“We’re denser than Manhattan!” The Isle of Dogs responds to claims of NIMBYism

Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs. Image: Getty.

The Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf Ward, Tower Hamlets, responds to criticism that his ward is fully of NIMBYs.

The Isle of Dogs was accused last week of being full of NIMBYs who perhaps deserve imprisonment for objecting to new homes. Actually, they deserve a reward for coping with the delivery of more new homes and office space than anywhere else in the UK – and suffering from construction related disruption, noise and dust in the meantime.

The accusation was made after we objected to 2,000 new homes on the ASDA Crossharbour supermarket site, on the grounds that it would lead to the loss of a local petrol station and overshadowing of the fantastic Mudchute City Farm. It was suggested we should roll over and let it be built, London has a housing crisis and nothing should stop new homes, and anyway who needs cars when you have Crossrail coming? 

The housing crisis is not our fault: on the Isle of Dogs, we have been building more new homes than anywhere else in London. We will have the tallest and densest residential buildings in the UK: buildings like the The Spire, also the tallest in western Europe at 241 meters (791 feet), with 861 apartments; the 75-storey, 239 meter high, 984 apartment Landmark Pinnacle, built on the site of a former pub; or the 68 storey 220 meter high South Quay Plaza with 1,284 apartments in three towers.

At the end of 2016 we had over 60 tall buildings – those over 20 storeys in height – with planning permission. The housing crisis has occurred because the rest of London has not delivered at the same pace as we have.

But we cannot continue this rate of growth without a major investment in infrastructure – and even then, is it sustainable to be building a place denser then Manhattan while most of the rest of London goes undeveloped and remains low density? How do we ensure that the best place to live in London remains so, and that we build rather than destroy a community through poor planning?

We have two great problems. The first is the lack of awareness about the scale of development happening here: the GLA and Tower Hamlets Council almost seem embarrassed about what is happening. One forecast suggests a population of 150,000 people in the future, compared to about 56,000 today and 12,500 in the early 1980s.

Under construction right now we have residential buildings of 75, 68, 67, 60, 55, 56 and 53 storeys in height – plus many more between 40 and 50 storeys (the tallest residential building in the UK right now is the 50 storey St Georges Wharf tower). Three minutes walk from ASDA is the recently completed 45 storey Baltimore Wharf tower. Next to that will be the UK’s largest co-living site, with 706 apartments with shared facilities.

We have 19,500 homes with planning permission, and counting all sites where there is development activity underway we get to a total of around 36,000 new homes. The GLA would also like to add office space for another 110,000 workers at Canary Wharf adding to the 120,000 there today: surprisingly few live locally.


The densest small place in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics is Millharbour, in the middle of the island, with a population density equivalent to 90,000 people per km2 as of 2014. By the end of 2017, when two new developments complete construction on Millharbour the density will be around 120,000 people. The Upper East Side of Manhattan has 44,000 people. The next densest place in the UK has 57,000 people per km2.

This is all happening within 25 minutes’ walk of the ASDA site. We are also an island – and a floodplain – with rivers on three sides, and motorways and docks on our northern boundary. We only have two road exits, on either side of the island: our beautiful docks limit transport connectivity.

You would expect this level of growth to attract record levels of infrastructure investment: Canary Wharf is the third most important economic centre in the UK, and half of the UKs internet traffic goes through data centres in Blackwall. But this is our second big problem: a lack of new infrastructure to support that growth. Money earnt on the Isle of Dogs to fund new local infrastructure has historically been spent elsewhere in Tower Hamlets: we are the local cash cow.

In fact, rather than gaining new services and infrastructure we are losing them.

For example, last year we had four petrol stations in the E14 post code area. Two have been knocked down for redevelopment, ASDA is due to go and the last one Texaco on Cotton Street is in a physically small site which is often inaccessible due to traffic jams waiting to enter the Blackwall Tunnel. Yet the E14 postcode is the fastest growing place in the UK: including Poplar, we may well achieve a population of 250,000 people. That’s one fuel station for a place bigger than Brighton, York or Hull.

Something will get developed at the ASDA site: developers already have planning permission for 850 homes up to 23 storeys, yet had wanted to replace it with 2,000 up to 38 storeys. But we should not sacrifice quality of life by allowing anything to be built just because there is a crisis: that just stores up different problems.

London usually rates poorly on quality of life in international surveys and we need to do more to remedy this. Rather than building homes which are poorly thought out, which are not beautiful, which worsen the provision of infrastructure and which reduce the quality of life of existing and future residents we need to build the best homes possible: BIMBY (Beauty in my Backyard), not NIMBY.

It is also why we set up the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum to ensure development is sustainable. Such a unique place requires unique solutions.

And if you do not believe any of the above I am happy to give you a personal tour of the area.

Andrew Wood is a Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf ward on Tower Hamlets council.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.