Thursday, 21 June 2012

Place East London - Where is that?

So what sort of place is East London and what sort of place do we want it to become? And, where is East London anyway? And I don't just mean geographically, I also mean in terms of its development and the quality of life that it provides for its residents and businesses.

Yesterday afternoon the first Place East London conference attempted to address those and related questions. Under the inimitable chairing of Jackie Sadek, CE of UK Regeneration, the new kid on the "live in a great place" block, approximately 160 people gathered in the Old Town Hall in Stratford to hear a variety of presentations on what is happening in this sometimes difficult to define area, what is being planned for it and what people would like to see happening.

For me the stars of the show were Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham; Ian Lindsay of Crossrail; Emma Vandore, involved with the TechCity initiative, Liane Hartley of Mend, and Kelvin Campbell of Urban Initiatives, who were all, in their own ways, inspirational. And in contrast, my prize for ruining a very informative set of slides, that could not be read, through uninspiring delivery, goes to Edward Lister of the Greater London Assembly.

Robin is a great advert for Newham, and East London in general. He is so passionate about the place and you'd think he had been born there, but he is a "convert" Scot, like me. He engulfed me with a welter of statistics, stories and vignettes in a very engaging way but at a rate of knots that left me sometimes confused about just which initiative he was describing. Fast, furious and inspiring.

Ian laid out the full scale of the development of the Cross Rail programme and the astonishing changes it will bring in accessibility to the west end of central London , if not the "west", for people in East London, but equally, the improved access to the East End from the rest of London, changing it from what some still regard as a backwater to a place to get things done. Great stuff!

Emma described the initiative that is being taken to grow tech businesses in the City of London and spread their establishment through East London and spoke with a mixture of passion and concern about the need to spread the net of digital entrepreneur-ism to the kids creatively programming in their bedrooms.

Then we had our brains fried by Liane Hartlety of Mend (London) who argued for an approach to the development of the area that she described as "social planning" and the embrace of "comfortable chaos". I summarise this as the need to recognise that human life is essentially social and that daily life is essentially chaotic. We should stop trying to simplify it, sort it out, regiment it, and corral it and learn to live with a degree of necessary discomfort. We had under five minutes of this thoughtful lady and Place East London should bring her back and give her another platform to explain her ideas in greater depth.

I was struck by a comment made by Ralph Ward, a grand man of much experience in planning for the East End, that in thirty years he had not seen a single business development strategy for East London and when I asked the panel why their answers suggested that there might be no need for such another document; we need to "get on with the getting on" was what I heard. Well yes, and no! We do need to let a thousand flowers bloom, and some will die, but surely we need to keep track of what works and try to spread it throughout the area in some form of planned way?

And then there was Kelvin. His subject matter concened the metrics we use to assess and plan town centres. As usual his remarks were thoughtful, provocative and occasionally humorously anarchic. He thinks that we are currently measuring the wrong things - like gross rents, levels of vacancy, all things property. Instead he proposed metrics of a more human form - the number of people actively involved in a place, volunteering, making it work better; the number of social enterprises actively working there; the numbers of people attending events and the type of events; the level of digital activity taking place in cafes and open spaces; the number of community support services open for business in town centres; the range and number of businesses located there. And, entertainingly and anarchically, the number of people getting laid there!

I came away at the end of the afternoon still wondering if there really is a definable place called East London and asking myself the question does anybody want it defined, described or even promoted as a recognizable place, as opposed to just getting on with the creation of a better place, in all its constituent parts for the people who live there, wherever that is?

We shall see as this gathering is to be reconvened in about five or six months time after all of the balyhoo of the Olympics has died down, or at least quietened a bit. Which reminds me to comment that I was impressed by the independence of mind of Daniel Moylan, the Chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation, the closing speaker, who read out the a few  points from the notes prepared for him by his new staff and then promptly raised insightful questions about them.