A little something I threw together in my spare time (joke)....
Boris Johnson’s campaign promise to protect London’s architectural heritage and its neighbourhoods’ characters was a significant part of his election pitch. By pledging to prevent new tall buildings from towering, uninvited, over cowering communities or spoiling the capital’s skyline he spoke to powerful conservative sentiments about tradition and also signalled a contrast with the readiness of Ken Livingstone to collaborate with trendy architects and charmless property developers. Under his leadership, Johnson claimed, structures with lofty ambitions would be permitted to sprout and congregate only in aesthetically and socially acceptable locations.
Already there are cries of betrayal. Some have come from east London, close to West Ham Football Club, where a local campaign group has upbraided Johnson for giving a barely-qualified green light to a 31 storey tower that would be part of the proposed redevelopment of the local Queen’s Market. I should admit to being biased: I own a set of green, see-through dinner plates of the type Tommy Steele would have eaten egg and chips off in his heyday which I bought from the market many years ago. But Johnson’s hands-off attitude to the proposed development does appear to be at odds with the principles he previously espoused.
A higher profile – and higher physically – example is, according to Johnson’s critics, his capitulation to a proposed 43-storey tower of luxury apartment in Doon Street on the South Bank, behind the National Theatre Approved under Livingstone, it was “called in” by communities secretary Hazel Blears for a public inquiry, but given the go-ahead by her earlier this month despite the objections of her own planning officers and English Heritage.
Johnson had very little chance of stopping this. The inquiry had taken place by the time he became mayor and although he could have reversed Livingstone’s decision before Blears’s findings were announced, it would have cut no ice with her and risked accusations of costly gesture politics. As a spokesperson for Johnson put it, “it is not possible for the new Mayor to re-open the matter without exposing London taxpayers to significant legal and financial risk.” Nonetheless, it’s a gesture some believe Johnson should have made. Writing in the Evening Standard, his erstwhile supporter Simon Jenkins described this as Johnson failing his “first test” as “an emphatic city mayor.”
The mayor’s office reiterated that Johnson, “has pledged to review London's planning policies including those relating to affordable housing and tall buildings” Furthermore – though only after a one heck of a fashion – he has the experienced former Westminster City Council leader Sir Simon Milton to assist him. But the Queens Market and Doon Street controversies both demonstrate in their different ways that matching pledges on urban planning with effective and consistent policies is no straightforward matter. They also show that a failure to do so where tall buildings are concerned can excite political passions as high as the buildings themselves.
Will appear on the politics blog later.