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Festival debate puts Skyline campaign back in the spotlight

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The chair of the London Assembly’s planning committee has supported the creation of a new Skyline commission and called for tougher policies to stop the spread of poorly designed towers across London

Arguing for more controls on skyscrapers, Nicky Gavron threw her weight behind the core demands of the AJ/Observer Skyline campaign during Monday night’s debate ‘Does London need more tall buildings?’

Chaired by Sarah Gaventa, the event at the LSE, which kicked off the London Festival of Architecture 2014, saw motion-backers Julia Barfield of Marks Barfield and AJ’s editorial director Paul Finch face objectors Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, and Nicholas Boys Smith, the director of Create Streets.

The debaters were joined by Edward Lister, deputy mayor for policy and planning at the GLA, Rowan Moore, the architecture critic for The Observer and LSE London director Tony Travers.

Finch began the debate, which turned quickly to housing need and absentee investors, stating that towers were ‘part of the answer, and are certainly not mutually exclusive in relation to medium and even low-density development.’

He added: ‘The reasons for the current shortage are complex and interrelated, but fundamentally stem from a failure to maintain and increase supply. Denying the possibility of building tall will not help.’

Gavron said that the ‘stable door had been left open for too long without proper scrutiny’ and called for more stringent checks on new skyscrapers.

She said: ‘Ken Livingstone, when he was mayor, was famously fond of tall buildings and he gave permission to about 20 over eight years. Boris Johnson has given permission for around 200 and I don’t think the public really know this.

‘Very often towers go up in development opportunity areas. In those areas there are planning frameworks – they don’t have the public consultation or the scrutiny you get on a proper planning application. We do need tougher policies.

‘We need cluster policies, height policies, more view management policies. We need to look at the cumulative impact. We need more transparency and accountability and we definitely need a Skyline commission.’

Jenkins agreed that there was a vacuum of policy concerning high-rise schemes claiming that they were ‘alien’ and that not many people liked them.

He said: ‘No one ever told us there would be 300 tall buildings [set to be built]. The only policy the mayor has is whim. The only policy we had to cluster rather than pepper potting has gone. The Walkie Talkie has slid down the hill [out of the City cluster]. The policy that the Thames wouldn’t become a canyon has gone.’

Addressing the debate’s main question directly, Jenkins said: ‘We do not need more tall buildings. Skyscrapers are not efficient buildings – they are difficult to maintain and deteriorate quickly. Architects should be encouraged to build high density, low rise.’

Lister suggested the return to clusters of towers could be the solution. He said: ‘[Some areas are low rise] and we don’t want towers popping up in them. So there is a case for clusters and clusters can make sense.

‘Tower blocks are right in the right places and we have to be careful about clusters. Taking the example of [Broadway Malyan’s] St George’s tower, I would argue that a cluster would make that building [look substantially] better. And putting the tallest building [of a cluster] right next to the river doesn’t make sense.’

In response to criticism from Jenkins and Boys Smith that people do not like living in tall buildings Lister said: ‘The evidence that people do want to live in tall buildings is that people pay money to live in them.’

While Travers was not convinced a Skyline commission would work, Moore set out why a new scrutiny body was needed, calling additionally for a ‘really serious review of the policies’.He added: ‘We also need a 3D model of the whole of London so we can see what is happening –– how can policy decisions be made [without this]?’

The debate came as new names added their support for the AJ/Observer campaign, including skyscraper designers Ian Simpson and Chris Wilkinson, Amanda Levete of AL_A and Alison Brooks of Alison Brooks Architects.

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