Daylight robbery: How London is losing its fight for light

A complicated scheme involving developers, surveyors, councils and consultants is letting daylight standards slip across the city—and throwing more more residents in the dark
July 17, 2020

Michael Ball had been renting a flat on Albert Embankment on the south bank of the Thames for six years before his view became blocked by a behemoth of a building site in 1999. On the former site of a less intrusive 1930s government building, the development eventually turned into a curved, 14-storey, glass-and-steel luxury apartment building called Parliament View in autumn 2001.

The shadow the development would cast across the flat didn’t cross Ball’s mind—until it was too late. He was working from home when the building was completed, and suddenly found that he had to keep his lights on all day. He quickly became sluggish and tired, and stopped socialising. “I got very depressed. Depression is a strange thing—you don’t know what’s happening to you.” He felt, he remembers, “a sense of desperation as this cloud gradually engulfed me.”

Ball cycled and swam, and tried to keep busy with work, but nothing alleviated his mood. “All of these strategies were failing to stop the engulfing cycle of emptiness, lethargy, hibernation, all of which feed upon themselves as you gradually spiral down, pulling the bedclothes further and further over your head.” Ball moved out of the flat when Parliament View turned one year old—and has been campaigning for the “right to light” ever since.

*** We all need daylight, as is made apparent every year when early sunsets trigger seasonal affective disorder. For millions, the days of winter are dark in more sense than one. Regular access to daylight is, says therapist Rakhi Chand, among the most vital factors affecting mental health. It is one of those areas where there is no clear line between its physical and psychological impacts. As well as being important in the production of Vitamin D, daylight plays a key part in regulating sleep that is, in turn, essential for all sorts of things. “Our natural body clock relies on easy access to light,” Chand explains, “and if our access is limited it can affect our sleep pattern.” Our body does repair and growth work while we sleep, and regulates mood and stress hormones serotonin and cortisol, and so if you deprive someone of daylight, you play havoc with all of this. Therapists such as Chand therefore advise everyone to be proactive in getting plenty of natural light.

But modern metropolises aren’t always run in ways that make that easy. Last year, it emerged that a 120-square-metre advertising hoarding plastered on a Dalston apartment block had been shunting some of the working-class residents of the fast-gentrifying area into the dark. At the time of that mini-scandal (which ended in the hoarding coming down) the billboard was showing an iPhone ad. This seems fitting since much has been made of the modern world’s incompatibility with our biological wiring, and the artificial light of smartphones is commonly held up as the worst culprit, keeping our brains in an abnormal state of distraction. But there’s another less-discussed side to this modern malaise: the rising threat to natural light.

Cities are at the heart of this story. The past few decades have seen them grow larger and larger. By 2050, the UN estimates that more than two thirds of the global population will live in one. And, at least in wealthy economies like Britain, this has been regarded as a good news story; amid much anguishing about “left-behind” English towns, the big cities are regarded as vibrant, energetic, diverse and resurgent.

But as urban populations grow, there is a scramble to provide housing on exorbitantly expensive land, which is often resolved with a single answer: building upwards, and not worrying about the giant shadows cast. At the top of the new towers there may be spectacular penthouses, rich with light and air, but not so much in the many dwellings below. Light is becoming a commodity that only the most well-off can afford.

Take London. The number of people living in the metropolis grew from less than seven million to nine million between 1988 and 2020. Pressure on housing has resulted, and in response, both central government and City Hall have imposed targets and dangled incentives for councils to build new homes. Town halls are rewarded for building more—for example, Tower Hamlets was awarded £21.9m for greenlighting more homes than any other British council in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, those who fail to meet targets feel the strain. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is himself under attack for only building at half the rate that he had previously said was necessary.

All this pressure results in one thing: taller, potentially daylight-blocking buildings. The trend is clear to anyone glancing at the London skyline. In 2018, a record 115 schemes for tall buildings were under construction across London, after a 12 per cent increase of tall buildings in the pipeline from 2016 to 2017. The LSE’s local governance expert, Tony Travers, says that both individual councils and the mayor’s office are almost bound to push through more and more tall buildings in the years ahead.

The pressure to build up is particularly felt in the inner city—and by the poor. Barking and Dagenham, nine miles out from central London, had just over 4,800 families on the waiting list for low-rent social housing in 2019; the waiting list in Tower Hamlets on the edge of the City, by contrast, is almost four times as long. Kingston upon Thames, 10 miles from Charing Cross, had 1,700 families waiting, while more central Lambeth had just over 25,000.

