7 reasons Historic England is wrong about turning the Thames into one big Conservation Zone

"My god! The river! You can barely see it for all the build- no hang on there it is we're being silly." Image: Getty.

Historic England is a non-departmental public body, tasked with protecting historic buildings, ancient monuments, and other such large old things. In this financial year, it received a grant of £88m from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, and it's decided to spend part of that on making it very slightly harder to solve London's housing crisis.

I'm sure this isn't quite how Historic England would put it. I'm sure this isn't how a lot of other people would put it, either, if I’m honest.

But that would, nonetheless, be the result of its proposals, discussed in this week's Sunday Times, to turn an eight mile stretch of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Putney – basically the entirety of the central London riverfront – into a single conservation area. It’ll begin a public consultation on the plan next month.

The purpose of such a policy would be to prevent the construction of skyscrapers along the Thames, in an attempt to prevent it from turning into a “canyon of skyscrapers”, and preserve the “special character” of the area. That's all very lovely (special things are special), but it would mean yet another rule circumscribing the city's ability to build the homes and work places it needs. And since progress on that front has yet to acquire the sort of momentum adequate for us to call it “glacial”, that doesn't seem like a great idea.

I can sense I'm going to have to justify this one a bit. Apartments in riverside skyscrapers, after all, are so far out of reach of the average Londoner that, to anyone paying £200 a week for a small cupboard in Hackney, whether they exist or not seems a bit of an irrelevance.

But it's not. Here are seven reasons why this conservation area is a bad idea.

There are rules enough already

This town is not short on rules that limit where you can build and what you can build there. There's the green belt, which prevents the city from sprawling beyond the boundaries it had reached six decades ago. There's Metropolitan Open Land, which does the same thing for park land within the city (and which, unlike chunks of the green belt, is almost entirely lovely and totally worth protecting).

Then there's the faintly hilarious matter of “protected views” of the city. This map from the London Plan shows that there are protected views of the city's landmarks – St Pauls and the Palace of Westminster – from Alexandra Palace, Parliament Hill, Primrose Hill, Greenwich Park...

Click to expand. Image: GLA.

Now I'm not saying that none of those restrictions are worth having: the view from Parliament Hill is nice, and would not be improved by either concreting the surrounding heath or filling the intervening space with skyscrapers.

But some of the rules are just protecting scrubland, with no particular amenity value, and all of them severely limit the space we have to build anything. At a time when the city is undergoing the largest population expansion in eighty years, and is building less than half the homes it needs just to keep pace with it, this doesn't seem like a good thing. 

So: imposing more rules on what we can put where is a silly idea.

The bits worth protecting are protected anyway

No one is going to demolish the Tower of London and replace it with some yuppie flats. It's already a conservation area, not to mention a World Heritage site. The same is true of Westminster Abbey. Battersea Park is safe, too. And the National Theatre. And-

So what is it that's actually in danger? Here's a quote from Historic England chief executive Duncan Wilson:

“Some areas such as the south bank of the Thames in Vauxhall are – I would argue – already blighted by piecemeal high rise development.”

(From this Mail Online story.)

I mean no offence to the good people of Vauxhall, but when was the last time anyone called it a site of outstanding architectural beauty? What exactly is it that we're meant to be protecting? 

Let's build there; we've got to build somewhere. And since we're so short of land, we might as well do it property and build something a bit higher than the average semi.

While we’re at it:

The Thames is not turning into a canyon of skyscrapers any time soon


The Thames, looking west from Tower Bridge. Click to expand this horrific vision. Image: Getty.

It’s not that I think trapping the river between two giant walls of glass would make it better, exactly. I just don’t think it’s the risk that Historic England seems to think it is.

The laws of supply and demand are a thing

There are, though, a fair few skyscrapers planned along the Thames, and many of them will be filled with expensive apartments.

You probably can't afford one of those apartments. You'll probably never be able to. Me neither. Sucks to be us.

But there are people who will be able to afford them. If we don't build them, though, those people will end up buying different overpriced flats elsewhere – in Chelsea, say. That'll raise prices in Chelsea, thus pricing out the slightly less rich people who would previously have bought there, so those guys look to, say, Fulham, instead.

The Fulham lot go to Putney, the Putney lot go to Hammersmith, the knee bone's connected to the hip bone, and eventually you end up in a situation where the people at the bottom of the housing ladder are getting pushed out of London altogether because there simply isn't anywhere left they can afford.

In other words, houses aimed at millionaires are still houses. If we prevent developers from building residential skyscrapers by the river, we don't magically force them to build affordable housing in zone 2. They'll just build fewer homes. And fewer homes means higher prices. 

People sweat their assets

“Aha!” you say. “But most of these apartments are bought by oligarchs and then left to rot, aren't they? Cash boxes in the sky!” 

Except, that's one of those things people say that, best we can tell, isn't actually true. Sure, a lot of new properties – especially new luxury properties – are bought for investment purposes. But a 2013 study by Knight Frank found that 65 per cent of overseas buyers of London new-build property rented their property out; 33 per cent used it to house children attending university in London. Just 2 per cent used their property as a second home, leaving it empty most of the time. 

Which makes sense, if you think about it for half a second: if you'd blown a million quid on an expensive asset, you'd probably want to make some money out of it, too.

So, while a few of these apartments will probably sit gathering dust, most will mean adding a few extra homes to the London market. And every little helps. 

We're short of offices too

We don't talk about this very much because photocopying isn't very sexy, and angry articles about shortages in the prime office market are far less likely to generate hate clicks than those about the housing crisis. 

But because the housing crisis is basically a “lack of places to put stuff” crisis, it's spilling over into the commercial world too. London doesn't have enough office space to meet demand, and parts of the commercial property that does exist is being turned into housing. All this hurts the city economy.

And Historic England wants to make it worse. Thanks, guys. Thanks a lot. 

NIMBYs should shut up

Honestly. Just, stop talking. Please. 

Because it's really, very easy to say no to stuff when you're on the right side of the chasm down the middle of this city's economy. If you've already got a nice big house somewhere, you can complain about changing skylines and “threats to London's special character”. There's no cost to you in doing so.

But sometimes “no” is the wrong answer. Sometimes saying “no” does impose costs, on renters and homebuyers and companies looking for space.

London needs more homes, and it needs more offices, and bringing those things into existence is going to mean making some hard decisions. It definitely means tear up some ugly bits of countryside. It probably means knocking down someone's estate, too. Those things are going to be hard, and are going to hurt people – but they are going to be necessary to get us out of this mess.

And in the middle of this, the thing you're most worried about the view from a boat on the Thames? That's the thing you're most concerned about right now? Give over. 

I'm not saying we should let developers let rip. I don't think there should be a free for all. 

But blocking development along the entirety of the Thames corridor in central London is quite the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, and I’m a bit miffed Historic England is spending public money campaigning for it.

Okay, I’m done.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. You should follow him on Twitter.

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