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Our attitude to towers is incoherent, to put it mildly

Paul Finch
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Blaming Brexit for a dip in completed London high-rises is nonsense – it more likely has done the opposite, writes Paul Finch

London skyline crop

London skyline crop

New London Architecture did everyone a favour when it launched its annual survey of planned towers in London, conducted with consultant GL Hearn. The latest results make fascinating reading, as did previous reports, because they reflect reality, not opinion.

Of course, interpretations of the reports can be highly subjective; an obvious nonsense being the suggestions that a lower number of completions in 2017 than the previous year is the result of Brexit. It takes quite a time to build a tower, even at the minimum survey height of 20 storeys, so a dip in completions last year reflects what people were thinking before the Brexit vote. The property industry convinced itself that Brexit would never happen because most of the property industry didn’t want it to. Let’s hope that investment decisions are not made on this highly dubious, not to say embarrassing, basis. 

The more interesting finding from GL Hearn is that, far from diminishing tower activity, the ‘shock’ Brexit vote appears to have triggered a new wave of interest in development. Towers with permission or under construction have increased post-Brexit, though that wasn’t the immediate headline around the story because of received opinion that Brexit is Bad, and therefore all news should reflect this reality. Despite plenty of evidence that the reality isn’t true, tired old Remnants still ply their dreary wares. 

London’s mayors have all been prepared to approve humdrum designs if the client is prepared to stump up cash

Perhaps the number of proposed towers has numbed our intellectual faculties in respect of distinguishing between good and bad. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone set the tone for an outbreak of towers when his London Plan said towers would be allowed, but only if they were ‘world-class’, whatever that was supposed to mean.

His successors have all paid lip service to the importance of world-class (or is it now just high-quality?) design. The reality is that they have all been prepared to approve humdrum designs if the client is prepared to stump up cash for Crossrail, or social housing, or whatever is the public interest fashion currently. Money, prior to action, seems to speak louder than words. In some cases, mayoral approvals for towers have been issued in direct contradiction of local planning policies and rulings, suggesting that decisions are being made on a political, rather than professional, basis. 

So one has some sympathy for the route-and-branch opponents of towers – their predictions that once you open the door chaos will follow could reasonably be said to have come true. However, the ragbag of general oppositionists to tall buildings has yet to produce a coherent counter-strategy as to what they believe should inform future planning policy for the capital.

This ragbag includes Historic England, which can only tell you what it thinks is inappropriate once someone has proposed it (excluding breaches of protected views of St Paul’s). Why don’t the anti-tower brigade tell us where they think towers are appropriate? Why don’t they draw some lines on maps? Unless and until they do so, we could reasonably draw the conclusion that they oppose all tall buildings in all locations.

That would be a legitimate line of argument, but would also represent one of the most unsuccessful policies of any environmental group in living memory. Are they going to oppose 500 planned towers, or just pick on the occasional one that they find particularly offensive?

As this column has argued before, there is a very big difference between a protest group objecting to a single development for (possibly) well-founded reasons, and a broad-based movement trying to influence policy across a city. The problem in London is that the latter is behaving like the former, and is therefore failing.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The concerns on the issue of towers (defined as anything over 20 storeys) are understandable, given both their impact on their neighbourhoods and on the wider cityscape, but surely there now also needs to be as much attention paid to the pros and cons of what seems to be an increasing trend to stick extra storeys on buildings, and for a creeping tendency for these 'top-ups' to be remarkably discordant 'look at me' stuff.

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