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Is London's skyline the limit for new tall buildings?

A group of architects, sculptors, writers and critics has started a lobby group to push for a “skyline commission” to examine existing proposals for up to 230 new tall buildings in London. 

The initiative has been galvanised into action by a new exhibition at New London Architecture, a design forum based in the capital, which will highlight the many new skyscrapers being planned for London.

All of this comes against the backdrop of London’s population rising by 100,000 a year and with significant numbers of international investors in the city’s property market. 

In addition, London boroughs, in common with other councils, have been offered council tax and non-domestic rate incentives to develop their local economies. 

Given conservation and green belt restraints, developers are building upwards.

London’s skyline is the random sum-total of decisions made at three levels of government (borough, London-wide and Whitehall) over many years. The capital has beautiful enclaves of low-rise and suburban development, and there are already hundreds of towers. 

The 1960s and 1970s, in particular, scattered tall blocks of council housing from Hounslow to Havering; Croydon has a trademark ‘Manhattan skyline’.  

According to the lobbyists’ letter to The Observer, “Planning and political systems are proving inadequate to protect the valued qualities of London…The official policy is that tall buildings should be ‘well designed and in the right place’, yet implementation of policy is fragmented and weak.”

While it is true that all decisions about planning are, in the last resort, made by politicians, there is always room for aesthetic advice. 

The new lobby group would doubtless wish that a group of experts might take over the planning process and stop at least some of the proposed new buildings. 

Simply drawing up new guidelines would not be sufficient to avoid bad decisions: words such as “high quality of design” are capable of many interpretations. 

As in many walks of life, it is tempting to give controversial decisions to independent outsiders.  Politicians now have such a poor reputation that ‘experts’ are seen as better able to do the right thing. 

But it is hard to see anyone apart from politicians having the legitimacy to make once-in-a-lifetime decisions about the skylines of our great cities.      

Tony Travers is director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.

The Skyline campaign was launched on Sunday by the Architect’s Journal and the Observer to campaign against “a glut of poorly designed towers ruining London’s skyline”.

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