The rejection this month by Michael Gove of the controversial Tulip building is a big victory for Sadiq Khan and his London Plan.
The ministerial verdict on the proposed 305-metre viewing platform in the heart of the City was notable as the first formal citing of embodied carbon as a reason for refusing planning permission. But above all this was a heavyweight clash between, on the one hand, Mayor Khan as protector of London heritage and, on the other, the ancient City of London Corporation mounting an audacious bid to change the traditional focus of the Square Mile – with the Mayor coming out on top.
A new spring for the City?
With what planning inspector David Nicholson described as “almost poetic eloquence”, Russell Harris QC, representing Tulip developer Jacob J. Safra, argued forcefully that the City needed a “new start, a new spring”, which the Tulip would symbolise.
“The City of London recognises that it cannot sustain itself solely as a place for offices,” he told last year’s appeal hearing, held after Khan had stepped in to overrule the Guildhall’s backing for the Foster and Partners design.
The Square Mile had to change and the Corporation “is onto this”, with the Tulip at the heart of a new tourism and education offer reaching beyond the traditional nine to five, Harris said. “The Mayor’s real gripe – why here? – is answered by the need to diversify the City” he argued.
That meant pushing the boundaries – literally – of the Eastern Cluster, the concentration of modern high-rises around Foster’s Gherkin. These have had to step down in a “deferential manner” towards the Tower of London in response to heritage concerns about the impact of development on the historic site.
No one, including the Guildhall’s planners, disagreed that the Tulip breached the cluster policy, creating a visible “cliff edge” next to the Tower that would harm the setting of the 900 year-old World Heritage Site.
That consensus brought a familiar planning decision balancing act into play – was that harm a good enough reason, as the City Corporation put it, to “turn away a scheme which would signal a new stage in the City’s development”, a “world class design likely to become a significant and powerful icon for London in the 21st century”.
Benefits, harms and juxtapositions
On the plus side, the Tulip’s advocates argued, were the economic boost provided by an estimated 1.2 million visitors a year, along with free visits for 40,000 London schoolchildren annually and the landmark impact of the Tulip itself.
But Khan’s argument, that these benefits would “not come close” to outweighing its harm, proved compelling. The Tulip, “more a product of engineering than design”, would introduce the very “abrupt vertical edge” to the cluster which the Corporation had previously worked hard to avoid, said City Hall’s QC Hereward Phillpot.
Designating a tall building cluster, or contending, as the Corporation had, that the “juxtaposition” between new and old had become a positive characteristic of the capital’s skyline, did not make tall buildings acceptable by default, he said.
Much more was required in terms of design and impact: the Tulip was an “ultimately unsatisfactory” confusion of architectural ideas, prioritising “self-regarding ambition” over the harm it would cause. Its boost to the City economy would not come until at least 2027, and there was no shortage of high level viewing platforms or other tourist attractions either.
In his comprehensive 200-page report, the planning inspector Nicholson agreed. The Eastern Cluster was for offices, he said, as “innumerable references” in planning documents proved. And its purpose was not to encourage more tall buildings but to “round them up into as small an area as possible, ideally with an apex and some modelling at the edges, in order to limit the likely harm to the settings of the Word Heritage Site”.
The Tulip would disrupt that “sensitive balance between the City and the Tower”, and its design quality was “not nearly high enough” to negate the harm it would cause. “Even hiring the finest architects in the world will not always guarantee quality,” Nicholson wrote. And the Secretary of State should not accept any “preconceived notion” that a juxtaposition between modern skyscrapers and historic buildings was “necessarily a good thing”.
He had doubts too that the education offer – not enough for every London school child to visit once in their school lifetime, despite the developers’ early claims – would prove attractive enough, while the Tulip’s “relatively modest” economic benefits would have “negligible impact on helping the country recover from the economic ills caused by Covid”. In any event, “allowing harmful development for the sake of economic investment alone would set a questionable precedent”.
The London Plan doing its job
Significantly for Khan, and for prospective developers, the inspector also found that the new London Plan had strengthened policy protection for World Heritage Sites and their settings, directing decision-makers to give greater weight to heritage harm – a point also made in the recent Westferry Printworks decision.
Nicholson was politely dismissive too of the government’s espousal of “beauty” as a fundamental principle in its recently-revised overall planning blueprint, the National Planning Policy Framework. “I consider that the concept of beauty or otherwise for this appeal is in the eye of the beholder and that any further discussion is unlikely to be helpful,” he said.
Foster and Partners, describing the decision as a missed opportunity “to embrace a progressive vision for the future of the City”, is apparently speaking to government about how the scheme could be made to work. And with “hybrid” working looking like the “new normal”, a more diverse City is likely to remain the Guildhall’s policy preference, despite what may be seen as a conservative judgement.
But whatever might come forward next, Khan has seen the bar successfully raised on tall buildings in the Square Mile, on quality and on heritage protection, with possible implications not only for the City, but for the capital as a whole.
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