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Are Skyscrapers Really the Answer to London's Housing Crisis?

More than 430 towers, of 20 storeys or greater, are planned for the capital – but does anyone actually want them?

London. She’s hardly a looker. She’d win no crowns at an international beauty pageant. Miss Lisbon, Miss Madrid, Miss Paris, Miss Vienna, Miss Rome, even little Miss Ljubljana – almost all of her European sisters are prettier than she.

That’s not to say that great swathes of the city aren’t utterly beautiful; that she’s lacking in breathtaking buildings; that the villages, heaths, commons and mews that make up her good side aren’t the envy of urbanites all over the world. It’s just that taken as whole, London is a bit of a minger. 

She has, of course, been scarred by a unique set of pressures – physically disfigured by great fires, world wars, huge population surges, economic booms, modernism, post-modernism and some truly horrific examples of self-mutilation in the 1960s. She’s had to cope with a lot. 

So, in a way, it’s funny that following the threat of the German air force, the biggest menace to London’s skyline should come in the form of Chinese businessmen. As Prince Charles once famously quipped: “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”  

In March, a report by New London Architecture and property consultant GL Hearn revealed that there are 436 buildings of more than 20 storeys planned for the capital. That number has almost doubled in two years. In 2015, only three proposals were rejected: Hounslow House, the ‘Central Phase 4 Site’ in Woolwich and Southwark’s Gagarin Tower.

The proposed towers, of which almost a quarter are already under way, stretch from Greenwich to Paddington and from Croydon to Camden. They include both Europe’s tallest commercial building (1 Undershaft, in the City) and its highest residential tower block (Hertsmere House, in Canary Wharf). 

Previous bubbles were fuelled by borrowing. This one is energised not by mortgages but by cash

London has been at the mercy of building booms before, but this one is different. Previous bubbles were fuelled by borrowing. This one is energised not by mortgages but by cash. And it’s not just the Chinese for whom London has become a safe investment. 

The Panama Papers leaked earlier this year revealed that the prime ministers of Pakistan and Azerbaijan, Iraq’s former interim prime minister, the president of the Nigerian senate, as well as close pals of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, had all invested heavily in London property. The biggest single investor was UEA’s Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who owns a portfolio worth more than £1.2 billion. 

The companies set up by Mossack Fonseca (the firm whose data was breached) are connected to British properties worth in excess of £7 billion, the Evening Standard reported. Mossack Fonseca is only the world’s fourth largest offshore law firm. We can only guess to which tune the thousands of companies set up by the three larger companies have invested.

Like New York, London is a victim of its own success. Skyscrapers aren’t a new phenomenon, but at a time of soaring property prices and a chronic lack of affordable housing, an increasing number of high-profile figures are questioning whether constructing more bubble-inflating buildings is the best approach to the issue that secured Sadiq Khan his seat in City Hall.  

“London’s population is rising fast – but our response, a second generation of multi-storey tower blocks, many for social housing, is not the right one,” said Nicholas Boys Smith, a former adviser to Chancellor George Osborne, in The Guardian last year. 

Boys Smith set up a lobby group against the march of the high-rise under the banner ‘Create Streets.’ “Most people, most of the time, don’t want to live in big blocks,” he said. “We are concerned that in the long term the flaws in these large multi-storey buildings will make themselves very apparent.”

Quinlan Terry, a classically inspired architect who designed the Richmond Riverside scheme, shares Boys Smith’s concerns. “Steel and glass don’t produce useful buildings that last more than 25 years,” he said, in the same Guardian article. Terry, and his architect-son Francis, believe there are better ways of achieving compact housing than building high. “We are trying to create density in a grain rather than with a tower of 20 storeys and space all around it. If you look at Rome, Paris and Milan you have that dense urban grain.” 

Terry believes that classical terraces, eight-storeys high, around an open circus, provide a more attractive solution than towering high-rises. 

“London’s population is rising fast – but our response, a second generation of multi-storey tower blocks, many for social housing, is not the right one"

Other architects had already voiced similar views. In 2014, a statement published in The Observer called for a review of London’s local planning processes. The 80 signatories who put their name to the petition read like a who’s who of British architecture. It included Sir David Chipperfield, Sir Anish Kapoor, Ted Cullinan and Eric Parry, among many significant others.

‘The skyline of London is out of control,’ the statement read. Too many of the planned towers ‘are of mediocre architectural quality and badly sited,’ it continued. ‘Many show little consideration for scale and setting, make minimal contribution to public realm or street-level experience, and are designed without concern for their cumulative effect and impact. Their generic designs threaten London’s unique character and identity.’

All of this, the statement observed, was taking place despite an almost complete lack of public awareness, consultation or debate. 

Last year, YouGov polled 1,011 adults on their opinion of the proposed towers; 48% said they thought they would have a negative effect on the city’s skyline, while 60% believed the public should be consulted when a tall building was planned for a historically important area.

We already know that people don’t like to live in tall buildings. Since 1983, pre-1919 homes have increased in value at double the rate of modern buildings, according to data from the Halifax. In Oval, 92% of residents polled by Boys Smith’s Create Streets, preferred ‘Kennington’-style Victorian architecture over Vauxhall-style tower blocks. Similar figures were recorded in Kingston and Southwark. 

We also know that high-rise doesn’t necessarily mean high density. One of the densest boroughs of London is Kensington & Chelsea; neat houses packed into pretty streets where people want to live.

Sometimes, as in the City, the only choice is to build up. Love them or loathe them, it’s hard to argue against the architectural quality of the towers that define the Square Mile. The Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, Heron Tower, Broadgate Tower, even the Walkie Talkie – these boundary-pushing buildings have benefitted from a non-political planning committee that relies on the consensus of up to 30 members.

Canary Wharf, too, is a success. A well-executed masterplan means high quality buildings concentrated in a cluster that feel like they belong together. Large open spaces, avenues of trees, pretty gardens and an abundance of restaurants and shops make the docklands development a nice place to be, even at the weekend.     

Peter Rees spent 29 years as the chief planning officer at the City of London Corporation. Having signed-off the Gherkin, the Heron Tower, the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesgrater, he’s not an individual inherently opposed to skyscrapers. Yet even he questions the long term effect of London’s short term approach to planning. 

“It’s not the number of towers that bothers me,” says Rees. “What worries me is what they are being used for. We don’t make land. Supply is running out. We’ve got to use it wisely. If you were building homes that people were actually living in I’d say ‘OK, it’s a price worth paying’. But we are not.”

The proposed towers, Rees believes, are the upshot of councils eager to accept any sort of contribution to affordable housing, and politicians blindsided by the financial clout of huge development companies. 

“I’m not blaming developers,” he says. “It’s in their DNA; it’s what they should be doing. I’m not blaming the investors; they are good investments. I’m blaming the politicians; the people who’ve weakened the planning system to the point where the system can no longer balance land use for the good of the community.”

Excesses of ’60s and ’70s planning exist like carbuncles on the face of the capital. Instead of learning from the damage already done, the city is set to be blighted by another explosion of high-rise. 

You can’t polish a turd. Yet London continues to add to the crap heap.