The Thames, world-famous river through the heart of the British capital, without which London would not exist, half-tamed work of nature, inspiration to Dickens and the Kinks, to Monet and Wordsworth, along whose banks are strewn four Unesco world heritage sites, must surely deserve some love and care, some sort of vision or coherent overview. It is, as the architect Richard Rogers once said, “primarily a public space, not a private opportunity”. It has indeed been the object of dreams and hopes. Yet over the past 15 years a proliferation of large developments has made it a gold-diggers’ gulch, a miles-long mine of real-estate value.
The latest of these is a £400m office-led proposal by the developers Mitsubishi Estate and CO-RE called 72 Upper Ground. It is situated on a privileged spot, where a bend in the river gives it exceptional prominence, alongside the publicly funded culture palaces of the South Bank and opposite the classical set piece of Somerset House. Its floor area of nearly 1m square feet is 20% more than that of the Gherkin, its height of 109 metres is slightly lower than St Paul’s Cathedral. It would replace a much smaller 1970s tower that was used by ITV: the new building would have 225% of its floor area and add nearly 30% to its height.
72 Upper Ground is a distillation of commercial and political attitudes that have radically changed the Thames
There’s not much evidence for the claims by its architects, Make, that its blocky design has “human scale” and is “contextual” with its surroundings. “Ugly, overblown and completely out of context,” says the local objector Michael Ball, “while casting homes into gloom.” “It’s just greedy,” says Kate Hoey, now Baroness Hoey, until 2019 the MP for the constituency in which it stands. It will cause a “substantial degree of unnecessary harm”, according to her successor, Florence Eshalomi. Despite which the planning committee of the London borough of Lambeth voted 6-1 to give it planning permission, a decision then nodded through by mayor Sadiq Khan. Only a public inquiry, opening next week, and a ministerial verdict that will follow it, can prevent it being built.
Most of all, the proposal looks random, the product of no particular plan or logic beyond a desire to put as much profitable volume as possible on its site. In this it is not alone, just an extreme example of a series of projects from the borough of Wandsworth in south-west London, via the land surrounding the listed pile that is Battersea power station, the former industrial zones of Nine Elms and Vauxhall, Waterloo, the South Bank and down to the old dock areas of the Isle of Dogs. 72 Upper Ground is a distillation of commercial and political attitudes that have radically changed the Thames.
Apartment blocks under construction last year next to Battersea Power Station in south London. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA
This transformation owes much to the interests and expediencies of the boroughs that govern its banks, also to those of London mayors. The three holders of the office since it was inaugurated in 2000 – Ken, Boris, Sadiq – have found riverside development useful to their political objectives. “I just wanted more investment,” says Livingstone now. “I grew up in a London where there was desperate poverty. When I started working in 1962 my best mate lived in a really run down little flat.” He saw an opportunity to fund social housing on the back of developers’ profits. Boris Johnson also wanted investment. “He went round the world”, says Edward Lister, now Lord Udny-Lister, who was deputy mayor and chief of staff under Johnson, “to China, Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia, America”, armed with brochures boosting riverside developments. “It was all about promoting London as a global city, as an exciting place to be.”
Indeed, these binges of construction have brought homes and jobs to their locations. A large part of the case for 72 Upper Ground is the 4,000 jobs that its developers say will come to it. But it is questionable whether the high-rise, high-price apartments, often sold to overseas investors, that new riverside developments tend to create are the homes Londoners most need. Rates of affordable housing have been low. For Eshalomi, the principal objection to 72 Upper Ground is less about its appearance than the lack of “high-quality, affordable housing” that it offers, and the limited amount of affordable workspace.
And, if new and large developments are desirable for the benefits they bring, it should not have been beyond the wit of a city like London to plan them in such a way that they enhance the river rather than blight it. Their problem is not so much their size, as what they do with it. Hamburg managed public-spirited coordination with the HafenCity development on its waterfront, as did Barcelona with its old harbour areas and beach. It is not as if no one saw the current situation coming – people have been coming up with visions and plans for this historic waterway for decades.
