Something profoundly important has been happening in London under Mayor Boris. Put simply, we’ve been building bigger and higher than ever before – almost exclusively for residential developments. The impact on our skyline and on the types of new homes we are building for Londoners yet unborn has never been more profound.
Large developments and estate regenerations have been creating a second generation of large buildings. 236 towers are currently being built or have recently been given permission in London. And our own research shows that of 18 current large development schemes the density of housing is increasing by an average of 171 per cent from 72 units per hectare to 195 units per hectare. The average increase in height of the buildings was 227 per cent. Only one development studied had no new buildings above 10 storeys.
Two key factors have been driving that. The first is the massive growth in land values due to high demand and national planning constraints (greenbelts, the sheer time it takes to obtain planning permission etc).
The second is conscious policy from the GLA where a complex matrix of density targets, rules on open space, official guidance to councils on individual applications and the gold-plating of national rules within the London Plan has incentivised developers to dash for the sky and discouraged the provision of high density conventional streets.
Maybe this is what people want?
In fact, it is not. Normal streets with normal houses and low- or medium-rise flats are infinitely more popular.
In a 2013 poll, only 3 per cent want to live in flats with over 10 units per building. This is because most people are deeply rational. Living in big tall buildings is not good for you. The vast majority of controlled studies show that the residents of large multi-storey blocks suffer from more stress, mental health difficulties and crime, that children do less well and that communities are less strong. This data takes account of socio-economic status. You can access some of the academic evidence and read summaries of the data here, here, here, here and here.
To his credit, the Mayor has not been half-hearted in his support for his own policy. But there’s been growing disquiet elsewhere. Create Streets was launched in 2013 to campaign for more housing in terraced streets of flats and houses. Peter Rees, former chief planner for the City of London, has complained about ‘this rambling rubbish of residential towers across London.’
Recent headlines in The Evening Standard read, ‘London’s new towers “creating a Gotham City skyline”’, ‘Mayor urged to stop rise of ‘monster towers’ that threaten historic skyline’ and ‘Luxury tower blocks “squeeze out Londoners as prices boom”. The Evening Standard has given high profile to the Skyline Campaign which has been campaigning against the ‘untrammelled rash’ of skyscrapers being built in London.
Public supporters included Alan Bennett, Griff Rhys Jones and Kevin McCloud. The Observer architecture critic, Rowan Moore, who is one of the campaign’s leaders, said: ‘Those with power and responsibility — the Communities Secretary and his ministers, the Mayor, and the boroughs — must wake up to the risk of irreversible harm that London is facing, and take effective action.’ In private, many senior industry figures are very worried about what we are we doing.
One (who has personally steered though many high rise developments in London but whose family lives in a Georgian terraced house) spoke to me only last week of a ‘ticking time bomb’ of high future management and maintenance costs and conceded that, ‘I worry that we are creating ghettos of tall buildings.”
Nor are Londoners convinced by this “phallocracy” (Boris’ phrase) of towers. A recent MORI survey in London is imperfect as it excluded all those aged over 64 (a group less likely to support tower block living) and included those between 16 and 18 (a group more likely to support tower block living). Despite this surprising bias the results were still clear cut. Only 27 per cent of those polled would be ‘happy living in a tall building’.
But are things beginning to change? Is the cacophony of professional and community concern beginning to influence policy? It is too early to be too hopeful but there are some positive signs. On Wednesday, in response to questioning from Andrew Boff, the Mayor agreed to a review of the London Plan to see what gets in the way of providing street-based developments. He also (we think!) supported the idea of developers having to provide a reason in their application for why a street-based development is not possible in that particular instance. You can watch for yourself here (2 hours, 6 mins and 20 seconds in).
In the same session of the London Assembly the Mayor also agreed that his planners were wrong to tell Camden Council that a proposed tower at Swiss cottage was ‘preferable’. He has instructed them to change the advice to ‘acceptable.’ This may sound a modest change but it is an important one, as Camden Council have been saying that the GLA have been insisting on a tower.
“Andrew Boff: “What would you be your view of Camden Labour councillors and planners saying to residents that actually the GLA has already decided and it’s up to them?”
Mayor: “Complete nonsense. Absolute flat lie. There is a democratic system. Everyone knows how the planning system works. Camden Council have responsibility and they must discharge that responsibility. If they choose to throw out that scheme that is entirely a matter for them.”
We are not rejoicing yet but these are hopeful signs. Streets are provably more popular with most people and are correlated with good social outcomes, above all for families. They go up in value faster over time and can be incredibly high density. Enough street-based regeneration and development could easily solve the London housing crisis. And it could be popular, too. It’s the right way for London and it would be the right call for Mayor Boris.