Tall buildings – ‘the new normal’ for London

Monday 4 March 2019

© Agnese Sanvito

NLA declared 2019 ‘the year of the tall building’ as it released new data on the numbers of such schemes set to be built in the capital.

‘Building tall buildings in the right place is the new normal’, said NLA chairman Peter Murray as he unveiled the findings. ‘They are creating far less public response than we saw with far fewer tall buildings five years ago.’

The number of tall buildings in the pipeline has again increased this year, with a marked contribution from outer London boroughs. But continuing political and economic uncertainties have led to a slight decrease in the amount of tall buildings submitted for planning over the last year.

The data (on buildings over 20 storeys in height) emerged from NLA’s London Tall Buildings Survey 2019 published yesterday. The report – conducted with statistics compiled with GL Hearn - shows that 541 tall buildings are in the pipeline, up 6% from 510 in 2017. There was a slight decrease in the number of applications and starts on site, down respectively 3.8% and 2& from the previous year. But only 25 tall buildings were completed in 2018 – half those predicted, and construction is taking longer due to increasing costs and uncertainties. While the average construction time is 28 months, some tall buildings can take up to 36 or even 55 months to complete.

There were, however, significant increases in outer London, with 5% more than in 2017, even if the majority of tall buildings are still in the centre (inner:365, outer: 175). A range of factors are contributing to this, including comparatively lower land values and increased housing targets, improving transport connections, and developers replacing outdated shopping centres and estate regeneration programmes.

Although just four of the boroughs contained some 45% of the whole tall buildings pipeline – Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Hammersmith and Fulham, the most noticeable change from 2017 to 2018 occurred in Barking & Dagenham, Ealing and Brent, with jumps of 100%, 60% and 30% respectively. And although the number of planning applications is decreasing, 2018 saw an increase in permissions, with 72 being granted as opposed to 63 in the previous year. 

Murray said: “After six years of undertaking this review, I think we can finally declare 2019 as the Year of the Tall Building. Tall buildings are becoming increasingly accepted as a necessary form of urban development, not just in

commercial centres like the City or Canary Wharf, but to provide much needed new homes right across the capital. This year’s research confirms that tall buildings are now an established component of London’s development programme; in spite of the current political uncertainty the pipeline remains steady.

“Whilst there is increased acceptance on tall buildings to meet this need, for us the importance has to be on the design quality of tall buildings, both in their impact on the skyline and how they interact with the environment at street level.

Stuart Baillie, Head of Planning (London and South East), GL Hearn said the data showed there was a ‘continued appetite for tall buildings in London’ with East London a focus once more, and a ‘quite staggering’ projected completion of 76 tall buildings during 2019 compared to previous years. There was the potential for 110,000 new homes being delivered through tall buildings in London, he added.

During discussion, KPF’s John Bushell said the buildings we are seeing are in the main ‘in the right place’ and appropriate to the scale of London, in the context of studies in the US and China, being ‘less ambitious’ than schemes seen in New York and Asia. But the ‘big thing missing’ for residential, was provision of affordable housing, with a similar backlash against ‘pencil’ towers happening in New York.

Emily Gee of Historic England challenged the premise of tall buildings being ‘the new normal’, however, with poor decisions likely to be made in future if that premise was accepted, she believed. The character of London is changing, Gee went on, and it was essential that tall buildings were brought forward under a plan-led approach, with boroughs required to test environmental impacts and their effects on heritage. 

Finally, deputy mayor Jules Pipe said that tall buildings ‘have a role to play in meeting the needs of our rapidly expanding city, by providing much-needed homes and space for businesses’.

  • The survey was released a day before the GLA’s examination of Tall Buildings as part of the New London Plan, which is scheduled to take place today, 6 March 2019.

David Taylor
Editor, New London Quarterly

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