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When millions of extra people move to a mostly low-rise city that is surrounded by a “greenbelt” where development is strictly limited, the obvious way to build is up.
But a series of well-known people from the sculptor Antony Gormley to the philosopher Alain de Botton have joined a campaign against the sprouting of more than 250 towers on London’s skyline and some developers are being forced back to the drawing board.
Plans for a 72-storey residential tower — designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano — in Paddington in central London will be revised after an outcry from campaigners, developers said last week. Another high-profile scheme, the Bishopsgate Goodsyard development in east London, reduced the heights of four residential towers planned for the site last year, but still faces stiff opposition from locals. Boris Johnson, London mayor, is due to decide next month whether the plans can proceed.
Campaigners are also angry about plans for a 28-storey tower of flats near a listed 17th-century almshouse in Whitechapel, while residents of Chiswick, a west London suburb, are campaigning against a 32-storey tower.
These buildings are among 260 planned developments of more than 20 storeys, more than 70 of which were already under construction last year, according to the think-tank New London Architecture.
Planning permission has also been given for new towers in Battersea on the south bank of the Thames and close to the Canary Wharf financial district in the east.
Most of the 260 towers are residential, the result of a flood of institutional money targeting a property market with more than 8.6m residents jostling for accommodation. The city’s population is expected to reach 10m by the mid-2030s.
One of the main opposition groups is the Skyline Campaign, founded two years ago and led by the architect Barbara Weiss. It is a citywide campaign that aims to “stop the devastation of London by badly designed and poorly placed tall buildings”. The group claimed the Paddington tower changes as a victory.
“People are waking up to what’s happening,” said Ms Weiss. “These buildings won’t be pulled down — we’re really stuck with them.”
The Skyline Campaign wants planning regulations to include “a presumption against consenting tall buildings, unless clear benefits can be demonstrated relative to alternative building types”.
She said towers were being “haphazardly . . . plonked in a bit of land” without thought about the cumulative effect of different developments.
Ben Rogers, director of the Centre for London think-tank, said that while towers could be “exciting and add something to a city”, many of the those receiving planning permission were “not good enough”.
“More thinking needs to go into how we develop London in a period of massive growth,” said Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture. He said a survey commissioned by NLA found mixed views, with many Londoners supporting skyscrapers that have already been built but sceptical about further development.
“People were worried about losing their view of the Gherkin,” he said, referring to the Norman Foster-designed office block in the City that was finished in 2003.
One concern for campaigners is the resources of the planning authorities that are responsible for supervising development. Spending on planning by London’s boroughs has fallen 43 per cent in the past five years, according to Centre for London, because of central government funding cuts.
“Developers are only as good as the planning authorities that oversee them,” Mr Rogers said, adding that many boroughs were finding it very hard to recruit and retain town planners.
Sir Edward Lister, London’s deputy mayor for planning, defended the city’s high-rise developments, saying: “Tall buildings have a role to play. They have considerably improved some of our skyline.”
He argues that higher density residential development is the only way to accommodate population growth but accepts towers may be less appropriate in “very low rise” parts of town such as Mayfair, a wealthy central district.
Mr Murray said developers had a responsibility to communicate better with locals, ensuring consultation goes further than “a couple of days’ exhibition at the local library”. They should seek to follow the model of the 67-acre King's Cross redevelopment, which worked closely with residents over a period of years, he said.
But he also argued that London should follow the example of its smaller neighbour Watford, which is holding an open consultation on its policies on tall buildings.
This article has been changed since it was published to include the right picture of Bishopsgate Goodsyard. An earlier version showed other tall buildings on Bishopsgate.