There is no doubt the Elizabeth Line will alter our perceptions of London’s geography. But is it too little, too late? Or can our planning system move fast enough to allow newly connected neighbourhoods to flourish?
Woolwich station by Weston Williamson + Partners is one of ten new stations forming the Elizabeth Line, which opened on 24 May 2022
What impact will the Elizabeth Line have on London? In the first five days of operation 1 million people took a trip on the central section while 2 million journeys were recorded across the whole network. Taking the larger figure, that’s equivalent to 146 million passengers a year. Pre-Covid, passenger levels were predicted to be 250 million a year by 2026.
It’s early days but the figures seem to support predictions. The enthusiasm of first-day trippers on the newly opened elements is an indicator of the overall network’s ability to fire the imagination and power change – as London’s biggest public transport projects have done since the 1860s when the Metropolitan Line lit the touch paper for suburban Metroland.
‘Wow!’ said a text on opening day, 24 May; ‘Canary Wharf to Abbey Wood in ten minutes. What a seismic change…carnival atmosphere on board!’
You can now get from Paddington to Abbey Wood in 29 minutes at the rate of a station every three minutes. That would have been an hour at least just a few weeks ago. It is these newly opened elements, between Heathrow in the west and Abbey Wood in the south-east, that will alter our perceptions of the city’s geography the most. An effect that will be heightened later this year when passengers can travel the length of the network without changing.
The Elizabeth Line has adjusted London’s space-time fabric and the recalibration of our personal sat-navs brings dreams of cheaper, leafier suburbs, shorter commutes, more time, more WFH (less WTF!). It offers opportunity.
Businesses can contemplate relocations to places previously beyond-the-pale, as isobars of upwardly-mobile rental values ripple outwards in the capital and attract developers to create new space. Encouraged by post-Covid working practices businesses will set up new HQs or book local shared office space in more suburban locations. Improved accessibility in cheaper locations might even make it possible to persuade younger employees from quitting London for cities where they can actually afford to own a home and raise a family.
Elizabeth Line connection at Liverpool Street station by Hawkins\Brown. Photograph by Morley von Sternberg
New thinking about locations and spatial needs has always been part of London’s story. It is an ‘exploded city’, regularly exporting vital organs to new locations, often several times in a single generation; Billingsgate fish market is about to move for the third time in 40 years.
Originally these moves were simply ‘extramural’ – outside the wall – like Jacobean theatres, The Globe, The Curtain, The Rose, out of sight of censorious eyes, but near enough to enjoy. Royalty, politicians, the law, the city’s markets, various industries like Fleet Street, all did something similar, exporting themselves outwards, to wherever there was space and cleaner air or water, to do what was needed, while new suburban communities swallowed villages and fields, absorbing them into the city’s fabric.
The Olympic Park and Stratford are now so well connected, on the Elizabeth Line’s north-eastern arm, cultural institutions like the BBC, the V&A and Sadlers Wells, based in the more affluent west are exporting bits of themselves to East Bank in the Olympic Park. The ‘extra mural’ process continues and will be encouraged by the Elizabeth Line.
The transfer of economic activity to more suburban centres, like Ealing, Barking, or Woolwich, or places in between, should have an energising effect, but will the Line’s predominantly east-west axis fling money and people out, rather than attracting them in?
Too early to tell. Mobile phone location data from a recent survey by tech’ consultancy CACI and Property Week, for example, showed the sharpest fall in visitors is still in the City of London. A 58 per cent drop in April 2022 compared with March 2020, just before Covid hit (or the Elizabeth Line opened). Where are all those people?
The presence of that absence has caused existential financial pain in the City of London’s streets, exacerbated by Brexit, with empty shops and ongoing crises for many small businesses, and even for TfL, the body that really rules London.
The argument was that the Elizabeth Line will make the City and the West End accessible to more people from further away. But, even before Covid, frantic policy-making from Westminster City Council and the City of London Corporation, was seeking step-changes in the quality of their built environments.
Too little, too late perhaps. People were already voting with their feet, or with their online purchases, in the case of Oxford Street, and the City was being invaded by the tech industries, particularly on its northern shores. Tech looks set to become the largest occupier of space on the east side of town, while affluent financiers, like Herman Melville’s Bartleby (a clerk on Wall Street), ‘prefer not to’ work in EC postal codes. Oxford Street must soon reinvent itself completely.
