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London Sphere debacle begs question – has planning in the UK lost its way?

“We can’t keep banging our heads against the wall,” said Jamie Dolan, the billionaire owner of New York’s Madison Square Garden arena, who last week abandoned a five-year effort to build a glowing orb concert venue taller than St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The Trump donor, who also owns the New York Knicks basketball team and built his first Sphere venue in Las Vegas, had foundered on the craggy rocks of the UK’s planning system – the same one that took more than eight years to approve a fifth terminal for Heathrow airport and fails to build enough affordable housing but allows forests of speculative skyscrapers to stand partly empty.

In barbed statements announcing it was taking its Sphere elsewhere (possibly Abu Dhabi), Dolan’s company said it would instead seek “forward-thinking cities” and accused the authorities of treating its proposal as “a political football”. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, had started out welcoming the “world-class venue” only to turn against it as having “an unacceptable negative impact on local residents”.

The scheme was strongly opposed, not just by local residents, but also the rival AEG group, which runs a large concert venue inside the nearby O2 arena in Greenwich. But whatever the view of its merits, the episode adds weight to an increasingly urgent question: has planning in the UK lost its way?

O2 arena
The O2 arena in Greenwich, south-east London. Photograph: Andy Hooper/ANL/Shutterstock

“The British planning system is probably at the weakest it’s been since it’s creation,” Peter Rees, who for 29 years was the chief planner for the corporation of London, said. “It has been emasculated by various politicians from Gordon Brown onwards.”

Rees is one of the most respected planners in Britain today. From 1985 to 2014 he oversaw the Square Mile’s transformation from staid ancient banking quarter into today’s gleaming global financial hub. He oversaw the erection of 21st-century landmark towers such as the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater and the Scalpel.

Planning has become highly politicised, he said, with power shifting too far from expert officials to non-expert councillors and government ministers, with the result that “it is very much a casino”.

Rees contrasted it to the “can-do” attitude of professional planning that delivered new towns in the 1960s and 1970s, a timely reference as Labour is pledging to build new towns if it wins the coming general election.

“Since then it’s become over-political,” said Rees, now professor of places and city planning at University College London. “The consequence is that it is almost impossible to know in advance which way a planning application will go.”

Successive governments have seen planning as a lever to deliver economic growth, and weakened rules in an effort to “get the planning system out of the way”, he said.

“If you are going to have a planning system based on rules, a planning application should pass or fail,” he said. “What we don’t want is debate in political forums where politicians can do favours. That’s what causes the disrepute [in the system].”

When Dolan proposed the Sphere, the culture secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, was effusive in his support, saying it “cements both the capital and UK’s reputation for leading the world in music and the creative industries”. But with Hancock gone and Khan changing his mind after closer scrutiny, the scheme was dead.

So developers who used to focus on building relationships with professional planners to get their schemes approved increasingly target non-expert elected politicians who are the ultimate arbiters, industry sources say.

“If you go to New York there’s a clear set of rules so everyone knows where they are,” said Peter Stewart, a former government design adviser and now a consultant to developers seeking planning approvals. “[In the UK] planning policy guidance, national, local and in London says things that when unpicked and scrutinised turn out to be air. Everything is negotiable. When foreign investors come forward and say can we do something or can’t we, you have to say: ‘It depends’. In other words, it is a gamble.”

There has been a change in architectural fashions too, which Dolan perhaps did not grasp.

“In big commercial development there’s less appetite for jazziness and there’s a trend for sobriety,” Stewart said.

The winners of the annual Stirling prize for Britain’s best building are more often calm studies in brick and block than the shiny architectural gymnastics of earlier years when clients and planners were hungry for “iconic” architecture.

And the climate emergency has become a big issue in planning departments, which are increasingly concerned about the carbon embodied in new proposals – hence Marks & Spencer was last year refused permission to rebuild from scratch its store on Oxford Street.

M&S’s store on Oxford Street, London.
M&S’s store on Oxford Street, London. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

City leaders outside the capital have strived to create greater certainty for investors. In Manchester, for example, a wave of development that started with the reconstruction after the 1996 IRA bombing continues. This year Co-op Live, the UK’s largest indoor arena with 23,500 seats, will open next to Manchester City’s football stadium and a 76-storey residential tower was recently proposed – the tallest yet in the city. But in Bristol, plans for a new arena, first mooted two decades ago, have not reached fruition, and last year one in five architects told a survey by the Royal Institute of British Architects that projects had recently been abandoned because of planning delays up from 7% in 2021.

London’s planning policy straddles the approach taken in New York where massive dramatic buildings are allowed, albeit to strict codes, and cities such as Paris and Berlin where planning is highly conservative to maintain the historic urban cores, said Stewart.

The development of the City of London is a case in point. In the past 20 years, ever taller and bulkier skyscrapers have risen up in the east of the financial district and 11 more are planned by 2030. The tallest of these, 1 Undershaft designed by Eric Parry, will rise to 75 storeys – almost as high as the Shard, the UK’s tallest building. But in the area closer to Sir Christopher Wren’s 17th-century St Paul’s Cathedral, buildings must not disrupt historic views and have to stay low. In planning, as in so much else, Britain wants it both ways.

Meanwhile, the casino element of the planning system encourages developers to gamble. It means “we are faced with these crazy applications – the Tulip, the Sphere – these things are turning London into a fairground,” said Rees.

The proposed Tulip building
The proposed Tulip building. Plans for the skyscraper in London were turned down.

The Tulip, a bud-shaped viewing tower more than twice the height of the London Eye proposed by the company of a Brazilian billionaire, was rejected in 2021 by the current secretary of state with responsibility for planning, Michael Gove, because it was a waste of resources and he questioned “the quality of design”. One resident complainant said it “reeks of desperation in its straining after ostentatious effect”. Another said it “would fit better into Dubai than London”.

But while that was rejected, a few miles away the development of thousands of mostly expensive apartments around Battersea power station have been described as “Dubai-on-Thames”.

There is a lack of consistency. In British planning, as Stewart puts it, “everything is up for grabs”.