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Boris pours cold water on Skyline campaign demands

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The Mayor of London has accepted only one of the recommendations put forward as part of the AJ and Observer’s Skyline campaign to improve the quality of the capital’s tall buildings

Although Boris Johnson admitted the campaign had ‘shone a light’ on the potential impact posed by a raft of poorly designed new skyscrapers, he played down calls for an expert skyline commission to look future tower plans and a general presumption against high-rise buildings.

He also disagreed with an immediate review of all tall building policies and more detailed and rigorous masterplanning for the capital’s pro-development opportunity areas.

However Johnson did support demands for a city-wide 3D model, showing where the proposed towers would be built, which could help borough make informed planning decisions.

Speaking for the Mayor, Edward Lister, the deputy Mayor for Planning said: ‘I’d like to thank the AJ and the Observer for their Skyline Campaign which has shone a light on this important issue for London and stimulated passionate and well-argued debate.

He added: ‘London is growing at an unprecedented rate and we are going to need to build hundreds of thousands of new homes to meet that demand. In an already densely-populated city, there is no doubt that tall buildings that are sensitively managed, well designed and in the right place, represent at least part of the solution.

‘The Mayor is firmly of the belief that the London Plan and associated planning documents work effectively to safeguard London’s skyline but as the city continues to grow we will regularly review these policies to ensure they are working well for the city.’

Johnson’s stance will not surprise London assembly member Nicky Gavron who has previously hit out at the Mayor of London for ignoring the growing concern over the capital’s policies on tall buildings

In June the chair of London Assembly’s planning committee challenged Johnson over the lack of a coherent policy on tall buildings and said that it was important that the 230 tall buildings planned for London did not ‘damage the character and identity of the surrounding area’.

The committee has not yet given its own response to the recommendations which were formulated following months of debates and input from tall building experts.

In full: the skyline recommendations and Boris Johnson’s response

Recommendation 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.

Our response
The London Plan which is currently in its 4th iteration has never contained a presumption against tall buildings, but has always set out that tall building projects must be not only well designed but also in the right place. The plan has received the support of every Secretary of State that has examined it and has been used as an exemplar in other city plans around the world. (I.e. San Paulo in Brazil). The plan has delivered unprecedented growth to London’s economy and led to improvements to the quality of its environment. Some of this success is down to the plan-led approach to tall buildings that gives this city its energy and dynamism. It would be a huge mistake to have a presumption against tall building development and is something that we do not believe is justified.

We do not believe a presumption against tall buildings is justified

The Mayor is of the firm belief that appropriately located and well-designed tall buildings have a role to play in London’s development. The Mayor has in addition produced a series of Opportunity Area Planning Frameworks that provide robust and clear advice about the location of tall buildings, their relationship to the public ream and their height in relation to key strategic views.

Recommendation 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.

Our response
The fourth Examination in Public of the London Plan has just closed. The majority of London boroughs have up to date adopted plans that are supported by more detailed plans that cover in many instances tall building locations and their integration in their local context. These plans, like the London Plan, are under regular review. There is therefore no need for a wholesale review of all extant tall building policies and it would certainly not be a particularly good use of often scarce resources.

Recommendation 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.

Our response
The Opportunity Area planning Frameworks strike the right balance between prescription and flexibility. Overly detailed plans are inherently brittle and immediately out of date. The history of attempts to develop the Thames Gateway is full of overly elaborate “rigorous “ masterplans that gather dust on shelves and only serve the  egos of those who produce them rather than the people of London. We have a remarkably sophisticated and robust planning system that provides for a high level of scrutiny.

Recommendation 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.

Our response
We have already procured a 3d model for large parts of London which we have used to asses tall building policy in key Opportunity Areas. This has provided a useful tool for engaging with local communities on the potential impacts of tall buildings as well as proving a useful tool for negotiating with developers. We support the idea of providing London wide coverage, and we have shared the model with London Boroughs .

Recommendation 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.

Our response
The control of London’s skyline has to be democratically mandated. A panel of experts would represent narrow interests and would undermine local democratic process.

A panel of experts would undermine local democratic process

Most experts are involved in promoting tall building schemes or working for developers that build such schemes, and so conflicts of interest would be impossible to avoid.

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