Changing view from the Heath: a look at London’s rising skyline

Will London's skyline reach the heights of New York, Hong Kong and Dubai in the future?

Will London's skyline reach the heights of New York, Hong Kong and Dubai in the future? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A growing number of high-rise buildings could see the view from Parliament Hill change radically in the next few years according to new report on the capital’s tall buildings

The plans for Theatre Square in Swiss Cottage has prompted a major public backlash

The plans for Theatre Square in Swiss Cottage has prompted a major public backlash - Credit: Archant

London is not Manhattan. The dizzying heights of 50 storey buildings haven’t yet wreaked havoc on our light supply or threatened househunters with vertigo as they breathe in the fresh air from a balcony rather than a garden. Only in the City are skyscrapers a living reality, and like Berlin and several other European capitals, there are stringent rules in place to stop buildings rising skyward, right?

Wrong. In 2016, there were 26 completions on tall buildings, up from 10 in 2015 according to a recent survey by New London Architecture (NLA). That’s equivalent to a rate of nearly one high-rise commencing work per week. In total, 48 started construction in 2016, up 19 from the previous year. The definition of ‘tall buildings’ is somewhat nuanced, since it relates to the height of those buildings which surround it, but NLA defines ‘tall’ as more than 20 storeys.

Lofty living

The majority of the new builds are set for residential use, with 92 per cent earmarked for homes. It is believed that 100,000 new homes could be provided assuming eight homes per floor at an average of 30 storeys, accounting for two years of housing needs in accordance with the London Plan. The Mayor’s spatial development agenda requires 49,000 homes to be built per year.

Of course, the likelihood that most or even many of those high-rise buildings going up will provide affordable accommodation as opposed to luxury flats for investors looking to make a profit is questionable. Vice reported in April that every single home in the ‘redevelopment’ of Elephant and Castle’s Heygate Estate was sold to an overseas investor.

In March, Transparency International revealed that of 14 luxury developments containing 2,066 homes, almost 80 per cent of properties were bought by foreign investors. The 21 storey development at City North in Finsbury Park sold 77.78% of its 107 apartments to overseas investors.

There’s nothing wrong with selling to overseas buyers per se, but there is undeniably something insipid about tearing down old flats and housing estates which once provided communities with social housing, displacing and subsequently compensating the victims a meagre sum, and then replacing their homes with shiny flats for millionaires to use on the weekend.

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A tall order

Last year, just one tall building was completed in Camden, XY Apartments on the site of the old Maiden Lane Estate, alongside the Skyline tower at Woodberry Down in Hackney and two in Islington, Canaletto and Lexicon on City Road.

In the works for the near future are one in NW1 and NW3, two tall buildings in N1 and three in N4, making a total of three in the borough of Camden, whilst Haringey and Islington will both see five high-rises sprout up, with a whopping 17 in the pipeline for Hackney.

Representing NW3 is Theatre Square. In 2015, 900 Swiss Cottage residents complained about the demolition of a 1980s office block and subsequent erection of a 24 storey tower at 100 Avenue Road.

Developers from Essential Living insist that the project will provide 200 homes for affordable private rent alongside retail space. The development was approved on the grounds that the building would do little harm to the view from the surrounding conservation areas and that there would be no damage to the relevance or importance of listed buildings close by. Theatre Square is due for completion in 2019.

An upward trend?

For those hoping that turbulence surrounding the EU referendum would have a stifling impact on the building of high-rises in the capital due to reduced demand, your dreams may be dashed. NLA hasn’t seen any change in the promise of tall buildings going up in London since the vote.

Savills’ most recent Prime London & Country Spotlight for 2017 argued there was no proof that the Treasury saw any reduction in tax intake from the top end of the market despite increases in Stamp Duty Land Tax, suggesting Prime Central investors were more unfettered by tax changes than predicted. However, the number of tall buildings submitted in 2016 (83) did fall 30 per cent on submissions lodged in 2015 (119) likely suggesting shaky confidence following the EU vote.

The average height of tall buildings in the pipeline is 30 storeys, with just under half of tall buildings in the inner boroughs reaching upwards of that. However, almost two thirds fall between 20 and 29 floors. This year, the NLA states that 13 per cent of those buildings under construction will tower over the rest of London at between 50 and 75 floors. In 2014, only 9 per cent reached such heights.

Not in my back yard

Overall, 38 hectares will be needed to provide the 100,000 dwellings the tall buildings are likely to provide, and inner London is fast running out of space. Indeed, NLA has found a marked shift of activity from central London to the outer areas of the capital, with 18 high-rise buildings in the pipeline in NW2, 15 in NW10, 10 in E15, and 21 in CRO. It seems that with housing in such short supply, developers are turning skyward to meet demand in London’s residential suburbs.

That said, central London is no stranger to high rise, and if it can be squeezed in, you can bet your newly minted 12 sided pound coin it will be. There are currently 35 projects in the works in SW8, 38 in SE1, 54 projects in the pipeline in SE10, and an astounding 61 tall buildings set to go up in E14. All in all there are 455 tall buildings in the pipeline; under construction, with planning consent, having had an application or EIA Screening/Scoping or at pre-application stage. That number could fall as applications fall through and plans change, but it could also rise.

Better brush up on your photoshop skills, that iconic and oh-so-Instagrammable view from Hampstead Heath might need some cranes airbrushed out of sight.