the council’s regeneration department to move swiftly to identify and support “social enterprises and people in the voluntary sector who will keep this community and this economy going when some of the big guys leave us alone or don’t have enough for us or are only worrying about the bottom line”.

Billington added: “I don’t think we should underestimate quite how huge this economic disruption could be for our community, and how profound the impact will be.

“There is no clarity from the government about long-term investment at the scale required. We’ve had enormous injections into the economy to stop it falling over immediately, but little indication that that kind of investment, and a renewal, rethinking and reset is certainly not on their agenda.

“So it will fall to local councils like ours to support the entrepreneurialism of our business people, enable them to use technologies in different ways and reconfigure their business models, but for many people their jobs will not be there anymore. We will need to see our role in regeneration in a way that will be very different from how we’ve had to conduct ourselves as a council over the past 20 years.”