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A SIGHT TO BEHOLD

AGENDA

The Corporation of London has protected views of St Paul's Cathedral since 1938 by telling developers where and how high they can build. Its policies have had to work hand in hand with those of central government since 1991 and the London mayor since 2000, with both needing to be satisfied before developments can take place.

In April, London mayor Ken Livingstone published new attempts to police these views. The Corporation had problems with his plans for a number of reasons, and objected accordingly (see box, right).

City Planning Office Peter Rees - one of the most powerful men policing views across London - told the AJ that he thought Livingstone's justifications for his new view policy were 'a load of balls'.

These strident objections come in the aftermath of a scathing attack launched on Livingstone's draft London View Management Framework by Royal Parks Consultant and veteran sightlines expert Hal Moggridge ( ajplus 26.10.05).

Moggridge had circulated a leaflet, saying that he believed that important views were being put at risk by the plans.

Rees echoes these concerns, and warns that the mayor is proposing an idea that differs from his own office's carefully considered guidelines on sightlines and historic views of St Paul's - known as 'St Paul's Heights' - that were first ratified in the 1930s.

The 'heights' were devised by W Godfrey Allen, surveyor to the fabric of St Paul's. At the time, the heights of Unilever House and Faraday House - meagre compared to the heights of modern towers - were enough to provoke a public outcry that aimed to protect well-known views of the south and west of the cathedral.

As such, the Corporation proposed to adopt Allen's proposals, that would restore and retain key views of the cathedral. His idea worked on the principle of an imaginary 'grid' laid over the surface of the area surrounding the cathedral. Development should not exceed the height of this grid. If it did, he said, certain views of the cathedral would be compromised.

This grid system was complemented by a system introduced by central government in 1991. This protected certain 'strategic views' of St Paul's from afar.

These views included the sight of the building from Greenwich Park and Westminster Pier.

This worked smoothly for some time. But the government's powers on views were then passed over to the mayor's office, giving Livingstone the opportunity to flex his muscles, and planting the seed for the current row.

Livingstone's new proposals shrink viewing corridors of St Paul's - thus allowing more development in the City - which will appease the money-making bigwigs, as taller buildings can be crammed in closer to the landmark.

The mayor's proposals also take in areas previously policed by St Paul's Heights. When the framework was published this year, the City's seasoned architecture professionals greeted it with some bemusement. Firstly, when the Corporation was first sent the mayor's draft, its diagrams were of such poor quality that the City planners had to draw up their own maps from scratch.

Secondly, and crucially, the Mayor's report bases its viewing corridors on the golden section principle - completely ignoring the Corporation's work over the past 70 years. The golden section defines an area around the cathedral dome, within which development cannot take place when viewed from certain positions - 26 key views in and around the City.

It is this principle that has angered the Corporation most.

'It's complete balls, ' says Rees.

How could they have hoped to pull that one off? They're on very shaky ground.

'We have considerable concerns that views are being reduced to meaningless slots, ' Rees continues. His department claims that to depict views of St Paul's as 'framed' contradicts how people actually view the skyline - as a plane, stretching off as far as the eye can see in every direction. He says he thinks the golden section idea is being employed merely as a convenient rationalisation to allow for more development in the area.

If Livingstone's plans are ever to succeed - and at the moment they seem far from untouchable - he would be wise to consult the experts sooner rather than later.

Otherwise developers and architects behind the swathe of towers proposed for the London skyline will face even more of a planning nightmare to get the go-ahead for their towering works of art.

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