Battle for London’s Skyline covered in CITYAM article

The following article was published in CITYAM on Thursday 27th January 2022

The battle of London’s protected views exposes the power mismatch on housing

If you’re reading this newspaper, you live in London and hopefully you love it. If you don’t love it, perhaps you still recognize its unique flavour. London is a melting pot where history finds innovation, where the majestic cathedral of St Paul’s neighbours the skyscrapers of the City. This concoction of old and new, of tradition and progress, can only be a good thing.

That is, on the surface. In truth, there are countless stakeholders fighting to control the shape of the city. At the centre of this battle, stand London’s protected views – considered a national treasure. The city has thirteen strategic views, imagined corridors where developers cannot build as they would cover the view of historical buildings such as the Tower of London or St Paul’s.


The tension between preserving and building is profound. We are in the midst of a housing crisis; almost any civic group has been calling for more decent and affordable housing. Yet, according to many, London’s views are so important because they tell a story about the nation and its identity. They are also part of what makes the capital beautiful and alluring: no one can argue with the magic of looking at the city from Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath.

The activists of the Skyline Campaign – proposing reform of current tall buildings policy – think that developers’ megalomania has much of a role when it comes to the debate. “Developers want to put their imprint on the views of the city – but actually, the city is for everybody”, says architect Barbara Weiss. The amount of money involved in projects means there is a disincentive to halt permission, she says.

The architect turned campaigner cites Nine Elms as an example of a development that resulted in a “total disaster”, whose luxury towers are extensively damaging to the London skyline. That the complex has largely attracted international magnates who love having a dip in the infamous “sky swimming pool” has only inflamed tensions.

So here it is: luxury skyscrapers built in central London, and new tall residential buildings developed in the outer boroughs. These buildings also cover protected views – but they carry with them the bigger problem of cladding and poor maintenance practices. Weiss is hyper-aware of this issue, but she is in the minority of those campaigning for protected views.

It boils down to the questions of who has a right to these views and what is their value? Most viewpoints are in wealthy areas such as Hampstead Heath and Richmond. In contrast, Stratford, in the London borough of Newham – one of the most deprived in the capital – has had views blocked for a long time. These protected views are free and easily accessible from public parks, points out David English, Development Advice Team leader at Historic England. But we’re still left wondering who is winning the fight to reshape London’s skyline. Surely, it is not the residents of Stratford.

It then falls to the planning authorities to find a way to deliver new housing while respecting the aspirations of residents. The redevelopment of Murphy’s Yard, between Gospel Oak and Kentish Town stations, has caused a wave of resistance. Local residents are furious at the current plans for the nineteen storeys towers, which would cover much of the view from the Heath. Local Facebook groups are flooded with people concerned about the development.

This discontent is not a matter of bored wealthy people worried about their precious views from the local park – it’s about so much more. Judith, a local resident, reckons the development simply won’t be a good place to live in. She claims the site is ill conceived and that it will increase footfall in a way that is not sustainable as the streets around Gospel Oak station already have an almost non-existent pavement.

Protected views are a small but meaningful fraction of the housing story in London. They are proof of the power struggle in building and shaping what we call our home.