Westminster Council’s policy approach to tall buildings was, until recently, informed by a High Buildings Study which was undertaken in 2001. This was opened up slightly by the 2015 City Plan Revision, but even that concluded that the most appropriate location for tall buildings was the Paddington Opportunity Area and identified very limited scope for new tall buildings in the rest of Westminster, due to the settled character of the ‘townscape’ and significant concentration of heritage assets.
Then, recently, something happened - without any official policy change, without any meaningful sort of public consultation, we very nearly got the mother of all tall buildings, the Paddington Pole. This was, eventually, downed by near universal public condemnation, although whether the big glass stump that is destined to replace it is really any improvement is doubtful.
Following on from this Westminster Council agreed to hold a public consultation on Building Heights in the area generally and asked the areas stakeholders, including ourselves, for their views. Firstly what makes a tall building? There is no fixed definition. In our view it is a building significantly taller than its surroundings. In our conservation areas with their historic height limitation of eight to ten stories this would be anything over that. In other areas already with high buildings, such as Victoria, it could be double that height, or more.
There is a view that in historic areas, such as Westminster, tall buildings are a blot on the landscape, that they compromise heritage areas, put undue pressure on the surrounding infrastructure, public transport etc., and their large floor plates are inimical to small businesses. Further, recent tragic events have once again caused many to question the long term safety aspects of these structures.
However the problem with this is that the government has, what they call, a growth agenda. The presumption of more growth in an area which is already super dense rather than directing it to parts that are in need of more growth and, importantly have more space for it, is questionable. The presumption that grow can only be attained by more development, equally so. However, this agenda is not something we have a say on. Westminster Council, maybe under pressure for central government and the London Plan, sees the need to develop the area in order to accommodate more growth - so it then becomes a question of how that growth can be accommodated.
This poses a dilemma. Basement conversions are very expensive and very unpopular. Building up a few stories is possible on some buildings, as is some infill development, although this tends to compromise conservation areas. So perhaps if we really have to have more growth, if we must have more development, then tall buildings, in certain well defined areas, is the least harmful way of getting it.
Therefore, as so often in responding to consultations, we concentrated on pushing for the least harmful option, in other words a damage limitation exercise: to try to protect our conservation areas, by arguing that planning permission for tall buildings should be refused within them but agreeing to greater flexibility towards them in other areas.
We would argue then, that tall buildings could be permitted - outside conservation areas, if they do not have a harmful impact on conservation areas or listed buildings, and do not interfere with significant or important views, or open or green spaces. Also, if they are to be permitted, they should provide in return high quality public realm improvements and take full account of their surroundings. They should overall be required to enhance the character and amenity of the areas they serve rather than operate as vast floating islands to the detriment of their surroundings.