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What did Boris Johnson do for London?

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As Boris Johnson prepares to step down as London mayor next month, writer Colin Marrs gives his view on how the capital has changed during BoJo’s eight years in charge 

When Boris Johnson was elected in 2008, the GLA’s Design for London unit expected their work on housing standards to be kicked into the long grass. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only did the new mayor encourage the team in its work, when the final London Housing Design Guide was released, he said that it would spell an end to ‘homes for Hobbits’.

Along with new minimum space standards, the design guide – eventually incorporated into London-wide planning guidance – outlined a ‘New London Vernacular’ for the design of buildings. In contrast to the high-rise apartments which dominated the preceding 10 years, the new approach promoted more traditional London values such as brick facades and low-rise terraces.

PRP's Chobham Manor scheme on the Queen Elizabeth Park

PRP’s Chobham Manor scheme on the Queen Elizabeth Park

The project exemplifies Johnson’s New London Vernacular drive

Alex Ely, principal at Mae, was a member of the team which drew up the design guide. He says: ‘Boris was quite strong on this actually – he took it on board and championed it considerably. A lot of people characterise the approach as just meaning more brick but it is about more than that – it is about front doors and active frontages, and acknowledging that it is about background rather than signature. Previously every corner was a landmark opportunity.’

The contrast between the change brought about by the New London Vernacular is perhaps at its most stark at the Chobham Manor development in the Queen Elizabeth Park, where low-rise terraces are overlooked by the former Olympic athletes’ village.

Johnson, like his predecessor Ken Livingstone, was not afraid of calling in major planning applications to make the final decision. However, unlike Livingstone, Johnson has yet to refuse a single one of these called-in schemes. His 100 per cent record looked under threat by a recommendation by his planning officers to refuse PLP Architecture’s £900 million Bishopsgate Goodsyard development in Shoreditch. However a decision has been delayed, most likely until Johnson has left office.

In 2014, Livingstone criticised his successor’s approach to call-ins. Although seen as just as developer-friendly as Johnson, the Labour mayor did not hesitate to refuse a number of large schemes – mainly on the grounds of inadequate social housing, but also due to unsustainable design and the harm on surrounding historical buildings.

However, Brian Waters, principal at the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership, says that the Goodsyard decision is a repetition of an approach which has seen Johnson negotiate - rather than reject - changes, to allow developments to proceed. Waters says: ‘It is rather clever. On one occasion the mayor asked the borough to unrefer the development until they had negotiated a better planning agreement to avoid blocking it.’

Revised plans for the warehouses at 12-13 Blossom Street [redesgined by AHMM - November 2015]

Revised plans for the warehouses at 12-13 Blossom Street [redesgined by AHMM - November 2015]

Source: Forbes Massie

AHMM’s revised plans for the warehouses at 12-13 Blossom Street - approved by Boris Johnson after being rejected by the local plannnig authority

In 2009, Johnson was forced by Islington planners to remove a shed he built without planning permission on his balcony. Despite this setback, the mayor has remained determined to leave his legacy on the built environment as a reminder of his time in office. However, unlike the Livingstone-instigated bike scheme and Thomas Heatherwick’s revived Routemaster bus, the controversial Garden Bridge scheme, procured by mayoral agency Transport for London, has not yet received the ‘Boris’ epithet.

A recent report by the London Assembly’s oversight committee - which referenced many of the AJ’s FOI revelations on the Garden Bridge prourement - found that Johnson had provided preferential access to design contract winner Heatherwick, an action which had ‘undermined the integrity of the contest’. However, the shadow cast over the procurement looks unlikely to stop its construction - and neither of the leading contenders to replace Boris - Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith - have said they would pull the plug on the project.

The bridge, like two of Johnson’s other trophy projects – the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Queen Elizabeth Park, and the Emirates Airline cable car – were provided on the basis that they would be mainly paid for by the private sector. Crucially, they have been underwritten by public funds, and the two that have already been built have already eaten up more public funds than originally planned. Many argue that the long-term regeneration benefits will provide an eventual payback, while others wonder what the handling of these projects teaches us about Johnson as a potential future prime minister.

Boris Johnson on The Emirates Airline

Boris Johnson on The Emirates Airline

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Tim Clark, President Emirates Airline, at the opening of The Emirates Airline, in London

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