The former City of London Corporation planning chairman shares his secrets about London’s evolution
Michael Cassidy is a non-executive director of Crossrail, UBS Limited, and Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Property Investment Board. He has practised law in the City of London for the past 40 years and has recently retired as a consultant at DLA Piper.
London’s skyline has changed with breath-taking speed since I was the Square Mile’s Planning Chairman in the 1980s. I was at the heart of the changes then and have been able to contrast London’s growth with that of other major cities, as we moved from low-rise buildings which kept London’s skyline flat, to creating tall buildings in clusters to encourage people to come in to the heart of the City to work whilst also preserving the City’s character and protecting views of St Paul’s.
This was something that had never been done before, and this cluster of towers in Bishopsgate (Tower 42, the Gherkin and now the Cheesegrater and the Walkie-Talkie) completely changed the way people viewed London. It has gone from a dreary grey city to an exciting and thriving area, which os helping kick-start the revitalisation of the City and providing a vibrant quarter that proclaims London as the place to do business. This has spilled out from the tall buildings to the streets around them, especially in Cheapside and One New Change, with their new places to shop and eat and an increasingly pedestrian-friendly street scene.
This redevelopment has been good for the Square Mile, boosting jobs to keep London at the forefront of the global race, but Bishopsgate is what’s been – we all want to know where’s next? My money’s on what we might call the Northern Arc – starting at Smithfield and curving round through Farringdon to Clerkenwell and up to Old Street.
Much is abuzz in this arc. This autumn, the first of the Crossrail tunnelling devices will reach its destination at Farringdon.
Farringdon was almost a backwater ten years ago – little loved and underutilised – but with the arrival of Thameslink and eventually Crossrail, this drab area has been transformed into one of the biggest railway crossroads in London. It is now ripe to explode onto the London stage with new buildings, relocations by big-name companies and start-ups alike, plus a vibrant new bar and restaurant scene. This transformation has already begun. Farringdon is not only the City’s newest business cluster, but also a place where people come to relax and socialise.
The City has always been a great place to do business, but has sometimes been a graveyard at weekends. Farringdon experienced this like all City districts but not anymore.
As redevelopments continue, the City is becoming an energetic space for Londoners at the weekend – minus the touristy hustle and bustle of the West End, with Time Out even calling the City at weekends “one of London’s hidden treasures”. Much of this is down to the Northern Arc.
This area has so far been somewhat ignored by the mass of redevelopment, but now contains some of the hottest postcodes around. Smithfield is already famous for its meat market, and we hope work will soon begin on a sleek redevelopment of the derelict general market: a rival to Borough Market could be on its way. Clerkenwell has always been trendy and individual, making it the perfect home for tech and media start-ups and small businesses as they outgrow Old Street.
This forms a new cluster with its own culture, ready to thrive in a previously unexciting zone and this clustering effect works to boost the businesses and the environment surrounding them. It adds an ease to face-to-face meetings that doesn’t exist if companies are scattered and adds a spirit of excitement that you don’t find in out-of-town business parks. It’s what my colleague Peter Rees – the City planning officer also known as the ‘The man who built the City’ – calls the “Gossip Factor” or the result putting lots of smart people into a close space to help them create something great.
None of this will happen overnight but when I look at London today, the Northern Arc is what I’m most excited about. It’s got the right combination of youth, energy and location that work together to create a vibrant new business quarter right in the heart of the city. Mark my words, big things are coming to the Northern Arc and London will be better for it.