Is the era of high-rise building in London coming to an end? It may be premature to start writing obituaries for the skyscraper, but the latest annual tall buildings survey from New London Architecture (NLA), covering the calendar year 2022, suggests a less than certain future for tower blocks in the capital.
Inflation and interest rate hikes are pushing up construction and labour costs, while the city’s housing market remains in the doldrums. At the same time the height and location restrictions on tall buildings suggested in Sadiq Khan’s 2021 London Plan are working through into borough policies, sustainability and safety requirements are increasing, and public opposition – not just in the suburbs – remains strong.
It all adds up to a “challenging time to design and build tall”, with little immediate prospect of better times to come, according to the NLA survey. “High-rise developers have had to navigate choppy waters and much uncertainty in the past 12 months, and that turbulence looks set to continue in the months ahead.”
As if to prove the point, a couple of days after the survey’s launch Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers told the Times that Transport for London’s plans – controversially blocked last year by now former transport secretary Grant Shapps – for building 15-storey blocks on the car park of Cockfosters Underground station would make the place like “East Berlin”. And shortly before the survey was published, Ealing Council dropped plans for a 26-storey development on the site of its own offices, citing rising costs and new fire safety regulations put in place by Sadiq Khan in February.
A separate new analysis by property consultants LSH and Connells suggests that previously-approved schemes potentially providing almost 124,000 homes could be delayed or even abandoned due to the new City Hall rules, which require all new buildings above 30 metres tall to include a second staircase.
Schemes already affected by the changes include Landsec’s 1,800-home redevelopment of the O2 shopping centre in Camden which was approved by the council in April but only after revised plans to accommodate the new rules were submitted, and Conran & Partners’ 1,380-home regeneration of a housing estate in Romford which has been halted because of reported uncertainty about the two-staircase rule’s application.
City Hall has also not ruled out lowering the height threshold even further, to 18 metres, as advocated by fire chiefs, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Chartered Institute of Housing. Eighteen metres is also the London Plan’s “default” definition of a tall building, though according to the NLA survey heights are still largely negotiated at borough level on a site-by-site basis, meaning the greater certainty for both local communities and developers City Hall had envisaged is still some way off.
The subdued property market is also prompting developers to turn to more viable, medium-rise build-to-rent or “co-living” schemes, with most projects in the pipeline coming out between 20 and 25 storeys. Costs begin to soar once buildings reach above those levels.
The NLA survey reports residential schemes in the pipeline of tall buildings – defined as 20 storeys or more high – providing some 20,300 homes concentrated, as in previous years, in Tower Hamlets, home of what is sometimes characterised as the “mini-Manhattan” of the Isle of Dogs. The East End borough has 14 schemes, followed by Ealing with eight, Croydon with four and Wandsworth with three.
Although the housing market is sluggish, the City of London remains attractive to high-rise office developers, with Guildhall planners reporting they “could not be busier”. Alongside six consents for buildings of between 75 and 309 metres – one metre less than the Shard – in the past two years, two applications are pending and a further four are expected later this year. This reflects continuing demand for high-quality Grade A office space, Guildhall planning chief Gwyn Richards says in the survey.
However, in the Square Mile, as elsewhere, proponents of tall buildings are locked in fierce debates with critics about how “green” they are, or can ever be, given their high levels of “embodied” carbon. Developers claim that new, tall, high density, energy efficient buildings close to services and public transport can be more sustainable “through a wider lens” over time.
Refurbishment is a growing trend, but the NLA survey concludes that high-rise isn’t finished yet. London will continue to “build tall”, it says, particularly because going up “often provides the only way of meeting the required densities in housing to meet targets”. But with viability under pressure, what will be achievable and acceptable, not only in terms of height, but for affordable quotas, safety, sustainability and cost, remains unclear.
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