As Boris Johnson Approves Monstrous Convoys Wharf Development, New Campaign Opposes 236 Planned Towers in London

28.4.14

I was rather pleased that I was out of the country when Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, announced on March 31 that he was approving plans for the development of Convoys Wharf in Deptford, because, in a city overrun with soulless riverside developments, designed almost exclusively for wealthy foreign investors and unaffordable for ordinary Londoners, it is a particularly depressing example, and one that, for me, is close to home, as I live just up the road from Deptford.

The 40-acre riverside site has been vacant since 2000, when it was closed by its last owner, News International, which used it as a dock for importing newsprint, and, since 2002, developers — initially NI itself, and, since 2005, the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, which bought the site off NI — have been trying to gain approval for a Dubai-style high-rise residential development on the site, consisting of 3,500 homes, featuring one 48-storey tower, and two 38-storey towers, far higher than anything else on the shoreline for miles around.

Normally, Chinese businessmen with £1bn to spend on luxury housing on London’s riverfront don’t have to wait for years to have their plans accepted, but the problem with Convoys Wharf is that it was and is a place of great historic importance — the site of the first of King Henry VIII’s Royal Dockyards, which was first developed in 1513 to provide ships for England’s rapidly expanding Royal Navy.

Because of the historic importance of the site, English Heritage raised objections to the various plans for the site — the designs put forward first by Richard Rogers, then by Aegis and, most recently, by Terry Farrell — because none of them focused on the importance of the site’s heritage, and two local groups were also formed, which also reflected these concerns — Build the Lenox, which proposed to build a replica of the Restoration warship Lenox where she was originally built, and Sayes Court Garden, a proposal to create a world class garden and Centre for Urban Horticulture on the site of a pioneering garden established by the writer and botanist John Evelyn in 1653, which is on the edge of the Convoys Wharf site.

Other concerns — primarily about the size of the planned towers, the number of affordable homes and the inability of the local area to cope with the traffic demands of the project — were raised by local campaigners and by Lewisham Council, which was responsible for approving the plans until, in November, Hutchison Whampoa, tired of the democratic process, appealed directly to London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, who obligingly took the decision out of Lewisham’s hands and into City Hall, where it was only a matter of time before he approved the plans.

The Mayor approved the plans after a three-hour hearing at City Hall on March 31, at which he made a point of establishing that Hutchison Whampoa must pay heed to the Build the Lenox and Sayes Court Garden campaigns. However, as the academic and Deptford resident Karen Liljenberg explained on her blog:

It seems to me that wily Boris used a largely feigned show of interest in the two local heritage projects (Sayes Court Garden and Build the Lenox) as a smoke-screen behind which to calmly wave through the atrocious development proposals. What’s more, despite paying lavish lip-service to them, the two projects were in reality left with not much more than the offer of feasibility studies and negotiations, rather than any firm commitments. The serious concerns of the local community about the height of the towers, the scale and position of the buildings, inadequate transport, social exclusion, and so on were simply brushed aside time and again, in such a facile and formulaic fashion (“the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of the Master Shipwright’s House; “the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of Deptford High St”, and so on, ad nauseam) that it led to frequent gasps and outbreaks of incredulous laughter among the audience.

Some think that the Convoys Wharf development will be good for Deptford, but it is impossible to see how this can be the case. Those involved in building it will have jobs, of course, and there will presumably be some retail jobs, concierge jobs and security jobs when the development is completed, but otherwise the plans offer nothing for the people of Deptford. 3,000 of the 3,500 homes will be priced at whatever the market can bear, and will, no doubt, be sold off-plan in Hong Kong and elsewhere in south east Asia before building work even begins.

Many of the properties will then lie empty (as investments) or will be bought as first or second homes by the very wealthy, and although supporters of the project like to point out that 15% of the properties — about 500 homes — will be “affordable,” that is an extremely relative term. Thanks to the unhelpful insistence of the Mayor last year, “affordable rents” are set at 80% of market rents, meaning that they will be unaffordable to most Londoners.

Furthermore, claims that the influx of rich outsiders will somehow benefit Deptford’s economy are also groundless. Public transport links are very poor, and Hutchison Whampoa are planning to incorporate 1,800 car parking spaces into their development, so that few of the residents will have anything to do with the rest of Deptford.

