A reckoning in the City of London


I’ve noticed something about couples going through a tough patch. When the unexamined areas of pain open up and they don’t have the words to find their way around them, they’ll just go ahead and have another baby. You could say it’s a conceptual error.  But in the end it merely delays the reckoning.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago watching the City of London’s planning committee deliberate whether to give consent to a 24 storey tower along Houndsditch which would overshadow the social housing estate in Portsoken ward.  Actually ‘deliberate’ may be over-egging it. There wasn’t much by way of communication between parties in the committee room, let alone any reflective consideration of the matter in hand, certainly not by its supporters. One councillor even observed that it was like listening to entirely separate and apparently unrelated conversations. You can check it out for yourself here (see especially from about 18 mins).

Those opposing the building proposal pointed out that the City risked going against its own policies on office development and tall buildings. On massing and bulk. On daylight and sunlight (including the cumulative effect of high rise developments). And on sustainability.  One of the residents, an urban planner, did a presentation with data from the developer’s submission showing how the common areas of the housing estate would be cast into shadow. He referred to the mental health consequences of this, particularly on children. Those supporting the scheme shuffled their papers. And then waved it through.

Let’s have another baby! One more tower! When the vote was called the chairman of the committee put his hand up in support of the proposal with embarrassing speed, even actually before the motion had been fully put. Is this the signal to the ditherers? You can see committee members peering uncertainly across the room to check how he’s voting.

Then within a couple of hours there is a statement on the Corporation’s website: “City of London Corporation approves 24-storey office tower as developer confidence in the square mile soars” repeats a trade mag.  The City wants to send a clear message that its relationship with the developers is back on track. Sure, it’s been difficult these last couple of years, not being able to meet at topping out ceremonies, but now look: another beautiful tower! 

Well, let’s see. It seems that the planning decision wasn’t entirely rational, even within its own terms.

The good news is that over two dozen of the City’s own councillors have spotted this and are requesting that the matter be brought to the next meeting of the entire Court of Common Council, presided over by the Lord Mayor, for further scrutiny. This is the first time this has happened since July 1987. Jason Pritchard, councillor of the ward where the residents live, has deployed the mechanism of a standing order buried deeply in the footnotes of the handbook to put it on the agenda.

It’s difficult to predict what will happen since the City of London has always been an ancient body politic with the beating heart of a property developer.  But does it also now have a sharper sense of the cost of doing business?  A recognition that we all need to do things differently as we find our way through the pandemic? A readiness to take the long view?

The matter will be debated in the Guildhall on 9 December at 1 o clock and streamed live. Who needs Jackie Weaver to spice up local government proceedings when you have a handful of independent minded councillors and Standing Order 9(4)(a)?

Listen to a resident give his account of how the Houndsditch Tower will affect the overshadowing of the Middlesex Street from 21:40 here