Charles Wright: Why the Mayor turned down the Tulip

Charles Wright: Why the Mayor turned down the Tulip

Two-thirds of London adults agree that proposed visitor attraction The Tulip, scheduled to be the second highest building in London, would be an attractive addition to the London skyline, according to a recent poll for the scheme’s promoters.

But Sadiq Khan was not among them. The Mayor this week used his statutory planning powers to overrule the City of London Corporation and refuse planning permission for the controversial Foster and Partners design, which would have risen 305 metres high adjacent to the Gherkin in the heart of the Square Mile.

It’s a comprehensive Mayoral demolition of plans which won the City’s backing in April and will certainly please many objectors, including Labour assembly member Andrew Dismore who told Khan “the last thing London’s historic skyline needs is another ludicrous phallic object – out of place, out of keeping and beneficial only to the wealthy few who will pay to visit it”.

For Khan, the Tulip is poorly designed, harming both the Tower of London World Heritage site and the character of the City’s existing tall buildings cluster, damaging important views and the wider skyline. Its 1.2 million visitors a year would overcrowd the pavements, and there’s inadequate bike parking for his liking too.

It’s a nuanced decision, based, as all planning decisions ultimately are, on interpreting the hierarchical set of rules from national level – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – to the Mayor’s London Plan and local plans set by local authorities, in this case the Corporation.

Despite widespread concern that the Tulip’s 12 storeys of viewing platforms, restaurants and bars would be paid for access only, the inclusion of free education facilities to 40,000 “London state school children” a year, was deemed “on balance” not in conflict with draft London Plan requirements for free entry publicly accessible areas in prominent new tall buildings. But City Hall planners came to dramatically different conclusions from their Guildhall counterparts on other key points of interpretation.

The Corporation’s planning committee was warned by its planners that the Tulip’s “substantial height” and positioning was at odds with its own strategy for the so-called “eastern cluster” of towers, which envisages buildings stepping up “gradually in height terms away from the Tower in a deferential manner” towards the proposed high point, the yet to come 304.9 metres high 1 Undershaft tower

Despite introducing “an abrupt vertical edge…diminishing the visual dynamic of the city cluster of towers and the Tower of London as two discernible and separate skyline features”, the Tulip nevertheless sat within the London tradition of “unconventional and eye-catching landmarks on the skyline”, Guildhall planners said.

And while both sides agreed that the Tulip would affect the setting of the Tower, causing “less than substantial harm” in planning jargon, albeit at the “upper limit”, the City concluded that was a price worth paying for the benefits of another high-level viewing platform, promoting tourism, boosting the economy and providing free education facilities. 

“Less than substantial” does not, though, mean insignificant; the NPPF stresses that the “more significant the asset, the greater the weight that should be given to its conservation”. This is the key test – whether the harm to a “designated heritage asset” is trumped by the public benefits of the proposal – and City Hall planners across the water were clear: “The public benefits that the development would bring forward would not come close to outweighing that harm”.

There’s further nuance too – the impact on other heritage buildings, Bevis Marks Synagogue, Britain’s oldest synagogue, and Shakespeare’s parish church St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, both Grade I listed – but also a recognition of the contemporary relationship between the Tower and the City as well as its historical significance.

This is about the environs of the Tower, its concentric defences and “the experience of the Tower being apart from the city”, Khan’s planners argue, as well as the integrity of the eastern cluster,  which today both signifies the City’s “commercial centre” and “expresses the evolving political and cultural relationship between the Tower and the trading centre of the City of London”, as set out in its World Heritage Site Management Plan.

What now for the Tulip? Look further afield, to a more generously open site like the Eiffel Tower or the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park, suggest the Mayor’s design advocates. More likely, perhaps, there will be an appeal and the controversial proposal will land on the desk of the ultimate decision-maker, the Secretary of State.

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Categories: Culture

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