236 towers planned for London’s skyline – and the new campaign against them

Ironically, Boris Johnson’s approval for the plans coincided with the launch of a high-level campaign opposing the capital’s obsession with high-rise building projects of dubious merit, architecturally and contextually, which, moreover, are unaffordable for the vast majority of Londoners. The Mayor bleats on about the need for more housing in London — which is certainly true — but both he and London’s councils are generally guilty of approving projects that completely fail to address the housing needs of the people who actually live and work in London.

The campaign against London’s uncontrolled high-rise developments — calling for a “skyline commission” to be established to review the future of London’s skyline — was launched the day before the Convoys Wharf decision in the Observer, with a statement signed by over 70 significant individuals and organisations, including the sculptors Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, the Stirling Prize-winning architect Alison Brooks, Charles Saumarez Smith, the chief executive of the Royal Academy, Alan Bennett, Griff Rhys Jones, Alain de Botton, the MPs Tessa Jowell and David Lammy, and Kenneth Baker (Lord Baker), a former home secretary in the Tory government of John Major.

The campaigners were following up on research undertaken by New London Architecture (NLA), based at The Building Centre on Store Street in central London. The NLA discovered that 236 buildings of 20 storeys or more are proposed, or have planning permission. As the Observer described it, “77% of the skyscrapers will be in the centre or the east of London and result in the most radical reshaping of the skyline in more than 300 years. Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Greenwich, Newham and Southwark between them will have 140 of the 236 towers. More than 30 will have between 40 and 49 floors and 22 with 50 or more.”

The signatories to the new campaign warned, “The skyline of London is out of control,” and, as the Observer put it, pledged to “fight what they describe as a fundamental and damaging transformation of London.”

They added:

Over 200 tall buildings, from 20 storeys to much greater heights, are currently consented or proposed. Many of them are hugely prominent and grossly insensitive to their immediate context and appearance on the skyline.

This fundamental transformation is taking place with a shocking lack of public awareness, consultation or debate. Planning and political systems are proving inadequate to protect the valued qualities of London, or provide a coherent and positive vision for the future skyline.

The official policy is that tall buildings should be ‘well designed and in the right place’, yet implementation of policy is fragmented and weak. Too many of these towers are of mediocre architectural quality and badly sited. Many show little consideration for scale and setting, make minimal contribution to public realm or street-level experience and are designed without concern for their cumulative effect and impact. Their generic designs, typical of fast-growing cities around the world, threaten London’s unique character and identity.

Most of the proposed towers are not vital to London’s prosperity and financial wellbeing. The majority are residential, but they are neither essential to meeting housing needs, nor the best way to achieve greater densities. Their purpose is more to create investments than homes or cohesive communities. They have the potential to cause permanent damage to the city’s urban fabric and to its global image and reputation.

This damage can be stopped. Existing powers allow local, city and national government to refuse tall buildings of poor quality and in inappropriate locations, and these powers must be used more rigorously. We support the idea of a mayoral Skyline Commission, to review and enable well-designed development. We call for a more structured policy for tall buildings, with transparency for the public and clarity for developers. We believe that London needs a city-wide discussion of these vital issues.

London, one of the great cities of the world, deserves better. We are not opposed to building high, but believe that the most visible buildings in the city require the greatest care in their siting, individual design and aggregate impact. The communities secretary and his ministers, the mayor and the boroughs must wake up to the risk of irreversible harm that London is facing, and take effective action.

The Observer‘s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, endorsing the campaign, wrote, “It is shocking that such a profound change is being made to a great city with so little public awareness or debate. There is also a startling lack of oversight and vision from the city’s leaders. These towers do not answer the city’s housing needs, but respond to a bubble of international investment in London residential property. A short-term financial phenomenon will change the city’s skyline forever.”

The sorry story of Convoys Wharf — and Boris Johnson’s unacceptable interference in the planning process, kow-towing to the super-rich and breaking his own London-wide planning guidelines — is just one part of this city-wide “bubble” of greed and inappropriate development, however much its impact will be felt in south east London, and it’s alarming to realize that, to varying degrees, it is being repeated across London.

What we really need, I think, is for the needs of hard-working Londoners to be a priority for politicians, up to and including the Mayor, replacing our elected leaders’ dedication to the easy profits of the international super-rich. As Jonathan Glancey explained in an article for the Daily Telegraph — in which, ironically, he was reviewing Convoys Wharf architect Terry Farrell’s newly-published Review of Architecture and the Built Environment, commissioned by the government last year — while “the fight over dismal plans for a pox of hundreds of new and dimly designed skyscrapers defacing London along the Thames” continues, “planning permission will be granted somewhere near you for ever more cheap-as-chips housing — cheap, that is, to build on land acquired for next to nothing, yet sold as dear as the market will bear.”

