Charles Wright: Reshaping the Square Mile – questions of balance

Charles Wright: Reshaping the Square Mile – questions of balance

Love it or hate it, the Square Mile and its skyline generates strong feelings. In just the past few weeks it has been described as a “pastiche Manhattan” and a “jarring profusion of odd skyscrapers”. So there’s plenty of interest in the City Corporation’s new development blueprint, just unveiled.

Work on the draft City Plan 2040 began some eight years ago, but was paused in 2021. The world had changed and the Guildhall decided the plan needed to change too. Would those absent workers ever return? Would those skyscrapers previously encouraged be needed? Should the City widen its appeal beyond the nine to five? There were concerns, too, about sustainability and the need to protect the City’s heritage.

Does the reshaped plan square these various circles? Firstly, evidence suggests the office is not dead. Far from it. Tube ridership is recovering and demand for “grade A” offices is at its highest level for a decade. That’s a serious revival, symbolised by plans getting back on track for the 74-storey 1 Undershaft scheme, set to be the City’s tallest building, with more development on its way.

As a result, the plan continues to bet big on the office, aiming to provide an extra 1.2 million square metres of work space by 2040. And on tall buildings too. They “impart the City of London a World City status to compete globally and to be open to business,” according to the Guildhall.

No round of applause from the skyscraper haters then, though the plan is no developer free-for-all. Responding to Sadiq Khan’s London Plan rules about tall buildings, new high-rise development will be mainly corralled into the existing skyscraper cluster around Bishopsgate.

They must also form part of a recognisable and “coherent” skyline, maintaining the significance of St Paul’s Cathedral, and have “active” frontages, new pedestrian routes, shops, hospitality, cultural, educational and green space at ground level to tempt workers and visitors.

The plan pioneers a “retrofit first” approach, requiring developers to weigh up refurbishment against demolition, with a “fast track” process for converting unviable “secondary” office space for other uses. There’s a new focus on tourism in line with the Guildhall’s seven day a week “Destination City” strategy, and targets for reaching net zero by 2040 and halving motor vehicle numbers by 2044.

A new look Square Mile then? In some ways it already is. Retrofit is happening alongside new build, with high-profile tenants including HSBC and Apple taking up refurbished space. Streetscene improvements are underway, visitors are booking out new attractions, and more than two-thirds of City journeys are by bike or on foot.

Guildhall insiders are happy with the plan. It’s “inspired” and “progressive”, according to planning committee chair Shravan Joshi, while for Corporation planning director Gwyn Richards it’s the “most radical City Plan for decades”.

What questions may emerge as the draft goes out for its last consultation stage next month, to be followed by a public inquiry before an independent planning inspector and final sign-off expected in 2025 by who the the Secretary of State is by then?

Perhaps it will be asked if the plan does enough to deal with the Square Mile’s grade B or “secondary” space – those older and less energy-efficient offices which are increasingly hard to let. There are a lot of them – 32 million square feet of space currently not meeting minimum energy efficiency targets, which will become mandatory in 2030, according to analysis for the Corporation. Might conversion to housing, currently rejected as the Guildhall maintains priority for offices, have to be looked at again?

Another question will be the balance, as the Guildhall puts it, between celebrating and protecting local heritage while “re-shaping those parts of the City that have the most potential for growth and regeneration”. The Square Mile contains more than 600 listed buildings and no fewer than 27 conservation areas. But it’s perhaps the City cluster zone itself and the newly-designated Creechurch conservation area are where the debate will focus.

Lying broadly between the Gherkin and Aldgate, with Leadenhall Street to the south, the Creechurch area in many ways epitomises the mix of uses characteristic of the east of the City over centuries. It has a group of characterful 19th Century tea, grain and fruit warehouses at its heart, now converted to office use and even some residential.

There are more recent office blocks too, while the area’s churches, St Botolph-without-Aldgate and St Katherine Cree, date respectively from 1744 and 1631, before the Great Fire of London. Most significantly, the area includes the Grade I listed Bevis Marks synagogue (pictured), the oldest synagogue in continued use in Great Britain, dating from 1701.

Equally significantly, much of the area, including the synagogue, is firmly, as the Corporation’s conservation area assessment puts it, “in amidst the high-rise modernity” of the City cluster, where building high is encouraged. With plans unveiled last week for a new 43-storey office tower at 31 Bury Street, just 20 metres away from the synagogue, battle lines are being drawn.

The draft plan sets out a requirement for any new building to conserve and enhance the “immediate setting” of the synagogue “without dominating or detracting from its architectural and historic value”. But the setting is tightly defined and does not include the Bury Street site itself.

A previous 49-storey scheme on the site was rejected in 2021 against Guildhall planners’ advice, partly because of its “overbearing and overshadowing impact” on the Bevis Marks courtyard. According to the synagogue, the new scheme will have a similar impact. It wanted more protection written into the plan for what is widely seen as the “single most important historic site for British Jews”, but

However, the corporation rejected that plea. The extent of the immediate setting zone should be a matter for the forthcoming consultation stage, allowing “all interested stakeholders to make representations regarding the policy and evidence base, and for these to be considered holistically,” it said.

There’s a wider contention too, as set out by officers recommending the earlier Bury Street scheme for approval. This argued that the new can enhance the old, that the “juxtaposition of the old City and the ever-changing modern City skyline” is now in itself an “integral and exciting” part of the Square Mile townscape, giving “greater potency, richness and depth to the setting of these historic buildings”.

Where to draw the line is set to be the key argument as the City Plan moves through its final stages.

X/Twitter: Charles Wright and OnLondon. Support and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Photo from City Corporation website.

Categories: Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *