The London Skyline; Lessons from a Decade
In 2008 the Evening Standard stated that Boris Johnson, then newly elected as Mayor of London, was likely to halt the construction of tall buildings which blocked historic views; “Mr Johnson has warned he will not approve skyscrapers if residents are opposed to them and today confirmed he will redraw the planned skyline as a matter of priority.”
At the time a spokesman for Johnson stated:
"The Mayor is concerned the London Plan actively promotes tall buildings. He has nothing against tall buildings but thinks they should be placed where appropriate. Furthermore, he is concerned that tall buildings in London do not block historic views. The London Plan will be amended to introduce balance on the placing of tall buildings in London."
A decade on from that statement we have not only seen the development of the London skyline negatively affect the setting of individual historic landmarks, but entire districts of the metropolis.
In 1946 the Georgian Group published The Limitation of Building Heights. In the introduction it argued that “A town planner who is invited to prepare a scheme for an area containing a large number of beautiful buildings of the periods here mentioned is completely helpless unless it is possible to insist upon a limitation of building height. To make this limitation effective the height allowed must not, in general, be greater than that of the tallest commercial or domestic building of the period under consideration. Under the protection afforded by that limitation of height it will be possible to judge the desirability of remodelling or adapting for modern usages all the beautiful old buildings of the town, each case being considered on its merits…such a law, while incidentally it would protect Georgian architecture, would have as its prime justification its capacity to safeguard certain civic properties everywhere, no matter what the architectural style of the building may be. We are dealing with a question of civic manners.”
This was written at a time of an acute housing crisis, and national austerity. What is remarkable is that the advice was largely heeded. Whatever the legacy of immediate post-war development may have been, the setting of London’s major historic landmarks was largely respected. The 1960s-1980s saw some high rise constructed in central London, rarely to the improvement of the skyline, but at least following the agreed post-war city plans which identified areas of least harm in which high-rise might be constructed. Even while the earliest high-rise blocks were being constructed, the Government noted that they were unlikely to provide as adequate a solution to the housing problem as low-rise terraced housing. The commissioning of high-rise by Local Authorities was cut by 50% in just over a year, between 1962 and 1963. By the late 1960s the emphasis was shifted to the refurbishment of old housing stock over the creation of new, and by the late 1970s new social housing was almost entirely low-rise. The construction of Canary Wharf following the deregulation of the London stock market in 1986 saw a new interest in high-rise, but one which was almost entirely based on Grade A office space and which, it was promised, would be focused on the wasteland of Canary Wharf.
All of these trends, it could be argued, were reactions to London’s initial need to address a post-war housing shortage and, secondly, to replace manufacturing and export with a service based industry. Whatever the reasons for the multitude of plans and policies regarding the commissioning of tall buildings, the crucial point is that there was a plan. Since the formation of the office of the Mayor of London in 1999 the creation of new high-rise has apparently been almost totally ungoverned by any sense of strategic planning, and entirely ungoverned by any sense of protecting the setting of conservation areas. Buildings have seemingly been erected ad hoc, the arguments for them won not on their merits, nor even their business cases, but on countless appeals and ‘call-ins’ by the Mayor.
The current Mayoral policy on tall buildings states “The Mayor will work with boroughs to identify locations where tall and large buildings might be appropriate, sensitive or inappropriate.” Contrast that with the LLC guidance from the 1960s, which advised that tall buildings altering the skyline and views of St Pauls would not be acceptable. The GLC policy went further, and identified three zones of regulation for tall building construction; i) areas inappropriate for tall buildings; ii) areas sensitive to the visual impact of tall buildings; iii) areas where tall buildings may be permitted. This was backed up by listed criteria for each zone and photomontages of eighty viewpoints of London-wide significance which were later refined into a series of 28 viewpoints which were updated in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. In the past thirty years the tall building policy of London has gone from the incredibly specific to the unbelievably nebulous.
We are told that there is a London Plan, but it is hard to see how it operates as such, because it identifies virtually every part of central London as either an ‘opportunity area’ or ‘area for intensification’, including the entirety of the riverbank west of Hammersmith onwards and the whole area the Plan itself identifies as being the densest concentration of listed buildings and World Heritage Sites. What is worse, is that it contains this, frankly terrifying, statement: “The Mayor identifies three strategically important landmarks in the designated views: St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London. Within some views, a protected vista to a strategically important landmark will be defined and used to protect the viewer’s ability to recognise…the important landmark.”
If a modern western capital can produce a development plan which makes the sheer visibility of internationally significant buildings its guiding principle for the historic environment it might be fair, indeed unavoidable, to assume that it has no strategic plan for the historic environment. Which in a way is less terrifying than the alternative. Because, if The London Plan is in fact being put forward as a serious document, it suggests that someone, somewhere, actually believes that this might be a viable way to continue.