4 March 2024

Nimby Watch: The scourge of St Paul’s


For this week’s Nimby Watch, the curious case of a development in Stratford, the Nimbys of Richmond and a view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Click here to read the rest of Jonn Elledge’s columns.

Where are we off to this week? Stratford. Between the Olympic Park and Westfield.

Oh East London again, how novel. What’s there now? ‘The Manhattan Loft Garden’, a fairly generous mixed use development including a fancy hotel, a 42 storey residential tower and multiple roof gardens. 

Hang on, what? Yeah, ‘now’ isn’t a useful word here, they’ve finished it. And let me be clear: often when Nimbys complain about a new development being ‘luxury housing’ they’re not-so-subtly implying that any new home bigger than a postage stamp should only be of interest to those with hereditary titles or their own investment bank. The early marketing materials for this one, though, promised VR tours of individually designed units with juliet balconies and ceilings 4 metres high. Some of the one-beds rent at £1,750 per week. It’s fancy.

I’m starting to have my doubts about this column. Well that’s going to complicate things because we’re the same person. Once again, I am making a point about how the planning system works. Ignore what they built there: think about the people who didn’t want to build there at all.

I’m not sure I’d want a 42 storey luxury tower block in my back yard either. How big is your backyard, exactly? Because it’s not the neighbours who objected. It’s people who live a very long way away.

Our story begins in 1710 – well, arguably it extends to 1666 when Christopher Wren began working on the new St Paul’s Cathedral, or even the 1490s, when Henry VII got a mound in what is today Richmond Park named after him because he liked poncing about on it while hunting – but 1710 was when someone planted an avenue of trees to frame a view of that cathedral from that mound. A couple of centuries after that, the City of London Corporation introduced the policy of ‘St Paul’s Heights’, under which structures which would block views of the cathedral from selected points around the city should not receive planning permission. 

And this tower is on one of them? That is a surprisingly complicated question. The view from King Henry’s Mound was first identified and granted protection in 1991, and has had the capital in its iron grip ever since. So when the Friends of Richmond Park realised that – with a strong pair of binoculars, on the absolute clearest of days – their view of the cathedral would now come accompanied by a skyscraper, they were outraged, and put out a statement demanding that construction cease. Thousands of people signed their petition. Tory Tony Arbour asked questions in the London Assembly. Local Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney decided to pose with campaigners in front of a view on which you couldn’t even see St Paul’s, let alone Manhattan Loft Gardens, when she could instead have told campaigners to stop being quite so silly. It all got a bit embarrassing.

Here’s the thing, though: none of the campaigners had noticed the threat to their view until the building had actually become visible. The protected views framework has been used to block developments immediately behind the cathedral in the City. But no one, back in 1991, had ever imagined someone might want to build a skyscraper in Stratford, so the London Borough of Newham hadn’t been included in the framework at all, and the Manhattan Loft Gardens had no problem getting planning permission. Until it actually started going up, no one even noticed any of this.

Still, I’m assuming that, in the face of some whining by people 15 miles away on literally the other side of London, the developers decided to demolish their half-finished building, go home and think about what they’d done? Even though they’d not broken any rules? Would you believe they did not? The spoilsports instead insisted on finishing their skyscraper, thus ensuring that life would no longer be worth living for the people of Richmond. But in answer to Arbour’s question, London mayor Sadiq Khan did say that ‘consideration needs to be given to including more distant boroughs in the [framework] to prevent this happening again’. So the good news is that politicians from across the spectrum have said, out loud and like it’s not remotely embarrassing, that London should avoid building anything that would ever encroach on the view of the people who live in its plushest suburbs. 

Okay, but we’re still talking about luxury flats. Because the sort of people who think they get a veto on planning policy 15 miles from themselves are generally massive fans of social housing.

I actually quite like Richmond. It’s pretty nice, yeah. 

Photo of the view, taken by the author in 2023.

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.