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Vauxhall helicopter crash: doubts raised over tall buildings policy

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City planning chief Peter Rees has claimed yesterday’s Vauxhall helicopter crash raises questions over tall buildings development in the area

The head of planning at the City of London was commenting on the accident on Wednesday morning (16 January) where a helicopter crashed into the tower crane on Broadway Malyan’s Vauxhall tower, killing two people and injuring others.

Rees told the AJ the crash was ‘yet another reason why towers should be clustered in selected commercial areas like the City and Canary Wharf rather than being randomly peppered across London.’

Towers should be clustered rather than being randomly peppered across London

Vauxhall Tower is part of a riverside development south of The Thames by developer Berekely Group which was approved by former deputy prime minister John Prescott following a planning appeal.

The helicopter collided with the 180 metre-tall tower’s crane after being redirected to nearby Battersea heliport due to foggy weather. The developer said the crane will be replaced within the week and the UK’s biggest mobile crane has been dispatched to remove the wreckage.

Rees, who oversaw the development of major City skyscraper landmarks such as the Gherkin and Heron Tower, said the collision was ‘an isolated, very sad, but rare accident.’ 

He said: ‘We mustn’t jump to conclusions about a cause until the extremely thorough Civil Aviation Authority Air Accidents Investigation Branch have carried out their investigation.

Rees, who is a former light aircraft pilot added: ‘The helicopter flight-path along the River Thames permits single-engine helicopters, with the necessary air traffic control permission, to follow a route to the right of the river’s centreline. 

‘This means that they can “ditch” in the water in the event of an engine failure.  The helicopter involved in today’s accident was a twin-engine helicopter which is able to follow other over-land routes when authorised. 

‘Over recent years the south bank of the river has attracted a series of isolated high-rise, mainly residential, developments.  The Civil Aviation Authority takes a keen interest in the height and location of tall structures in or near to flight-paths.  City developments are limited to a height of 300m in order to avoid conflict with the approach to London City Airport.  The installation and maintenance of aircraft warning lights is also covered by CAA enforced regulations.’

Recent years have seen an increase in planning consents for tall buildings on the Thames such as Ian Simpson’s 220 metre-tall One Blackfriars tower and a cluster of skyscrapers in Vauxhall by the likes of KPF, Fosters and Squire and Partners. Renzo Piano’s Shard overlooking the river topped out last summer becoming the tallest building in Europe.

Traditionally the City of London was home to the capital’s tallest buildings but the success of Canary Wharf and economic pressures to intensify development elsewhere have seen this mantle challenged.

Ken Shuttleworth, architect of 30 St Mary Axe known as ‘The Gherkin’, said the crash would have no impact on the development of tall buildings in the capital.

He said: ‘I don’t see [this accident] stopping construction of towers in London or anywhere else for that matter.’

Shuttleworth suggested now was the time for the Civil Aviation Authority to reflect on safety procedures for flying close to tall buildings.

His comments came after the mayor of London Boris Johnson promised a review of lighting on cranes and tall buildings in the capital.

Shuttleworth argued more should be done to illuminate tower cranes which would make such accidents less likely. ‘I don’t see why they don’t have more lights on tower cranes, let’s have them like Christmas decorations,’ he told the AJ.

He added: ‘There is no reason not to have more lights on tower cranes, they could also have brands on them and they could be painted brighter colours.’

Bryan Avery of Avery Associates was working nearby when the helicopter crashed. He said: ‘The building is certainly making its presence felt in Pimlico. I heard the helicopter go over around eight and thought it strange that it was very low and on an unusual flight path but I thought it must have been a special police flight or someone coming out from Buckingham Palace.’

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