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‘Rather exciting’: Architects welcome Sadiq’s design-led London Plan

London plan poster map index
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The mayor’s draft London Plan, published last week, has been almost universally welcomed by architects. Ella Braidwood finds out why his vision for the capital has so excited the profession

Ben Derbyshire was not alone when he took to Twitter to lavish praise on mayor Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan when it was unveiled last week.

The RIBA president said he was ‘hugely encouraged’ after an initial read of Khan’s vision, which unambiguously places design firmly at the heart of his plan. A ‘delighted’ Dinah Bornat of ZCD Architects went further, saying the embryonic proposals could have ‘monumental urban design implications’.

The mayor’s far-reaching document, set to be implemented in 2019, provides a blueprint for London’s ‘future development and sustainable, inclusive growth’ through to 2041. 

Alongside an ambitious 50 per cent affordable housing target and the scrapping of density limits, the 524-page document dedicates an entire chapter to design. This comprises 13 design policies, and shows a significant commitment by Khan for good design and architecture. 

One of these policies, Delivering Good Design, includes steps for maintaining design quality through to a project’s completion. Of particular interest to the profession – and a new weapon in its armoury to combat marginalisation – is a proposed measure allowing local councils to use ‘architect-retention clauses in legal agreements where appropriate’. This is particularly viewed as an issue under Design and Build where architects are often not novated.

RCKa Architects director Russell Curtis is pleased by this surprise, explicit instrument to keep architects on board throughout schemes. ‘Formalising the ability of planners to ensure the continued involvement of designers post-planning is one excellent initiative to help elevate the quality of the city’s built environment,’ he says. ‘Design quality is embedded within the entire document, which is highly encouraging.’

Speaking on behalf of the RIBA, Derbyshire adds that the institute is ‘delighted to note the provision of design continuity in the development process’. 

And Hawkins\Brown partner Seth Rutt calls the architect-retention clause ‘very positive’. While questioning whether the measure could be enforced, Rutt says: ‘It will help in the case of volume housebuilders who tend to jettison architects after planning consent in favour of a “delivery” architect.’ 

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The Delivering Good Design policy also includes a call for planning documents to have a ‘sufficient level of design information, including key construction details’ to ‘ensure the quality of design can be maintained if the permitted scheme is subject to subsequent minor amendments’.

Luke Tozer of Pitman Tozer Architects says the ‘mechanisms for maintaining and delivering design quality are refreshing’, adding that providing key construction details could ‘help reduce pernicious value-engineering by contractors, or at least help local authorities defend against it’.

And he describes architect-retention clauses as ‘formal recognition of some of the reasons why good schemes at planning are not delivered to the same quality’.

The draft plan also shows a continued focus on the mayor’s 50 Design Advocates, who Khan appointed in July and who include David Adjaye, Alison Brooks and Sadie Morgan.

These advocates, says the document, will play a ‘key role in helping to deliver good design’ in London, and will help implement Khan’s Good Growth by Design programme.

‘They will help champion design across the GLA Group and beyond, through research, design review, capacity building, commissioning and advocacy.’ 

Morgan, a founding director of 2017 Stirling Prize-winner dRMM, says the profession should support Khan’s Good Growth by Design agenda. ‘All of us have a duty to be advocates for good design,’ she says. ‘Reimagining our built environment is one of the greatest opportunities we have to move towards a better future. Let’s not waste it.’

HTA’s Simon Bayliss fears adding more layers to the system could cause delays in securing planning permission

She also ‘welcomes the focus’ on measures to bolster design reviews, stipulating them for schemes that seek to go above existing density limits. 

However, HTA managing partner Simon Bayliss fears that adding more layers to the system could cause delays in securing planning permission.

‘Many London borough councils have established their own design review panels which, when properly managed in conjunction with a well-resourced planning department, can add enormous value to the design of a project and provide additional support to democratically accountable local authorities,’ he says.

‘[But] creating a further review process could create conflicts in advice and increase the time required to get to a submission and potentially undermine the process of local planning. 

‘The plan refers to good design and good planning being intrinsically linked. We fully agree with this statement – [but] there is a balance.’

The design chapter also outlines Khan’s viewpoint on tall buildings. Earlier this year, the mayor said he would be writing to every borough urging them to take ‘additional care’ regarding the impact of schemes on the city’s protected views. The move followed a row over SOM’s Manhattan Loft Gardens in Stratford and its potential to intrude on protected views of St Paul’s Cathedral from Richmond Park.

