Trees, tourists, jobs and apps: Debbie Akehurst of the Central District Alliance talks about its plans for EC1 by Oliver Bennett
Some may have noticed the first Christmas lights in Farringdon this year – lamppost decorations on Clerkenwell Road and a star outside Farrington Station. These decorations are the work of the Central District Alliance, a body that aims to knit together all the central parts of London – Clerkenwell, Farringdon, Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles – so as to “create a destination or a collection of villages,” as the CDA’s CEO Debbie Akehurst puts it.
As we emerge fitfully from Covid-19, which has devastated central London, the CDA hopes for a reboot with plans that include tree planting, local apprenticeships, support for smaller charities and a digital app for visitors and residents alike.
Some might remember “Midtown”, the CDA’s previous name and a phase in its two-decade plus history. “It was too Americanised and the public didn’t get it,” says Akehurst, who joined the CDA during the pandemic. Hence the renaming of the Alliance, a BID (Business Improvement District) supported by 400 businesses from across the area. BIDs are an American innovation that are now established here.
“We have 70 in London alone and I think they will keep on growing,” she says. “BIDs are a force for good. But it’s important to remember that we work in partnership with local authorities and businesses – the wider community has to be at the forefront of our thinking.”
Since the pandemic, a big question has been about how central areas like Clerkenwell can come back to life. “In terms of the recovery, the emphasis is not how to survive, but how to thrive,” says Akehurst.
“It’s very important that we deliver social value to support communities – and one of the priorities is employment, skills and training. “We know that young people suffered terrible effects from Covid-19 so on 8 February, as part of National Apprenticeship Week, we’re launching a new programme called Your Future Talent. Working with local authorities, we’ll act as a conduit for young people to businesses. As we’ve got over 400 business connections, we can make links between the business community and people looking for employment.”
These jobs could be in all kinds of businesses – law, finance, design, construction creative, lots of digital, hospitality – but will, says Akehurst, be predominantly office-based. Another aspect of the recovery, she says, is to draw people back to central London.
“The pandemic has highlighted the need for local services and there’s a lot of talk about the ‘15 minute city’,” says Akehurst. “But I commute and we need to encourage people like me to return to central London as we’ve seen how working from home has affected hospitality and retail. It’s critical people come back into central London as we don’t want empty streets, so we’re working with landlords and property owners to activate those spaces.”
But this may take a while. “I think hybrid working will continue for at least 12 months.” Another priority is to draw tourists to Clerkenwell and other CDA ‘villages’. “We used to get quite a lot of business and international travel, which has stemmed for obvious reasons,” says Akehurst.
“But this feeds into our aim to create a destination. Take the British Museum. In normal times it has over six and a half million visitors a year. When they return we don’t want them just to visit the BM – we want them to have a ‘staycation’ in areas like Clerkenwell.”
Supporting this should be an ecosystem of shops, hotels and restaurant, as well as information to help visitors and residents alike. “So we’re developing an app for the area,” says Akehurst. “If you are coming into Farringdon Station and you want to find out what how get directions, or a restaurant, check in.”
Keep an eye on the CDA for the announcement of its launch. The opening of the Elizabeth Line, part-opening this spring (see p.5), will help immeasurably. “A hinterland of 1.5 million people will have far shorter journeys into London which will bring inward investment,” says Akehurst.
“But the Elizabeth Line will also serve five airports to hook tourism.” This year the CDA is supporting the London Festival of Architecture. Still in planning, it will link up the “villages” of the CDA and draw people into Clerkenwell this summer.
The CDA is also seeking to help the community with other initiatives, including a new charitable grants programme to support grassroots charities. “They could be local football or cricket initiatives working with young people, or residents’ groups,” says Akehurst.
“Homelessness too is a priority as are safer streets. We now have a security and cleaning teams to make the BID clean, green, safe and welcoming.”
To the reproach that this is public sector work, Akehurst says: “This is not replicating – it’s enhancing.” Supporting this should be a mixed transport policy. “We cannot live without a transport system,” says Akehurst.
“It’s so important, not just for business, but tourists, residents, everyone. “If you don’t want people to drive in central London, then you have to have a reliable public transport system alongside pedestrianisation, cycleways and healthy streets. Our idea is that all of those elements should be brought together to make the city work – and that TfL should be supported.”
An unfortunate feature of our part of central London has been its lack of greenery. Here, the CDA is bringing on the Green Tree project this year, set to bring more foliage to Farringdon.
“It will be a mix of planted trees, potted trees and possibly ‘parklets’, all done in three phases,” says Akehurst. “It’s worthwhile because it’s still quite a grey, built-up area and although there are six roof gardens in our footprint nobody can see them. We need planting at street level and welcoming greenery – Covid19 showed us how important it is to get open-air places to sit.”
A company called Scotscape is designing the scheme. Thus, the wider purpose of the CDA is to engender a sense of place. “The identity of a place is so important, so that people start feeling a sense of belonging,” says Akehurst.
“This can be helped by developing a vibrant day and night-time economy: for people to live, work and enjoy the area.” This year there’s much to play for but Akehurst is optimistic.
“I think we’re in really interesting times in the future of our cities and we’re always talking to other cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, who have the same priorities. We all want to come out of the pandemic as better places – and here, I think we will.”