Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Policy background on high buildings in Central and Inner London

  1.  The height of buildings in London were traditionally dictated by concerns about fire. The earliest plan for the County of London (County of London Plan 1943) proposed three "height zones", based on the London Buildings Act:

    —  A: Central: maximum 100 feet for commercial and 80 feet for residential buildings, based on the height restrictions imposed under the London Buildings Act;

    —  B: Sub-central: maxima of 80 feet for commercial and 60 feet for residential buildings; and

    —  C: Outer suburban: maxima of 60 feet for commercial and 40 feet for residential buildings.

  2.  In 1954 new regulations were introduced which removed these limits and resulted in a spate of applications for tall buildings. Most of these were initially in Central London, but by 1961 they had reached Chelsea (Carlton Towers Hotel) and nearby, the Empress State Building near Earl's Court (100m/30 storeys).

  3.  When the Greater London Council was established in 1965 it was charged with producing a development plan and was required by the Development Plans Regulation 11(1) to include a general policy on high buildings, including an indication of areas where the Council considered that such buildings would be inappropriate and of the criteria to be used in dealing with applications in other areas.

  4.  It was widely recognised that there was a need for an effective high buildings policy. There was concern that, despite existing controls, an apparently random distribution of high buildings had eroded the sense place, failed to respect scale and character of some important areas, and resulted in damaging intrusion into well-known views.

  5.  There was pressure, especially from the Royal Fine Art Commission, for the Greater London Council to develop a policy. The GLC classified London into three categories:

    —  areas in which high buildings are inappropriate;

    —  areas which are particularly sensitive to the impact of high buildings; and

    —  areas in which a more flexible or positive approach is possible.

  6.  These were shown in the Greater London Development Plan (as approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1976) on the Urban Landscape Diagram. The plan set out the general policy for each of the three types of area and the criteria for judging any proposals. The areas were drawn up on the basis of London-wide visibility studies. Boroughs were asked to refine the boundaries of these areas based on local knowledge in their development plans. This was not done by many Boroughs—certainly not by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. For the first time London had a system that was not based on arbitrary limits or ad hoc decisions. Cases could be assessed on their wider impact.

  7.  Most of Chelsea, because of its proximity to the Thames and the Area of Special Character, was considered to be an "area in which high buildings are inappropriate", as was the whole of the Battersea riverside.

  8.  To back up this policy the Government issued Regulations which ensured that all applications for high buildings (150 feet in Central London, 125 feet elsewhere) were referred to the GLC before they could be determined by the relevant London Borough.

  9.  While this system was evolving, however, a number of developments proceeded in or close to Chelsea. Knightsbridge Barracks (94m), almost in Hyde Park, was pushed through under Crown Immunity powers and a number of hotels, the most dominant being the Penta Hotel (now Holiday Inn Hotel) on Cromwell Road (116m/29 storeys), were promoted under the Government's hotel development incentive scheme which ran from 1971 to 1973.

  10.  With the abolition of the GLC in 1986, London Boroughs made all decisions on planning applications for tall buildings, unless they were called in by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The first case that went through was the Chelsea Harbour scheme, which included the Belvedere Tower (77m/20 storeys), allowed by the outgoing Conservative administration in Hammersmith and Fulham in the period between GLC abolition (31 March 1986) and the Borough elections on 8 May.

  11.  Since 1986 our main concern has been a series of proposals for tall buildings on the Battersea side of the Thames. Wandsworth Council, although having produced guidelines, consistently disregarded them. Despite the best efforts of successive MPs for Battersea, including Alf Dubs (now Lord Dubs) and more recently Martin Linton, these developments proceeded unhindered until the Society succeeded in getting the Secretary of State to call in the application for Montevetro (64m/13 storeys), a modern building designed by Richard Rogers. This scheme was allowed by the Secretary of State.

  12.  Since 1990 the Secretary of State for the Environment, as part of his Strategic Guidance for London, introduced supplementary guidance on Strategic Views and on the Thames. These are more limited in their controls on tall buildings than the GLDP, and the guidance on the Thames in particular is disappointing in that it provided no real guidance on the appropriate height of buildings for the different reaches of the Thames. It is hoped that the new guidelines, such the one from Kew Bridge to Chelsea Bridge, can offer some guidance, but we are not confident.

  13.  The current situation, therefore, is that we have:

    —  a Unitary Development Plan which seeks "to resist a new high building which would significantly exceed the height of neighbouring buildings and which would harm the skyline.";

    —  the Mayor of London's "Interim Policy for Tall Buildings" (on which there has been no public consultation and has not been tested at examination in public—it should have limited status). He also has referred to him all buildings along the river over 25 metres in height and he has the power to direct refusal; and

    —  the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions who has the power to call in applications.

  14.  We have been through several periods of "deregulation" of high buildings and are concerned that the current policy framework and the Mayor for London's "Interim Policy for Tall Buildings" will not give us much protection. We desperately need an agreed policy for the Thames Policy Area and a more sensitive policy for tall buildings.

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Prepared 22 January 2002