Londoners need more affordable homes, not more skyscrapers

263 tall buildings over 20 storeys have been proposed, approved or are being built across the capital


In the past fifteen years, a new tradition has formed in London: coming up with the most creative nickname for each new skyscraper to grace the city’s skyline. Bring up 20 Fenchurch Street and you’ll be met with blank stares, but call it the Walkie Talkie and there will be instant recognition. The rather unimaginative official designation of 122 Leadenhall Street is much better known by the moniker The Cheesegrater, and The Gherkin has become a name known round the world.

It is therefore no surprise that the newest addition to the City has been given a nickname before the ink has dried on the drawings: 1 Undershaft, a proposal for a new office block in the heart of the City, has already been dubbed ‘the Trellis’ thanks to its resemblance to the ubiquitous panelling found in back gardens across England.

The Trellis will certainly make its mark on the City of London. At 73 storeys and 309.6 metres, the building will approach the height of the Shard located across the Thames, currently the tallest building in Europe. It has been designed by the London-based and well-regarded architect firm Eric Parry Architects for Singapore-based developer Aroland Holdings.

A glass structure criss-crossed with gigantic gartered bracing, topped with a public viewing gallery and tailed with a public square underneath an elevated lobby, it remains to be seen whether this new proposal will find its way into Londoners’ good books or make it onto the naughty list.

The one thing for certain about the design is that it is in the right place. Situated between the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin, it is at the heart of the cluster of tall buildings internationally recognised as the skyline of 21st century London. It conforms to the City of London’s planning policies, which permits tall buildings on suitable sites.

It conforms in particular  to the Eastern cluster where tall buildings of world class architecture can be built whilst adhering to the principles of sustainable design, conservation of heritage assets, and taking account of their effect on the wider London skyline and protected views. The Trellis has found a piece of London where a tall building, if designed with sensitivity to the unique heritage of ancient London at street level, feels appropriate.

Unfortunately, there are a rash of tall buildings going up across London where this is not the case. Research released earlier this year from New London Architecture found 263 tall buildings over 20 storeys had been proposed, approved or were being built across the capital. Whilst the majority are residential, many fail to provide much-needed housing for Londoners. Instead the focus is on luxury apartments, designed to serve as safety-deposit boxes for wealthy foreign investors.

Furthermore, many of these new tall building are not in the right place. Away from the clusters found in the City of London and Canary Wharf, misplaced tall building across London uneasily ascend into the sky, completely at odds with the character and context of the surrounding areas.

In my constituency of Brent and Harrow, the well-established and historic suburban characters of local neighbourhoods have not been given a second thought by developers rushing to put up monstrosities like the Hendon Waterside development that will tower over the previously pristine Site of Special Scientific Interest status Welsh Harp site.

My experience of Outer London shows the local communities tend to reject out of hand tall buildings (anything over ten to fifteen stories) due to the concerns about loss of local views and detriment to the suburban character. With enhanced planning powers given to the new Mayoral Development Corporations (MDCs) such as at Old Oak Common this is a particular anxiety. What nobody wants is for these MDCs to take an automatic assumption in favour of a proliferation of towers without regard for the local surroundings.

We need stronger planning policies across London to make sure that tall buildings make a positive contribution to our city and our skyline by meeting the right needs, adhering to London’s unique character and identity, and of course being in the right locations.

A number of common-sense reforms – including establishing a skyline commission, made up of a panel of design experts to offer advice and carry out reviews, developing more rigorous master planning processes, and requiring all developers with proposals for tall buildings to consider alternative building configurations – have been proposed by the London Assembly.

Unfortunately, these proposals have only been met with outright rejection from the mayor.

This is an issue important to Londoners because it affects the very shape of London itself. Whether or not Londoners welcome the Trellis remains to be seen, but the new proposals will undoubtedly place the future of London’s skyline well and truly back onto the agenda. With this in mind, there’ll be no slack for any future mayor prepared to sit idly by and watch Outer London be transformed into Dubai-on-Thames.

 Navin Shah is the Labour London Assembly member for Brent and Harrow

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4 Responses to “Londoners need more affordable homes, not more skyscrapers”

  1. Dottie

    Has anyone visited the skyscraper developments along the Nine Elms stretch of the river in Vauxhall. Not many affordable houses there methinks. What happened to the Lambeth Labour policy that all developments have affordable housing as part of the planning permission?

  2. Intolerant_Liberal

    We all need more affordable homes, not just Londoners!!!
    The spend on infrastructure per person in London is about £3000, and the spend on infrastructure per person outside London is about £500. That tells you all you need to know about this government’s and the general establishment’s concerns. And I bet you can guess who most of that money is being spent on. It won’t be the poor and the marginalised of London.

  3. Intolerant_Liberal

    The Tories are now building new houses costing about £450,000. Yes, you can see that is aimed at the working class, can’t you?? The Tories have all but declared war on the poor, disabled, the working class and everyone else who isn’t affluent and living in London and the South East of England. By giving people up to five year leases on council houses, they are now attempting to destroy any community amongst the working classes, and nobody seems overly concerned about it. Not many people on here anyway.

  4. spleeon

    OK, I agree that London needs less in the way of high end homes and more in the way of ordinary working class and middle class homes. But it doesn’t have much space. So unless you build on the green belt which seems to be as askance as telling people that they are now French, then you have to build up.

    The only question is the type of developments. Yes, we need more middle income ones that are much cheaper. So yes planning regulations encouraging that would help as would having the mayor back them. And I think applying a 1.5% property tax in addition to existing council taxes for second homes in the city would also discourage rich foreigners from buying homes they only plan to live in for 8 weeks a year. However it’s also supply and demand. If you built ordinary flats for families with 3 or 4 bedrooms and having 1500 to 2000 square feet per flat, the prices would be unavoidably high because there is a severe shortage!

    What we need is to build a lot of middle income housing and that means either more skyscrapers which necessarily means a more boring skyline because they will have to go somewhere, or a lot (and I mean a LOT) of 6, 7 and 8 story buildings. And because London needs so many new homes, that will mean overriding current planning laws. This is because too many buildings are listed and the regulatory structure to build anywhere is very burdensome.

    The writer talks about “historic suburban characters of local neighborhoods” and “establishing a skyline commission”. Does Mr Shah get it? We need a lot more housing. Unless you build on green belt land, you necessarily will have to change the historic nature of London. What worked in 1900 with a population of 6.2 million will not work in 2015 with a population of 8.6 million and that is without allowing all the extra pent up demand. We need less regulation, not more. If we are to house everyone we need much greater density!

    We have a growing population so what we need is “Dubai-on-Thames” – there is no other way on such a tiny island. What amazes me is that people on the left who say they care about the working class act to price such people out of the city into which many were born and grew up. And one other thing – I can assure you that London in 1900 looked radically different than London in 1750. Somehow the remaking of the city in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries was alright, but now we are not ‘allowed’ to do that. How absurd!

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