Peter Murray: on the future of London housing

Ten million people use London's transport system. How will it cope with another million? Philippa Stockley asks architectural expert and author Peter Murray what London can do to prepare for the future
Peter Murray
© Graham Hussey
Architectural expert and author Peter Murray thinks London needs better infrastructure if it is to cope with population growth
Peter Murray is a British architect and author. He is chairman of New London Architecture: the centre for London's built environment and Wordsearch, a consultancy explaining and promoting architecture, planning and the built environment. Peter has edited numerous industry magazines including RIBA journal and worked on architecture projects around the world.

Key points:
* Start now on Crossrail 2 to keep up with growing population

* Build more housing, including social housing

* Improve London's transport links to the rest of the country

London, which shares with New York the status of "world's most important city", has always been a place of change and reinvention. As its population has risen, the city has undergone an unceasing process of change to keep up, not least in its transport system. Ten million people a day rely on it to get to schools and offices; to do business and enjoy their leisure. If transport fails, the city cannot operate properly.

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The 2011 census figures showed that London has a population in excess of 8.2 million which, architectural expert and author Peter Murray says, "was a shock to everyone", adding that many councils think the true figure is even higher. A further shock is that 1.25 million more people are expected in the next 20 years, all of whom will need somewhere to live and transport to get about — as well as an income.

But even London's ambitious infrastructure programme will struggle to cope with moving people and goods around our increasingly crowded city. By 2031, the new £14.8 billion Crossrail project will have reached full capacity, so already we need to get started on Crossrail 2 to keep up.

Huge population growth is staining London's infrastructure
As an exhibition at New London Architecture explains, much of our existing infrastructure is creaking and over-loaded. Take the sewers. During the 19th century, London underwent such massive growth that its population quadrupled to four million people. In 1810, London had 200,000 cesspits. People walked miles to work through a city congested with horses, carts, carriages and dung, and riddled with slums.

During what we think of as the golden Victorian building age, 100 miles of sewers were built following the cholera epidemic of 1834 and the 'Great Stink' of 1858. Now they can no longer cope, and after heavy rainfall, raw sewage once more chokes the Thames. A new government-funded super-sewer, called Thames Tideway, is planned.

Murray says that after the Second World War, London's population fell. "Cities were thought to be dirty and smelly, and people were encouraged to move out to Garden Cities." The result was that London stagnated. "It was catastrophic," he says.

"Meantime," he adds, "the Tube got worse and worse; slower, less reliable... In Paris in the Seventies and Eighties, they invested in the RER rail system, a new underground system, and Eurostar. But we were doing nothing."

Then, in the Eighties, everything changed again: "Several things happened at once. The Big Bang in 1986 freed the financial markets, so there was a huge expansion — Broadgate, Canary Wharf, Cannon Street. There was a lot of inward investment, and "gold-collar workers" came here, choosing London for business over Tokyo or New York. There was a realisation that London was a global city."

Peter Murray crossrail
By 2013 the new £14.8 billion Crossrail project will have reached full capacity

London’s new dawn
In the late Nineties, London started to grow again — and it hasn't stopped. "The population is now rising at a tremendous speed, which has taken everyone unawares. One result is that, up to 2016, we are short of 90,000 places in primary and secondary education."

"All suburban areas follow infrastructure," Murray explains. 'They grow where people can get into work efficiently and speedily. Crossrail and the improved Thameslink will help that."

The Crossrail effect
But he also points out how incredibly long major infrastructure takes. Launched in 1974, Crossrail only got going in the 1990s, but difficulty funding its enormous budget put the whole thing at risk of failure. "It's amazing, really," says Murray, "but before the last election, there was a lot of debate over whether it would even survive."

Eyes lighting up, he explains how connecting things better makes a huge impact, bringing outer parts of London into the fold, making them accessible, both for building much-needed housing more cheaply than in the centre, as well as letting people get to and from work quickly. "Take Abbey Wood, out at one of the Eastern ends of Crossrail. A place in dire need of TLC," he says.

Peter Murray Kings Cross
King's Cross station has recently been overhauled with an aim to improve London's transport
"Better, faster communications will improve business and commuting. Connectivity has a major impact in who will live there. Businesses will also be able to relocate there. Crossrail will help spread business right across the city.

"Ilford will be enormously improved, too. And look at Stratford, which is now connected to everything. Until 2005 I only ever drove through it, or cycled round it. It seemed a long way out, and was as grim as grim could be. Building sites piled up with cars and fridges; roads strewn with burnt-out vehicles. Now it is a changed place — and the biggest change is a feeling of hope. Walking through the old shopping centre, the grimness is gone. A series of sites are being developed by the London Legacy Corporation, including East Village, with thousands of rental flats."

London's new orbital route
"What excites me most," he adds, "is the Overground: you can now do a circuit round London. Its impact took me by surprise. People living in Dalston can now work easily in Croydon. Islington to Whitechapel takes 15 minutes. Once people realise how easy connections are, they find interesting new bits of London to live and work in.

"It has made London hugely more accessible, and that changes everything along the route: where people can live, where they can play. Take Peckham: now it is undergoing huge regeneration, enormously helped by communications.

More housing and improved transport links
But Murray points out that in order for London to reach its full potential, it doesn't just need connections. Alongside the new infrastructure we need to build a great deal more housing, including social housing. And, he warns, regional planning and regional thinking is also crucial, to link London more effectively to the rest of the country, increasing the flow of people to and from the city, which in turn will increase jobs and housing. The fast train link HS2 cannot solve all that alone: "There needs to be more joined-up thinking, and authorities need to cooperate. London isn't an island," he adds. "A cyclised city is a civilised city; a cyclised city is a sustainable city."

From April, keen cyclist Peter, along with other architects and planners is cycling from Portland Oregon to Portland Place, London, learning about bikes, cities and sustainability. Get involved at

Planes Trains and Drains is at NLA, 26 Store Street, WC1, until May 26. Free entry, visit

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