Note: The NLA is hosting an exhibition, “London’s Growing Up,” which runs until June 12. For further information about the NLA’s research, please see the full NLA Insight Study and Project Showcase, which features dozens of the planned and approved buildings. See here and here for my previous articles about Convoys Wharf, and see my photos here.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    My latest article, in which I catch up on some developments while I was away in Mexico – Boris Johnson’s approval for the dreadful Convoys Wharf development in Deptford, and a new campaign calling for a “skyline commission” to address the out-of-control high-rise developments in London – currently there are 236 planned buildings of 20 storeys or more.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    Good grief I didn’t realise it was that many. Madness. The sooner Eddy Izzard is mayor the better.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. The 236 are not all confirmed, some are just at the planning stages, and some will be turned down, presumably, but the trend is for councils, Boris and the GLA to approve any proposal that comes before them.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Pauline Kiernan shared this, I wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, Pauline. Much appreciated. I find far too much complacency in London when it comes to these developments, with people’s default position being that “luxury” high-rise projects for the super-rich will somehow contribute to the local economy in any significant manner, when generally there’s simply no evidence whatsoever that that’s the case. This will certainly be the case with Convoys Wharf, as this article by the Telegraph’s architecture critic, Ellis Woodman demonstrates: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/ellis-woodman-farrells-convoys-wharf-will-be-a-citadel-for-the-rich/8661573.article

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    And this is exactly what happened all those years ago when the whole area was developed. A friend of mine was on one of the planning committees trying to stop the inevitable social damage, the terrible effect on the existing inhabitants of the area etc. Mammon won as it always does.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Which area are you talking about, Pauline? So many areas have been transformed so irrevocably, beginning in the 80s with the former Docklands. Some of Surrey Quays, near me, is OK, but Canary Wharf remains a place of essentially alien weirdness. I used to think it compared to the daunting, slightly over-large scale of Fascist architecture from the 1930s, and I pretty much stand by that. The occupiers of these towers have a similar disdain for the rest of us as the fascists did.

  7. arcticredriver says...

    I was in London with my family when I was a child, and spent a week there, decades later, in 1996. I only remember one tall building in London, in 1996, one shaped like a stretched Pineapple — in the Canary Wharf district I think. I paid attention to Canary Wharf because Canadian developers played a lead role in its redevelopment.

    I am sorry that London is being hit by hundreds of soul-less highrises all at once. Those goldarn developers, they act as if just owning some real estate implies they own the city. Toronto is also in the middle of a high-rise boom.

    So, Andy, why was London able to escape being hit by skyscrapers for almost 100 years. The 15 storey Trader’s Bank Building in downtown Toronto was the tallest building in the British Empire from 1906 to 1913. The empire’s previous tallest building was only a few blocks away, as were the successor tallest buildings. When I was in London, in 1996, I wondered whether the lack of London highrises was due to unsuitable bedrock, as in Paris.

    I don’t personally know anyone who lives in the vast number of new highrise buildings being put up in Toronto, but I have read that many are built for foreigners — as you describe. However, I have read most of those foreigners had no intention of living in these buildings. Rather, foreigners who have a conservative attachment to real estate as the best kind of investment vehicle, are sold individual apartments in these high-rises as investments. The Building bubbles burst in New York and other big US cities almost a decade ago. Some commentators have warned that the Toronto building bubble had been due to burst every year since then — only it hasn’t. Other commentators assert it is those offshore buyers who keep fueling the bubble. Even though Toronto is about a fifth the size of NYC we have over 150 cranes constructing new highrises — said to be 3 times the number of cranes in NYC.

    Just as you describe in London, the developers’ most desired building sites are along the waterfront. Although these buildings are all described as luxury units today, Cassandras predict they will be hard to maintain, and, in a few decades they will be rundown vertical slums.