Covid revealed by its temporary absence the baleful dominance of the internal combustion engine. It may soon be replaced by whirring, cleaner, autonomous electric vehicles. But even if this transpires, it’s unlikely they will compete with the Elizabeth Line’s numerical supremacy and speed in shifting people across the capital.
Paddington station by Weston Williamson + Partners
London’s suburbs are long overdue a makeover that might beneficially include more density for housing, and more mixed-use in their centres, and better radial transport links. Where access to the Elizabeth Line is good, maybe it will be the catalyst for such makeovers. Perhaps even as ’15-minute neighbourhoods’. But these are unlikely to flourish without more dynamic planning intervention and/or significant incentives for existing owners to welcome change.
Are either of these things likely to occur? Not unless there is a significant shift in political will and planning policy. But the Elizabeth Line might still be a good indicator of how value can be created and harnessed as an engine for wider revitalisation, as the DLR and the Jubilee Line have demonstrated, and the Metropolitan Line before them.
London house prices may fall next year as war, fuel, food and interest rate-induced crises impact. But not because London’s supply shortage has been sorted, nor because there is a glut of the wrong sort of homes in some locations which nobody now wants.
Since 1981 a pathetic, inadequate, average of 17,000 homes a year has been built in London. That’s maybe 700,000 homes in 40 years. The population has increased by around three million in that time and household numbers have risen dramatically.
The Elizabeth Line is an invitation to politicians and communities, planners and developers, business and social and cultural institutions, all of us, to step up and transform places to create more homes, jobs and opportunities, especially for younger people, who have been alienated by the system’s failure to deliver for them, especially housing.
How long can a city prosper that fails to provide homes for the people born in it, or migrate to it expecting to prosper? Young Londoners, apart from the rich or very poor, are unlikely to be able to live in the places they’ve grown up in. Nothing could be more alienating, socially destabilising, and economically self-destructive.
‘Never bet against London’ is a property industry saying. Yet from a peak of 8.6 million in 1939 the population fell to 6.5 million or so in the early 80s. That big decline, caused by de-industrialisation, containerisation and globalisation, was eventually countered by the shift to a new and more varied service economy, largely delivered by Thatcherism and the rise of technology. Consequent inequalities went largely unaddressed – hence the need for ‘levelling-up’.
London’s population is set to rise to 10 million by 2030. But the global context has suddenly changed. If growth is less certain, we can at least ensure we understand and tackle the key problems. Inequalities that arise from housing, health and education issues, and existential ones, like climate change, can be ameliorated by something like the Elizabeth Line and the effect it has on geography and people’s perceptions of opportunity.
London has seen worse eras in 2000 years. During that span London has mostly accelerated, despite burning down, deadlier plagues and bombings. Whether today’s planning system can move fast enough to take advantage of something like the Elizabeth Line is not easy to feel positive about.
The system has become a battleground. We need to find better ways of having the necessary discussions and then taking the decisions, enhancing and maintaining democracy in the process.
If you think about Farringdon Station, for example, the new ‘navel’ of London, where east-west and north-south public transport connections meet. It sits at the heart of the whole rail and tube network, at the junction of three very different political authorities – the City, Camden and Islington. This triumvirate with disparate ambitions is overseen by another body, the GLA.
The route from the new King’s Cross in the north, following the Fleet River south down Farringdon Road, across Blackfriars Bridge and on down to the Elephant & Castle could be a fantastic new linear place in London, with the area around Farringdon station at its heart.
Where are the collectively produced plans that might express this or similar ambitions? Farringdon Road is mostly a lacklustre place despite being one of the best-connected routes in Europe and one of London’s most important cross-town boulevards.
Or if you walk more than say half to one kilometre from each of the 41 stations on the Elizabeth Line (incidentally France’s RER system which opened in 1977, 45 years ago, has 257 stations and 584km of track), are there any plans that successfully suggest development frameworks for how to take full advantage of the Elizabeth Line? I’d like to see them.
How many local plans take realistic, or opportunistic, account of the impact of the Elizabeth Line in their districts? Is it too politically disturbing to draw speculative lines on plans? It’s not as though there hasn’t been enough time to plan and to development frameworks and visions.
The advent of Elizabeth Line, despite an inauspicious arrival late and over-budget, could mark the end of unequal and questionable forms of growth and the start of an era of ‘good growth’ supported by voters that addresses inequalities. Potentially. On the other hand, the opportunities the Elizabeth Line offers could be missed for decades.
Lee Mallett is an urbanist, regeneration consultant and writer, and co-publisher editor of Planning in London magazine.