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Skyline: five demands for London

Three months after the launch of our Skyline campaign, we examine its impact and set out five recommendations for Boris Johnson

The AJ and the Observer launched the Skyline campaign at the end of March 2014, demanding better standards in the design and delivery of London’s tall buildings. Since then, we have assembled a mass of evidence showing why and how the existing system of planning and design scrutiny covering towers in the capital is failing during an unprecedented boom.

London has produced a number of good skyscrapers and there is much sensible guidance on tall buildings in the capital’s overarching planning document, the London Plan. But this guidance is not demanding nor comprehensive enough to ensure that we get a high-quality and well-considered skyline. The pressure of an international investment market in residential property is placing unprecedented demands on the planning system and it is not proving adequate.

Ours is not an argument against business, investment or growth, but is based on the belief that these are best served by long-term thinking rather short-term and expedient exploitation of the city’s assets.

At the level of the 33 local planning authorities there are on the one hand under-resourced planning departments, and on the other the inducements of planning gain and tax receipts, which encourage decisions to be made without regard for the city as a whole, or for the long-term view. At the scale of London government, a clear and coherent vision is lacking, while the mayor has insufficient means or intent to enforce such policies as do exist.

While local democracy is vital, towers have an impact well beyond their own immediate vicinities and the upshot of London government’s laissez-faire stance is that no one has considered the cumulative effect on London of more than 230 tall buildings that are proposed, approved or under construction. There has also been a failure of public consultation: while the fabric of the city is being radically changed, few Londoners have been fully aware of this until now.

In the absence of visualisations of the cumulative effect of tall buildings, decision-makers are in the dark. And, when the mayor does intervene in the planning process to consider a high-rise scheme such as Convoys Wharf at Deptford, what appear to be clear policies are overlooked. At Convoys Wharf, the mayor overruled the local authority in March to approve the £1 billion scheme, which includes three towers of up to 40 storeys high and 3,500 homes. Despite the fact that the London Plan specifically says large-scale buildings should be ‘appropriate to the transport capacity of the area’, Convoys Wharf currently has a Public Transport Accessibility Level (PTAL) rating of between 1 and 2: poor, given that the PTAL scale ranges from 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest). The scale of this development can be appreciated if one considers it will spark an influx of more than 10,000 residents, a 3.6 per cent increase in the population of the whole borough of Lewisham.

Boris Johnson has said he wants London to be the ‘best big city on Earth’, but we sorely lack the framework and tools necessary to give it a skyline to match. We believe the London Assembly’s planning committee chair, Nicky Gavron, is right to say that the mayor must listen to the growing consensus calling for him to look again at his policies and implementation in this area. What should truly give him pause for thought is that many of the high-profile signatories to our campaign are themselves world-famous skyscraper designers, such as David Chipperfield, Chris Wilkinson of Stirling-prize winner Wilkinson Eyre, Amanda Levete and Ian Simpson. This shows even direct beneficiaries of the boom in tall buildings want to see greater certainty and that reform would be a win-win for London. As the architect of London’s high-rise Elizabeth House scheme in Waterloo, Chipperfield told the AJ when the campaign launched: ‘Everybody should support this campaign … I don’t think anybody, including developers, enjoys the current [planning] conditions. Something like Elizabeth House has involved a huge amount of to-ing and fro-ing and better guidance would have been appreciated by everyone. The skyline is the most visible expression of what happens when a city has no overall co-ordinated planning vision.’ After consulting widely with the profession and further afield, our recommendations to the mayor on fixing this problem are as follows:

1. Introduce a presumption against tall buildings except where a strong positive case can be made for them, in terms of both the individual merits of the proposal, and of a local plan identifying acceptable locations and cumulative effect.

The onus would be on developers and local authorities supporting tall buildings to prove their benefits to the built environment in a given location. As part of this they would have to demonstrate advantages of towers over other building forms, including in terms of their role in meeting London’s real housing needs.

