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High hopes or Shard times?

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Last week John Prescott gave the go-ahead for Renzo Piano's 300m-high Shard of Glass at London Bridge station, which was the subject of a public inquiry earlier this year. Planning expert Richard Coleman considers the consequences of this decision and the planning inspector's conclusions

At any appeal the system is only as good as the evidence produced. In this case it was of the highest quality and the issues were penetrated, understood and clarified in the most intelligent way. The inspector's report is therefore essential reading for those involved in central London planning challenges.

Precedent plays no part in planning and the secretary of state endorsed this theory. Every proposal must continue to be judged on its own merits. His judgement elevated the part played by the quality of the design, concluding that potentially harmful impacts can be mitigated by good design, which in this case, the inspector agreed, was of the very highest architectural quality.

In the strategic views from Hampstead Heath, he found that Renzo Piano's Shard of Glass neither reduced the visibility nor the setting of St Paul's Cathedral. Rather, he found it enhances this view since it is a better design than the existing building on the site.

But what will this outcome mean for the future of other strategic views in the capital? Well, as no other strategic views give rise to a backdrop, let alone one as poor as the London Bridge cluster, this is perhaps only relevant to subsequent proposals at London Bridge.

The inspector concluded that the effect on St Paul's strategic views, the Tower of London, other listed buildings and conservation areas was to be set against the fact that modern development, including the existing cluster of buildings at London Bridge, is already a feature of their settings.

The fact that London Bridge Tower is of a higher quality of design than the mediocre Southwark Towers, which it replaces, apparently constitutes an enhancement to all views, irrespective of its height. There are few proposals, however, other than London Bridge Tower, where this could be the case. The result of this inquiry cannot be so relevant, therefore, for new proposals for tall buildings. In the inspector's considerations of its effect on the listed buildings (Tower Bridge, Lambeth Palace and County Hall), he acknowledged that the distance away from them played a part in making the appearance of the proposal acceptable. He also included the fact that the Shard's conjunction with them was only one of very many views of these buildings.

He suggested there might be a distance limit for future high building proposals in relation to the Tower of London, and that the 'moat' may not prove to be enough of a limit. By implication, he believes tall buildings could come quite close, so long as they do not overwhelm it by 'standing closely to it'. Height seems to be less important than distance. However, he confirmed English Heritage's belief that the views of the tower from Queen's Walk, next to Norman Foster's City Hall, were now the most important ones to protect.

The inspector decreed that the draft London Plan, Southwark's emerging Unitary Development Plan and the draft Tower of London Management Plan should be afforded little weight in his considerations. He believed the Shard would be a good marker to identify St Paul's in regard to the strategic views, dismissing English Heritage's concern about the steadily diminished prominence of the cathedral as a 'purely historicist stance'.

On quality and its preservation, the inspector was explicit. He said: 'In this case, four weeks of inquiry time was spent considering a particular design.

My recommendation is based on that design - not on variants of it.'

This decision only highlights the fact that solid supplementary planning guidance, based on studies such as that in draft for the London Bridge Tower, modified to account for this inquiry, and a similar study for St Paul's Cathedral, is necessary to make building high in London more predictable. This is surely the desire of the developer world. While the decision has shown how scientific the process of inquiries can and should be, it has only provided a route to how predictability may be achieved. It has not opened up the floodgates to approvals. The floodgates may appear to be open and I am sure applications will now flow. But the 'gates of approval' have a discerning keeper, and they are by no means open, or even ajar.

Richard Coleman is a planning expert. www. citydesigner. com

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