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Where’s the killer punch?

Hugh Pearman

Skyline campaigners need to show some muscle

Ever since James I asked Inigo Jones to do something about it, we have been pretty helpless in the face of London’s expansion. James and Inigo could no more stop London’s sprawl outwards than today’s Prince of Wales can stop its sprawl upwards. Not that this prevents him trying: his Prince’s Foundation has now issued a report calling for a ‘midrise solution’ to London’s housing crisis. 

But there’s another show in town, the Skyline campaign. This is a rather diffuse, herbivorous affair. New London Architecture has commissioned some commendably revealing research into the pipeline of tall buildings being planned in London. The much bandied-about headline figure is a sobering 236 towers presently proposed of 20 stories or higher – in many cases much, much higher. Some are the commercial skyscrapers of the City of London, Canary Wharf and so on, but most are residential. The Skyline campaign, unlike the Prince, is not anti-tower. It just wants better towers, in the right places, to be considered strategically. Its members – NLA, the Observer, and the Architect’s Journal – seem to have slightly differing views on exactly what they want. The NLA, headed by Peter Murray, wants a ‘Skyline Commission’ reporting to the mayor. That’s another quango to add to all the others that have so far failed to get to grips with the matter of tall buildings in London. What are the chances of this succeeding where those have failed, especially as mayor Boris seems to think he has plenty of advisers already, thank you? 

Let’s be honest, ‘a more joined up plan’ is not exactly a killer slogan like ‘No more towers!’

Others in the campaign seem to veer towards – well, what, exactly? I asked Rory Olcayto, acting editor of the AJ, to put it in a sentence. He produced: ‘We’re demanding a more joined up plan to determine where we put these towers, and rules to govern their scale and appearance.’ Few could disagree – as Sir David Chipperfield, a campaign signatory, put it: ‘It’s like voting for good weather.’ But let’s be honest, ‘a more joined up plan’ is not exactly a killer slogan like ‘No more towers!’

In fights like this, in London especially, the carnivores always win. The carnivores are the developers who have the money and the land. Even if the land is local authority owned, even if local authorities manage to extract their pound of flesh in the form of ­social or ‘affordable’ housing, the money men still call the shots because they have the ultimate sanction – they can just walk away. And in the case of these 236 towers, the carnivores have pretty much won already. Half of them already have planning permission, and I wouldn’t bet on the planning system changing from its reactive, piecemeal mode to the necessary pro-active, strategic mode before the other half get approved too.

Yes, we need that better planning system: it’s highlighted in the Farrell Review as well. But remember the joint London tall buildings policy put together in 2007 by Cabe and English Heritage, in a rare collaboration. It too was well-intentioned, vague, herbivorous. The carnivores rang rings round it. Something much, much tougher is needed. How about a 10-year renewable moratorium on buildings in the capital over 15 storeys? I can hear the howls of protest now.