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The report insists that tall buildings ‘have a role to play’ in the capital, but adds that they must be ‘sustainably developed in appropriate locations, and [be] of the required design quality’.

Although there is no update on the existing viewing corridors, the plan states that the mayor will work with boroughs to provide a ‘strategic overview of tall building locations across London and will seek to use 3D virtual-reality digital modelling to help identify these areas’.

But alma-nac director Chris Bryant argues that there needs to be much clearer guidance for skyscrapers in London. ‘We still need a London-wide tall building policy and not leave it to individual boroughs,’ he says. 

And on proposals to bin density caps – a separate policy which sits outside the design chapter Nick Ecob, an architect now at Stallan Brand says: ‘While there is lots to applaud in the plan, the increased focus on affordable housing delivery is going to result in densities London has never seen before. 

‘The mayor needs to develop specific guidance for how these new “hyper-dense” neighbourhoods can create sustainable communities that can stand the test of time.’ 

Even so it is clear that, at least in its draft form, design is integral to Khan’s vision for London. The draft plan has only just entered the public consultation phase – it will take until 2019 to see which of these 13 design policies will be pushed forward and how they could be implemented.

As Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects tweeted: ‘On the face of it [the London plan] looks rather exciting. The devil’s in the detail.’

Five key points from the London Plan

Housing: increasing affordability in the capital

Khan’s draft plan includes a target of 50 per cent of new homes being affordable, part of his aim to roughly double the annual rate of housebuilding in the capital to around 65,000 homes. The plans strengthen the mayor’s provision to fast-track planning applications that achieve a minimum of 35 per cent affordable housing.  

A denser city: boosting development at transport hubs

The mayor has taken the bold move of scrapping density limits and the ‘density matrix’, meaning developers will instead seek to make the best use of the land to achieve ‘optimum density’. This increased density, says the plan, should be achieved by ‘applying a design-led’ approach. 

The plan also seeks to develop a number of ‘opportunity areas’, including Kingston and the Lee Valley, as well as building up to 24,000 homes a year on small sites and using major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail 2 to ‘unlock’ around 200,000 homes in the surrounding areas.  

Pushing for a greener London

The plan includes further protections for the green belt, recommending refusing developments that would harm the belt. It also promotes the creation of new ‘green infrastructure’ – including green spaces, street trees, green roofs and natural drainage. This is part of Khan’s manifesto pledge to make more than half of London ‘green’ by 2050 by increasing the number of green spaces. 

The report also contains an ‘aim to reduce Londoners’ dependency on cars in favour of increased walking, cycling and public transport use’, arguing that London ‘cannot continue to grow sustainably’ if this approach is not taken. It urges developers to increase bike parking on projects, providing minimum standards, and calls for ‘car-free development’ on those projects well-connected by public transport. In addition, the plan features provisions to make London a zero carbon city by 2050.  

Toughening up fire safety post-Grenfell

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the draft plan includes a series of strong fire safety measures, including proposals for buildings to be constructed in an ‘appropriate way to minimise the risk of fire spread; for there to be a ‘suitable and convenient means of escape’ for all those in the building; and a ‘robust strategy for evacuation’.  

‘It is absolutely essential that we learn every lesson we can from the terrible Grenfell tragedy,’ Khan says. He adds that his plan will ensure the ‘highest standards of safety are set out at the planning stages of new developments in the capital, so that they can be incorporated into the design and build’. 

A city built around play

The report urges developers to increase ‘play and informal recreation’ space on all schemes used by children, making it ‘safe and stimulating’ and allowing them to be ‘independently mobile’. 

ZCD Architects director Dinah Bornat, one of the mayor’s Design Advocates, says the new measures will ‘change the way we plan new developments as we shift to networking shared spaces as well as considering overlooking and internal circulation’.  

She says her research into this area for the draft plan ‘reflects the importance of children accessing their local area to move around safely and play’. 

The mayor is also calling for new large-scale commercial developments that are open to the public – such as shops and leisure facilities – to include free public toilets. There are also measures to support the capital’s cultural spaces, including museums, creative workspace, theatres, cinemas, libraries, and music venues.

 This article was published in the AJ Architecture Awards issue – click here to buy a copy

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Readers' comments (1)

  • chris Dyson

    This is fantastic news!
    A design led mayor who understands the processes involved...
    I am particularly inspired by 'the architect-retention clauses in legal agreements where appropriate', this is surely the way forward for delivering quality at all levels.
    Bravo Sadiq Khan!

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