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The Skyline campaign is about London’s future

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Not its here today, gone tomorrow mayor, says Rory Olcayto

How do you measure the success of a campaign? When in July this year we presented, in partnership with The Observer, our five key Skyline demands to London Mayor Boris Johnson, we knew there was a good chance they would been rejected outright. Despite Skyline’s focus on better planning and stronger guidance on the creation of tall buildings in London to enhance the capital’s environment and appeal, Johnson chose to see it as an attack on London’s bid to become ‘the greatest city on Earth’.

But, surprisingly, given his dismissal of the thrust of the campaign, Johnson did recently signal his support for one of the five demands - the creation of a computer-generated model for the public showing how proposed changes would impact London’s skyline. Success? Of a kind. Nothing to shout about, though.

What about securing the backing of the profession’s major figures? Does that count as a success? In some ways, yes, because it means at the very least we’re encapsulating a commonly held view and trying to bring about the changes that you want, too. This isn’t just the AJ’s campaign. Nor just The Observer’s. It’s your campaign, too.

That Skyline has been shortlisted for this year’s prestigious British Society of Magazine Editors Campaign of the Year award was also very welcome. Peer recognition, as you will no doubt agree, is gratifying: but the BSME rewards editorial rigour. If we win the award - and we’ll know this time next week - yes, sure, we’ll call it a success, in terms of journalism, at least. Our main aim for Skyline, on the other hand, is to influence the politics that give shape to London’s townscape.

That’s why, even though we’re not quite in party mood, we’re more than a little pleased with the most recent development to emerge: the London Assembly’s unanimous backing of a motion criticising the current approach to tall building plans for the capital, with calls for reforms based directly on our Skyline demands. As Navin Shah, who proposed the motion, has said, ‘the flaws of ill-considered tall buildings have been well demonstrated by the Skyline campaign’.

Still, it’s unlikely that Boris will adopt the reforms. His mayoralty is coming to an end and, in his mind at least, he sees the rash of poorly thought-through tall buildings, many of which are residential, as a solution to London’s housing crisis. We know; you know; and Boris knows, too, that this is nonsense, an emotive conflation that sidesteps the issue. But this isn’t about Boris. It’s about London. And there is a momentum gathering behind Skyline’s demands now that the London Assembly has thrown its weight behind them.

Six years ago, both the AJ’s acting deputy editor Will Hurst and I worked on another campaign. One demanding that the Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens was protected and spared the wrecking ball. Despite the support of the profession’s leading lights, English Heritage ignored the campaign and refused to list the controversial Poplar housing project.

Yet since the Save Robin Hood Gardens campaign banged the drum for Brutalism - which was a major part of the campaign’s appeal - that particular mode of architectural expression has won over new admirers and many unexpected Brutalist buildings have since been listed.

English Heritage even held a debate at the RIBA, in which I took part, entitled ‘Brutal and Beautiful: this house believes that the best of England’s post-war buildings should be handed to the future’.  That wouldn’t have happened without the campaign.

Likewise, whether our five campaign demands are adopted or not, the next London mayor will surely approach the matter with a greater degree of scrutiny than Johnson has. London’s skyline has become a political cause célèbre.

And that, I’ll hazard, is a mark of success.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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