That Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are on opposite sides on the issue of whether a skyscraper should be built is of little note. What might be a surprise, particularly to those who followed the 2008 campaign, is which side they’re taking.
The building in question is a 41-storey residential tower at Elephant & Castle. Construction of the skyscraper would imperil the nearby Ministry of Sound nightclub. Despite a noisy campaign by the MoS, and a ruling by Southwark Council rejecting it, Boris Johnson has taken on the decision for himself, with the suspicion being that he’ll approve it (in the previous four cases in which the Mayor has overruled the local council, it has been to green-light the scheme). A final decision is expected on March 12th. Ken Livingstone is campaigning against it, as is Brian Paddick.
But how did it come to this? After all, isn’t Ken the skyscraper king, and Boris their foe?
Things seemed much simpler back in 2008. On the campaign trail Boris Johnson was broadly opposed to tall buildings in London. One of his first appointments at City Hall was the late Simon Milton, widely regarded as a man disinclined toward skyscrapers. Early on the new mayor decided to widen the city’s viewing corridors, which protect key views of historic London landmarks from certain vantage points; they had been shrunk under Ken Livingstone, who made no secret of his skyscraper love. Early in Boris’ tenure the mood was that London’s early 21st-century clutch of new skyscrapers would be a brief experiment, and that the city’s skyline wouldn’t be unduly ruffled again. The Evening Standard even published a list of 14 projects that Boris was likely to axe.
However, events have not panned out the way the ‘scraper-phobes might have hoped. Many of the buildings on the Standard’s list have indeed been halted, but this is more down to the tough economic headwinds than anything the Mayor has done. One of the more controversial schemes, the ‘penny-whistle’ in Ealing, even received Boris’ stamp of approval, only to be overturned by the government. Some of the more conspicuous new presences on London’s skyline, most notably the Shard and the Heron, were approved before Boris’ term of office and have gone ahead as planned, while others, such as the currently-stalled Pinnacle, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie-Talkie tower, are at various stages of erection after credit crunch-mandated delays. Yet Boris has overruled local councils and approved other skyscrapers, such as the Columbus tower in Canary Wharf, and, as we’ll shortly find out, perhaps at Elephant and Castle too.
These are hardly the actions of a man opposed to tall buildings. Despite early prevaricating Boris has proved largely as enthusiastic toward skyscrapers as his predecessor, a point reinforced in a recent Standard jeremiad by Simon Jenkins, who blasted the “phallic obsession” of both men (as a side note, he’s not the only one to read sexual metaphors in built environment: Alain de Botton opined last year that the Shard was a “giant penis”).
The shape of London’s skyline has been little discussed by either campaign thus far; a reflection, perhaps, that both candidates share a similar, pragmatic view towards the issue. The caricatures offered last time round were untrue: Ken wasn’t about to turn London into a vision of Dubai-on-Thames, and Boris was never going to freeze every tall development and throw money at Quinlan Terry. We’ll see whether the realities of governing a world city that needs to balance the traditional with the modern has cost the Mayor at the ballot box come May.