The Battle of the Buildings

Photo by João Barbosa on Unsplash

The London Plan is making its final weary way through the desks of the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State. In the end, there has been horse-trading and attempts to calm some of the wilder ideas of the Mayor; industrial land, tenures, small sites.

As some may know I have been an advocate of scrapping the London Plan. I won’t rehearse some of the arguments because you can see a recent article on this here. The reality is the time has come for a new approach that actually recognises that London, the third most populous city in Europe behind Istanbul and Moscow, is not a single, homogenous place but a collection of 33 London Boroughs, each with its own history that recognises the period in which they were developed. We need a stronger localised London system for planning.

This is why I applaud Government changes to the new London Plan in the area of tall buildings. London Mayor’s have always had tall buildings policies and in the early days of the Mayoralty, when tall buildings were not such a highlight of the city skyline, they were concentrated on a few city centre areas. The need for tall buildings has risen as the targets for housing have risen. But the Mayor now, effectively, has to surrender power over tall buildings to the local Boroughs and each Borough needs to write its own tall buildings strategy. In doing so, the Government has defined a tall building as being anything above 6 storeys. This is a great devolutionist policy, but there are dangers.

The Councils are set targets for housing delivery. The targets mean more houses and higher densities. In an outer London Borough, this means they have to decide whether they build “up or out”. But, no one wants to build on the Green Belt and the public do not like tall buildings. There lies the dichotomy for an outer London Borough. So, whilst the power has been devolved to Boroughs, what happens next will be interesting.

Will there be a Borough brave enough to say “enough is enough” and set a policy for tall buildings that restricts height across the Borough to 6 storeys? That’s possible, but if they then try and write a local plan that does not show how it will meet its housing target its plan will probably never be signed off by the planning inspector. Developers who bought land with a minimum expectation of height will find themselves stuck with something that could never be policy compliant and locked into an inevitable circle of planning and appeal.

I can see many stand-offs across London between councillors and communities as they try to work this through — some might say these are exciting times.