The Thames was once both London’s main sewer and its industrial artery, with wharves, warehouses, factories and power stations along much of its length. More salubrious parts of the city turned their backs on it, until the building of its Victorian embankments began its slow rehabilitation. The 1951 Festival of Britain, followed by the Southbank Centre, brought publicly funded culture to its banks. Over the second half of the 20th century the industries drifted away, although 1970s Labour councils, aiming to preserve jobs, tried to forbid other uses. When those restrictions were lifted, large areas of land became available for redevelopment.
So the dirty old river was now, to use what became a much-used phrase, “London’s greatest opportunity”. There was the prospect of giving London a civilised and beautiful connection to its waterfront, more Seine-like, for the Thames to become a true heart of the city. It was also a chance to attract investment and make money. So conspicuous proposals started popping up, both for commercial projects like a tower in Vauxhall called the “Green Giant”, and for people-friendly bridges and parks.
One of the most determined campaigners for a better Thames was Richard Rogers, a charismatic figure given to making passionate declarations in brightly coloured shirts. In 1986, he produced a plan called London As It Could Be, displayed with a magnificent model at the Royal Academy, whereby a linear park would be created on car-free embankments, and a futuristic footbridge would enable happy citizens to stroll between a re-energised South Bank and a newly pedestrianised Trafalgar Square. These ideas reappeared in A New London, a 1992 book written with the Labour shadow arts minister Mark Fisher, in the hope of influencing the Neil Kinnock government that never happened. Here, Rogers declared that “there can be no new London without a reawakened river”.
Belief in the importance of the river ran across party lines – John Gummer, environment secretary in John Major’s government, set up a Thames Advisory Group – and there were successes. The 90s revival of interest contributed to the creation of Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the London Eye and new footbridges between north and south banks. Successive initiatives from the 1970s on opened up riverside walks. Attractive and affordable places to live were created around Coin Street, just behind the location of the current proposals for 72 Upper Ground. A Thames Landscape Strategy was created for the more Arcadian stretches upriver from central London, with the support, among others, of David Attenborough. It has been quietly operative for 28 years.
When Livingstone was elected mayor in 2000 he wanted to energise London by increasing population in its centre. He saw property developers as useful allies, encouraging them to build as much as possible, such that he could extract a tithe for affordable housing and other benefits. He also appointed Rogers as an adviser, so as to achieve the objective for which he had long argued: the creation of dense, vibrant urban developments formed around well-designed public spaces, along the lines of Barcelona and Paris. “Richard Rogers was brilliant,” says Livingstone, “he just wanted a good balance.”
Revived interest in the river in the 1990s contributed to the creation of Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank. Photograph: Paul Biggins/Alamy
The only snag was that Rogers lacked much direct say over the “opportunity areas” designated by Livingstone’s administration as places ripe for “large-scale developments”. Several are on the river: for example, at Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea (VNEB for short), at Waterloo, at London Bridge/Bankside, and further downstream on the Isle of Dogs. It was hard to see much of Barcelona in the sketchy masterplans drawn up for these places, and the profit-grabbing towers that were proposed looked more like Dubai or Shanghai. A key moment came with a public inquiry into the Vauxhall Tower, a luxury residential building project supported both by Livingstone and the deputy prime minister John Prescott. In 2005, the latter gave it planning permission, despite the advice of a planning inquiry that it would harm the world heritage site around the Palace of Westminster.
The banks of the Thames are in the care of 17 boroughs, which makes co-ordinated action a task of herding cats
Rogers’s ambitions for coherent urban design, for plans where the whole is more than the sum of the parts – what Livingstone calls “balance” – were rinsed out of the process. Almost anything could be allowed, was the message, no matter how big or high or clumsily designed. In 2008, Boris Johnson became mayor, campaigning during the election against “Dubai-on-Thames”, before – in a manoeuvre of a kind that would become familiar – proceeding to encourage just the thing he had said he would stop.
