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Moore: Boris' reaction to Skyline is patchy, as are the planning policies

[SKYLINE] Boris Johnson’s response to the Skyline debate is disappointing, says Rowan Moore

Boris Johnson is fond of saying that he presides over the greatest city in the world. He argues, correctly, that London is facing its most significant pressures of population and growth since the 19th century. He is pleased, too, about the international investment that it is attracting. The greatest city facing one of its greatest challenges should, therefore, have the greatest planning framework for dealing with it, the more so if there is the wealth to pay for the relatively tiny cost of such a thing.

Great planning does not mean either “most restrictive” or “most laissez-faire”. It means creating the conditions for growth and change while maintaining a vision of the common good. It balances competing interests. It includes a grasp of the cumulative effect of individual decisions, which private developers will not have. It can protect long-term benefits against damage from short-term profit. It has the ability to spot problems before they become crises and find a way to address them. It can review alternative approaches to an issue, such as population growth, and promote the best ones. It has clarity and consistency, so everyone knows where they stand. It has the ability to review the results of its own decisions, and learn from them. It is informed by knowledge, not guesswork. It is the result of genuine and transparent public debate.

The mayor and his officers have so far responded patchily to the London Skyline debate, led by the Observer and the Architects’ Journal and supported by leading figures in business, architecture, property and culture. Johnson has written a defensive and not wholly accurate article in the Evening Standard and members of his planning team have spoken at debates on the subject. Their argument is that the London skyline is not out of control and that the city has a planning apparatus that is working perfectly well.

They were half right. There is indeed a planning apparatus of some complexity in London. There is the London Plan, which says things about tall buildings with which few could disagree – that they can have a role to play, but that they should be well designed and in the right place, and that their effect at ground level should be considered. There is guidance by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage that says much the same thing, which is also close to what the London public seems to want, as sampled by a recent Ipsos MORI poll.

There is also the London View Management Framework, which sets out with some (but not complete) clarity what may not intrude on specified views of St Paul’s and the Palace of Westminster. There are plans drawn up by individual boroughs and frameworks prepared by the GLA for places designated as “areas of opportunity”. But this patchwork of policies creates an inconsistent mixture of precision and vagueness, and of rules and opinion, truly understood by few. It is not achieving its stated aims. The towers, both built and proposed, in Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle and Stratford, are not evidence of the greatest planning system in the greatest city working at its best. Neither is the wall of towers now in prospect in South Quay, next to Canary Wharf, at densities considerably higher than Hong Kong’s, with which borough planners are struggling to keep up.

Nor is the new London skyline the result of informed public debate, as at no point has it been shown what the future city resulting from these policies will look like. Nor, as the mayor’s office admits, is there any evidence that towers of luxury flats are best way of responding to the city’s population growth and housing shortage. A major city, in short, is being fundamentally redesigned with an amazing absence of real knowledge. Most kitchens are planned with a better overview than this. What the city needs is a clear and visible framework that states where towers are and are not acceptable. It would create freedoms as well as limits, perhaps permitting in places unlimited height. It would not be a uniform rule for the whole city, but would embody its differences – Wandsworth is different from Croydon, which is different from Canary Wharf. Other cities have such things.

The framework would not be sufficient on its own to ensure that tall buildings are well designed or create coherent new neighbourhoods. For this, there would need to be enhanced versions of the plans that the GLA currently produces for areas of opportunity. Good in theory, these have not yet proved equal to the pressures placed on them.

Other policies should be considered – for example, designating the Thames a significant public asset, requiring specific guidelines for anything built near it, or demanding from developers proof that their towers are clad in materials that will not deteriorate. Towers’ claims for sustainability should be more robustly challenged, given that their structures are high in embodied energy. No one should think that creating such policies is easy, or that it is possible for anyone, now, to have all the answers for an unprecedented challenge. It will take time. Meanwhile, there is urgency, in that applications for tall buildings are submitted and approved weekly.

Here, the idea of a mayoral skyline commission is useful, as proposed by Peter Murray of New London Architecture. Composed of knowledgeable people without vested interests, its job would be to interpret more effectively the policies that exist. Its weakness is that it would rely too much on opinion, for which reason, as has been suggested, it should have a fixed lifespan. Murray has also proposed a digital model of London, accessible to all, on which it would be possible to see the effects of proposed buildings and their cumulative impact. Decisions, in other words, would no longer be made in the dark. It is hard to think of any good reason to oppose this and it should be implemented as soon as possible.

In the end, the issue goes beyond questions of the skyline, important though they are, to the phenomenal population rise projected for the city: to 10 million in 2031, from its current 8.3 million. London has a history of responding to extreme situations, in the process creating models for the world to follow, from the creation of Bazalgette’s sewerage system, to the formation of London Transport, to the Clean Air Acts, and it needs such a response now. An intelligent policy on tall buildings would be a start.

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