TfL’s launch of a 300-acre development programme will promote a significant amount of investment in the built environment at a time when it is desperately needed


London Underground at rush hour: passengers eight deep on platforms, train after train passing before the glorious triumph of edging into a carriage between one person’s armpit and another’s rucksack. For decades this has offered the archetypal snapshot of the city’s overcrowding.

So it is ironic that the organisation responsible for the tube network, Transport for London (TfL), is now behind a vast development push that offers hope of alleviating at least some of the pressures the city’s burgeoning population is placing on its wider built environment.

TfL’s launch of a 300-acre development programme, which the organisation’s bosses claim is capable of delivering 10,000 homes and 10 million ft2 of commercial space in the capital, will promote a significant amount of investment in the built environment at a time when it is desperately needed. London’s population already stands at 8.6 million people and is predicted to reach 10 million by 2030. That’s 16% more people not just fighting to get on the Underground, but for homes, school places and workspace.

But the significance of TfL’s expansion into property development is about much more than the scale of its programme, sizeable though it is. What makes the move particularly exciting is the possibility of a large-scale, co-ordinated approach to development that links vital infrastructure with well-placed housing and viable commercial premises. TfL has the chance to become an anchor client for London.

This prospect might not sound immediately enticing to those who recall the difficulties that plagued the tube network’s most infamous construction projects - the 1990s’ Jubilee line extension, and the Metronet Rail saga of the 2000s. But TfL, which took over responsibility for the tube after the controversial maintenance PPP was agreed, has moved the upgrading of London’s infrastructure on a long way since then. And, in contrast to some of its predecessor bodies, it seems to have a firm grasp on where its expertise does - and doesn’t - lie. It has decided to carry out its building push in joint venture with 13 heavily experienced development partners - including Land Securities, L&Q, and British Land - with the partners, initially at least, leading on procurement. This should give confidence in the management of the property schemes coming to market.

And there is potential value to be had from a client that has both TfL’s long-term exclusive geographic focus on London, and its reach across the capital, being behind this programme of work. For one, work on this scale should hold the door wide open to the kind of construction techniques that should drive economies of scale - off-site manufacture, standardised design components, and so on. Unfortunately this rarely occurs, as the pipeline from a single client is not sufficient or secure enough to drive firms to invest in them.

A second huge opportunity is for a consistent approach to design in the capital’s neighbourhoods, where transport infrastructure, housing developments and offices complement each other rather than vying for attention. A design approach driven by a client with a long-term interest in the area, as TfL has, should also have the benefit of allaying some of the fears around design which can accompany some “modern” construction techniques.

The idea of clients that are symbiotically entwined with their cities driving development is not new. It has latterly risen up the agenda in the education sector, with universities acting as “anchor tenants” for their cities, partnering on community developments as they compete to make their locations more attractive to students. Currently it is most evident in the idea of the northern powerhouse, with investment in infrastructure and facilities for science and innovation intended to spur wider city and regional growth.

But TfL has an advantage in translating these ideas into practice quickly, as it has land and resources at its disposal.

What it does with that opportunity could end up setting an example for clients in other cities that aim to rival the capital; cities which need well-placed investment to help attract some of the future population that, even with programmes like TfL’s, London cannot hope to contain.

Sarah Richardson, editor