Why changes to St Paul's backdrop were not stopped by planning rules

A row has erupted over the construction of a tower which campaigners say has harmed a protected view of St Paul's Cathedral, but experts say that is not clear whether a failure of planning guidance is to blame.

St Paul’s: protected view from King Henry’s Mound before and after construction of Stratford tower (image credit: Patrick Eagar and Paula Redmond)
St Paul’s: protected view from King Henry’s Mound before and after construction of Stratford tower (image credit: Patrick Eagar and Paula Redmond)

This week, campaigners gathered in Richmond Park, south-west London, to protest against the construction of a much-lauded 42-storey tower on the site of the Olympic Park, which they say has "destroyed" the protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Photographs released by the Friends of Richmond Park group show the half-built Manhattan Loft Gardens scheme sitting directly behind the dome of St Paul’s when viewed from the park, nearly 15 miles away. The group has written to the Greater London Authority (GLA) requesting construction of the building, which was given permission in 2011, be halted while an investigation is carried out and ways are found to mitigate its "tragic" impact.

Protection for important views is embedded in the London Plan and detailed within a piece of supplementary planning guidance called the London View Management Framework (LVMF). This appears to clearly protect both the view and the backdrop of St Paul’s from King Henry’s Mound at Richmond Park. It says "it is essential that development in the background of the view is subordinate to the cathedral and that the clear sky background profile of the upper part of the dome remains".

Under the LVMF, it is the responsibility of the developer to determine if a development will affect a protected view, and then to assess the impact and justify how the development complies with the LVMF. It is then the planning authority’s job – which in this case was the Olympic Delivery Authority – to notify appropriate consultees, which in this case would have included Historic England (then English Heritage), the Royal Parks and the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s.

However, Historic England and St Paul’s have said they were not consulted. Architect Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, has accused planners of "sleeping on the job" when the building was permitted. Emily Gee, London planning director at Historic England, said it was vital the development did not set a planning precedent. "Had we been [consulted]," she said, "we would have objected strongly. It is now essential that the GLA openly acknowledges that this tower is a mistake."

It is not that clear cut, however. The LVMF contains maps which mark protected areas, but in these maps the shaded area of protection for the backdrop of St Paul’s does not extend to the Manhattan Loft Gardens scheme in Stratford 7km away. There is nothing in the document stating areas outside the shaded areas should be subject to restriction. In addition, while the LVMF does contain officially prescribed "protected silhouettes", St Paul’s from Richmond is not one of them.

Peter Stewart, principal of townscape consultant Peter Stewart Consultancy, said: "It’s the difference between following the letter of the guidance and the intention. I’ve never come across this issue before and I suspect the impact wasn’t thought through."

Supporting this interpretation, developer Manhattan Loft Corporation, has said in a statement it was never asked about the LVMF view during planning discussions. Newham councillor Conor McAuley, who sat on the ODA planning committee when the application was approved, confirmed the view was "never discussed at committee, because it was never raised as an issue".

Justin Kenworthy, planning director at consultant Barton Willmore, said: "This falls into a very grey area – it’s not even clear enough to say whether it breaches the spirit of the rules."

The GLA, which reviewed the application before approval in 2011, said it is currently "looking into the issues involved with this development". Barton Willmore’s Kenworthy said the debate should prompt the GLA to amend the LVMF.

But a review could risk opening up the whole issue of London’s protected views. Roger Hepher, co-founder of consultant Hepher Grincell, said: "The GLA should look again at how much of London is blighted by viewing corridors. Bearing in mind the fact the capital has got to work out how to accommodate four million more people – it’s a serious constraint."

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