Conservationists should say where we can build tall, rather than complain about every high-rise development, says Paul Finch
Just about the only certainty about high-rise development in London is where you absolutely cannot build: that is to say in the protected view corridors related to St Paul’s Cathedral. Everywhere else, why not have a punt?
That is why there are more than 400 applications for buildings of 20 or more storeys currently in the planning pipeline, and why the Skyline Campaign and Historic England are so jumpy about the subject. It is undeniable that Ken Livingstone’s promise of only ‘world-class’ towers being permitted under his mayoralty was not kept; Boris Johnson has proved only too happy to permit average developments accompanied by a big cheque for Crossrail; and the current mayoral candidates do not sound at all convincing about their tower strategies.
Historic England, under its good new chairman Duncan Wilson, is now leading the charge on protection of what it sees as London’s main unique element: the Thames. There is talk of protected zones on either side of the river, with new view protections. There is also a demand that under the next mayor suitable sites for towers should be identified, because heritage folk are not against towers, you understand, just badly designed ones in the wrong place.
However, if you accept the UNESCO view of the world, it is not just aspect but prospect which is critical to the protection of heritage. What this means is that virtually any historic site in London would suffer from the ‘impact’ – that loaded word reminiscent of car crashes – of a new tower, assuming it could be seen from the site.
Why doesn’t Historic England say where towers would not have a deleterious impact?
Make no mistake, there are plenty of people who, despite their claims to the contrary, would like to put a halt to tall buildings, full stop. Renzo Piano’s Paddington tower design was the metaphorical lightning conductor for their explosion of negative energy, despite the encouragement of Westminster planners to go high in order to generate enough value to sort out the infrastructure mess at the station.
Incidentally, would the same people be happy if there were 400 proposals for 19-storey towers, which for some reason don’t count in the current debate?
There would be one way of approaching the height issue whereby planners, architects and the public might find common cause, even if it left sections of the property market less than happy. This would be to have an honest debate and then identify specific sites where towers could or should be located.
My question to Historic England is: why don’t you say where towers would not have a deleterious impact on heritage assets? Why wait for a new mayor? Why hasn’t it been done before if it is so important? Why won’t conservationists put lines on maps (other than for new conservation areas)?
Unless and until they do so, there will be a suspicion that they will simply snipe at any lines that someone else draws, or complain endlessly about individual developments as they arise. English Heritage lost the three tall building inquiries where it went to war (Heron, Shard, Walkie-Talkie), partly because it was picking a fight over distinctive buildings by good tower architects, rather than focusing on the mediocre. Putting towers in a world financial centre, or next to one of London’s busiest railway interchanges, doesn’t sound too dumb from a locational point of view.
Some architects supporting the Historic England line have themselves produced designs for buildings close to the Thames that in theory they might now oppose, for example Graham Morrison’s three-tower scheme at Waterloo (abandoned), or Terry Farrell’s Hong Kong-scale development in Deptford (progressing).
My advice: be careful what you wish for.
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England
’The issue for planning where tall buildings should be is not a matter of drawing lines on maps as Paul Finch suggests. We are way past this and need to work in 3D to take a strategic approach to tall buildings. We hope Paul will support our request that London has a 3D digital model into which proposals can be put and tested – a suggestion also made by the London Assembly. Then buildings that don’t work can be removed at a touch of a button, unlike the Walkie Talkie whose baleful impact on the setting of Tower Bridge will be with us for a generation at least.
’There should be a pan-London tall buildings strategy, where all boroughs are required to consult on and identify areas that are suitable for tall buildings and those that are not, and to identify what scale of tall building would be allowable in each area. But this information should be held, reviewed and updated centrally, and a coherent picture of London’s desirable tall buildings pattern should be understood and available to all authorities and the public.
’Historic England doesn’t ‘complain about every high-rise development’ as Paul suggests. We have supported several proposals including recent ones in the City such as 22 Bishopsgate and 1 Undershaft because they are part of a planned cluster and will work well with the existing tall buildings in the area. Development at Canary Wharf followed a similar pattern, rising in a planned cluster set in the middle distance when viewed from historic Greenwich.
’Our recent poll of Londoners has shown that they want to be more involved with the changes that lie ahead for the city’s skyline, with 48 per cent believing the 436 tall buildings in the pipeline would have a negative impact on the capital, compared to 34 per cent who think they would have a positive impact. Clearly we are not alone in believing Londoners have a right to an effectively planned city with a system that protects what they care about.
’London’s diverse and unique character is at risk if there isn’t a coherent plan for its future. Tall buildings can make exciting contributions to city life but peppering the capital’s skyline with speculative proposals which make little meaningful response to London’s history or character puts at risk one of its unique selling points. While you can put a price on each individual tower, both our skyline and our streetscapes are treasured and priceless.’