London Assembly planning chair hails impact of AJ/Observer initiative, while Prasad, Barfield, Rees and English Heritage boss call for action
The AJ’s Skyline campaign was debated at City Hall yesterday (10 June) as leading figures lined up to demand London mayor Boris Johnson tighten planning rules and guidance on tall buildings.
In a major boost for the campaign, which is being run by the AJ and the Observer newspaper, the London Assembly’s planning committee heard pleas for action on Tuesday from figures including London Eye architect Julia Barfield, former RIBA president Sunand Prasad, English Heritage planning and conservation director for London Nigel Barker and former City planning officer Peter Rees.
AJ successfully lobbied for the hearing in April, which had originally been expected in July or August.
Chair of the committee and former deputy mayor of London Nicky Gavron said: ‘The debate about the impact of tall buildings on London’s skyline has been rising as fast as the towers that increasingly dominate it.’
Deputy mayor for policy and planning Edward Lister attended the meeting but found himself increasingly isolated as he attempted to argue that London’s planning system was successfully ensuring towers are high-quality and properly located.
Planning committee member Kit Malthouse – who is deputy mayor for business and enterprise – suggested he is now planning to become more involved in tall building policy. He told the meeting that his department is not currently involved but added: ‘We are having a discussion at the moment as to whether we should be involved in the planning debate and the debate on tall buildings.’
Barker said there is a lack of certainty over tall buildings across the city and said this could only be addressed by the Greater London Authority (GLA).
He said: ‘There’s a complacency that says the historic environment will always be there … But what is going on in London at the moment, I think, could threaten the value of London as a place to come and visit and a place to come and live.
‘We are creating different sorts of areas which don’t say “This is London”. That is the nub of our concern.’
Engineer Jane Wernick said it was impossible to achieve zero-carbon standards on skyscrapers and suggested London should emulate other low-rise, densely populated cities such as Paris.
She said: ‘Given the impending crisis of global warming, I think we need to think much more carefully about tall buildings.
‘The taller the building, the higher the amount of embodied energy per usable square metre.’
The meeting was also attended by NLA chairman Peter Murray and Berkeley Group chairman Tony Pidgley.
The Skyline campaign was represented by Observer critic Rowan Moore.
Nigel Barker, London planning and conservation director, English Heritage
‘The recent debate on tall buildings has raised the issue of how we want London to be in the future, and the role tall buildings will have. It has also highlighted the fragmentary and sometimes confused approach now. The fundamental points when considering building tall remain those set out in the CABE/English Heritage guidance developed in 2003, updated in 2007 and about to be refreshed as part of the general streamlining of planning. The aspiration remains to ensure that we have high-quality design, with the right building in the right place.
‘Location is key and this is where English Heritage advocates that more work at an early stage is required; in the form of detailed analysis at a London-wide level to refine the rather limited Opportunity Area approach promoted by the Greater London Authority (GLA). A more holistic and sophisticated assessment of potential impacts – beneficial and harmful – is needed before we identify places where tall buildings may be possible. This is because the identification of potential is too often translated into an automatic aspiration by those promoting this form of development and is often accompanied by a disregard for the caveats regarding impact that usually appear in policy wording.
‘We need to acknowledge that London will have to increase in density to be sustainable, but that this does not automatically translate into building tall. When considering these issues, the GLA should be pro-actively seeking informed advice. Decisions on applications which have a London-wide impact should also be more transparent than their current, single-person executive model.
‘A Skyline commission, or similar body, could have a role in promoting and advising on what we need in terms of up-front analysis and impartially advising on the quality of individual masterplans that include the potential for building tall. A city like London with such a rich cultural and historic legacy deserves proactive, high-quality planning, underpinned by a clear understanding of what makes it special and an explicit commitment to sustaining these qualities and carrying them forward for the future.’