Jack Brown: Lessons of the MSG Sphere – there has to be a better way

Jack Brown: Lessons of the MSG Sphere – there has to be a better way

The Madison Square Gardens (MSG) Sphere, a potentially very cool-looking new entertainment venue in Stratford has been blocked by Sadiq Khan. The 300-foot-high dome-like development, replicating a similar venue in Las Vegas, was to have been encased in a glowing ball of advertising had the Mayor not decided that would be a bit much for a town centre environment.

It brings a long and winding story to an end. The Sphere was first proposed for the site in 2017. The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the planning authority for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and its surroundings since 2012, granted permission for it over a year and a half ago.

The LLDC, though set up under powers created by national government, is part of the Greater London Authority group of organisations and accountable to the Mayor. Yet it is the Mayor who,  having expressed some enthusiasm for the scheme when it was first announced, has overturned the LLDC decision – which seems odd.

Khan’s rejection could have meant the Sphere’s fate being passed further up the government chain to levelling up secretary Michael Gove, who would have had the power to overrule him. But rather than hope for that, the scheme’s developers have walked away, calling Khan’s move “politically motivated”, his main line of reasoning “a red herring” and concluding that London would be the loser from “this  dismal outcome”.

What on Earth is going on? Khan’s formal decision document focuses primarily on light pollution, but also dubs the the Sphere “a bulky, unduly dominant and incongruous form of development” that neither suits its environment nor “achieves a high sustainability standard”. This is unsurprising, given that it was ultimately a gigantic ball of electric light. The finding follows a GLA-commissioned review by consultants WSP.

These objections seem reasonable: the development was pencilled-in next to Stratford station and the Westfield shopping centre, but also residential areas. It would have had a clear impact on those properties. The developers say they “spent thousands of hours in community forums, addressing concerns”. The Mayor and the LLDC perhaps differ about whether this process succeeded.

The denial of planning permission has, of course, been portrayed as “anti-growth”. An offer from Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen to host the Sphere in his region instead, citing his “frustration” with Khan, is surely political posturing. The real question is why the LLDC and the Mayor reached such different conclusions and what this says about planning in this part of London.

MSG bought the site from Westfield in 2017. A public consultation was launched in 2019. Of 1,364 written responses from the public, just 355 were in support of the development. But such numbers are not shocking for any new development proposal, and the LLDC’s planning decisions committee gave its approval in March 2022.

It noted that, “The juxtaposition of the spherical form and the local context is not universally popular” but considered its design and scale “an appropriate response to the design brief and context of this site”. The Sphere’s benefits were thought to outweigh its local impacts, which would be mitigated with a blend of blackout blinds for residents and controls on when and how brightly the Sphere could shine.

Reaching the opposite conclusion has put Mayor Khan in the same place as an array of other London politicians, several of whom had made representations to him directly. Some were from his own party, most notably the Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, who welcomed Khan’s intervention as “amazing news“.

Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall didn’t like the Sphere either, but found a way to attack Khan anyway, professing surprise at his decision in view of an alleged plan to make the venue into a huge Khan Ball: “Turning down the opportunity to project his face across London is the type of vacuous PR stunt he would normally love,” she said of an idea which appears to have never actually existed.

More significant for next May’s mayoral election is the response of Green Party politicians. Newham councillor Nate Higgins expressed his delight at the scheme’s rejection. And Green London Assembly member Zack Polanski, who also chairs its environment committee, called it a “huge win”. Facing the newly-introduced First Past the Post system, which is likely to help his Tory challenger, Khan will surely want Green supporters to lend him their votes to help see off Hall, especially given ongoing rows with them about the Silvertown Tunnel.

Rejecting the scheme is, therefore, politically helpful to Khan. Less clear-cut are debates about whether the LLDC, unelected but locally-focused, is better placed to make decisions such as this than the Mayor, whose remit is city-wide but has a direct mandate from voters. Mayor powers are designed so with larger schemes the concerns of local residents can be balanced with wider economic growth objectives.

There is a more straightforward argument about whether or not central government should have the ultimate power in such cases. The answer, surely, is not. Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency is (just about) out of range of the dome’s intended glare. His department, tasked with rebalancing the entire national economy away from London, has enough to be getting on with without involving itself in the minutiae of local planning decisions.

Were the Olympic Park a nightmarish landscape of dereliction and planning rejections, perhaps an emergency intervention from above would be necessary to get things moving. And, given that it has taken five years for the Sphere to finally be turned down, critics could be forgiven for expressing some frustration with the pace of the proceedings.

But the park and Stratford area, particularly the emerging East Bank, is booming overall. And where would national government intervention have left local authorities such as Newham Council? The LLDC has already taken planning powers from it and the three other boroughs with territory inside and around the park. These will soon be returned. But should local government be left with still less control over its own areas?

It is, though, hard to feel sympathy for MSG, whose parting shot is that London is unwelcoming to innovation: ‘There are many forward-thinking cities that are eager to bring this technology to their communities. We will concentrate on those.” Surely an alternative was available, such as saying “we hear you” to the scheme’s opponents in east London and offering to work with them and Gove to find a solution.

London will be OK without the Sphere. But there must be a better way to make decisions of this kind in the future.

Jack Brown is a lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. X/Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack.

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