The United States government was persuaded to relocate its embassy from Mayfair to Nine Elms, an area still characterised by a Royal Mail depot and the New Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market – one that Donald Trump would later call “horrible”. This was a coup, and created the chance to make what could have been a beautiful new neighbourhood around the prestigious building. A consortium of Malaysian investors took on the colossal listed building that is Battersea power station, which since its closure in 1983 had confounded attempts at regeneration. An extension of the London Underground’s Northern line, serving Nine Elms and the power station, was planned and eventually built.
The sky pool at Embassy Gardens in Nine Elms. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian
The investors came. Developers of projects at VNEB include DAMAC from Dubai, the Saudi-backed VCI Property Holding, the Chinese R&F and CC Land, the Malaysian EcoWorld. A game often popular in the property business was played, whereby planning permission was gained, and then a new one submitted for a yet bigger project, the site often having been sold in the meantime. Mayor Johnson had the right, like a Roman emperor in an amphitheatre, to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to major projects, a power he liked to exercise in favour of developers.
Among his motivations was a desire to meet London-wide targets of 40,000 new homes per year, perhaps to enhance his CV in any future bid for higher office. (In the 2019 general election campaign, he would falsely boast that as mayor he had “massively outbuilt Labour”). Lister says that 20,000 homes and 25,000 jobs had been “secured” in VNEB when Johnson left office in 2016 – “in that sense it’s been brilliant,” he says. But major developments in the area have provided “affordable” housing at rates of 9% and 11%, even using broad definitions of the term that include quite expensive homes, compared with the 50% that Livingstone demanded and Khan’s target of 35%.
That Johnson was playing a numbers game is evident in the havoc of towers now built in the opportunity areas. These are statistics made material, silos of residential units, 30, 40 and 50-storey storage facilities for habitation. The pressure for volume has in Waterloo and Battersea created deep chasms between buildings where high prices are asked for homes with limited views and daylight. The selection of celebrity architects, such as Norman Foster and Frank Gehry next to Battersea power station, does not make the spaces between their multi-storey creations any less dismal.
Luxury is largely private, for example in the Versace-designed apartments in the 50-storey DAMAC tower. Passersby get only to gawp at this high life, in the form of the all-glass swimming pool 35 metres off the ground, in the cool blue of a branded gin bottle, that bridges two blocks opposite the US embassy. The best that an ordinary pedestrian gets are some not-bad open spaces around the embassy and in front of the power station. A linear park allegedly based on New York’s High Line is also under way. Inevitably, it resembles its famous inspiration more by being narrow than for memorable design.
The most obvious lack is of any kind of overall strategy or authority, of a kind proposed by John Gummer nearly 30 years ago. “It is such a glaring error,” says Nicky Gavron, who was on Gummer’s advisory group and was later deputy mayor under Livingstone. This absence of overview owes something to the fact that the banks of the Thames are in the care of 17 boroughs of varying party allegiances, which makes coordinated action a task of herding cats. The river is for most of its length a boundary between one borough and another, and it’s a well-known phenomenon of local authorities that they care more about their centres – where more of their voters get to experience the results of their decisions – than their edges.
London’s new skyline: the river Thames looking east from Trafalgar Square towards Waterloo Bridge Photograph: Greg Rowell/Alamy
Thus, for all the many protestations of love for the Thames, and declarations of its significance, it is something of an orphan child. In theory, the mayor of London should have the authority and oversight to see the bigger picture. In practice, politicians at all levels are incentivised to encourage quantities of development, and not worry too much about the quality. The final say rests with central government, which has also been developer-friendly. In 2020, the then communities secretary Robert Jenrick gave approval to VCI’s proposals for Vauxhall, even though they breached policies on both affordable housing and height. The design of the project, by Zaha Hadid Architects, was, he said, “outstanding”.
The role of the public inquiry into 72 Upper Ground is to make a recommendation, with the ultimate decision made by the communities secretary, a fast-changing position currently held by Michael Gove, back for a second stint after a three-and-a-half month absence from government. Gove has spoken of his wish to put “beauty” at the heart of planning, which should surely mean refusal. If it is permitted, then almost anything goes. What would be even better is if he at last brought about the overall strategy for the river of which so many have spoken.