    Do London developers want to build shiny glass curtain-wall structures? That is the fad here — but they are unsuitable for our climate, hard to heat in winter hard to keep cool in the summer.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi arcticredriver,
    Thanks for drifting off-topic with me, from Guantanamo, for a short foray into the housing crisis in London, Montreal and elsewhere. You have expressed very well the basis of the foreign investor bubble in Toronto, and it’s very much the same situation here in London. Of course it all seems unsustainable, but there’s still no sign of it coming to an end. In London prices have now surpassed prices at the height of the boom that ended in 2007/08 with the banker-led global crash, and increasingly more and more hard-working Londoners are locked out of the mortgage market, but still the rigged system continues, primarily through artificially low interest rates.
    I also liked your comments about the Cassandras’ opinion of the quality of the building work. How ironic it will be if it turns out to be true. “Caveat emptor,” as the Romans used to say …

  9. Damo says...

    The pig faced boris thing is a monster it worships greed,lol hi Andy dear,it seems there’s no stopping these developements at the moment there just taking over everywhere like nits on a beautifull head of hair I don’t no what the answer is ,I hope your going on the mayday protests tomorrow the details are on Johnny void it’s occupy wonga day

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Damo,
    How lovely to hear from you. It’s been many months so I thought maybe you’d managed to make your escape! Yes, it’s completely out of hand, isn’t it? I thought this document, illustrating dozens and dozens of the projects that are planned, underway or complete was very useful for reference, although it’s a painful read as the same high-rise crap is wheeled out over and over again: http://www.newlondonarchitecture.org/dls/TB_B2.pdf
    I honestly can’t see all these projects ending up occupied, as I don’t think there are enough people with the two qualifications necessary: 1) that they’re earning enough, and 2) that, if they are, they’re not going to live in a Victorian property. Despite all the hype about the towers, most aspirational people I run into or hear about wouldn’t dream of living anywhere apart from in a Victorian conversion – or a Georgian conversion.
    I reckon some of these places – outside of the established moneyed areas like Chelsea etc. – may end up being the vertical slums of tomorrow …

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    As for Occupy Wonga Day, Damo, what a great idea. These thugs making a killing out of poor people and presenting themselves as legitimate businessmen are a disgrace. However, I had a look at the various pages about it and it was apparently on Thursday, the 1st of May rather than the Bank Holiday tomorrow – which I missed because the horrible weather put me off (sad but true).
    http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/occupy-wonga-on-may-day/
    https://www.facebook.com/events/246946885491263/

  12. Damo says...

    Ooh it on Thursday that’s ok much better I was in Hyde park yesterday with friends people watching and we had a look at 1 Hyde park corner completely empty all the apartments are sold but nobody lives there like the Marie cellist those flats are £100 million each boris wants this to happen london will die if this continues To go on you only have to look at parts of west london multi million pound houses but nobody literally nobody on the streets……..Just like the ………omega man.

  13. Damo says...

    There was a slightly disturbing article in Sundays observer about the rise of selfishness and casual cruelty Whitchurch is it seems become an accepted way to behave as pioneared by creeps like simon vowel and shows like X factor and bit …but looking on facebooky and seeing all those young people demonstrating gives me hope that a backlash is starting to happen against the simon vowels of the world and all the cruelty and greed it seems as though the young are finally wakeing up …who knows Andy maybe just maybe there might be a dawning of a new age of aquairius a new way of liveing I think is emerging god lets hope so. Dxxx

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Damo,
    Ah yes, One Hyde Park, where, a few months ago, an apartment was being marketed at £45,000 a week! http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2566527/Yours-45-000-WEEK-Penthouse-Londons-One-Hyde-Park-expensive-rental-property-country-goes-market-2-3million-year-thats-nine-average-homes.html
    Unfortunately, it’s hard in general to find figures about the occupancy rate of properties in London. We know that many are bought by foreign investors but left empty, but I’d like to see some figures about how many properties this scandal involves.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    I hope so too, Damo, but it still seems to me that far too many people haven’t got it yet – they’re still obsessing about immigration, and cheering on every attempt to portray anyone who is unemployed as workshy. Let’s see how UKIP does in the elections, and let’s see if the Tory scumbags get away with their latest work plans for the unemployed, as reported today – forcing jobseekers to take zero-hours contracts: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/05/jobseekers-zero-hours-contracts
    I’d prefer you to be right, though, and to discover that the awakening has truly begun!

