Heritage News United Kingdom

Battle lines drawn to protect views of old London

Preservationists square off with urban planners and developers over building skyscrapers near heritage sites like the Tower of London

The Shard as seen from the Tower of London. Photo: flickr user Tim Rawle

The British government is facing criticism from Unesco for allowing the Shard, Renzo Piano’s 95-storey commercial tower, and other skyscrapers to be built so close to the Tower of London. A response is being prepared by the UK authorities.

Unesco’s World Heritage Committee last year recommended that the UK should “regulate further build-up of the area surrounding the Shard of Glass building, ensuring that approved heights do not exceed a height whereby they would become visible above the on-site historic buildings”.

The Shard, which will have a public viewing gallery that is due to open to visitors in February, now looms over the medieval walls of the Tower of London, when seen from its central green. The 1,016-foot skyscraper is the tallest building in western Europe. Although located 700 yards away from the Tower of London, across the Thames near London Bridge station, the Shard dominates the nearby skyline and can be seen from miles away in many parts of the city.

Preserving the views around the Tower of London has proved highly controversial. Earlier this month, the former heritage minister John Penrose, who stepped down last September, admitted that the Shard “nearly didn’t happen” because of its impact on the Tower. He is calling on English Heritage, with guidance from Unesco, to formulate a policy that would lead to “selecting the best views of our city and townscapes” to be protected in a similar way that buildings can be listed for preservation.

The present situation, Penrose says, lacks clarity, which makes it difficult for developers and offers insufficient protection for the most important views. Two years ago, English Heritage published a report to evaluate the significance of historic urban views. Penrose now wants a more formal solution to the problem.

Urban development versus heritage

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which is responsible for UK World Heritage Sites, is taking Unesco’s complaint over the Tower seriously. A spokeswoman told The Art Newspaper that “the settings of this World Heritage Site should continue to be preserved”. The department is therefore involved in discussions with English Heritage, the Greater London Authority and London boroughs (including Southwark, where the Shard is located) to prepare a report for Unesco, which is due to be submitted in a year's time.

The Greater London Authority, however, is reluctant to bow to Unesco pressure. Edward Lister, London’s deputy mayor responsible for planning, said that he would “fight” for growth, which means new buildings. “We understand [Unesco’s] concerns, but have to balance them with the demands for an expanding city,” he said.

Last July, the World Heritage Committee passed a resolution on the Tower of London, which was inscribed as an internationally-recognised site in 1988. Dating from the 11th century and built by William the Conqueror, it now attracts 2.5 million visitors a year.

Historic Royal Palaces, which manages the Tower of London, originally opposed the planning application for the Shard, but permission was granted ten years ago. As the Unesco mission points out, “the sheer height of the building will surely attract the gaze—as its design was intended to do—of many a visitor and away from the main attraction of the World Heritage site”.

The mission’s report then added: “If any tall buildings are to be planned, these then should not exceed the height by which they would become visible above the on-site historic buildings that are part of the Tower complex.”

There have been proposals for other skyscrapers near the Shard, including Three Spire Towers, a Sellar Property Group project. Planning permission has not yet been given and a Sellar spokesman said that the project is now “under review”.

Despite the recession, the capital is currently witnessing a boom in the construction of tall office blocks. If this continues in the vicinity of the Tower and around the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey (London’s other World Heritage Site) there is a concern that Unesco would consider adding them to the “Heritage in Danger” list. In 2009, Dresden lost its status as a World Heritage Site when a new bridge over the Danube was erected at a sensitive spot near the city’s historic centre.

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