Should the next mayor rethink London's attitude to tall buildings?

Vertigo: inside London's skyscraper district. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

Up or Out? How is London going to grow? Many planned new towers have prompted a backlash from some wishing to preserve London’s skyline.

But is London’s self-image as a low-rise city really justified? Quod’s report with homelessness Charity Shelter uses new analysis to look at how tall London really is.

London is not the low-rise suburban city of our imagination. Even beyond the existing and emerging clusters of towers, a view across London is almost always peppered with taller buildings of different kinds – from council-built social housing, to suburban office blocks. Nearly half of all England’s high-rise apartments are in London. That’s 28,000 London homes on the 10th floor or higher, of which 43 per cent are in outer London.

For most parts of the city, the era when the tallest building was the local church passed generations ago. Around two thirds of Londoners already have at least one tall building in their own neighbourhood (that is, live within 800m of a building over 30m high).

You can explore the data behind this analysis in the map below. Scroll and zoom around the map here to see buildings over 30m high (the London plan definition of tall buildings) in yellow, and those taller than St Pauls in red.

You can explore the London height map full page here.

This is Environment Agency LIDAR data – heights measured by laser from a plane! – so it records any structure, including incinerator chimneys, the odd electricity pylon and even a mighty Redwood tree in Kew Gardens.

But on the whole, they’re quite ordinary buildings. There are the clusters of very tall buildings in central London, but even more numerous are the tall offices and residential towers scattered across the capital.

Mid-rise and taller buildings are not new, even in outer London, and accepting more high-quality taller buildings is one way that more homes could be built. The visibility of new towers like the Shard belies the difficulties in building upwards in London. Planning policy protects a range of strategic views, particularly of St Paul’s and Parliament, and these corridors crisscross much of central London.

Planning designations that can constrain tall buildings. Click to expand.

Even outside these corridors, proposals for taller buildings may be blocked for their effect on the character and setting of listed buildings, world heritage sites, and conservation areas: these between them cover a fifth of Greater London, including a majority of Inner London. And of course London’s five airports and aerodromes have essential height restrictions that extend many miles around. Even where building height is not directly constrained by policy, rules on density could effectively limit heights.

Some of these constraints on height must remain, but there are policy choices to be made about where and how they are applied that could have a big overall effect on how much housing can be built.

Good design is essential to make density work well, and tall buildings do not automatically equate to high density – 1960s-style towers surrounded by grass were sometimes a less efficient use of land than more traditional terraced streets. However there are limits to how much housing can be delivered with low-rise streets. Without towers, Opportunity Areas like Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea would contribute far fewer new homes.

The question for the new mayor will be how many other areas could support taller buildings, and where to strike the balance between protecting the current skyline and allowing a change in heights.


Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

The firm’s report, “Brownfield is Not Enough”, published with housing charity Shelter, is available here.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.