20 minute neighbourhoods – an “international socialist conspiracy”… by Sainsburys?

It takes a particular kind of weird right wing mind set to cast a need to drive long distances breathing in pollution from the exhaust pipes of the cars in front just to get to the shops, or a playground, or your kid’s school as a kind of “freedom”.

Cars have become the main form of travel in the UK in the last 60 years, which is now leading to serious problems.

Take London. London’s 2023 population is just over 9 million people, on a land area unchanged since it was 8.3 million back in 1950 and it is projected by the GLA to grow to 10.3 million by 2050 in a period in which London’s green space is due to expand from 40% to 50% of the metropolitan area. All those people have to live and work somewhere, and they have to get about, and they have to have ready access to all the things they need to make life bearable at least and enjoyable at best.

Unless London is to break through the greenbelt and sprawl across the Home Counties like a Northern European version of LA, that means higher density populations living closer to the amenities they need, cutting down on the need to make unnecessary journeys and public transport hubs so that longer distance travel is facilitated without car use. That does not imply, far right conspiracy theorists please note, people being walled into neighbourhoods or forbidden to travel out of them. it means facilitating it so they don’t have to: thereby reducing personal costs and stress as well as pollution amongst other things. If those extra million and a half people all had cars, as about half of Londoners currently do, there would be nowhere to put them and no prospect of them being able to get from A-B, let alone Z. We should note that LA itself, the model city for low density urban sprawl slung together by freeways – which, right wing conspiracy theorists please take note, acted as barriers slicing communities into fragments that were hard to get out of, especially without a car, leading to all sorts of other malign effects – had to start investing in its now very popular and extensive metro system because the morning gridlock in the early 1990s was beginning to merge with the evening gridlock.

There are a lot of examples of this in North West London. There has been a huge development of solid looking new flats on the site of the old Hendon Police College. Over 1600 of them with a school in the middle; which no one needs to drive to to drop their kids off. There are some parking bays, but this whole new town has not been built on the assumption that everyone will own a car or have to use one to get out to work. This is because there is one road alongside of the site – and no option for another – this would simply clog up if everyone tried to travel by car during rush hour. On the other hand, the Northern Line is within walking distance; as it is to a comparable number of new flats that have been built around Colindale Station, complete with amenities, shops, cafes, restaurants etc.

There are similar developments all alongside the Edgware Road. If everyone living in all these new flats owned and used a car, even the mighty A5 would just get clogged in a stationary stream of fuming metal. No one would be able to get anywhere in rush hour, and the already grim levels of pollution would be even more character building than they currently are.

One of the most striking of these is the local Sainsbury Megastore. Built about 20 years ago as a classic suburban big box supermarket with a car park for 462 vehicles – on the presumption that a lot of shoppers would drive in and load up for a big weekly shop – this is now being redeveloped so that the car park will shrink by over half, and most of its space will be occupied by flats. 1300 of them. Car parking space will only be available for around a quarter of these. The Hendon Thameslink station is within a five minute walk and the Northern Line within ten minutes by bus. About a quarter of residents are projected to use the tube, others may work locally or from home or use the bus or cycle. Improvements for pedestrian and cycle access to the Thameslink station are part of the planning with input from TFL The loss of car parking space for the supermarket will be more than compensated for by having 1300 homes alongside or, in some cases, literally on top of the store. It obviously won’t be compulsory for residents to use it, and other supermarkets are available for anyone who wants to head up the Edgware Road because they really like Asda or Morrisons, but most people will probably just pop down to the nearest.

This is one aspect of a 20 minute neighbourhood. If this is an “international socialist conspiracy” it has a fairly hard nosed capitalist instigator.

One caveat we should note is that the initial plans by the developers had a somewhat higher number of car parking spaces both for residents and supermarket, on the presumption that the better off people who will buy the posher flats will assume they will be entitled to a car, so providing spaces is a way of maximising the returns they get on sales. This had to be pushed back by the GLA and Barnet Council as the level of traffic generated would be outside the limits set by the London Plan to allow what traffic there is to keep flowing. The usual conflict between private gain and social needs playing out here.

Intimations of mortality 2. Holocene Court.

The big Sainsbury supermarket on Edgware Road has a film about its colossal redevelopment running in the entrance space. They are currently putting in the foundations for a massive new store, with several tower blocks above it, on what used to be the car park.

This is a new model. Instead of presuming that customers will drive to the store from some distance away and load up their cars in a big shop, I guess the calculation is that if you have several thousand people living right above the store, they will just have to pop downstairs in the lift whenever they need anything. Presumably they will also make a fortune in rent or sales, while keeping the Freehold.

Once phase 1 is complete and the new store opened, the current shop will be demolished to make way for even more tower blocks and what looks like one of those corporate “green spaces” in the middle, that could be a nice park for the kids to play in (sheltered from the road) or might just be a dead zone with the sort of barrier vegetation that encourages people to post their beer bottles in it.

I guess we’ll see. But, perhaps not. The final date for completion is 2032. I found myself wondering if I would see it finished. Partly because I’d be 78 by then, so might not get that far, and partly because the rate climate breakdown is accelerating and the cold war hotting up, we might not make it that far.

Just up the road, a newly developing block of flats is named “Holocene Court”. The Holocene is the name of the peculiarly stable climactic period that allowed human civilisation to develop. The impact of human activity on the climate and rock strata formation – with global construction activity now shifting more materials than water erosion – means that we are now in the “Anthropocene”; an era defined by our capacity to build and sow the seeds of our own destruction all at once. Self immolation through self apotheosis.

If you could see the things I see, when I’m delivering leaflets.

The note attached to No 7 in a nearby road. “Do not leave parcels with No 6” can’t help but make you wonder what’s happened there.

Outside another nearby flat, the doormat reads; “The neighbours have better stuff”.

On one side of another front door a faded Jesus poster, looking a lot like Conchita Wurst; on the other a sign asking for visitors to “disinfect before delivery”. Faith and science in balance.

And at the local shops

A teenage schoolgirl arguing on her mobile in Boots keeps exclaiming “Suck my left foot!” New one on me.

A metallic orange SUV – looking as though it is made out of cheap, brittle plastic; so really expensive and kinda cheap at the same time – turns into Church Lane. Its number plate reads “MR 1 4 FUN”. Hmmm.