With land extortionately priced, tall buildings might appear to be the only answer. Councils have infamously tight budgets: the only way they can afford to build “social” or so-called “affordable” (in reality merely discounted) housing is to approve big private developments and use them to cross-subsidise the effort. But seeking to relieve one set of cash-strapped families this way has a tragically ironic consequence: blocking out light for many others in nearby homes.

*** Although he has long since escaped the darkness cast by Parliament View, Ball recently became involved in a campaign to stop 8 Albert Embankment, a site just south of the Thames which is home to the old Fire Brigade headquarters, and close to where he used to live. Billed by its developers as “A Place For All,” the 8 Albert Embankment plans promise 400 homes, a giant hotel as well as a modernised fire station and fire service museum, but also involve a 26-storey and a 24-storey tower block, along with three 10-11 storey buildings. In December 2019, while campaigning on behalf of affected residents, Ball watched history repeat itself as Lambeth Council’s planning committee voted through the plans. “For the first time… I interrupted a council meeting. I got so upset. I shouted: ‘Don’t do it—don’t inflict this on people again!’”

After the proposal was approved, the ball then passed to Khan, who has the right to review large developments, and give the “final” yes or no. Or so everyone thought. But in the Kafkaesque way of public authorities, things got more complicated. Khan recused himself because of his interest in running London’s fire services, and so the veto passed into the hands of his deputy, Jules Pipe, who declined to wield it. But then there was another twist in June, when the housing secretary Robert Jenrick “called in” the scheme for review, and launched a local inquiry. He had received over 200 requests to review it, including one from the Twentieth Century Society, worried about the effect on EP Wheeler’s Grade-II listed 1930s Fire Brigade HQ. Jenrick has since being caught up in a political storm about greenlighting another large inner-London development that benefits a Conservative donor, and his attention may be distracted as the process grinds on. Although the impetus for this inquiry was the historic environment as opposed to the question of daylight, everything can be looked at afresh, offering a glimmer in the darkness for those campaigning against the scheme.

Despite his own experiences 20 years ago, Ball counts himself lucky compared to those living near 8 Albert Embankment, who can’t move out easily because they are social tenants. If they up sticks they can find themselves back on that long waiting list, or otherwise trying their luck in the punishingly insecure private sector, where capped benefits frequently no longer cover the eye-watering rents. They can only apply for new social housing in their borough if they can somehow “prove” their home doesn’t meet their needs. Moving between boroughs automatically means going back to the back of the queue.

If the building goes ahead, the tenants living on the ground floor of nearby five-storey Whitgift House (among them 12 children) stand to lose much of the daylight they currently get through their windows. It is the difference between an average day in July and one in March, says Paul Littlefair, an expert who has been researching and consulting on light for 40 years, and the man who wrote the internationally-recognised guidelines of the Building Research Establishment (BRE), a centre that offers expertise on standards in design and construction.

Abdi Hassan has lived with his wife in Whitgift House for almost 15 years, these days with six children, after they fled the civil war in Somalia. The flat is already dark. During a string of bright, sunny January days in London earlier this year, it got only around two hours of natural light each day. “In winter, we suffer a lot,” he says. “It affects our health. My wife has a vitamin D deficiency. In summer she can sit in the garden, but”—he fears—“the development will cover our garden from sunlight.”

Those pushing new luxury developments have taken to stressing their role in supporting affordable housing. The proportion of cheaper homes in the mix can be used as a bargaining chip in seeking planning approval, with desperate councils having to compromise in ways that sell their ambitions short. For example, at 8 Albert Embankment, 40 per cent of the housing is set to be “affordable,” rather than the 50 per cent that Lambeth says it will aim for across the borough, and is supposed to be asked of sites on publicly owned land, such as in this case. The proportion of affordable homes in the mix is not the only compromise made with the ambitions of Lambeth’s “Local Plan,” which also suggests that the light available in new buildings and the areas around them will be carefully considered.

Jerrand Brown has lived on the ground floor of Whitgift House for 12 years with his three children, one of whom is disabled. He’s worried about the impact on his home—and is disappointed by the council’s response. “Us council tenants don’t get to choose where we live and we don’t have the money to move. We thought you’d protect us with the Lambeth plan,” he told the council’s planning committee at the December meeting.

