Within a decade, London could be facing a water shortage

A headline from the water shortage of 2006. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s looming water shortage.

It is said that there are five basic pre-conditions for human survival: oxygen, food, shelter, sleep and water.

Some of us might add some additional items to that list, popular entries including coffee and wine, neither of which are in danger of imminent shortage (don’t panic just yet). But as difficult as it is to imagine existence without those additional amenities, the previous five are the very basics we need in order to continue to function.

Over the next two decades, though, supply of one of those basic functions, water, is going to come under increasing strain. And most Londoners are blissfully unaware of the challenges this will present.

Water could be described as the most precious commodity of all, but it is also the most misunderstood. And London faces a very real challenge in meeting future demand. We will have to make some tough decisions if we are to guarantee security of supply in the years to come.

“But what about all that rain we get?” I hear you cry. “Didn’t the Romans very sensibly plough their furrows adjacent to the UK’s second longest river?”

Actually, London really doesn’t get that much rain. It’s an easy argument for me to make as I type away on one of the warmest days of the year, but the metrological facts are very clear. Average annual rainfall in London is 557.4mm. Compare that to Paris (2089.1mm), New York (1239.8mm) or Sydney (1242.7mm) – or even supposedly arid Mexico City (709mm) – and you soon realise that “rainy London” is something of an urban myth. As for the river, 80 per cent of the water provided to London and Home Counties is already currently drawn from rivers. We’re pushing close to capacity.


But the biggest challenge is London’s booming population. Predicted to hit 11m by 2050, it poses a huge test for the city’s policymakers. Unfortunately we Londoners don’t help matters either, having some of the highest average consumption rates in the country. The long term consequences are fairly dire: if we carry on as we are, experts anticipate supply problems by 2025, with very serious shortages by 2040.

The impact for both domestic and commercial water customers would be considerable. California’s drought is predicted to have cost the state $2.7bn last year, with a wide range of economic sectors under strain.

London itself is no stranger to drought: those old enough to remember the 1976 drought will know how severe the situation can become. In the spring of 2012, London had experienced two dry winters and was under a hosepipe ban. As that year’s Olympic Games drew ever nearer, officials begun to wonder if even more restrictive measures might be needed – until exceptionally heavy rainfall replenished supplies in the late spring.

All this demonstrates the importance of planning for London’s water future. With the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor, and Thames Water starting work on a new Water Management Plan by 2019, it’s crucial London uses this momentum to come together and find solutions to the challenges ahead. Possible solutions could include pumping water across the country from the Severn Estuary; the construction of a new reservoir in Oxfordshire to increase storage capacity; and increased demand management, through the roll out of smart metering. The least popular measure? Using reclaimed water from treated sewage.

If London is to be a vibrant, economically successful and sustainable city of 11m by the middle of this century, then it’s time policymakers turned their attention to water – even while the rest of us ponder the necessity of coffee or wine to human survival.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.

Still thirsty? Check out this podcast we did on cities and water shortages.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.