5 December 2023

Whisper it, but Sadiq Khan was right to block the Stratford sphere


It’s not often you’ll read a defence of a blocked planning application or indeed the Mayor of London in CapX, yet here we are – driven to the unthinkable by the Stratford Sphere.

For those blissfully unaware of the Sphere, it’s a proposed area and concert venue on the edge of the Olympic Park with a capacity of 21,500, shaped like a sphere and covered in LED lights. For an idea of just how tasteful this could be, observe an identical Sphere in Las Vegas, bedecked with projections of giant eyeballs, adverts and American flags.

In November, the application from the Madison Square Garden corporation was blocked by Sadiq Khan, citing concerns about local consent, light pollution, noise pollution, congestion on public transport and fears that the flickering lights could trigger epileptic seizures. 

Like moths to a circular flame, Twitter Yimbys rushed to defend the Stratford Sphere. For a certain section of young Tories, the decision to refuse planning application to MSG has become a totemic representation of our anti-growth, anti-building establishment. Last week, Michael Gove intervened, ‘calling in’ Khan’s rejection of the project, and turning the final decision over to Ministers. The ball, to coin a phrase, is now in the Tory court.

Let me be clear – I am as pro-building as they come. In my ideal world, Britain would be powered by a fleet of nuclear power stations and criss-crossed by a web of high-speed rail, with the towering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf making Hong Kong look provincial by comparison. 

And yet, I do not want the Stratford Sphere to be built in my backyard – in fact, I don’t want it to be built in anybody’s backyard. It is a tasteless eyesore, which would bathe large swathes of East London in inescapable LED light while clogging up the city’s already congested public transport network. Like it or not, the scheme is also overwhelmingly unpopular with locals. 

It’s projected that as many as 1,400 homes could be built in place of the Sphere; for context, there are more than 25,000 households on the affordable housing waiting list in Newham. 

Even if you’re not persuaded by the housebuilding case, there are numerous other uses for a prime 4.7-acre site in fast-growing East London. As Tom Harwood pointed out, it’s strange that London, a city of 10m people, only has one indoor arena that can seat 20,000 people. Perhaps the space could house a new stadium as competition for the O2 Arena in Greenwich, with none of the garish lighting gimmicks of the MSG proposal.

Ah! But what about the growth impacts of the Sphere? According to some commentators, the Sphere would have supported thousands of jobs, with people flocking from around the world to come and experience the immersive concert experience. Never mind the fact that these assessments draw on MSG’s own projections, and do not necessarily reflect reality. 

Fortunately, we can look to the Vegas Sphere to give us a sense of how realistic these expectations are. In fact, the Vegas original faced mounting construction costs, serious visibility issues for audiences, and the abrupt resignation of its Chief Financial Officer less than a year into the role. 

The debate around the Sphere exposes a tension at the heart of pro-growth politics – is there ever a reason not to build? 

If we accept that there is a line to be drawn somewhere, we must ask ourselves where to draw it, and why. Once we start doing this, we might conclude that our planning system should incentivise far more construction, but that it should not enable global developers to act on their every whim. We might even find that we can sympathise with some Nimby concerns about provision of services and aesthetic appeal, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.

Drawing that line in the right place will be central to the success or failure of the pro-growth coalition. Getting it wrong on Sphere-scale would equip Nimbys with a clear case study for boosterism gone wrong – a noisy, garish, tacky affront to taste, unpopular with locals and neglected by punters. Ambitious attempts to build new infrastructure would find themselves met with yet another thought-terminating cliché: “is this just going to be another Sphere?”.  

Wherever you would draw the line, I implore you to treat the Sphere with the disdain that it deserves. I only hope that well-meaning ministers will see sense and encourage MSG to find a different skyline to ruin. Should the Sphere go ahead, it will be remembered as nothing more than a monument to Yimby hubris, a perpetual eyesore that forever undermines the cause by association. 

Anyway, that’s all from me. I need to finish up my planning application for a 100ft statue of myself, astride the mouth of the Thames like the Colossus of Rhodes. I’m sure that I can count on the support of the Twitter Yimbys for my pro-growth proposal. 

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Sam Bidwell is Senior Parliamentary Researcher for Bim Afolami MP

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