Campaign for a new commission to oversee London’s towering skyline gathers pace

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Policies on London skyscrapers are numerous and not always enforced. Mark Wilding reports on a new proposal to tackle the problem.

Even before 30 St Mary Axe was completed in 2003, its unconventional design meant that it had been dubbed the Gherkin. The 40-storey building, designed by Foster + Partners, was the first in a series of “nickname towers” which have come to define the 21st century London skyline.

The Gherkin was followed in 2012 by the Shard, then the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie. The Pinnacle and the Scalpel are expected to follow. But with more towers to come, will we soon run out of nicknames?

There are 236 tall buildings, defined as any tower with more than 20 storeys, in the pipeline for London. Of these, 113 have secured planning permission and nearly one in five are under construction. The figures come from a recent study by New London Architecture, which sought to examine the reasons behind the boom in skyscrapers. Representatives both for and against the current crop of towers came together last week at the London School of Economics to debate whether London really needs more tall buildings.

While it is the trophy office buildings which attract the most attention, 80% of towers currently proposed are for residential use. On the face of it, tall buildings seem like a logical response to spiralling demand for housing in the capital, allowing developers to maximise density on small inner-city sites.

Paul Finch, former chairman of CABE, said: “If we’re to avoid an inevitable sprawling of London into the green belt we need to be able to build up, not just out. The demand for housing in London requires us to use every arrow in our quiver.”

This assumption that building upwards is the best way to tackle London’s housing crisis is, however, increasingly being called into question. It is a common argument when seeking planning permission to cite a development’s contribution towards the 40,000 homes which need to be built in London every year. But rarely is it proved that a tower is the best way of doing this.

Opponents of high-rise development point to the ability to achieve similar levels of density with far fewer storeys. Others highlight the tendency for high-rise residential to fall into the luxury-only category.

The Observer’s architecture correspondent Rowan Moore describes the current crop of towers as “a sign of failure”.

“Towers are a clumsy way of addressing need,” he says. “There’s a question over whether these flats are addressing the housing need that London has. At One Blackfriars the starting price is £1,080,000. Obviously that’s not very useful for a lot of people. There’s a burden of proof on the people who would like to build lots of towers to show they are a good solution.”

Moore is one of the backers of a campaign with trade title Architects’ Journal to see a “skyline commission” established in London, which would seek to better interpret the capital’s policies on tall buildings. In a statement sent to The Observer in March more than 70 influential figures warned that “the London skyline is out of control”. Signatories included philosopher Alain de Botton, author Alan Bennett, Royal Academy chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith, plus many architects and MPs.

There are numerous policies which currently govern the building of towers. The London Plan sets out key areas where tall buildings are likely to be acceptable. Local authorities are expected to set out their approach to tall buildings in local planning documents. The London View Management Framework establishes a series of corridors in which tall buildings are deemed unacceptable. Planning applications for skyscrapers must frequently be rubber-stamped by both the Mayor and the secretary of state.

Proponents of a skyline commission argue that those responsible for enforcing these policies have failed to do so. Labour’s Nicky Gavron, chair of the planning committee at the London Assembly, says: “The stable door has been left open for far too long. We do need tougher policies, but we have some very comprehensive policies that are not being interpreted or implemented properly. We have a policy about tall buildings and heritage but it’s not being carried through.”

Others are more specific as to who they blame for the perceived lack of regulation. National Trust chairman and columnist Simon Jenkins says: “No one ever told us there were going to be 300 towers of more than 20 storeys in London over the next five years. The only policy the Mayor has on tall buildings is his whim. Does he like it or not? It wouldn’t happen in any other city in Europe.”

Perhaps a skyline commission would raise the bar in terms of proving the need for tall buildings. There is also a question mark over the quality of some of the proposals. Julia Barfield, director at Marks Barfield, oversaw construction of the London Eye.

She says: “The question is getting the right balance. Clearly we need to get better at controlling buildings in London to ensure quality. I believe tall buildings have a role to play in helping to solve the housing crisis.

“Our current, somewhat disappointing, planning system has shown itself rather lax at distinguishing between the good, the bad and the ugly. We need to ensure only the good ones get built.”

The current approach has brought clusters of high-rise developments to the City of London and at Canary Wharf. Analysis suggests that this will continue, but new clusters look set to emerge in Nine Elms, on the South Bank, in Islington and in Shoreditch.

Deputy mayor for planning Edward Lister argues that this approach should continue: “We have got to accept that we will be a much denser city tomorrow than we are today,” he says. “We have got to think carefully about what we do with different parts of the city.”

Lister argues that towers are popular and well suited to tackling London’s housing need, but concedes that consideration should go into their location. “Some parts of London are particularly suited to low rise. Where you can make a case for a cluster there is no reason why that part of London shouldn’t look like that. We’ve often talked about London having 200 villages - some of them can be tall, some of them can be low lying.”

It’s this kind of consideration that critics say is sorely lacking. But with a raft of existing policies, will a body such as a skyline commission improve matters? Or simply add another layer of complication? “There are no easy answers,” says Moore. “But that’s all the more reason for all concerned to look for them.”

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