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London: a demanding mistress

I was recently asked whether I was high or low maintenance: my response was very much at the lower end of the scale.

I said I had never been one for splurging on clothes, jewellery, cosmetic surgery, or any other of the favoured outlets for conspicuous consumption.

My husband then piped up, noting that my demand that we recreate a Moroccan orangery in our house might reveal a certain sense of denial on my part.

But London is a different matter altogether; the city needs to be lifted, nipped, tucked, polished, and constantly enhanced.

Her capricious demands were laid bare in the mayor’s 2050 Infrastructure Strategy – all £1.3tn of it.

Four Olympics a year

The mayor estimates we have to more than double London’s infrastructure spending – from an annual average of £16bn in 2011-15 to £38bn in 2016-50 – if the city is to tackle the backlog of historic under-investment and keep up in the global race.

Or to put it another way, we need to fund the equivalent of a London Olympics every three months for the next 35 years to stay on top of the game.

“Failing to deliver this extra investment will leave the capital a bigger - but certainly not better - place in the future”

This might sound ludicrous, but make no mistake: with London growing by 100,000 people a year, failing to deliver this extra investment will leave the capital a bigger - but certainly not better - place in the future.

In the plan the mayor rightly says a key part of keeping the city going is housebuilding. But despite identifying housing as the “gravest crisis” London currently faces, the plan treads very carefully in terms of where new homes would go.

The plan calls for redeveloping brownfield sites within London, and building denser housing in town centres and outer London.

While these are clearly part of the solution, we also need a more radical approach.

This means getting redundant public land onto the market, investing more public money to provide social housing, and looking at land in outer London which is designated as greenbelt, but which most Londoners would almost certainly mistake for random scrubland.

“The plan calls for the mayor to have a more formal role in the regulation of London’s utilities. This is important”

Elsewhere, the plan injected a note of welcome pragmatism on the potential role of the private sector in London infrastructure delivery.

It says that we need to explore more private and public sector collaboration, which I hope means the GLA is finally ready to move beyond the legacy of the Tube PPP.

The plan also calls for the mayor to have a more formal role in the regulation of London’s utilities. This is important. 

Whereas national regulators are concerned about getting reasonably priced electricity to far flung parts of the country, in London, we need high quality, reliable infrastructure, we need it fast and if necessary we’re prepared to pay for it.

The ideas flow thick and fast: new train systems such as a South London Metro and an “R25” Outer London Orbital, transformed water and electricity networks, Crossrail 2, an underground road tunnel, and new river crossings.

It’s a lot to ask, but if London is to keep up its global place as a global city, we need to nurture, indulge, and pamper this most high maintenance of mistresses.

Jo Valentine is the chief executive of London First

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