*** While making the case for planning permission, 8 Albert Embankment’s developers hired surveyors Point 2 to report on the development’s potential impact on existing daylight levels in nearby buildings. (On its website, Point 2 boasts of “devising dynamic, imaginative and bespoke strategies to unlock the development potential of a site” and “design solutions that seek to reduce Rights of Light risks wherever possible.”) Point 2’s report concluded that the development would offer neighbours “daylight and sunlight levels that are typical of a dense urban location located within a Central Activity Zone.”

Lambeth Council then hired a chartered building surveyor, Schroeders Begg, to independently review the findings. It found that residents in Whitgift House face a drop in vertical sky component (VSC)—a measure of light in a home based on the amount of sky visible from a given point—from an average 27 per cent to 20 per cent. Nearly half of residents would drop to 16 per cent. (Those BRE guidelines—which Lambeth’s local plan pledges to use—suggest a minimum VSC of 27 per cent.) Nevertheless Schroeders Begg concluded that “for an urban scheme of this nature, we consider the adversity impact could be considered acceptable.” In their report, the surveyors pointed out that the development is “within an urban site,” and suggested “it is inevitable for such a site, there will be flexible departures from the “default criteria.” All this seems to echo the Mayor of London’s 2016 “implementation framework,” issued under Boris Johnson, which called for an “appropriate degree of flexibility” in applying the BRE guidelines, especially in the context of “higher density development.”

Yet Littlefair stated at the Lambeth planning meeting that the BRE guidelines aren’t based on any particular context, urban or rural—and he should know, after all. This wasn’t, however, enough to convince the council to reject the plans.

Without outside expertise, it’s almost impossible for locals to understand what they’re up against, still less to resist. But Whitgift House residents were fortunate in having the help of other—more affluent—locals, who were able to commission Littlefair to analyse Lambeth Council’s outsourced daylight analysis. This enabled them to put up a fight. But ultimately, councils have no statutory obligation to follow the BRE guidelines. As a Lambeth Council spokesperson told me: “Planning legislation allows for departures from adopted Local Development plan policy provided there are enough factors to justify it.”

And town halls in London will always have many reasons—good and bad—to justify building up. Even when they withstand them all and do refuse permission, it can be followed by a loss on appeal. Last year, Lambeth Council lost a costly battle against its refusal to allow a development on nearby Graphite Square, on the specific grounds that it would cast a shadow over neighbouring homes. After this painful lesson, the council doesn’t want to risk making the same mistake again: the Graphite Square appeal was referenced throughout the application process of 8 Albert Embankment as an example of how much loss of light developers can get away with; the Schroeders Begg analysis stated explicitly: “Many neighbouring properties impacted… would still meet the alternative target criteria set within the Graphite Square Appeal.”

While the council and developers scrambled to justify the 8 Albert Embankment development, local residents felt they had little opportunity to make their voices count. The planning committee’s vote in favour of the development left them despondent for their own situation and how this would contribute to further loss of light in the future. Christopher Woodward, director of the nearby Garden Museum, sadly reflects that “London has put the sky up for sale.”

*** The example of 8 Albert Embankment—and of Graphite Square—shows that a blind is being ratcheted down on city-dwellers’ daylight. Developers hire surveyors to argue for lowered standards; councils call in independent reviewers, who consider many points of view including those of the initial surveyors; councils—desperate to build homes, and haunted by costly appeals—let projects squeak through. Such decisions entrench new and lower standards, which are then invoked to justify lowering them again. Towers shoot up, councils scrape by… and local residents sink into the dark.

The council’s approval of the 8 Albert Embankment site could be used to lower the benchmark for a “Kennington Stage” development nearby, where locals are campaigning against plans to build a 29-storey block that will reduce their light by up to 40 per cent VSC. The planning application has received more than 450 objections and just nine supporting comments.

“When we saw an artist’s impression of the tower block, we were all shaken rigid,” says Tony Millson, who is retired and lives directly adjacent to the site. “I had sleepless nights thinking about what might happen. The tower will cast a shadow over us, literally and metaphorically.”

The argument put forward by Point 2—which has again been hired by the developers Anthology to survey daylight levels—in this case is audacious. The report contends that residents around the Kennington development have enjoyed better levels of daylight than in many dense areas of London: “The majority of the existing levels of daylight and sunlight within the surrounding residential properties looking over the site are very high and more akin to what one would expect in a village environment.” The implicit logic is that erecting a building that would plunge locals under the sort of shadows that already befall much of the rest of the city would constitute some sort of an egalitarian step.

