The battle over Southwark station

Kat Hanna
Chinese Football Team Celebrate Chinese New Year In London
Developing at and around new and existing stations should not be so easily dismissed (Source: Getty)

From Baker Street to Westminster, King’s Cross to Wood Green, London’s stations are unique and steeped in history – over 70 London underground stations are listed, and a further 50 lie within conservation areas.

Central to communities, they provide valuable transport links – developing over them makes sense as it enables sustainable, high density development, without increasing private car use or pressure on streets. When done well, station redevelopment can create new public space and facilities, and can connect neighbourhoods previously divided by rail infrastructure. However it can also be a cause of contention.

Recently the development of Southwark station, where Transport for London are considering a 30 storey tower complete with 300 homes, restaurants and shops, has been causing commotion. Emerging tensions highlight just some of the challenges of over-station development. Schemes often require high densities to justify investment in infrastructure, and have to pass muster with everyone who uses the station and surrounding area.

Read more: Forget the Tube – why you should be buying homes near cycle lanes and piers

Over-station development at Southwark is likely to make commercial sense. While engineering requirements and line possessions can make building above stations an expensive option, land values in Southwark are high enough to make such an investment worthwhile. The result? 300 homes, and much needed resources for the Transport for London coffers, required to keep trains running and operations on track. The development of TfL property is a policy supported not just by the mayor, but reflects broader targets for the development of housing on land owned by public sector bodies and transport operators set by national government.

So why the opposition? A review of coverage suggest this has been grounded in concerns about heritage, rather than nimbyism. Resistance has come not from residents but from a group of architects involved in the design of the first station.

There are two slightly different arguments put forward against development. First, that the station’s design is award-winning, and along with other JLE stations, constitutes an “architectural sensation”. (The architects attempted to have the station listed, but failed). The second is that it will be “totally out of scale”.

While the station may have won awards for its iconic status, an intrinsic feature of its design is to support over-station development. As with many other stations built as part of the JLE, Southwark is equipped to hold around 11 storeys, which is admittedly a little on the low side, especially given the station was built less than 20 years ago. A number of the other JLE stations such as Bermondsey were also designed specifically to withstand future over-station development projects. (Incidentally, chief architect of the JLE stations, Roland Paoletti cut his teeth at MTR in Hong Kong, where large-scale development above stations has always been the norm.)

Southwark is not alone in terms of quality of design or heritage, with over 70 stations listed. This does not make development impossible, but it does mean designs will have to take heritage into account if they are going to get past planners.

Turning to the question of scale, it’s worth noting that the guidelines which determine suitable building densities in London take into account proximity to public transport. This site is literally above a Zone 1 station. It’s located within an area that is home to a number of tall buildings, including the Shard and the infamous Tate Modern Extension. Another tall building has the potential to enhance the local character.

This is not the first battle over the redevelopment of London’s stations – think Clapham Junction or South Kensington – and nor will it be the last. The complexities of planning, politics, financing and engineering make over-station development a tough proposition in London. But in a city that is short of space and short of funding to maintain and enhance its rail networks, developing at and around new and existing stations should not be so easily dismissed.

Centre for London’s report Ideas Above Your Station is released today.

Read more: Transport for London sets wheels in motion for new trading arm

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles