Michelle Warbis, LSE Environment and Development student, proposes an amendment to the City of London’s ‘Community Infrastructure Levy’ that could promote the growth of urban green space in the Capital – despite a policy landscape that has previously hampered greening by prioritising revenue-generating building developments.
‘Greening’ is considered a policy priority both locally and nationally. Though outlined in England’s National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) and the London Plan, it has become increasingly difficult as an era of high growth, spurred by increasing urban land exchange values at the cost of use values takes hold. London perhaps epitomises this transition, as new developments for business, entertainment, retail, housing and public services pop up more rapidly, and at higher cost – economically and otherwise – than ever before.
At present the London Plan and the NPPF have placed increased emphasis on both quantity and quality of green space, though the provision of such space is still not a statutory requirement in the country. The City of London – one of the capital’s 32 boroughs – provides an interesting case study in the problems and possibilities of urban greening as a result of its truly unique governance structure, its position as a global leading financial centre, and of course its unusually small size.
Currently at less than 5% green space, the area falls well below London average, problematic for both environmental and social ills. A major issue for the City of London is the requirement for floor space for business. Adverse to the recommendations in the NPPF and the London Plan, the City’s Core Strategy highlights the need to increase floor space stock for business by 1,150,000m2 by 2026. As such, the likelihood of increasing the borough’s green space above 5% under current plans is unlikely – to say the most.
Problematizing the City’s greening further is its governance structure: it’s highly complex and fragmented, decision making is littered with private-public partnerships, and the interdependence of international global businesses and finance allows the City to operate outside of common regulation. Additionally, the City’s Lord Mayor, removing the borough from wider London mayoral activities, grants the City the right to run its own affairs. This is arguably best demonstrated by allocation of ballot papers to City workers and businesses, in numbers of which dwarf the tiny 8,000-person residency.
Clearly, a full circle is in action: businesses operating in the City of London exert disproportionate control over floor space stock decisions, in a context where there is a lack of statutory requirement for green space, and where the City has a high degree of autonomy. These conditions point towards a continued decline in green space and urban greening as the built environment of the City of London continues to grow outwards and – increasingly – upwards.
It is this upwards growth, however, that may provide a feasible solution to the City’s urban greening dilemma. In July 2014, The City of London Corporation introduced a Community Infrastructure Levy on all development within the borough. Under this policy, housing developments and business, retail or leisure developments must each pay a levy, or tax, per square metre of net additional floorspace. This rate varies depending on the type and location of development. The Corporation then uses this money for community benefits, which may range from public leisure facilities to care for the elderly.
So why may this enable an increasing upwards flurry of green space? Research undertaken in April and May 2014 indicated the potential to include voluntary urban greening in new developments through this levy. It is proposed that the levy’s baseline per square metre should be increased and then proportionally reduced where plans include urban greening in the form of green roofs and walls. This reduction of per square metre levy would be proportional per square metre of urban greening provided.
The higher quality and more equitable (e.g. accessible) the proposed greening, the higher the rate of increase, eventually taking the levy back to its original per square metre rate. Where developments still choose to opt out of greening, the finance derived from the increased levy should be ring-fenced by the Corporation for their own green projects which may include road-widening for tree planting, altering existing buildings with greening or expanding or improving existing open green space.
A win-win seems to appear: urban greening takes place privately, at the hands of developers by way of avoiding an unnecessary tax, or alternatively, ring-fenced revenue from an enforced tax will enable publicly funded greening. Of course tax levels must be set efficiently to avoid moral hazard and ensure cost-of-greening to cost-of-tax equity, but following this, the simplicity of an existing levy alteration has the power to be incredibly effective: earlier research pointed towards upwards urban greening has the potential to grow the City’s green space to 8% (up from 5% – ie a conservative estimate of a 67% increase) by 2031.
Indeed, new urban life presents challenges to sustainability, and the ‘sustainable city’, though currently in vogue, may seem little more than a buzzword. However the potential for the tiny, densely packed City of London, as discussed here should give us hope for simple yet pioneering, low-cost yet effective, win-win solutions to problems of the increasing demise in urban green space, metropolitan open land or ‘natural’ environment in an urban setting. However, for such policy alterations to truly take effect there will need to be a proactive and innovative attitude exhibited by businesses and development agencies concerned.
Though the City of London can lead by example through the levy, at the core of such contemporary urban challenges is the need for cohesion between local authorities, businesses, residents – and indeed all those with a stake in the future of urban space. Without shared goals and a wide understanding of the benefits of urban greening, a voluntary mechanism, though desirable, may not cut it.
This article was corrected on 29 September 2014: It originally stated that the CIL applies per m2 of land – in fact it applies per m2 of net additional floorspace.