The capital’s skyline – evolution vs. preservation

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The capital’s skyline – evolution vs. preservation

On a day when a key developer saw a major deal fall through with a key tenant, coupled with a seemingly endless stream of articles bemoaning the state of London’s offices, you would be forgiven in thinking that the city’s commercial property sector is in a sorry state. Yet, given the increasing need to attract international investors to the city, should we be encouraging the construction of buildings such as the Shard skyscraper in a bid to maintain London’s status as a core European business centre?

The Shard has had a mixed reaction from journalists and the general public alike, some believing it to be the epitome of 21st Century business – sleek and impressive, others believing it to be, well, the epitome of 21st Century business – offensively large and obtrusive. Whichever opinion you take, the international interest the building has garnered cannot be ignored. Developers across the city will be hoping that this general interest spreads to major corporations in the coming months, leading to a foray into the English market.

Having said that, it is all very well constructing a striking, enormous tower, but if take-up is poor then no number of ‘Shards’ will improve London’s property market. BNP Paribas Real Estate recently claimed that the Shard would struggle to let its office space when completed in May, citing the 37.5 per cent decrease in take-up of office space in 2011 – an ominous statistic for Europe’s soon-to-be tallest building.

Enter British Land chief Executive Chris Grigg. In an interview today with City A.M., the former chief executive of Barclays Commercial spoke of a need to build new buildings to the exact specifications required by the tenant. He cited a tenant in the Ropemaker Place development who requested a huge central staircase that doubled as an auditorium – an unheard-of concept in London. This would essentially ‘kill two birds with one stone’; allowing developers to sculpt a modern, competitive and attractive skyline while increasing take-up by listening to the tenant’s wishes.

However, this doesn’t solve the problem of preserving London’s heritage. An article in the Evening Standard towards the end of 2011 spoke of “a phallic obsession that is destroying London’s skyline”. It warned that Unesco, the United Nation’s cultural body’s, visit to London in December could lead to the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey no longer having the status of “world heritage sites”. London’s many historical buildings are undoubtedly vital in the city’s yearly financial gain – 10 per cent of its gross value added in fact, but perhaps a compromise can be found.

When considering the bigger picture of the property market, the two key aims are surely to make London an exciting and enjoyable place for visitors and residents alike, while gaining the most financial output possible – essentially being a worthy and successful capital city. Southwark Playhouse is a good example of this compromise. Following the approval for the redevelopment of London Bridge Station, the playhouse is being relocated, allowing for necessary infrastructure progression while keeping a fine, British institution intact.

Redevelopments such as this inevitably lead to the destruction of much-loved, longstanding buildings, but so long as London doesn’t lose its sense of identity and history, perhaps this is a necessary evolution. As Chris Grigg points out, Britain’s status as a ‘safe-haven’ in both the property and bond markets following a surge of investors looking away from the Eurozone provides developers with an opportunity that cannot be missed. Going so far as to say that London may become increasingly reminiscent of the iconic Manhattan skyline if we want big international names to put their faith in the UK market.

Edward Lowcock, Junior Account Executive

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