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‘Our kids need daylight’: families fight the towers leaving UK homes in shadow

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Mohamed Hussein pushes his bedroom curtain aside and points at the large brick building on the other side of the road. “That will be where the towers are – 26 storeys and 24 storeys. I am very worried about the impact it will have on my children,” he says.

“I will have to try and move if they go ahead. This bedroom and the living room will lose a lot of light and this will affect both our physical and mental health. We need light, and we need vitamin D.”

Hussein has three boys: Ali, four, and twins Hussain and Hassan, nine. The twins are severely autistic and also disabled. Their father spends most of his time caring for them.

‘They are non-verbal and can’t walk. They can only crawl, so getting out isn’t easy,” he says. “We take them in the wheelchair. It’s not easy even for us to get to a nearby park.”

Hussein’s home, a flat in a 1930s council block in Lambeth, south London, is at the heart of a row over two planned blocks on the site of the former London fire brigade headquarters on Albert Embankment.

Campaigners and planning experts warn that Hussein’s situation is just one example of the threat of loss of daylight facing people living in Britain’s cities.

The mayor of London has just carried out a consultation on proposed building guidance called Good Quality Homes for all Londoners in which benchmarks for daylight in homes are discussed. It raises the possibility of allowing developers to reduce the daylight standard and suggests that lower light levels could be allowed in dense urban areas.

Paul Littlefair is principal lighting consultant at the Building Research Establishment, authors of the guidance on light in planning used by local authorities. He also gave expert evidence in the Albert Embankment development on the importance of sticking to that guidance.

He is concerned about the direction of travel that is indicated by the mayor’s consultation. “Although this is not yet a change of policy, as they are consulting now, I am concerned for the future,” he said. “I can see there are pressures – people have to live somewhere and there is a need for more and more housing.

“But daylight and sunlight are important. Children need vitamin D to have healthy bones and to grow and they get most of that from sunlight. We know that children are more likely to be shortsighted if they don’t have proper access to light as they grow up.”

Michael Ball is a daylight campaigner who moved out of his own overshadowed flat after suffering from seasonal affective disorder. He argues that the battle in Lambeth matters across the UK.

“If the towers go ahead, they would leave people like Mohamed living in permanent gloom. We believe that if the protections are relaxed in London more widely, as proposed in this draft guidance, many more Londoners would gradually sink into a murky twilight,” he said.

“Worse, this could set a precedent for other cities like Manchester where there is also increasing densification. Developers will be forced to design better if the standards are upheld.”

Light is a common theme in complaints about planning proposals across London as towers increasingly dominate the city skyline. Lambeth council recently refused planning permission for a 29-storey tower in a low-rise neighbourhood in Kennington after complaints.

But many other councils are given the go-ahead. The London Tall Buildings Survey is published each year by New London Architecture. In 2020, despite the pandemic, 35 tall buildings were completed, with 587 going through the planning process – up from 544 the year before. The majority of the towers are residential and the NLA states they could provide 90,000 homes.

The proposed development that will overshadow Hussein and his neighbours will be home to a new London fire brigade museum as well as more than 400 homes, 40% of which are classified as “affordable”.

In a long-running planning process, during which Lambeth council instructed a QC to defend the plans against local campaigners, experts in daylight warned that 424 local properties would be left with less than recommended daylight standards.

The proposals from developer U+I were approved by Lambeth councillors in 2019, but the fate of the towers is now in the hands of Robert Jenrick, the housing, communities and local government secretary.

He has until the end of the month to rule on the application. The London assembly last week passed a motion proposed by Green party member Siân Berry asking the mayor to maintain the BRE benchmark.

A spokesperson for U+I said: The taller elements of our proposals have been specifically designed to minimise any impact on neighbouring properties, and as a result the level of daylight retained would be considered normal in other central London areas. This [impact] ultimately needs to be balanced against the huge number of public benefits that this scheme will deliver.”

A spokesperson for the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said he “recognises the vital importance of ensuring adequate daylight in people’s homes, and recently consulted on the Good Quality Homes for All Londoners London Plan Guidance.

“The mayor has no intention of lowering daylight standards in new development and an updated version of the guidance will be published later this year.”

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