Planning and the London skyline

The cloud capp’d towers of London grow in number every day. On latest estimates, 89 more towers are under construction, 233 have permission but are yet to commence and 114 are currently proposed. Last year, two times as many towers were applied for than in the previous year. Admittedly, a great deal of that increase was down to a scheme I have been heavily involved on, the Greenwich Peninsula, containing 32 alone.

City, London skyline

The competing arguments for tall towers have been well rehearsed. One argument goes that tall towers are an efficient use of land which can contribute to the growing unmet demand for housing and office space in the capital. By providing dense supply, the cost of (for instance) residential units will reduce.

Without such high rise development, urban sprawl into the green belt will inevitably follow. The other argument is that tall towers are a blight on London’s historic fabric and rarely provide enough public amenity.

What is worse, the argument goes, they are sold at prices which are only competitive to international investors, leaving many of the units empty, or at least unobtainable to ‘ordinary Londoners’.

Anti-tower campaigners have had some recent success. The developers of the Paddington tower, a 72-storey Renzo Piano scheme (he of the Shard), were forced recently to withdraw their proposals after vocal opposition from local groups and public bodies alike. But many are being granted consent every month. The skyline of London is changing.

One argument which I have no truck with is the notion that all such towers are “unplanned”. The opposite, in the majority of cases, is true. The dense redevelopment of particular sites in London is often prefigured in the local Borough’s policies for development across their area. The drafting process for these policies involves lengthy public consultation and stakeholder engagement, including with central government.

The policies, once adopted, set the framework for the development of towers. Developers then respond to the policies in their planning application proposals. These, too, are subject to public consultation, and public scrutiny by elected Council members. There is nothing “unplanned” about this.

Not only that, but London-wide policy has rightly targeted specific areas for tower developments: the City, Canary Wharf, opportunity areas such as Greenwich Peninsula and the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea area, and, most recently, transportation hubs, where new occupiers can move to and from the tower quickly and easily. This is sensible, pragmatic, area-wide policy, encouraging development, but effectively preventing the ‘random sprawl’ which campaigners so often rage against.

Prospero’s warning was that cloud capp’d towers would dissolve and leave not a rack behind. In Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year, high-rise development in London is showing no signs of being an insubstantial pageant.

Oliver Wright is a partner and head of planning at Forsters