Tower turmoil

Thursday 15 Mar 2007

London in crisis as major projects threatened by proposed restrictions

A shadow was cast over many of London’s high profile projects this week as a long awaited heritage White Paper proposed buffer zones around 24 of the UK’s world heritage sites. London’s tall building policy has been in disarray for some time with Mayor Ken Livingstone overriding his own strategic view framework to bulldoze projects through.Livingstone’s cavalier approach to the capital’s skyline has provoked an increasingly alarmist response from the city watchdogs, English Heritage and CABE who have been tirelessly lobbying for stronger protection. The white paper comes at a crucial time for two controversial projects in particular, both for the UK’s largest developer, Land Securities; Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street is under enquiry and KPF’s Victoria towers have just being revealed. English Heritage have been highly critical of the Fenchurch design, dubbed the Walkie Talkie (groan) and have even produced their own visuals illustrating how the tower could dominate the skyline. On the other side of the battle line, the scheme has received support from a bloc of world class architects including, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Cesar Pelli, Eugene Kohn and Frank Gehry, who all wrote letters. Further to the west, Kohn Pedderson Fox’s (KPF) towers at Bressenden Place opposite Victoria Station will replace Portland House an aging 29 storey block built in 1963. The building is currently fully let and includes tenants such as American Express. Objections to this scheme were already in place before the new White Paper hit and its impact will be of particular concern due to the towers proximity to a range of sensitive locations including Buckingham Palace, St James's Park, the Mall, the Westminster World Heritage Site and Westminster Cathedral. Objectors include Westminster Council who are particularly hostile to the scheme. To add to the turmoil, later this year the Mayor is due to be given extra powers to intervene in applications that are deemed to be ‘strategic’. This will enable him to overturn planning decisions and drive his pet projects through. Currently he only has power of veto. This empowerment raises two important issues. The first is that the all important definition of ‘strategic’ has yet to be agreed (!?) , the second and more far fundamental question is, given the growing concerns about impact of new development on heritage buildings, why are his powers being increased at all? Meanwhile the View Management Framework SPG grinds on through its ratification process. The February 2007 draft (published March 2007) has been approved by the Mayor solely for the purposes of submission to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. However notes on the Government’s website states, “No reliance should, at this stage, be placed upon the information contained therein,” and worse, “no further representations are invited” Oh well.

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