I could not imagine that London might inflict any more visual damage to the Thames than it has already done. No city on earth has made such a mess of its river. But one of its biggest and most aggressive office blocks has just been approved on the South Bank in the heart of the capital. The slab – or rather tower and slab – that was approved by Lambeth council in March is to loom over the National Theatre opposite Somerset House. Its bulk will dominate every river view. The slab replaces the old ITV headquarters and is a behemoth in comparison. It will be more than twice the height of the neighbouring National Theatre. On the horizon it will be more prominent than St Paul’s or the Houses of Parliament. It is massive.
The erection of such a building is patently an issue of civic if not national importance. It is inconceivable that central Paris or Rome would tolerate such an intrusion. Yet it has been approved on the say-so of just six members of Lambeth’s planning committee. They guiltily admitted it was likely to be “controversial and extremely unpopular” but justified it as “creating over 4,000 jobs”.
There is no evidence of a job shortage in London just now, quite the opposite. The decision – and the absurdity of the reason – illustrates the collapse of serious town planning in the capital since Boris Johnson became mayor in 2008. Lambeth’s residents appear furious, their 260 objectors including councillors and the local MP, Florence Eshalomi. One councillor who voted for the slab agreed it was a “Marmite” block, but said it was justified as the developers, Mitsubishi Estate London and CO-RE, had promised that 1,000 jobs would be for “local residents”. These totally unenforceable pledges are like fluff in speculative developments, a sop to gullible councillors. That the block is also in a conservation area is merely an added insult to the concept of planning permission.
Anyone who takes a new Thames Clipper downriver from Chelsea to Canary Wharf will see what the past 15 years have done to the metropolis. The shore is randomly lined with slabs and towers. They display no plan or cluster, no respect for context or community, certainly no architectural quality. Developers and their pet planners wave aside a concern for beauty as “subjective”. London is at the mercy of such philosophy.
As for their utility, the towers are overwhelmingly empty investments. At the Tower at St George Wharf in Vauxhall, at 184 of the 214 flats over 50 storeys, no one was registered to vote in 2016. The idea that these buildings answer London’s “housing crisis” is sick; most are international bank balances in the sky. Yet Johnson promoted what he called “inward investment” on a highly publicised trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in 2014.
A foreign developer told me that the glory of building in London was that to gain approval: “A few dinners usually does the trick.” In truth the procedure is insidious. Revenue-capped London councils are chronically short of cash. A developer can propose a monstrosity and the planners may demur. The developer then asks them to “advise” on what they may allow, for a “fee” to the council. The planners become effective sponsors of the project before a planning committee, the architect “having taken our reservations into account”. Money swirls round everyone, except conservationists.
London has no over-arching plan or vision. Each project is judged alone, devoid of wider implications, as if each borough was isolated somewhere in the country. Labour Lambeth has come to treat its Thames bankside as fringe territory, a lucrative source of income. Its Vauxhall blocks merge with Wandsworth’s Nine Elms towers up to Battersea power station and its Malaysia Square hub, so named to attract depositors. This Hong Kong-style planning for London was the baby of Boris Johnson’s former close aide, Eddie (now Lord) Lister, a wealthy developer lobbyist and former leader of Wandsworth council. The gated estates and ghostly towers are known in planning circles as “destreeted”. They stand as a bleak memorial to Johnson’s London.
Technically the Lambeth decision is subject to call-in by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, but he has never shown the slightest interest in London’s appearance. He has no strategy for tall buildings and declined to intervene in the destruction of conservation areas, as round Paddington station and Fleet Street. He has now moved his office to the Royal Docks, opposite an extravagant but vacant 35-acre Chinese development, lauded in 2013 by Johnson as “a beacon for eastern investors”. It is rather a bank vault.
The nearest to hope on the South Bank lies with the levelling up, housing and communities minister, Michael Gove. He recently intervened to protect Oxford Street from Westminster’s philistine council. Why he should back 4,000 more jobs in central London at a time like this is a mystery. London suffers an acute labour shortage, not a surplus, while the central areas office blocks are standing half-empty. Seeking to attract more investment and employment south to the capital is surely the last thing this government is about. It would make public mockery of levelling up.
A blistering attack on the Lambeth slab has come from the former National Gallery and Royal Academy director Charles Saumarez Smith. He has pointed out that the government has set up a Building Better, Building Beautiful commission in an attempt to “inject beauty” into planning decisions. Unless this was cynical headline-grabbing, it is hard to imagine a more glaring case for its attention. At least the slab’s architects do not beat about the bush. Their name is Make. One wonders why they dropped the word Money.