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Planning or politics?

th March last year Westminster City Council began an eight week consultation on “Tall Buildings”. Its findings have not yet been published. The questionnaire was slated by “The Skyline Campaign” saying that WCC already had sufficient protective policies against the proliferation of towers. Apparently 80% of residents are against “tall buildings”. One has to ask if that includes residents of existing tall buildings or just those living closer to ground level? Skyline Campaign claims that over 450 new towers are in the pipeline for central London. Over 75% of Westminster has the benefit of Conservation Area protection and there are over 11,000 listed buildings where the setting is a major consideration for planning.

Apparently, the new city plan will not be published until after the May 4th local election. The planning of cities requires a long-term strategy, it should not be  subject to short term electoral gain.

Is the issue just about height? Surely there are some locations where intense density of building to substantial height is an economic, employment and housing necessity in order to meet the employment and housing needs of our city and society. Equally there are plenty of locations where tall buildings are completely inappropriate. So one key issue is simply, where are tall buildings necessary, essential and good, or where should they be restricted? The other key issue is whether they are  good, interesting, appropriate pieces of architecture that relate to their context . Even more importantly, is the public and private space around them creating positive enjoyable amenity space that is enhancing life in our city?

Mention of tall buildings is bound to raise hackles and argument, but equally, so will encroachment on “green belt” invoke wrath from those choosing to live on the outer edges of London. The real issue is that land is a finite resource and we need to use it intelligently in a carefully planned, socially beneficial way. Sometimes, in some places, that does mean taller; in other locations clearly not.

The notion of higher buildings has re-entered the planning dialogue and surely there are many instances where an extra storey or two will help to provide better land usage. Again there are other instances where extra storeys are inappropriate. It was this argument about mansard extensions that created the great “Iceberg Basement” farrago, pushing people extending their homes to go down rather than up.

On another level, tall buildings have become a symbol of the social divide between rich and poor in our society, tragically exemplified by the Grenfell fire in June last year. The higher up a private residential tower, the higher the value, and the penthouse is always top dollar for the rich. Height provides enhanced views, privacy and security in well managed towers. A high service charge should pay for good maintenance and management. For the less advantaged, the higher floors are the most vulnerable. Basic design, quality or paucity of construction, safety amenity, maintenance and management all figure and contribute to this divide between social and private tall building development. Too many social housing towers are not well enough maintained, managed or well-equipped in the first place. They become less than desirable, grim and post-Grenfell, fear filled entrapment. This symbol of the divide between rich and poor in our society became wider still that tragic night last June in North Kensington. Planning, construction quality and housing management must reach out beyond short term politics for the benefit of all the people that live in our cities. Our cities and our society will be the better for long term thinking.

Westminster have just published an Article 4 direction to counter the Government’s short term strategy for allowing office buildings to change to residential without consent. Well done Westminster for some longer term thinking. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until after the local elections to hear the outcome of the tall buildings consultation and revised City Plan.

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