Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Beyond the ‘post-industrial’ city: valuing and planning for industry in London

Jessica Ferm and Edward Jones, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London

As practitioners and academics working on planning in London, we had for many years bought into the hype that London – as a quintessential post-industrial world city – had almost completed the transformation of its economy. Any remaining manufacturing or industry was a hangover from the past and would eventually relocate or die. However, as time passed, it seemed increasingly obvious that many of the residential, prime office and mixed use developments that were springing up across the city were actually displacing viable and indeed thriving industrial and manufacturing businesses. In 2014, we became members of a network of community and business groups, Just Space Economy and Planning, initially set up to influence the development of planning policy in London on economic issues.

One of the most pressing issues for this group has been the loss of buildings which accommodate the diverse small businesses typical of much of London. These businesses can be found in industrial areas, in and around high streets, and interwoven in residential areas. The evidence emerging from this group is largely anecdotal but there is growing capacity and determination amongst its members to formalise this knowledge and use it to influence policy and decision-making. An important first step seemed to be to explore answers to the very basic questions that sceptics might pose. Why should industry still be located in London? Should we really be resisting the dynamics of land use economics, where higher-value land uses outbid lower-value ones? Isn’t this a natural and inevitable process?

As Curran (2007) argued in the context of New York: “Those businesses that could, left the city long ago; those that remain are the ones that need to be there or have a business advantage because of their urban location” (p.1429). The first part of our paper explores this concept further, providing some examples and explanations, as well as thinking about the future. We argue that industries that remain do so because they have close ties to their markets, other businesses in the supply or co-production chain, and labour. Niche manufacturers are much more reliant on being close to their markets, with access to skilled labour, driving agglomeration rather than dispersal. In new urban manufacturing there is now a closer symbiosis between production and design, research and development. This relies on access to skilled labour, which is more readily found in cities. Conversely, we make the argument that cities also need industry, to keep the city functioning to process its waste, to provide materials for its construction, and so on. Moving these essential functions further out has implications for efficiency as well as carbon emissions and environmental sustainability as the length of business to business trips increases. Although goods can be imported, demand from the city’s businesses and residents are moving away from mass produced goods towards more bespoke and ‘just-in-time’ products. The line between manufacturing and services is blurring as businesses increasingly bundle together goods and services to meet such demand (PwC, 2009). Retaining manufacturing and industry in cities also helps the city to be more diverse, and therefore more economically and socially resilient. In our opinion it also makes for a more interesting and vibrant city.

The second part of the paper then explores the challenge of planning effectively for industry in London, particularly in the context of a rapidly expanding population that needs to be housed. The traditional approach has been to protect or ‘zone’ land for industrial use. For a number of years, the Mayor of London has been actively planning for the ‘managed decline’ of industrial land, though the actual loss on the ground has been almost three times the target set for London, and up to eight times in some parts of central London (AECOM, 2016). Hopes seem to be pinned on the potential for industrial activities to be accommodated within the urban fabric in a mixed use context. The final section of our paper reveals that there is a lack of consensus on how industry should best be accommodated in our cities in land use terms, not least because some uses might not be ideal right next to housing. On the other hand, one of the joys of city life is the lively juxtaposition of different activities, and lots of manufacturing is now quieter and cleaner than in the past.

Meanwhile the ongoing and rapid loss of industrial land threatens the viability of London’s businesses today. Growing businesses, employing skilled workers, face displacement or worse when their premises are redeveloped for other uses. Ultimately, we need to move beyond the current approach to ‘managed decline’ of industrial land. Decision-makers need to take a positive, strategic and holistic view, one which appreciates the benefits that industry can bring for the city. There are tough choices to be made in London, a growing city where housing pressures are acute, so solutions won’t be easy. They will require looking beyond planning policy and striving for real leadership to bring together developers, landowners and businesses, exploring a range of design options for integrating industry with housing, as well as alternative models for the ownership and management of land and premises which allow existing businesses to have a far bigger stake in their future.


AECOM (2016) Industrial Land Supply and Economy Study 2015. For the Greater London Authority. Available at:

Curran W (2007) 'From the Frying Pan to the Oven': Gentrification and the Experience of Industrial Displacement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Urban Studies 44(8): 1427-1440.

PwC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers) (2009) The Future of UK Manufacturing. Accessed 22 July 2015:

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