London’s 33 boroughs are collectively much more powerful than the city’s mayor. To a large extent, they determine what is built within their borders. They are also short-sighted, frequently neglecting their edges in favour of their middles, where most people live. Look at the borough map in any London town hall, says Michael Hebbert, a professor at University College London, and it “could be an island, surrounded by beaches”. The peripheries are for waste-tips and warehouses, the centre for libraries and office blocks.
Consequently Nine Elms, a 195-hectare brownfield site that overlaps two boroughs, and the City Fringe, 489 hectares that overlap seven, were until recently left alone as land values climbed around them. (Another undeveloped area is next to Finsbury Park, in north London, which falls into three boroughs.) In the late 1970s Lambeth council resisted new offices at its northern edge, on the prime development land between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, before encouraging office development in Brixton, three miles south at the borough’s centre. Tension between the boroughs of Camden and Islington caused problems at several stages of a large development project north of King’s Cross, a railway station in north London.
Now London’s government, which is starting to flex its planning muscles, is stepping in to break the deadlock. In 2012 it supervised the fast construction of the Olympic Village, which stands in four east London boroughs, creating a powerful development corporation that could overrule borough worries. London’s soaring residential property prices, along with a fast-growing population, are an encouragement to try this elsewhere.
The city government is lucky: these neglected liminal areas are available for development at a time when London is prepared to build densely. Had the city made use of them earlier, while still in the habit of building the low-rise homes most of its population live in, it would be stuck for space. But it can now pack the borough fringes with tall apartment buildings. The new Nine Elms has been dubbed “Dubai on Thames”, or “Mini-Manhattan”; Old Oak Common will be the “Canary Wharf of the North” (the GLA’s plans are pictured). Both will in fact be a thicket of unappealing glass blocks. But aesthetics are not London’s priority. The city’s population is predicted to reach 11m by 2050, and the Green Belt stops it from sprawling. It must fit everyone in somehow.