London has foolishly flexible 'planning rules for pirates'
As the capital’s planning rules are bent and twisted, architecture suffers, says Peter Stewart
The recent draft London Plan - the Mayor of London’s planning strategy - proposes changes to the capital’s view management regime which controls new development that would appear in important views, including those of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London.
Significant alterations to the London View Management Framework (LVMF) include adding a new protected view from Parliament Square across the Thames, and imposing more control over the view of Westminster from the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park. The changes, in the manner we have come to expect in the UK, ignore the normal English usage of the word ‘planning’ by following rather than anticipating development proposals. These changes affect some major development sites.
London doesn’t know whether to look to the dynamism of New York or the stasis of Paris for the best way to regulate the skyline
The Parliament Square view affects the area around Waterloo Station, including Allies and Morrison’s Three Sisters tower scheme recently refused planning permission after an inquiry. The Serpentine view affects plans for further tall buildings at Elephant and Castle, which lies bang on the alignment in question - the residential tower by Hamiltons under construction there is clearly visible from the Serpentine Bridge.
Several other geometrically defined viewing corridors are to be widened, restricting development opportunities elsewhere. There are a few views - the most important - where there is strict geometric definition which prevents buildings from being erected in front of the protected monuments: a system much the same now as when first developed in 1991. The rigour of this part of the regime mirrors that of the separate system of St Paul’s Heights restrictions in the City, dating from the 1930s, which receives far less attention than the LVMF.
Its rules are non-negotiable. Most of the rest of the LVMF is a bit like the Pirate’s Code in Pirates of the Caribbean: ‘more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules’. Much of what the LVMF purports to control is negotiable - a good example of the rule that the longer planning documents are, the less precise they are. And because the zone of uncertainty is so great, it is worth developers’ while to enter into protracted processes, ending at inquiry if necessary, to see how far the boundary can be pushed.
Architecture suffers as the brief expands or contracts on the hoof, according the progress of negotiations. The regime for London’s skyline, perhaps matching a wider cultural position, doesn’t know whether to look to the dynamism of New York or the stasis of Paris for the best way to regulate the skyline: both have their advocates. Yet I suspect that in either of those cities, if you want to find out what you can build, you simply look it up in a book.