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Peter Murray: We need a Skyline Commission

A Skyline Commission would ensure an holistic view of tall building development in the capital, says Peter Murray

London is growing. Its population could well hit 10 million by 2030, which means half a million new jobs and a million more people to be housed. In contrast to pre-war suburban sprawl and post-war New Towns, the London Plan seeks to accommodate this growth within a densified Greater London. This is having a substantial impact on the shape of the city and its buildings.

Research carried out by GL Hearn for New London Architecture (NLA) has found at least 236 buildings over 20 storeys are currently proposed, approved or under construction in London. If they all go ahead, this will mean 33 buildings of between 40 and 49 storeys, and 22 of 50 storeys or more, radically changing the capital’s skyline.

London faces a perfect storm of pressures on the development of tall buildings

Right now, London faces a perfect storm of pressures on the development of tall buildings: a critical housing shortage; rocketing land prices; burgeoning international investment; and boroughs which are dependent on Section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levies to pay for affordable housing and local improvements. On top of that, residential values increase as you go higher, so developers will push for the maximum number of floors. These are pressures of a scale the planning system has not previously had to deal with.

Edward Lister, London’s deputy mayor for planning says, ‘What we can’t do is impose some kind of freeze on the skyline and suspend the capital in stasis’. He believes opportunity area frameworks and local plans provide adequate guidance for boroughs and developers on the right places in which to locate tall buildings and how they should be built. ‘London has struck the right balance between too much prescription and too little control.’

The Guidance on Tall Buildings report published in 2007 by English Heritage and CABE is still relevant. It says that in the right place, tall buildings can make positive contributions to city life, and includes the caveat that if towers are too big and too prominent, they can harm the qualities that people value about a place.

Tall buildings are not as unpopular as they once were: an Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by NLA found that 39 per cent of respondents did not agree with the statement that ‘there are too many tall buildings in London’, compared with 32 per cent who agreed. Also, 45 per cent thought that tall buildings have made London look better, while only 25 per cent disagreed.

People are happier with tall buildings because the architecture has improved. Understandably, 30 St Mary Axe and the Shard are preferred to the system-built concrete tower blocks of the 1960s; but the key problem today is not what the individual buildings look like, but how they relate to the cluster of buildings that surrounds them.

In face of the pressures of growth, the mayor needs to beef up his design advice

London’s approach to planning has traditionally been pragmatic and responsive, and the variety and vitality that it produces is a part of the city’s DNA. It generates a character that could well be damaged by more formal controls, yet in face of the pressures of growth, the mayor clearly needs to beef up his design advice. We propose that he sets up a London Skyline Commission – a group which understands design and planning, and can look at the totality of tall building development in London and assess its impact on the shape of the city. To support the commission the mayor should fund a 3D visualisation of the whole Greater London area that would allow new proposals to be seen in the wider context. The impact of buildings could be studied by moving through the model instead of the static photos used today. This digital model would be a valuable tool for public consultation.

The commission could provide design review, taking into account historic context as well as new buildings emerging in the vicinity. It could provide advice throughout the process, from the selection of architects through to detailed construction. It could help to ensure that as London goes through this period of unprecedented growth and stretched local authority resources, we do not repeat the mistakes of the 1960s.

NLA believes that an open and informed debate about the pressures of housing a fast-growing city, and the resulting solutions, is essential in the development of a better city. The scale of change revealed in the NLA/GL Hearn study will come as a surprise to many, and we believe the discussion that emerges will have a positive impact on the buildings that will enhance our skyline in the future.

  • Peter Murray is chairman of New London Architecture, London’s centre for the built environment. The NLA’s London’s Growing Up! exhibition is at the Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London WC1 until 12 June; admission free.

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