'Shard of Glass' ego trip puts London at risk
As a formal objector to the London Bridge Tower, I have received notice of the decision from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the inspector's views are accepted by the secretary of state and, subject to the 'customary' conditions, permission is granted. This is despite recognising that 'the proposed development conflicts with Policy E.2.2 in the adopted UDP which states that 'Southwark is not considered to be an appropriate area for high buildings'' and that 'there are material considerations which indicate that he should determine the application other than in accordance with the development plan'.
In the overall conclusions: 'the secretary of state considers that for a building of this height to be acceptable (note: proposed tallest building in Europe), the quality of its design is critical, in line with government's commitment to the achievement of good design. In this case, like the inspector, he is satisfied that the proposed tower is of the highest architectural quality. Had this not been the case, the secretary of state might have reached a different decision, but he considers the quality of design of this particular building is a very strong argument in its favour.'
I regard the decision as one of the most problematic and potentially damaging to London's character. No part of the Greater London area can be considered 'safe' from tall and large buildings, since the decision has set aside the views of the local UDP and rates the assessment of design quality as virtually the determining criterion. The precedent has been set. We do not have the wisdom demonstrated in Paris, which protects its historic centre and safeguards its character.
In my objection to the proposal, I drew attention to the fact that the 306m-high building was of huge size and mass. Any perspective illustration of the proposal shows the enormous thickness of the building at the height equivalent to the top of Guy's Hospital. It is a truly dense, thick building, completely out of scale with its surroundings and setting. There can be no case to be made that the proposal is satisfactory in urban or civic design terms, where scale is an important criterion.
With regard to English Heritage and CABE's joint 'Guidance on Tall Buildings', regrettably there is little recognition of the relationship of mass, size or scale to tall buildings.
Where the word 'scale' is included as in paragraph 2.6 of Planning Policy, it urges the identification of suitable locations for tall buildings being determined 'after a detailed urban design study' has been carried out, which would consider 'historic context scale, urban grain, natural topography'. Under paragraph 4.4, Evaluating Tall Building Proposals, 'CABE and English Heritage will therefore assess proposals in terms both of contribution and any adverse impacts which they may bring. These proposals should be considered as pieces of architecture in their own right, and as pieces of urban design sitting within a wider context; and in this respect they should be assessed in the same way as any other project, and against the most demanding standards of quality.' It was clear at the inquiry, and has been borne out, that the understanding of mass and scale were not properly taken into account by the inspector or the secretary of state.
Furthermore, in cross-questioning during the inquiry, Richard Rogers, while not being able to say precisely how many tall buildings should form a cluster at London Bridge, did consider that there should be a cluster. In conceiving that not only one tall building but a number of tall buildings at London Bridge would be acceptable, desirable, suitable or appropriate, the impact for the future could be devastating.
The pressures behind the opinion that design exceeds all criteria, and that the current proposal is one of the highest quality in design terms, is dangerous and mischievous.
However brilliant architects may consider the work of another, this does not override the first principles of scale, mass and context. I fear that this has been the case here with disastrous consequences.
Should the proposed London Bridge Tower not proceed, due to a downturn in office demand for instance, the fact remains that by this decision precedent is set and all London is at risk. Is the uniqueness of London to be destroyed forever, for the benefit of a few developers and the ego trip of a handful of powerful people; or should a proper considerate planning process prevail?
Tom Ball, London