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Architecture Comment

Boris Johnson and the GLA are the true vandals of London

22 January 2016

It’s a rich paradox that it was due to lobbying by Mayor Ken Livingstone that the Greater London Authority (GLA) and the London mayor were empowered to take decisions covering strategic planning applications into their own hands. Nowadays, they can supersede the borough (or boroughs) and give final approval or disapproval. Under the GLA Act 2007 some schemes would be blocked at the pass while others would be given the green light. That was the idea.

Now, in the dead of night, Ken Livingstone must question how it was that he delivered the perfect mechanism for his 2008 successor’s expansionist ambitions. Boris’s pet vanity-project may (or may not) be the silly Garden Bridge, but the roll call of his call-ins will mark him as a true vandal, putting Livingstone’s own carelessness with London’s skyline in the shade.

Over Boris Johnson’s two terms, a mayoral call-in of a controversial planning application has become synonymous with a green light. There have been 13 in all, the most recent in Tower Hamlets, on Monday. Thanks to Boris, at Norton Folgate a paste-up of pointless facades and a huddle of anonymous towers will soon become the latest addition to Spitalfields, regardless of the fact that it is a Conservation Area. British Land had already tried to wipe the slate clean around here 40 years ago and now it is back, basking in the sweetness of retribution – unless a Judicial Review instigated by redoubtable local activists (some of whom are taking up the fight for a second time) succeeds.

Photo courtesy Spitalfields Trust

Respectable architectural practices are involved in the Norton Folgate development, and some of them are also implicated in the lumpen scheme proposed by the Royal Mail Group (RMG) at Mount Pleasant. The site was once a smallpox hospital but its more recent claim to fame has been as the last undeveloped bombsite in town. Here was a chance to amplify and reinvigorate a central London area, to bring amenities and benefits to an existing, stable, and essentially mixed community, and to take something – at least in pattern – of what exists in the neighbouring streets of Camden and Islington and build upon that self-effacing, high-density urbanity.

In early October 2014 along with some hundreds, I took a seat at City Hall to witness the mayoral decision – a foregone conclusion like all the others. Royal Mail Group’s (RMG) urgent attempt to recoup value from their site had seemingly dictated nothing better than a cluster of high-value residential towers, with negligible provision of affordable, far less social, housing. Like thirsty giraffes, the blocks crowded around a dark gulch, the ‘landscape’.

Shockingly, it appears that the designers of the southernmost (Camden) element of the scheme were entirely unaware of the flourishing Christopher Hatton primary school just around the corner. Originally a London County Council (LCC) Board School, it reopened some 20 years ago due to the pressing need for schools in south Camden. An even greater need remains for a secondary school. But such important matters, the staple ingredients of any responsible citywide plan, were not the concern of RMG nor, apparently, even of the GLA. The authority, ironically enough the great grandchild of the LCC, even if born on the wrong side of the blanket, had already nodded through this dreary monotone outline-plan – doubtless offering sales to buyers in far-off places – several months before the Mayor handed down his decision on 3 October, 2014. On these grounds, surely, the GLA in its current form is not fit for purpose.