The myth of the public viewing gallery: how London's skyscrapers bargain with our space

One Blackfriars may be a "sound property investment" but it was built on the premise that it would make room for the public – and that hasn't happened.

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It was the receptionist who finally told the truth. "There is no public viewing space here," said the bemused concierge, when I asked him the way to the gallery on the 32nd floor. One Blackfriars is a luxury residential tower overlooking the Thames. Its copper-clad reception smells of cheap perfume.

The tale begins 13 years ago when Southwark Council in July 2007 approved planning permission for a 52-storey tower on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge in central London.

“It started life as a hotel proposal, which did have public access to the top of the building built in,” says James Hatts, editor of community website london-SE1.co.uk

Because there would be no affordable housing either on-site or off-site, the developers suggested an alternative contribution to the public could be made: a viewing gallery occupying the building's top two floors. They argued that if 800,000 people a year were whizzing up the lifts and tramping through the reception, then they ought not to have to pay as much towards building local council houses.

The green light from Southwark Council proved controversial, and the planning decision was scrutinised by a government inquiry led by communities secretary under New Labour, Hazel Blears. A degree of head-scratching went on, but eventually the inquiry agreed in 2009 with the first decision – the building ought to be built.

"The Mayor would not have approved a tall building in this location and finds the decision regrettable," a spokesperson for the then-mayor of London Boris Johnson told the Evening Standard at the time. "It's another depressing sign that this government wants to take every decision in Whitehall."

Johnson's statement pointed the finger of blame elsewhere. But it was his London Plan that was telling developers that "tall and large buildings should incorporate publicly accessible areas on the upper floors, where appropriate". Bizarrely, cash-strapped boroughs were – and still are – encouraged to look favourably upon skyscrapers with viewing galleries. Hence, the Walkie-Talkie was built with a "Sky Garden". Nowadays you have to book weeks in advance to access this so-called public space.

Following the financial crisis, One Blackfriars was sold on by its initial developers Beetham to St George Berkeley. In 2012, it resubmitted the planning applications but lopped the top two floors off the building. The "public sky deck" was replaced by a "managed viewing lounge" on the 32nd floor which would be made accessible to residents, hotel guests, figures from the local community, and Southwark Council officials – for a fee. Once again, the project was given the go-ahead. 

"There was a sense that the market was getting saturated after the Shard and the Walkie-Talkie were built," says Hatts, regarding the decision to get rid of the public viewing gallery. 

Meanwhile, the developers had to compensate Southwark for the lack of affordable housing. St George Berkeley was able to negotiate a fee of £29m that it would pay in instalments to the borough for its council house building programme (the penthouses at One Blackfriars were originally on sale for £23m). When a local community group called the "35 per cent campaign" sent in a Freedom of Information request to the Council for an assessment of its costs and returns, they received back a lengthy document where all the figures had been redacted with a black pen.

Today, all that remains of the grand pretensions to public space is a forlorn square at the foot of One Blackfriars. Over the course of one sunny lunchtime, precisely zero people stopped to sit on the benches. No wonder. It is a lightless, unnatural, ugly piece of design. A bitter wind is funnelled down by the curves of the tower. Even in February, the deciduous trees are in full leaf – have they just been randomly transplanted from a tropical country? Meanwhile, high above, the "public sky deck" that became a "managed viewing lounge" is now advertised as an "executive lounge" for the sole use of residents.

"There is supposed to be a provision in perpetuity for local community groups to hire that out at relatively low rates," says Hatts. "But I don't know anybody who has actually made use of that yet in the local community."

This story illustrates a wider truth: developers have learned how to game the planning system. An army of solicitors, lawyers, architects and PR people can bombard councils with renders of happy children playing in public parks. But the swings, the monkey bars, the slides are a fantasy – they will never be built. They are a ploy to ease the project through planning.

Meanwhile, Southwark Council currently has 20,555 people on its housing waiting list. Since 2014, the council has lost 925 homes from its register. There are 88,500 children living across London in temporary accommodation.

The concierge at One Blackfriars may not have been able to direct me to the viewing gallery, but he was more than happy to offer a sales brochure. The very first line reads, "One Blackfriars bears all the hallmarks of a sound property investment." Estate agent Knight Frank describes its ideal client as a self-employed Shanghai resident purchasing a £3m property. And, according to a survey published in the pamphlet, 44 per cent of higher-income tenants expect their property to have access to what is now termed a "private sky garden".

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.

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