New London Architecture’s latest annual Tall Buildings Survey, launched Tuesday morning, illustrated both the continuing proliferation of buildings reaching 20 storeys and higher in the capital and factors that might be starting to inhibit it.
Introducing the survey, which was launched at NLA’s temporary gallery space at Westfield Stratford City, next to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, curator-in-chief Peter Murray noted differing interpretations of the latest findings, with a Financial Times headline proclaiming that developers are scaling back “tower block” projects in the capital because of rising costs while Construction Enquirer reported tall building plans in London hitting “record levels”.
The survey’s headline figures, which cover the calendar year 2021 and include both residential and commercial structures, show both a continuing decrease in applications for tall buildings – 72 compared with 117 in 2018 – and an increase in full permissions to 98, which is the highest annual figure on record.
Construction starts also rose compared with 2020, though the total of 29 was still significantly down on the period from 2014 to 2019. There were 34 completions of tall buildings in 2021, which was similar to the two previous years, and the number is expected to increase to 46 in 2022. The overall tall building pipeline contains 583 projects, just four fewer than in 2020, of which 70 per cent are residential.
Presenting the survey, Stuart Baillie, head of planning at real estate consultancy Knight Frank, NLA’s partner in the project, highlighted permissions and starts as the areas most at risk in current circumstances, with an array of factors having an effect on consented schemes “that aren’t necessarily moving towards implementation”.
Rising costs and more stringent fire safety standards are part of the story, although Baillie said evidence so far suggests that Sadiq Khan’s London Plan “hasn’t restricted tall buildings” despite industry feeling that it brought tighter regulation. Baillie added that he expects “design standards and quality to be improved by London Plan policies”.
He also stressed that 20-storey and above tall building development continues to be concentrated in a small number of areas. At borough level, Tower Hamlets, home of Canary Wharf, still leads the way, with 95 in its pipeline, followed by Southwark with 60, Greenwich with 50 and Newham, which contains most of the Olympic Park, with 46. By contrast, seven boroughs have no tall building pipeline at all: Bexley, Bromley, Havering, Harrow, Hillingdon, Merton and Richmond.
The outer London boroughs with the highest numbers after Newham are Ealing (39), Brent (31), Croydon (28) and Barnet (27), with a number of others seeing more buildings whose floors run into the teens. The launch gathering heard from Jane Manning of architects Allies and Morrison of clear tensions between suburban boroughs ready to embrace taller buildings as a way to meet the demand for new homes and resistance to this from activist residents.
“Often, housing numbers and affordable provision can be overpowering arguments that win out over design codes for the longer term,” she said. This meant there is a need for particular clarity about what is wanted from taller residential developments, Manning said. She pointed to a growing need for supplementary planning guidance on the issue from the Greater London Authority.
Highlighting the centrality of tall buildings to the climate change challenge, Ben Eley, assistant director, design, at the City of London Corporation, observed that “we as a sector probably need to get better” at addressing the issue, noting that some new tall buildings are set to replace others built only 20 or 30 years ago.
He added that the arguments about whether or not the proposed redevelopment of Marks and Spencer’s flagship Oxford Street store should go ahead captured the wider debate about demolition and embedded carbon. Secretary of state Michael Gove has intervened to pause the plans, and a report by architect and carbon consultant Simon Sturgis has claimed demolition would contravene London Plan policies.
Tower Hamlets head of regeneration Sripriya Sudhakar told the gathering about the importance of looking closely at proposals for new tall buildings at the earliest, pre-application stage of the lengthy planning and delivery process. “We need to really think about what is the role of this building on this site in the future of this city, rather than just how many units [it will produce] or how we respond to a specific planning policy,” she said. This included taking fully on board feedback from both residents and commercial operators in terms of “what it feels like to live in and around these buildings”.
The launch also providing a platform for architect Barbara Weiss, co-founder of the Skyline Campaign and long a critic of the proliferation of tall buildings, which she said has caused “immense damage” and been a “disaster for London” with the river Thames in particular having “lost its historic appeal”. She described it as having “morphed into an asparagus patch” and, in the case if Nine Elms, with tall buildings connected by “illiterate public spaces”.
NLA will maintain its Westfield Stratford City base until September, covering the period leading up to and including the tenth anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic Games, which brought about the transformation of the Lower Lea Valley and the creation of Westfield itself.
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