By Simon Jenkins and cross-posted from The Guardian
Now we know. The glitzy 50-storey tower that looms over London’s Vauxhall and Pimlico is, as the Guardian revealed yesterday, just a stack of bank deposits. Once dubbed Prescott Tower, after the minister who approved it against all advice, it is virtually empty.
At night, vulgar lighting more suited to a casino cannot conceal the fact that its interior is dark, owned by absent Russians, Nigerians and Chinese. It makes no more contribution to London than a gold bar in a bank vault, but is far more prominent, a great smudge of tainted wealth on the city’s horizon.
In 2003 London’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, was dazzled by a dinner invitation to the Villa Katoushka outside Cannes. His hosts were the titans of London’s property world and he was reportedly soon in thrall to them.
He said he would offer them “the potential to make very good profits”in his new London. He especially wanted tall buildings; the taller the better. The developer Gerald Ronson lauded him for his remarkable “vision”. Tony Pidgley of Berkeley Homes called him “refreshing”.
The mayor was as good as his word. He backed Ronson’s monster Heron Tower in the City. He backed Prescott’s Vauxhall tower. He backed theBermondsey Shard. He even spent taxpayers’ money on lawyers to support developers at public inquiries. At the time the Tory leader of Wandsworth, Eddie Lister, assailed Livingstone’s obsession with towers as a “one-man dictatorship”. David Cameron’s then cities spokesman, John Gummer, compared Livingstone to Mussolini, and spoke of the towers as “the vulgarity of bigness”.
Yet when Cameron came to power, this was all forgotten. In London, property is the most potent lobby. The Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, increased Livingstone’s rate of tower approvals, while Lister gratefully took office as his tall-buildings champion.
There was no published plan for the drastic surgery being inflicted on London’s appearance. No limit was set to the towers’ location or height. No one took care of their appearance or bulk, their civic significance or their role in the life of the capital. Some 80% of the approvals were for luxury flats, chiefly marketed as speculations in east Asia. Such has been the rate of unrestricted growth, there seems no reason to doubt the dystopian vision of London’s future depicted in the last Star Trek movie.
Johnson’s current legacy to London is 54,000 luxury flats priced at over £1m, about to hit a market that even before the present downturn needed just 4,000 a year. This bubble simply has to burst. The waste of building resources, energy and space, the sheer market-wrecking bad planning, beggars belief…