Up & Out/Out & Up, the London Expansion

20 Mar 19 | Ailish Killilea

The prevailing public attitude towards tall buildings appears to have evolved with the intensifying need for space in central London but is building taller buildings the solution?

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London is awash, once again, with talk of tall buildings. The NLA recently published the publication of its annual London Tall Buildings Survey whilst the Examination in Public of The London Plan is reviewing the approach to tall buildings. The NLA reported a continued increase in London’s tall building; permissions up again, by 5% since last year’s report, with an overall 541 tall buildings in the pipeline. The prevailing public attitude towards tall buildings appears to have evolved with the intensifying need for space in central London but is building taller buildings the solution?

Interestingly, it is the outer boroughs seeing the greatest increase and east London continues to see the greatest overall rise in taller buildings (48%) but predominantly of residential use whilst the City of London continues to add to the office Eastern Cluster. Locating taller buildings at major points of infrastructure has been encouraged as an efficient way to densify across Greater London without sprawling into the Green Belt, which has its merits but still warrants rigorous contextual analysis and design-led approach.

However, the NLA report suggests a slowdown in the immediate future, potentially a reflection of how construction economics entangles with the wider political predicament affecting UK investment. The report suggests that pre-application submissions for buildings of 20+ storeys have seen a 6% decrease on last year’s figures, but these figures need to be treated with caution; the largely confidential nature of the pre-application process for example, can limit reporting.

Beyond the City, what is clear is that the focus of building tall remains intrinsic to the provision of housing; as much as 90% of the non-City towers reported are residential. But is this the solution to the current shortage of housing? Although reasonably efficient in delivering housing at London market rate, homes in towers are largely viewed as being “non-family” and more of a stepping stone en route to finding your true family home. Indeed, LSE carried out a survey across new buildings of high density at well-connected locations across London, finding that the majority of the residents were young singles and couples with no dependents.

Has the development of taller buildings through ‘high quality design’ forgotten the social considerations required to deliver as such? Especially when this is not a unique urban issue and other international cities can successfully deliver sustainable vertical communities. But then again these are cities, which are historically more attune to tall buildings, apply more rigorous guidelines and criteria to achieve this.

The current EiP of the London Plan promotes the delegation of control on tall buildings to Local Planning Authorities rather than strengthening of the overarching strategic approaches to taller buildings. As the attitudes of younger generations are moving with current trends in height, so too is vertical living. Ultimately, we are preparing for the future development of our communities and how taller buildings can contribute to this. Rather than delegating, the GLA could strengthen the approach to height at a strategic policy level in order to more positively support LPAs in their role to deliver truly sustainable schemes.

Ailish Killilea Associate,Heritage,Townscape
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