Historic England has waded into the debate over tall buildings in the capital, calling for a clearer strategy over skyscrapers – and delivering a public poll that demonstrates public interest in the issue.
The organisation’s chairman Sir Laurie Magnus, flanked by Dr Loyd Grossman, chairman of the Heritage Alliance and respected architect Sir Terry Farrell, has delivered an open letter rounding on the current “chaotic” planning approval process. This, he asserts, allows tall buildings to be “often promoted at random” with a lack of proper analysis.
Magnus says he is not against tall buildings in principle, noting that in the right places they “can make exciting contributions to London’s environment and growth”. He has called for a clear strategy in the new London Plan, showing where skyscrapers are acceptable – and where they are not. And he supports the London Assembly’s recent call for better master planning and better modelling of the London skyline.
“The next mayor’s legacy will be judged by his or her contribution to London’s continuing success,” notes Magnus. He or she will need to promote “excellence in innovation and design, whilst respecting treasured historic landscapes and settings.”
Meanwhile, a poll conducted for Historic England has underlined the high level of public interest in the capital’s skyline. Reacting to the recent NLA collation of data showing 430 new towers of 20 storeys or more are proposed across London, the poll found that 48% of Londoners think the skyscrapers, if built, would have a negative impact on the skyline – though 34% think it would have a positive impact.
“Londoners know how special their city is, and they know that the future of our capital hangs in the balance,” said Historic England chief executive Duncan Wilson. “Tall buildings can make an excellent contribution to city life if they are well-placed and well-designed. But in the wrong places, they can do serious harm. It matters when tall buildings overshadow our crescents and squares, our playgrounds and palaces, canals and cathedrals.
“Today, Londoners have shown that they want to have more of a say over how London’s future skyline is developed. The millions of people who live and work in the city want to be better informed and more involved in the changes that are gathering pace.”
The survey also found that 58% of those questioned do not know how to have a say over planning in their local area. And 60% said they would like to have a say over tall buildings, if they are proposed for a historically significant area in London. Historic England notes that under current planning rules, it is only those close to a proposal who are consulted.
Historic England published its updated Good Practice Advice on the setting of heritage assets in March 2015. And in December last year, it delivered a further advice note on tall buildings, updating advice from English Heritage and CABE dating back to 2007.
LPA Perspective: This missive is a clear call to stop the apparent free for all that currently exists, on a borough by borough basis, when developers push to make the most of their sites by developing skyward.
It makes a sensible point – that a strategic approach, and clear advice are needed. And it rams home the message with a sample poll that shows this is an issue that local people in the capital care about. And unless the London Plan copes with the issue effectively, there is a larger issue raised, that of Londoners feeling powerless to do anything about the spoiling of their skyline. The current system lacks strategic planning – though the mayor can, of course, call in individual projects – and the planning system only really includes neighbours in its consultation process.
The other numbers raised by the polling process are interesting, too. More than half of locals apparently do not know how to have a say over planning locally. This despite a relatively open planning process, with much information publicly available, and public planning meetings that are increasingly webcast. There will be plenty of developers and planners who would not wish the public to be more knowledgeable – they don’t want more members of the public getting in their way. However, a better overall public knowledge of the system might help reduce the “them and us” attitude towards property development. And there are plenty of examples where excellent local consultation has helped guide major schemes through planning, with the minimum of fuss and struggle all round.