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A City of Towers?

The battle is raging, the lines have been drawn. The word is out, and the grand debate has started, cropping up at every gathering and never out of the news: ‘London – the new Dubai’; ‘The only way is up’; ‘London’s precious skyline for sale’ – such headlines vie daily for Londoners’ attention. After a moratorium of almost 30 years, new very tall private residential buildings are currently being built with a vengeance, not only across the whole of London, but also in other British cities.

Infographic comparing figures for 2015 to 2016 for approved tall building applications. For 2015 there are 70 schemes under construction, 117 approved schemes, 76 proposed schems. For 2016 there are 89 schemes under construction, 233 approved schemes and 114 proposed schemes.
The number of tall buildings either navigating the planning system or already approved is increasing rapidly – a 60% rise in the space of a year. In this graphic red=under construction, green=approved and blue=proposed. Source: New London Architecture. © Historic England

The most extraordinary aspect of this particular tall building boom has been the degree of apparent subterfuge with which it has been planned, approved and enabled, particularly considering the scale of the towers and the complexity of the inevitable deals involved. Prior to New London Architecture’s London’s Growing Up exhibition in April 2014 and the contemporaneous launch of the Skyline Campaign, very few Londoners realized the full extent of the onslaught that was to follow, the hundreds of planning applications that were going to be submitted for skyscrapers of all sizes and shapes, and the resulting chaos that was going to descend on what for centuries had been a rather well-preserved, very spread out, low-rise city.

Even now, two years later, it is still impossible to imagine what the new hyper-dense neighbourhoods will feel like, and whether these vertical cities, full of extremely wealthy residents, will ever manage to integrate with the low-lying, often very modest, pre-existing local communities.  This is indeed very much a story that underlines London’s growing, cruel social split between haves and have-nots, not only because the greatest tower activity is occurring mostly in the poorest boroughs (Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Hackney), but also because these huge ‘bling’ structures, veritable ghettos of the rich, will remain, in perpetuity, odious reminders of the UK’s depressingly enduring lack of social mobility.

So what really is behind this unexpected wholesale transformation of our capital?

A lot of convenient myths have been circulated by those who stand to gain from this boom: it is claimed that towers are providing the extra housing that London needs, that London has run out of brownfield land, that we need to reach for the sky, that towers are about putting London on the map But we can now see that these points are propaganda, neither true nor compelling. To the contrary: despite the towers, the housing crisis is raging unabated, and London, one of the greatest world cities, is in real danger of destroying its heritage and its much cherished character.

The overriding reason for building tall is that towers are seen as a lazy and convenient way for London to attract foreign investment and for the Boroughs to rake in cash and Section 106 money required for their under-funded facilities and services. Enduring recession and austerity, few Councils have been able to resist the allure of promises from mermaid-developers.

Cranes towering above new tall buildings under construction at Elephant and Castle
New tall buildings under construction at Elephant & Castle. © Historic England

The wake-up call offered by the recent experience of physically seeing some of the appallingly inappropriate towers coming out of the ground – City Road, Nine Elms, South Bank – coupled with the impending Mayoral election, has finally concentrated Londoners’ minds, and raised the temperature of the discussion.

For many, we are at a watershed moment. The proposed 72-storey Paddington Pole is turning into a rallying cry for the ‘Enough is Enough’ party. The passion, the hype and the headlines are welcome. The Skyline Campaign is asking for the debate to be expanded: we want a city-wide review and discussion about how to safeguard our precious inheritance while sensitively and intelligently increasing London’s density. It must involve the powers that be, the money people, the aesthetes and the man in the street. It must be in-depth, honest, skilled, thoughtful and comprehensive.

We need to establish a vision for the whole of London that benefits all its citizens and transcends fire-fighting, short-term gain and partisan beliefs. We need to create policies that reflect our concerns and allow us to enforce our decisions. The culture of loop-hole politics must go. Historic England’s new guidance is very much a step in the right direction, and has been produced in the nick of time. As campaigners, however, and controversially, the Skyline Campaign would like to advocate an even bolder step: our new Mayor should impose an immediate moratorium on all new tall buildings above 20 storeys, to allow time for a new chapter in London’s history to be imagined, re-written and implemented.

In a world of chaotic urban growth, why must it be unthinkable that London should lead the way to a new form of urban renaissance?

The Author

Barbara Weiss, Director, Barbara Weiss Architects

Barbara Weiss
Barbara Weiss, Director of Barbara Weiss Architects.

View the full pdf of issue 75: London and the London Plan

Conservation Bulletin 75

Conservation Bulletin 75

Published 16 March 2016

London is growing at an unprecedented rate. This edition looks at the issues this growth throws up, their effects on the historic environment and how the planning system (and specifically the London Plan) can address them.

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