Official policy only emboldens such arguments. It is after citing a 2017 Whitehall housing white paper—which outlines the government’s intention to address “the need for flexibility in relation to daylight and housing targets” in high-density areas—that Point 2’s report continues: “New developments are being planned, approved, constructed, and sold with an increasingly flexible approach to daylight.”

Challenging a bureaucracy that is already on a set course is rarely easy, and Caroline DeLaney, head of real estate disputes at the law firm Rosenblatt, observes that the formidable task of fighting back is made tougher by the screeds of technical analysis produced by hired outside parties: “If a council wants a scheme to go ahead, they can always come up with reasons to depart from [their own] local plans,” says DeLaney. Light is a consideration, but councils “can also pull in other factors they consider relevant, so it’s a lottery what the outcome will be.”

*** Light isn’t just disappearing in London, of course. People in cities around the world are battling for it—and losing it. Researchers from New York University have found that most neighbourhoods in Manhattan are covered in shadow for at least half of the day, despite New York City having long considered light in its zoning laws.

Nor are tower blocks the only issue. When recently announcing “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War”—to come into effect this winter—Boris Johnson revealed that a wide range of commercial buildings and empty shops will be able to convert their properties into housing blocks without applying for planning permission. Critics fear that this will allow developers to build more—increasingly cramped—homes with insufficient natural light. Existing housing blocks, moreover, will be able to build two additional storeys without needing permission. DeLaney calls it “a problem waiting to happen.”

Public policy, however, is not doomed to fail. Since 1993, all residential buildings in China must receive at least two hours of sunshine a day in winter to receive planning permission. That might not sound like much, but it has had a huge impact on the space developers have been forced to leave between apartment buildings.

Daniel Safarik, editor-in-chief of the non-profit Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, says this is connected to the Chinese value of feng shui, which puts emphasis on natural light. “In China there are rows upon rows of seemingly identical buildings lined up at what seems to be a weird angle, slightly staggered so each building doesn’t completely interfere with others’ access to daylight,” he says.

And back in the UK there has also been some innovative design. In 2015, architecture firm NBBJ developed plans for two towers in London that would bounce light between them to create a pattern on the ground below where there would otherwise be shadow. Architect Christian Coop, who developed the plans, says his project was never intended to be built, but it inspired a building in New York that uses light in a similar way. Having incubated the idea, perhaps London could use it.

Other London architects are extolling the benefits of low-rise developments. Property developer the Berkeley Group has proposed a village-like community in Greenwich, where residents will receive daylight levels that “exceed those required by the latest British standards.” However, adopting this at scale would be difficult because land is scarce and pricey, not to mention parcelled into small sites owned by lots of different people. And in central London, huge swaths of land are owned by public bodies, including the Greater London Authority, Crown Estate, London Fire Brigade and Transport for London.

Meanwhile, the City of London, dominated by commercial real estate rather than homes, has come up with a curious answer of sorts: rooftop gardens. The City has set aside a number of free “sky gardens” with a view to making sunlight accessible. Twelve more are being negotiated or constructed.

“The highlight of my planning career was the opening of the roof terrace at 120 Fenchurch Street,” Gwyn Richards, interim chief planning officer for the City of London Corporation, said. “I went up on a Sunday and a whole extended Bangladeshi family, around 12 of them, from the baby to the grandmother, were going up there with a picnic as they would’ve done in a park.” But rooftop gardens are no panacea when we’re fated to spend a lot of time inside, especially when there are obstacles in using them. The garden atop London’s “Walkie Talkie” skyscraper has received criticism for its restrictions—members of the public have to book far in advance to enjoy an allotted hour.

Back at Whitgift House in Lambeth, residents who have felt ignored throughout the planning process now have a flicker of hope from the local inquiry called by Whitehall. But little in the wider story encourages optimism—at least, not just yet.

Looking ahead, however, it becomes possible to imagine a brighter future. As rents rise and lives get more hectic, the stampede to move into the city—the root of the problem—could gradually go into reverse. Last year it was reported that more people were moving out of London than ever before, partly due to the rising cost of living. That was before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced more to flee the city, and to re-evaluate whether they really want to remain chained to a shadowland that seems to be taking more and more of our earnings, sanity—and light.