The Slab is to rise after all. What is clearly intended as the most prominent office block in central London will dominate the bend in the River Thames directly opposite Somerset House and the Temple. Two glass and concrete slabs, one rising 20 storeys, will replace the London Studios tower between the National Theatre and the Oxo Tower. They will form the fulcrum of every view between St Paul’s and Big Ben. The go-ahead came in a letter this week from Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities. It was addressed to the Japanese developer Mitsubishi, not to the citizens of London. It was addressed to Mammon, not to the beauty of the capital.
Even by the standards of modern London buildings, the Slab is mind-boggling. In bulk, it will be about four times the size of the adjacent National Theatre, which will look like a Tudorbethan cottage in comparison. Unlike the Shard or the Gherkin, it makes no attempt at vertical grace, or indeed at architecture at all. It is just a pile of boxes. Even the Twentieth Century Society, normally tolerant of such buildings, dismissed it as “universally derided”. Designed by the commercial architects Make, it will accommodate 4,000 office workers, whom Gove was persuaded London badly needs. The carbon cost of demolishing and replacing the inoffensive London Studios must be astronomical, and should have been ruled out long ago.
Coherent town planning in Britain has all but collapsed under pressure from the construction industry. Cities eager for tax revenue, such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, appear open to any form of development. The Slab will be worth £11m a year in rates to Lambeth. Councils now loan planning staff to developers to ease the path to permissions, neutralising any concept of democratic oversight in favour of profit. There is no apparent effort to regulate scale or style. In London, mayoral oversight is all but nonexistent. Neither Boris Johnson nor Sadiq Khan has shown the remotest interest in the appearance of their city.
In the past the public could look to ministers to put the brake on potentially malleable councils. The quality of the built environment emerged from a tussle between central and local government, often with one monitoring the other. In the case of the Slab in 2022, the then planning minister, Greg Clark, took one look at the project and immediately called it in for inquiry and central decision. In cities such as Paris, Berlin or Milan, such a massive intrusion on the centre would merit a decision by the national government. Clark, who I’m sure would have vetoed it, was sacked too soon.
Gove, his successor, was initially unusual among politicians in showing a concern for “beauty” in British architecture. Last year he turned down a Kent housing estate on the grounds of its ugliness, to the fury of its builders, Berkeley Homes. What is now baffling is that a politician who could not tolerate a few rural semis can approve a building whose location alone must demand beauty above all things. Gove clearly has a blind spot for London – or something unexplained has been going on.
Connoisseurs of planning jargon should study the exchanges between the Slab’s designers and Whitehall officials. The former flood their application with gibberish about sustainability, permeability, affordable workspace, occupant wellbeing, cultural hubs and wetland roofs. Officials respond with a tortuous concern for “the palette of materials and the aesthetic appearance” and being on “the spectrum of less than substantial harm”. They seem to like the building’s utility – which is undeniable – yet cannot bring themselves to admit it is just massively too big. Letting these people loose on the future of the Thames is like getting Jackson Pollock to touch up a Canaletto. What they are really saying is, “It’s ghastly: go ahead.”
The question now is whether anything can be done by a new Labour government. Keir Starmer’s recent speech on planning, which might have been written by the construction lobby, suggests not. He was never cast as an aesthete. Meanwhile, urban conservation is going into reverse. The City Corporation has already demolished buildings in its Fleet Street conservation area, and a decision is awaited on the desecration of the listed Liverpool Street station. Westminster city council has de-controlled its Paddington conservation area for a huge office block. Manchester has done the same for its historic synagogue site, bowing to an apparently urgent need for luxury flats and offices. Each of these vandalisms is a precedent for the next.
The Slab looks likely to stand as a memorial to British government in the 2020s, a shambolic, ugly, dominating presence. Conservationists have already dubbed it Gove Towers, but it might as well be Johnson Heights or Sunak’s Folly. They could all have stopped it and did not. I once showed an Italian friend the skyline of London from Waterloo Bridge, a skyline the Slab will now fill. He gasped. He said he came from the most corrupt city in Europe, Rome, “but even we would not let this happen”. I replied that in England we didn’t need to be corrupt. Philistine would do.