Londoners back limit on skyscrapers as fears for capital’s skyline grow

Londoners want curbs placed on the number of new high-rise buildings in the capital, amid concerns that a wave of monolithic skyscrapers is transforming the skyline.

Six out of 10 support a limit on the height of new skyscrapers, with the same proportion backing restrictions on the number of buildings with more than 50 floors.

The unprecedented survey, by Ipsos Mori, found that many Londoners, particularly those who live in the most affected areas, think the trend towards ever taller, bolder skyscrapers has gone too far. More than 400 buildings of more than 20 floors are in the pipeline in London, according to a recent report by New London Architecture and property consultant GL Hearn, which is twice as many as two years ago.

The volume of projects in the offing has led to flashpoints as developers meet opposition from local communities. Architect Renzo Piano was forced to withdraw plans for a 72-storey tower in west London, dubbed the Paddington Pole, following outrage from campaigners. The heritage group Historic England recently lodged an objection to a proposed 25-storey tower of luxury flats in Somers Town, north London, citing its effect on views from Regent’s Park.

Barbara Weiss, architect and co-founder of the pressure group Skyline Campaign, said the glut of skyscrapers was down to a combination of borough councils trying to raise money and the desire by former mayor Boris Johnson to boost London’s international profile.

“It’s partly austerity because boroughs are strapped for cash and can’t run normal services. They need money; developers provide money,” said Weiss. “On the other side was Boris with crazy ideas about London needing to be put on the map. He was encouraging these excesses and Londoners didn’t know they were happening.”

The survey found that those who live in the city centre feel more strongly about the pace of development. Around half of those who live in inner London said too many high-rises were being built, with the figure falling to 34% among people outside the centre.

That geographical divide was also reflected in views about the overall effect large buildings have on the city. Fears that tall buildings are “damaging what makes London special” are shared by 43% of people in inner London but just 34% further away from the city centre.

Nearly half of people in outer London said new skyscrapers were improving the capital’s skyline, falling to 34% among central Londoners who are likely to live in their shadow. Differences in opinion between suburbanites and inner-city dwellers extend to views about what should be done to protect the skyline. Some 60% of inner Londoners would like new tall buildings limited to areas such as Canary Wharf and the City, while 53% from the suburbs support such a measure.

However, the poll found that Londoners largely agree that tall buildings are not the best way to solve the housing crisis. Terraced houses, low-rise blocks and converted flats were all regarded as better ways to meet the capital’s housing needs. “In the right places tall buildings can make exciting contributions to city life,” said a spokesperson for Historic England. “But denser, well-designed and lower developments which reflect the architectural traditions of London’s different neighbourhoods could deliver even greater capacity for housing and workplaces.”

The character of London’s skyline is also a political issue, with 31% of the 504 people surveyed saying they would be less likely to vote for a mayor who supported more tall buildings. Johnson has drawn criticism for approving a slew of high-rises, despite promising during his election campaign to stop London turning into “Dubai-on-Thames”.

Johnson’s successor, Sadiq Khan, has spoken out against residential skyscrapers where flats stand empty because they are being used as “gold bricks for investment” by wealthy foreign investors. Khan and his housing team are still finalising details of the mayor’s housing plans and are set to release more information in a housing policy paper due to be published in the autumn.

Weiss said allowing too many skyscrapers puts London “at risk of losing its unique character … People who oppose these towers are saying they’re not part of London’s DNA. You can have a few in the right locations but if you have a lot of these ones that are badly designed and badly built, you’ll end up with a generic city that could be absolutely anywhere. That’s a real crime.”

Some developments have attracted particular opprobrium for their lack of affordable housing, such as One Blackfriars, known colloquially as the Boomerang. The building, to the south of Blackfriars bridge, includes a luxury apartment with a £23m price tag, but has no “affordable housing”. The developer, St George, paid the council £29m instead towards housing schemes elsewhere.

“London is on the cusp of profound change,” said Historic England. “We are particularly concerned that over-development along the Thames could cut off Londoners and visitors from the river, which is the city’s most ancient and important public space. It is time for a pan-London approach to tall buildings, with Londoners being better informed and involved in the changes that are gathering pace. While you can put a price on each individual tower, our skyline, streetscapes and public spaces are treasured and priceless.”

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