Cllr Stephanos Ioannou is a councillor for Southgate in Enfield. He is studying Public Policy at Kings College London.
It’s not every day you would hear a young person who has hopes of soon getting on to the property ladder, echoing concerns about overdevelopment in one of the most expensive and sought after capitals in the world. But this statement is slowly creeping into the reality of what is happening in our capital, and overdevelopment is beginning to seriously change the suburban parts of London.
The majority of applications I see coming through Enfield Council’s planning department have the justified intent of elaborating and improving the current situation that families find themselves in. Whether it be a simple loft conversion, rear or back extension, or even the garage conversion, I mostly see these applications as positive contributions to the Southgate area, where more and more families are moving to reap the benefits of great schools and local services. However, where things begin to get complex is with the applications that involve changing the whole character of an area, and therefore setting a blueprint for future developments in the area.
I am talking specifically about an application that was received to build a 17 storey building in the heart of Southgate, that will bring with it 200 new homes for families and professionals. At first glance, I was positive about these proposals but realised that residents in the community, and particularly neighbouring residents would be quite negative towards these proposals. This is because of the skyline effect, and most importantly the impact on local services and local infrastructure for the Southgate area. In taking another case, we have in neighbouring Barnet and Finchley Central the plans outlined by Transport for London and the Mayor of London of a new development that will involve 600 new homes, and a twenty-seven storey building that will change the face of central Finchley for good. Finally, we can bear witness to the ‘Save West Hampstead’ campaign that is focusing on stopping council led over-development by bringing together residents association across the borough to fight against high tower block plans.
With the examples given, it’s clear there is a correlation happening across the London boroughs with overdevelopment. Unlike before, councils with the assistance of developers are more willing to start plans with an extraordinary level of floors attached to tower blocks, essentially going in ‘high and tough’ and slowly but gently reducing the number of floors, still to a level that is mostly unacceptable to most existing residents in the community.
Buildings in cities should not be designed in isolation, but in relation to the places in which they are set, whether these are views to and from world heritage sites or the fabric of adjoining streets. Together with its present and future neighbours, new development should make accessible public spaces that are a pleasure to inhabit – the effects of tall buildings are as important at ground level as they are in the sky. And the larger and more prominently placed a building is, the greater the care that should be taken over its design.
Nobody could go to the places already being shaped by towers – Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall or Stratford High Street, a discus-throw from the Olympic Park – and say that these are great places to linger, or that the tall buildings now rising there enhance the experience. Images of these places in the future, when further skyscrapers will jostle for attention, suggest more of the same. New urban zones are being created with no overall idea of how the parts contribute to the whole, of the places that are being made at their base.
Rather, new London tower design tends to go out of its way to be as assertive and architecturally antisocial as possible. Strata SE1 in Elephant and Castle, with its slashed rooftop, randomised aluminium cladding patterns and bulbous form, seems to be setting out to be as hostile as possible to any future neighbour. In Stratford the fashion is for arbitrary clashing colours – another idea that kills the prospect of making coherent public places.
Nor, when you get close to a building such as St George’s Tower in Vauxhall, would you say that you are in the presence of quality. Its details clash and its cladding looks cheap and plasticky. There is no great reason to believe that these surfaces will age well. Images of proposed future projects, such as the Quill in Bermondsey and 1 Merchant Square in Paddington, suggest little improvement in the future.
Combined with frantic attempts at individuality is a profound sameness. These projects tend to use the same type of cladding and floor layouts. It is sometimes said that London needs skyscrapers to make an “iconic” statement on the world stage, but these developments make it look less distinctive. And if the city tries to engage in the global race for height, it can only lose. It is outpaced by the likes of Shanghai and Dubai, the height of whose Burj Khalifa is 2.7 times that of the Shard.
Overall, the point here is that tall buildings do not define nor improve an area just by simply being constructed. The traditional semi-detached houses of north London and the leafy suburbs are things you cannot achieve as much as you try with tall tower blocks.
Conservation areas are areas of ‘special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’. This imposes a duty on the council, in exercising its planning powers, to pay special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of the area.
However what is said will happen on paper is different from the reality taking place across parts of suburban north London. Take for example the neglect by Tfl over Southgate Tube Station, where the 1930’s structure of Christopher Holden has been left to rust and decay over the years and still no work has taken place to preserve this heritage. Take also the neglect by Enfield Council to preserve existing areas around Southgate Green. I am sure that this is happening across other London boroughs too and I would invite other councillors to explain the situation in their parts- but overall my message is that we should be preserving our areas of heritage and not succumb to the overdevelopment that some parties are trying to push through rigorously.
In preserving heritage, councils can take action by educating local school pupils about points of interest in their areas, or even driving investment in local heritage sites. Research published by Historic England shows that, in 2015, domestic and international heritage-related visits generated £16.4 billion in expenditure in England, contributing £2 billion to the Exchequer in tax revenue. It seems logical therefore that councils should weigh up the impact and consequences of building dense tower block housing, or investing in existing conservation areas thus boosting the local economy.
Slowly we will see changes to the leafy suburban parts of London, being replaced by tall ten-plus storey blocks of flats that will be branded as ‘affordable’ so they say, but in reality are a quick buck for developers and the council who will generate council tax revenue, with no guarantee they will be reinvested back into that specific community.
Here in Enfield, all Section 106 funds that are generated from developments across the borough and being streamlined into the Meridian Water scheme, instead of being reinvested directly back into the communities that have seen these extraordinary developments. With that said, the planning department are trying to reassure us councillors that funds will be requested from the developers further than just for Meridian Water, but this will only be voluntary on their behalf. I am sure that developers would rather retain as much profit as possible, in comparison to giving more funds-especially voluntary ones.
London and its landscape are changing, and with that communities are battling against a change to their once characteristic neighbourhoods. Councils and developers have scant regard for the existing residents, and more so for the conservation areas they are situated in.