Meet the south London town planner looking for balance

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Local town planner Graham Harrington considers himself a “public interest planner”. Pic: Emmanuella Kwenortey

Graham Harrington is a very gentle man. I’d almost describe him as stoic. A calm attitude and steady hand is probably helpful in his line of work. As a London town planner, he’s worked on a large number of projects from Arsenal’s 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium to the 700-home residential scheme in Loampit Vale, Lewisham.

He grew up in south Norwood. His blue eyes twinkle when he speaks about “the lads”, his band of friends. “There was Brian, Nick, Lee and Simon. Our dads were bank clerks, printers, low-level managers and park keepers. All except Simon’s dad, who was a lecturer – he was the posh one,” he says smiling. This working-class upbringing has shaped his career.

He chooses mainly to work for London councils, rejecting projects from private property developers, and only considers projects from those developers that “aren’t too big or too bad.”

“I’d like to think of myself as a public interest planner. It’s why I choose to mainly work for boroughs,” he says. “That way I feel like I’m on the right side, though I’m not naive, the authorities don’t always behave in a way I agree with. Still, I’m committed to certain principles.”

So how do these principles align with controversial practices such as separate building entrances  – known as “poor doors” – for private and social housing residents? “I think there is a case for them,” he says.

“Rich people don’t want to share with the poor,” he says, “and if they don’t want to share, they won’t buy or rent in the building.”

Currently, the mayor of London asks that private developers provide the “maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing” when building new homes. The mayor’s target is that 50 per cent of the total number of homes private property developers build should be affordable to the public. “If people aren’t buying homes, homes will sell less quickly, meaning less money into social housing schemes,” he explains. It’s about choosing your battles.”

“Private developers have their own financial interests. That’s why I think that the government should be building homes, and not relying on the planning system or developers,” he continues.

What was his first home like? “Thanks to my father-in-law, our first home was on Franciscan Road in Tooting, south London. The area’s on it’s way out.” He is of course, referring to Tooting’s gentrification. “These rich and poor ghettos are not good for London,” he says.

The latest Housing and Planning Bill is currently in the final stages of legislature. If put through, Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, which in the 1980s allowed thousands of social housing tenants to buy their homes, will be super charged. Many have lauded the scheme for creating property owners, while others have argued it’s led to today’s housing shortage.

“The scheme is a terrible idea,” Harrington says, “really, really terrible.”

With the upcoming London mayoral election billed as a referendum on housing, what sort of policies does he want to see? “I want a candidate to think about London’s future more seriously. We can’t just keep endlessly growing – we need to consider a different approach to the city. I sometimes despair when I think about London’s future,” he says.

When he’s not despairing, Harrington eases his mind at the cinema. “I saw [Taiwanese martial arts saga] The Assassin a few days ago. It was great, an antidote to the big blockbusters I’ve seen recently.” And that is Graham Harrington in a nutshell: balance and equality, no less so than in town planning.  

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