Local authorities across London will have to work harder to justify and plan for tall buildings following policy changes and new rules that say ‘tall’ is anything over six storeys. But despite a marked drop off of construction starts and applications, London’s pipeline of tall buildings over 20 storeys is up by 7.9% to 587, permissions are also up, and the main thrust geographically is to the east and outer boroughs. Those were just a few of the main pointers to emerge from the launch of NLA’s tall buildings report for 2021 last week.
Stuart Baillie of Knight Frank, which helped to compile the figures, said that the volume of planning applications has dropped ‘reasonably significantly’, by 27% to 78 but permissions are up by 14% and this is still the third highest year on record for submissions ‘so by no means a catastrophe in that regard’.
It’s a return to normal working, almost’, he said, ‘and hats off to local authorities for getting their virtual platforms up and running and allowing the process to continue.
Those same authorities, though, are facing planning reforms and significant London Plan changes over tall buildings arising from an intervention by the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick as late as December, resulting in a six-storey minimum threshold for tall buildings. New policy requirements affect how tall buildings are justified and designed, with perhaps some pressure now on boroughs like Richmond to increase height in certain locations, ‘In other boroughs there is still the flexibility to adopt a different, higher threshold than the six storeys, but the boroughs are going to have to do quite a lot of work to support this’ added Baillie. Some will have to adapt policy to be very specific on where tall buildings might go and what height is appropriate, along with an evidence base to say what the impacts might be on character, heritage, and how the growth capacity of that borough is being met. Developers and landowners will also have to work harder and earlier to engage with boroughs to identify and get sites allocated, plus identify height and massing – at plan development stage rather than at pre-app.
Baillie suggested that this may lead to a short-term slowing down as development policies catch up, but a longer term return ‘return to tall buildings’, partly in order to help meet housing targets, even if there may be fewer in the 20 storey plus category.
This housing demand is acute in Southwark, and particularly the Old Kent Road area, where 1500 people are on the housing waiting list, said Southwark’s Colin Wilson. But some people love living in towers and on the older estates, which ‘are not full of people with mental health problems who are in despair’, Wilson said, contrary to some perceptions. ‘They’re full of really robust characters who love where they live, and have an intense pride’, he said. ‘And I think that's why tall buildings will continue to play an absolutely essential role in keeping London a desirable, exciting place to live’.
East London is the main focus for tall buildings with a ‘whopping’ 45% of the pipeline focused there on places like Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Newham, with central London ‘holding firm’ with 20%, and the pipeline of tall buildings in outer London subject to ‘significantly continued increase’ to 216 buildings, 37% of the total, due to reasons including land value, housing needs and availability of land.
Turner and Townsend’s Natasha Freeman outlined the Building Safety Bill’s impacts and ‘evolving use of space’ with secondary legislation needed to help implement what the HSE wants to see as a culture change in the way we develop and manage buildings, post-Grenfell. Fred Pilbrow, moreover, suggested that a new generation of workplace buildings may arise, not least because of the need for better buildings to entice people back, post-pandemic. His practice’s Edge building near London Bridge is potentially a case in point in terms of its environmental performance and energy use, along with social inclusion, particularly at ground level with a new park being created.
Finally, James Goldsmith of Axa, who is behind the 22 Bishopsgate Building in the City of London, said the market ‘fell off a cliff’’ a year ago when decision-making about locations for offices fell off. But now a recovery of activity is underway, with new optimism and CFOs moving from defensive strategies to expansionist ones, as well as one survey pointing to two-thirds saying their workers will be back in offices by September. ESG and wellbeing issues are ‘off the scale’ from where they were a year ago, added Goldsmith, but firms will likely use less space, with more given over to collaborative, gyms, wellbeing spaces and clubs. It built the PLP-designed 22 Bishopsgate with 3m floor to ceiling heights, ‘losing’ a big number of lettable floor space over 62 levels in so doing, but allowing for future adaptability in the process. ‘But that was the belied that we had in long life, loose fit’, he said. Once up, however, tall buildings tend not to come down, Goldsmith warned. ‘Perhaps we should think of buildings as being permanent beta’.