  16. Damo says...

    Ester mcvey is a nasty dryer up bitter …old…sphincter and Ian Duncan smith is a chronic inadaquet failier of a man a sad failed guardsman a no marks they both are.the whole british political class need to be shot ,lol both …new…labore and torie there one and the same …when are the riots gonna start,lol

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    The list of our cruel masters – and mistresses – is long, isn’t it, Damo? As well as the vile Victorian sadist Iain Duncan Smith – who believes that poverty is caused by dysfunctional families and not because of existing economic factors – David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling (amongst others) continue to believe they have a mandate to wreck the country, when they don’t.
    Esther McVey hasn’t yet sunk to the depths plumbed by all of the above, but she’s obviously profoundly untrustworthy: http://johnnyvoid.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/dont-believe-esther-mcveys-bedroom-tax-lies-the-public-do-not-support-this-policy/
    As for the riots, I continue to be perplexed that, not only is there no large-scale unrest, but there’s barely a murmur of dissent discernible in public at all.

  18. Damo says...

    As we know andy the English upper classes were and will forever be Snyd cowardly nazi sympathisers gutless traiters who due to the brain washed and distracted british public are cracking the whip these week cowardly public school boys and the stuges victimising and punishing the poorest and most defenceless people in society eaton boys haveing jolly japes and hoots burning £50 pound notes in front of homeless people all the while the public sit there distracted by X factor brainwashed into hate by daily mail properganda didn’t the nazi,s do a similar thing towards the Jews .we have become a gutless nation the British bulldog has been castrated but there are sights of a fight back..posh bashing ..all the apse upperclassmen snivlers whining …mummy it is not phware there picking on me becwose I’m posh so andy the fight back is comeing I hope,lol

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Damo,
    Yes, the Nazi analogy is apt, although some people who regard themselves as “reasonable” regard it as too extreme. What’s so extreme about it? Politicians and the right-wing media – and even parts of the so-called “liberal” media, giving the oxygen of publicity to little fascists like Nigel Farage and UKIP, even though they don’t have a single domestic MP – have normalised racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, blaming “immigrants” and Muslims for everything they regard as wrong in society and the economy, along with unemployed people and the disabled, who are portrayed as feckless scroungers. That’s exactly what Hitler and the Nazis did, and while it currently looks like the logical next step is the return of the workhouse, the conditions are already ripe for something much worse. And how the rich and super-rich are laughing, as the crash of 2008 is forgotten and they are even more wealthy than ever.

  20. Damo says...

    We are in the age of mamon.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Mammon, and a type of self-obsession that I don’t think has existed to this extent before in the whole of human history, Damo. Nowadays, millions of ordinary people can be as self-obsessed as only a handful of very rich people had the opportunity to be in the past.

  22. Damo says...

    It’s very scarey andy this wot to call it ..darkness….that’s in the world right now 3 quarters of the world seems to be up in flames the situation in ukraine is reel scarey and the rest brainwashed dead from the feet up only interested in themselves and consumerism while people in other country’s are fighting for there lives we here in the west eye each lets get the party started yeeeaaah get the sambukas lined up yeeeeaaah,lol…..but…..andy the apse young kids I’m talking about these teenagers they are so on the beam this is there world and they ain’t haveing our bullshit they wont to live in a healthy war free world there the ones who are god willing gonna save this world and we all need to support them they are the future guardians of this world.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    I couldn’t agree more about the young people’s role as “the future guardians of this world,” Damo, but so many of them have turned their backs on political awareness that it’s difficult to see how they’ll get mobilised to resist the steamroller of late capitalism, with ever more people becoming greedier with ever passing minute. Never enough for these disgusting gluttons who are all around us. Also, so many young people are forced to live such precarious lives, not paid enough and fleeced by landlords and the corporations, that it’s difficult to see how they can step back and change things. That said, I’m not as pessimistic as I sound. I reckon that, throughout history, massive changes have often caught everyone by surprise, and I think massive change is more likely at some point than the endless preservation of this wretched status quo that is slowly strangling almost everyone.

  24. Damo says...

    Revolutions are allways bloody Andy but one has got to come ASAP because we can’t go on like this my generation and the one below me are pretty much worthless it’s up to the these kids now it’s just how to relliese them from the matrix of capitalism and greed that is the new reality now

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    It was the New Cross and Deptford Free Film Festival recently, Damo, and Ken Loach’s excellent documentary, “The Spirit of ’45” was shown at the former library – now a community-run library – in New Cross. Ken came along and gave a talk afterwards, which was great, but it was apparent that no one knows how to create a new political movement of the left, even though millions of people are dissatisfied with “the matrix of capitalism and greed” you describe.
    http://www.thespiritof45.com/

  26. Building Eden down the Docks | Kate Shrewsday says...

    […] Andy Worthington (Excellent article) here […]

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