James Cooksey: How to keep London great

James Cooksey, Director of Central London for The Crown Estate, one of the largest real estate businesses in London’s West End, argues that London needs to be radical in the face of a globally competitive world. 


10 May 2016

We in the business world spend a lot of time talking about how we like certainty: stable tax regimes, rule of law, broadly predictable politics. We want to be able to look ahead with confidence, see the direction of travel and make informed commercial decisions.

And this assurance is a big part of what makes London so consistently attractive to global investors; along with the depth and professionalism of its commercial markets, an outward facing economy, and the strength of its transport infrastructure, great architecture, and world class shopping, cultural, and leisure attractions.

There are other vital things which make London special too, such as its social and cultural diversity, which encourages people to pool their knowledge, skills and experience and drive innovation.

But the flipside of London’s success is the creation of challenges that have the potential to erode its pre-eminence, from the undersupply of genuinely affordable housing, to environmental concerns such as air quality. And these issues are set against a wider backdrop of factors that are increasingly harder to predict or control, like the impacts of climate change and global economic shocks or technological and demographic change. Furthermore, political shifts, including the future of our relationship with Europe and a new London Mayor all in the next couple of months, will have a significant impact.

The irony is that business has to be prepared for and embrace both change and uncertainty, think about the big picture and harness London’s energy if it is to remain a global leader. Air quality is the perfect example of this. As well as having damaging social and environmental impacts, it has the potential to seriously undermine London’s attractiveness as an international world city.

London must be bold. This will be achieved by fostering partnerships to realise creative and high quality visions that may have originally been deemed too ambitious, but then become the norm. Seven years ago, no one thought that we could transform the congested crossing at Oxford Circus. We worked with Westminster City Council, TfL and others to make it something that worked for pedestrians and vehicles alike. That radical change was only possible by being determined to solve the problem in partnership with others.

Today, we’re going even further, bringing together landowners to cultivate over a hectare of new green spaces between St James’s Park and Regent’s Park to encourage biodiversity, improve air quality and ultimately create a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

Both lead mayoral candidates have talked about pedestrianising Oxford Street West and it is essential that any proposal be considered in the widest possible context: from re-routing buses and traffic, through to consolidating deliveries, re-thinking the balance of pedestrians and vehicles and introducing more traffic free days, to ensure we arrive at a stronger and more successful West End.

How can London stay great? By being bold, exploiting the strengths within partnerships, and pushing each other on quality. The decisions we make about the built environment cannot easily be undone, but we have shown we are capable of delivering beautiful places for people to live and work in that are the envy of the world. As we welcome the new London Mayor we have a wonderful opportunity to focus on our greatest challenges, amongst them housing, congestion and pollution. And as business leaders with a long term interest in London’s continued success, we are ready but we can’t do it on our own!