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Understanding heritage can unlock housing growth in London

London riverside

If London is to accommodate population growth while respecting its historic environment it will need a strategic plan, says Laurie Hancock

Sadiq Khan is clear; developing on London’s green belt is not on the cards. Indeed, as James Murray (deputy mayor for housing), made clear at the RTPI’s recent London Planning Summit, the idea is not even open for consultation. 

So if London is to grow to be a city of 10 million people by 2030, it is going to have to do it within its current boundaries. In short, every square inch of the city is going to be forced to work harder than ever before. 

This has huge implications, with pressure on facilities, transport, open space and leisure provision, and countless other issues arising from each densifying and intensifying development.

High on the agenda is the fact that this will need to take place within what is arguably one of the most sensitive historic cities on the planet. London contains some 43,500 listed buildings and 1,000 conservation areas. Indeed, 50 to 70 per cent of some boroughs – including Camden, Islington, Westminster, and Kensington & Chelsea – stand within conservation areas. 

"Every square inch of the city is going to be forced to work harder than ever before"

All of these heritage assets are regarded to have ‘considerable importance and weight’ in the planning process by virtue of recent case law. This is no mere material consideration; harm to the significance of any one could be sufficient to bring down an entire permission. 

So any plan for high-density development in London must take heritage into account. London, fortunately, benefits from a branch of Historic England with a realistic view of the wider problems facing the city, and a strategic understanding of how the city needs to develop. There is an understanding that London remains a relatively low-rise city in global terms, and that there is capacity for new tall buildings. 

What is clear is that a strategic plan is required for their location and design. The Eastern Cluster, in the City of London, is a case in point. Its location is drawn together through restrictions placed upon the City by the London View Management Framework, the location of conservation areas, and the setting of the Tower of London World Heritage Site, among other issues. But it sits within a single authority that can shape its development without preventing growth. How would a London-wide plan work, if it effectively became a means of imposing control on the options for growth in different boroughs? 

For bodies like Historic England, the intensification of London and changes to its skyline are not incompatible with the overarching aim of protecting our valuable heritage. 

What is less clear is how 33 different authorities can reach an agreement about how this growth is managed.

Laurie Hancock is director of Iceni Projects

Photo | iStock


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