With 455 tall buildings in the pipeline, and more being approved every week, the London skyline is heading for a dramatic transformation. Pippa Crerar charts the rise of a development boom
After the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin comes the Trellis, a 1,000ft skyscraper that in a few years’ time will tower over the City. When Sadiq Khan gave the 73-storey tower final approval in December he sealed the future of Western Europe’s tallest tower after The Shard.
It is not the only contentious planning decision he has made since taking over as Mayor. So far he has ruled on 162 tall buildings at various stages of the process. Not one has been rejected.
From the start Khan promised a lighter touch to planning than his predecessor, Boris Johnson, who was accused of facilitating “Dubai on Thames”. With an average of six glimmering new skyscrapers completed every year he was in office, the Tory mayor left London with a very different skyline from the one he inherited. In his last six months at City Hall, developers began almost one tower every week, while last year a record 26 tall buildings — those of more than 30-storeys — were completed.
By contrast, Khan’s manifesto promised “stronger” policies to make sure that tall buildings respect the character of existing neighbourhoods. He has since added that they would only be permitted if they added value to the skyline.
Planning experts say it is too soon to establish whether the Mayor will in fact be more cautious. Peter Murray, chair of New London Architecture (NLA), says: “Tall buildings take time to get through the planning system, so it’s going to take a while before Sadiq can have any real influence.”
The Mayor’s new London Plan will be published in draft this autumn and will give the first firm indication of whether he will continue approving skyscrapers at the same rate.
Barbara Weiss, founder of the London Skyline Campaign, says she still has “quite a lot of faith” that Khan and his team want to do things “better, more sensitively”. She adds: “But they’re in a difficult situation because they are being asked to give final approval to buildings which are already way down the line. We’ll only know whether he carries on agreeing them at the same rate as things progress.”
Even if the Mayor sits on his hands for the next three years, the capital’s skyline is still set to change dramatically over the next decade. There are a staggering 455 tall buildings in the pipeline, according to the NLA. This includes 108 in the planning system, 256 that have already been granted permission and 91 which are already under construction. Next year another 28 towers of at least 20 storeys will be completed, 40 more the year after that.
Paul Wellman, from EG London Residential Data, which conducted the research, says: “Tall buildings will continue to come through the planning system at a staggeringly high level, especially relative to just five to 10 years ago. If Londoners haven’t noticed the increasing number of tall buildings around them, they soon will, as more and more are getting off the drawing board.”
An official figure for the total number of towers is hard to pin down, though City Hall says there are already 627 buildings of more than 12 storeys.
Murray believes it is “inevitable” that more will follow to provide homes for London’s growing population. The more controversial option of building on the green belt has been ruled out — so far.
City Hall’s focus is clearly on building more affordable homes. Most towers — 92 per cent — are residential and an estimated 100,000 homes could be provided by those in the pipeline, though many would be pricey.
But Khan’s deputy mayor for planning, Jules Pipe, insists solving the housing crisis “doesn’t have to mean tall buildings” while officials claim they have no interest in London becoming “some Hong Kong clone”. Pipe describes his boss as the “guardian” of the capital’s skyline and insists new developments must be of the “highest possible” quality.
No repeat, then, of the 37-storey Walkie-Talkie tower, which attracted attention in 2013 after its concave glass walls reflected sunlight on to the pavement below, melting the paint off several parked cars. Expect to see more traditional developments — terraced houses, mid-rise blocks and flat conversions — as well as towers.
Many new high-rises will be located in existing clusters in the City and Canary Wharf, or else in new developments such as the Greenwich Peninsula or Old Oak Common. It’s likely that Khan will build on the existing 38 mayoral opportunity areas too.
Others will be dotted around the capital — three out of four boroughs have towers in the pipeline, with more in outer London than ever before. Most are planned for east London although the west of the capital — including areas such as White City, Hammersmith and Gypsy Corner — is slowly catching up. In 2016 just nine per cent of towers in the pipeline were in the west. Now that figure is 14 per cent.
There is already concern that a new crop of towers could be on the way in Westminster after the council launched a consultation on taller buildings — less than a year after the controversial Paddington Pole was abandoned following a blaze of protest.
Daniel Astaire, the councillor in charge of planning, insists they are “not talking about Shards in Westminster” but instead would look to build “appropriate buildings in appropriate places”.
The corridor from Park Lane to Marble Arch is one such location, as are Paddington, Victoria and Tottenham Court Road. Anywhere too near the Palace of Westminster, a world heritage site, is not.
Emily Gee, London planning director for Historic England, says: “We think towers should not harm cherished views, or ruin the settings of listed buildings and conservation areas. London must grow sustainably but that does not mean just upwards.”
However, Murray believes concerns about skyscrapers springing up all over central London are “totally overblown” and is confident planners will respect the character of different parts of the city.
Last year the Mayor was urged to halt the construction of the 42-storey Manhattan Loft Gardens in Stratford, east London, because conservationists said it damaged the centuries-old view of St Paul’s from Richmond Park. Building work went ahead.
But plans for the nearby Olympicopolis development have been scaled back — a hint, perhaps, into where the balance might lie for Khan. He has also suggested that outer London boroughs might need to be included in his protected views.
“Any new development must respond to the challenges posed by London’s growing population, balanced with the need to protect our shared heritage,” says Pipe.
Murray is confident the capital can do this. “How London manages its history alongside its contemporary architecture is admired around the world. We do the mix of old and new particularly well.”
But Weiss is not so sure. “I am still full of sadness that so much is going up that’s trashing London. Boris was criminal in what he did. He sold off the family jewels.”
627 tall buildings over 12 storeys are already part of London’s skyline.
455 towers in the planning pipeline — from the formal proposal stage through to construction.
26 skyscrapers were completed in 2016, a new record, compared with just 10 the year before.
50towers started construction last year, an increase of 68 per cent on 2015, when there were almost 30.
30 per cent of homes currently under construction in London are in tall buildings.
150 metres is the definition of a tall building in the City — though City Hall counts those over 30 metres, and those next to the Thames over 25 metres.
30 towers which received planning permission more than five years ago have still not been built.
162 tall buildings have been referred to Sadiq Khan at all stages of the planning system since he took over.
25 towers have been overseen by the Mayor through the whole planning process — all are going ahead.
8 refusals of towers by local planning authorities have been allowed to stand — but Sadiq has overruled two.
Source: Evening Standard.