Like bodies, cities have a metabolism. Processes exist that convert one resource to another, or move goods from place to place. As with any large city, London has its own distinctive metabolism – and one that relies on industrial land in a major way. Industrial spaces keep London innovating and thriving: they support commerce, infrastructure, utilities, key environmental services, and many of London’s creative talents. In fact, every Londoner – even those who have never stepped into an industrial park or recycling centre – needs the services they support.
Despite its importance, however, industrial land rarely gets the attention it merits. In part, this is due to the wide variety of activities it can support. Firms that use industrial land can range from highend manufacturers and global exporters like Brompton Bicycle, to waste processors, hauliers, supermarkets, auto mechanics, timber yards, bakeries, and a panoply of other operations. However, a lack of appreciation of this diversity means that occupiers and users of such spaces are often negatively perceived as low skilled, low paid, and unsociable. At the same time, the sheer breadth of uses leads those same occupiers to struggle in finding common cause when defending the needs and interests of their own businesses.
London’s industrial land
London is not a neat city. It has grown organically, over time, in fits and starts. Seen from above, much of our city is covered by houses. Nonetheless, over time large swathes have been demarcated for industrial use – notably in Park Royal, the Lea Valley, Barking, the Royal Docks and Heathrow – with some of these being hemmed in by a green belt that is now firmly anchored in the popular and political imagination.
On a closer, street-by-street view, pockets of industrial use sit cheek by jowl with homes, parks and offices. London’s economic and population growth in the last three decades has put industrial land under particular pressure. The transition to a service-based economy – and the almost unquenchable demand for homes in London – has led to the swallowing up of many hundreds of hectares of industrial land. All this has happened alongside major changes in how we live, work and shop. The pandemic has turbocharged the demise of some high street retail and accelerated the boom in home deliveries. We also face multiple other challenges including air pollution, congestion and the climate crisis.
The pressures on industrial land are kept in check somewhat by London’s complex planning system. Yet, as we set out in this report, we are reaching a new boiling point. Industrial accommodation, especially in inner London, is in such short supply that rents are rocketing, threatening the smooth functioning of the city. In some places the pendulum has swung and industrial land values have overtaken housing land values. We will need to find ways of making both work together.
The Industrial Land Commission was set up to explore some possible solutions to these emerging problems. The Commission has since used its collective expertise to gather insights into the needs of industrial land occupiers, landlords and neighbours against the wider London context. We are united by a shared goal: to ensure that our city works for all of us, and continues to thrive in an environmentally sustainable way. Here we present our summary of the challenges – and our suggested remedies.