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Skyline: Planning policy on tall buildings is a mess

Skyline gives us a chance to create height policies that are about judgement as well as location, says Paul Finch

The creditable campaign by this magazine and the Observer for the creation of a proper skyline strategy therefore starts at a disadvantage, since it is taking place in a vacuum.

At first glance, it is difficult to imagine why. London’s two mayors have both pledged to support towers if well designed and well located - a policy promoted by CABE and English Heritage in their sensible joint advice on the subject more than a decade ago.

Unfortunately, mayoral principles have been set aside in favour of filthy lucre, or equivalent. Ken Livingstone was so keen on tower developments funding his affordable housing programme that he ended up supporting all sorts of mediocre designs. Ditto Boris Johnson, except that he is also interested in Crossrail levies.

The current mayor’s overruling of local authorities and communities is his way of seeking atonement for his dismal record on housing completions. The irony of his decision to bulldoze through the Convoys Wharf proposal, a chunk of Hong Kong unloaded onto Deptford, was unmissable since its architect, Terry Farrell, was promoting the importance of ‘place’ in his review of UK architecture in the same week.

Indeed Farrell’s welcome call for proactive planning might be seen as a cry for help: ‘Stop us architects from having to design mega-structures at the behest of global capitalism in planning-free zones like Deptford!’

Current skyline policies are based on where you cannot build tall, as opposed to where you can, generating the classic conditions for British muddle. Sometimes you can build and sometimes you can’t, but you won’t know until you try. Hence the shambles over David Chipperfield’s Elizabeth House project at Waterloo. Thank goodness English Heritage, Westminster council and UNESCO have (at least for the moment) been put back in their box.

Another unfortunate aspect of the tall buildings story is that the major debates in recent years have focused on designs by good architects, rather than the stuff going on below the radar. Frankly, it is not buildings like the Shard, the Walkie Talkie or the Cheesegrater that are the problem. Few of the 236 towers in the London pipeline will have their qualities, or their locations.

If it is not too late, the mayor could write a requirement into his London Plan that boroughs not only have a tall buildings policy, but that they identify appropriate locations (bearing in mind that in London, 12 storeys is tall) so that developers don’t waste their own and everyone else’s time.

And it is crucial that such a policy makes reference to the quality of the ground plane and the space between tall buildings where there is a cluster. In short, a design standard of excellence, not just competence.

As an observation, it is noticeable that clusters work better than singletons, unless the latter are of exceptional design character. Ironically, some of the shock-horror images used as part of the AJ/Observer campaign look better than the existing condition; the question is whether the cluster is in the right place. This is a classic case for Farrellite proactive planning.

That said, you still need to make judgements about the quality of specific proposals, even assuming the location is appropriate. That is what CABE has advised on historically, providing an opinion which can be used by the elected authority making the planning decision.

The mayor and boroughs should use CABE/ Design Council to provide this independent advice, benefiting from procedures that have been subject to legal challenge and cross-examination at public inquiry, in all cases coming through unscathed.

Why re-invent the wheel?

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