Charles Wright: The future of new tall buildings in London looks mixed

Charles Wright: The future of new tall buildings in London looks mixed

The New London Architecture (NLA) built environment think tank’s latest annual tall buildings update arrived last week, accompanied by now predictable headlines: with almost 600 “skyscrapers” in the planning pipeline, the city is apparently on course for becoming “Manhattan-on-Thames”.

Certainly, there are some pretty big buildings in the offing. “Roaring” demand for top quality office space is driving development in the Square Mile in particular, according to the report. Yet it paints a mixed picture overall. Beyond the city core, could the era of the high-rise actually be coming to an end?

NLA has been monitoring tall buildings in the capital since 2014. Over that period, 270 meeting their definition of 20 storeys or higher have been completed, the report says. They are by no means all office behemoths, albeit the very tallest are clustered in Canary Wharf and the City. They average 28 storeys and most are residential, delivering 58,000 homes over the ten-year period. Of the boroughs, Tower Hamlets, which contains Canary Wharf, tops the league with 71.

While office towers predominate in the centre, residential towers have “mushroomed” across the city, at Nine Elms and Elephant and Castle and from Wembley, Earls Court and White City to Stratford, Romford and Poplar Riverside as well as further out, in Croydon and Redbridge.

The year 2023 saw 47 schemes awaiting planning permission, 21 approved and none refused. Forty-one are in inner London and 27 in the outer boroughs. Their average height is 28 storeys and they are again mainly residential. Ealing led the pack with 10 projects in the pipeline, followed by Southwark and Greenwich with nine each.

But residential development has been particularly hit by a sluggish housing market, high interest rates and construction cost inflation, along with new fire safety requirements sending architects back to the drawing board. Only a pivot to providing purpose-built student accommodation has kept some of them on track. And, critically, it is harder for high-rises to get planning permission.

Government changes imposed on Sadiq Khan’s London Plan, with new rules governing both the height and location of tall buildings, are now making their mark, the report says. Enthusiasm for them in the suburbs is waning, with borough leaders and, following a number of planning setbacks, even Transport for London, losing their appetite for high-rise in favour of more modest developments.

“Outside the City, the scale of tall buildings is coming down and there is more interest in developing 12 to 18-storey groupings,” the report says. “The changes in the 2021 London Plan have given councils more power to dial down height—and they are using it.”

Sustainability concerns also continue to put pressure on developers. Can inherently carbon-intensive high-rises truly be sustainable? Or does the higher density they deliver, fostering reduced transport emissions and making more efficient use of land and resources, carry the argument?

“This debate will not die away soon,” the report says. “The increasing scrutiny of embodied carbon and the loud calls to reduce it are placing a new requirement on towers to justify their existence.” Meanwhile, Town Hall planners are increasingly advocating a “retrofit first” approach.

Better design is needed too, the report suggests, to help endear tall buildings to a sceptical public. That means more focus on ensuring that towers “give more back” to their community. Think of King’s Cross, in contrast to the “one site at a time” Nine Elms development which was taken forward “without an overall masterplan that would have encouraged a more mixed-use neighbourhood”, one contributor to the report says.

And there are increasing calls for a new London-wide approach to tall buildings, addressing their cumulative impact across the capital and on neighbouring boroughs, with Historic England chief executive Duncan Wilson putting the case in the report.

Wilson cites what he calls the “damaging effect” of competition between the City and Canary Wharf for tall buildings, resulting in random development. A more Parisian-style approach setting out an “overall London strategy about where tall buildings belong” is needed, he argues.

What can we look forward to? London is at an “important juncture”, the report argues. The Square Mile looks set to continue to grow upwards, with a healthy pipeline and new buildings such as 22 Bishopsgate ensuring that skyscrapers are no longer the “fortresses they once were”.

But for residential high-rise the future is much less clear. The report suggests that the strongly-held view within the development sector is that with available land remaining scarce and population rising, London must continue to strive for higher densities. And in many areas, “that means continuing to build upwards”.

The conundrum – not least for Mayor Khan as he reviews his current London Plan policies and looks to expand his use of mayoral development corporations – then becomes marrying the need for consistently high design quality, which comes at a price, with the political pressure to boost delivery of new homes. That’s not always been successful, the report warns. Alongside exemplar towers, there have too many “mediocre ones”, fuelling the backlash we’ve seen across the city.

But if height is reduced in favour of low-rise high density further out, it asks, “where does this leave bigger sites, and the increased pressure to ramp up supply?” A likely change of government, with a possible shift on Green Belt policy, adds another level of uncertainty.

The end of the high-rise outside the city core then? Not yet, the report concludes. The continuing pressure for more homes means tall buildings – as long as quality is not sacrificed for quantity – will remain at least part of the solution. The war of the suburbs may not be over.

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