By Peter Murray OBE, Co-founder, NLA
When we started our annual survey of tall buildings in 2014, we selected 20 storeys as our measure of tallness because that was the approximate height of most council-built towers and, thus, a recognisable benchmark for the general public.
At that time, we were keen to get an idea of the scale of development of tall buildings. Mayor Boris Johnson had claimed that his need to deliver 42,000 homes did not mean “towers will be popping up all over the place”. We thought it did. So we looked at the whole pipeline – those in the planning system and under construction - and managed to count 236, which was surprising to many and caused quite a stir. The Skyline Campaign, backed by the Architects’ Journal and The Observer, was set up by Rowan Moore and Barbara Weiss, who took the position that many of the tall buildings planned for London were ‘grossly insensitive to their immediate context and appearance on the skyline’.
They suggested that existing planning and political regimes failed to protect the valued qualities of London or to provide a coherent and positive vision for the future.
But within a few years, the size of the pipeline had grown to over five hundred, this time with hardly a murmur from the press or even social media. Nevertheless, the doughty Barbara Weiss continued her campaign, and the London Forum of Amenity Societies grumbled away.
For the first few years of the survey, activity focused on the central boroughs and Opportunity Areas, but then we started to see a shift in the number of applications for outer London. Towers arriving in the backyards of suburbia were met with growing resistance as the number of homes targeted by Mayor Sadiq Khan grew to 66,000. Then along came Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government and his preference for ‘gentle density’.
In his response to the draft London Plan in 2020, Jenrick suggested there were areas of London where tall buildings did not reflect local character and directed the Mayor to ensure they were only brought forward in ‘appropriate and clearly defined areas, as determined by the boroughs’. The end result is a definition of a tall building that can be as short as six storeys, or 18 meters, and an assessment of what is tall based on a building’s context.
So this year’s survey is different to previous ones where the headline has been the size of the pipeline and responds not just to the changes in the London Plan but also to policies and attitudes around sustainability. Today the first question about a tall building proposal tends not to be ‘How high is it?’ but ‘How green is it?’.