In the short term, the mayor should announce his intention to interpret existing policies strictly until a clearer framework is in place. For example, referring to policy 7.7 of the London Plan, tall buildings must only be considered in areas whose character would not be affected adversely by the scale, mass or bulk of a tall or large building.

2. Order an immediate review of all tall building policies in the capital, including the London Plan and the strategic views management framework. The review would take an evidence-based approach, including a detailed study of recent tall buildings in terms of quality and impact and the effectiveness of current policies. It would learn from the best international practice. Its aim would be to introduce clarity, consistency, certainty and transparency, while respecting the diversity of London’s boroughs. It would clearly identify locations where tall buildings are in no circumstances acceptable.

3. Produce more detailed and rigorous masterplanning for opportunity areas in the capital that outline positive and distinctive visions for the areas in question. This is a necessity for areas such as South Quay in Tower Hamlets, which lacks a proper plan for its towers despite facing multiple tall building proposals.

4. Fund a fully interactive 3D computer model of London’s emerging skyline as has been proposed by the chairman of New London Architecture, Peter Murray. This should show the precise location of each of the planned towers to enable professionals, politicians and the public to see what is in their local areas and, crucially, to get a sense of the cumulative effect of these towers on the city. This tool reflects the government’s Localism agenda by encouraging communities to help shape development in their areas.

5. Establish a skyline commission made up of design experts, as also proposed by Peter Murray. We recommend a transitional body established for a limited period - five years for example - as policy is reviewed and reformed. The commission would be set up in such a way that conflicts of interest are avoided. It would boast international expertise as pioneered by cities such as Vancouver. It would offer advice on commissioning, have an enabling role and carry out design reviews. It would have a remit to cover a building from conception to completion, giving advice pre-planning, at planning stage and after planning permission is secured in order to ensure design quality is upheld.

Readers' comments (4)

  • I (Richard Dorkin) write this sat in my 14 floor office in Hong Kong where I and many others find the collage of tall buildings fascinating and interesting. The drivers in HK are values and the supposed lack of land. If London wants to consider its place as a world city it needs to consider Richard Rogers correct views on no more garden cities. Cities work when the public infrastructure and density coalesce to provide a truly vibrant place to live, work and play. The key issues of the impact of tall buildings are the reality that views will be obscured, air movement hindered, heat island effect intensified and neighbours needing to consider purchasing blinds and curtains. London would do well to seriously consider its skyline as an aesthetic if it feels that it will add to its appeal but I fear that the businesses within the buildings of London will be the real attraction as they are in all world cities. The key aspect is to ensure mixed use developments of high quality architecture. I doubt many people look up above their walking sight line to look at what’s above them unless stopped and asked to.

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  • Hong Kong is a good example of how to manage tall buildings at the urban scale. for example Hong Kong has developed an urban scale climate map (Ren et al, 2010), that allows likely urban climate outcomes to be evaluated – this type of coherent planning document is needed for London – but so far the energy implications – impact on the local climate effect and surrounding infrastructure - in this skyline debate is being completely overlooked… this not for want of trying!

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  • Another aspect of tall buildings that is not considered is the shadow they cast, particularly in Northern climes such as Britain, where the sun never rises more than 60 degrees above the horizon. I once lived in a south-facing flat that was overshadowed by a distant skyscraper, and never got any sunlight except in June. A very depressing experience.

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  • As a frequent visitor to HK and other World cities, I am impressed by the infrastructure and concur with previous comments. Albeit, I am more than a little surprised by the lack of thought that is given in the future plans for the London skyline in terms of dealing with the threat of a fire in a high-rise building. The recent fire scare in The Shard building typifies my concerns. Gridlock streets and inadequate access is invariably a major problem. Evacuating a high-rise building, like the Shard, can take up to two hours. Fires in such buildings can only be effectively fought internally and the emergency equipment must be of the appropriate standard. Closer examination of the fire risk, I would have thought, is an urgent requirement.

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