Tower cluster could be extended

The City of London’s head of design has denied the Walkie Talkie is a Trojan horse which could open the door to a new cluster of skyscrapers.

But Gwyn Richards admitted his team is looking at the possibility of approving more towers around it “to make it less strident on the skyline”.

They are in the middle of a major piece of research modelling the effects of extending the existing “eastern cluster”, notably towards the Walkie Talkie in the south.

This could result in a handful of sites being identified for new towers near 20 Fenchurch Street which would minimise its dominance.

They would be taller than two “mid-rise” towers which have already been approved in the immediate area – Eric Parry’s 120 Fenchurch Street and Farshid Moussavi’s 130 Fenchurch Street – which are 15 and 17 storeys respectively.

The Walkie Talkie was originally approved because of its outlier position, with then City planning chief Peter Rees likening it to the figurehead at the prow of a ship.

Now his replacement, Gwyn Richards, head of design at the City, is arguing it could be “better to bring it into the crowd, to make it less strident on the skyline”.

“Some of the rationale for 20 Fenchurch Street was that it would be a lone sentinel to give a vantage point looking back at the cluster,” said Richards.

“That point of view is not widely shared, talking to stakeholders. A lot of people struggle with that logic. Our work is to look at this more creatively and pull 20 Fenchurch Street back into the cluster so it has a coherent urban form.”

He denied this change of heart made the building a Trojan horse, pointing out that it won planning after two public inquiries. Any expansion of the cluster would still be within the boundary set by the local plan.

“We want to understand if there’s potential for perhaps one or two other sites on the western side of Fenchurch Street. We are not talking about a wholescale wall of tall buildings.

“Planning is always an evolving process. It’s material for us to assess where there’s potential capacity,” he said, referring to the demand for more office space in the Square Mile.

“It’s getting our ducks in order rather than making a kneejerk reaction [to a planning application]. We want to give a degree of clarity early on to applicants.”

Richards called it “proper planning”. His team has spent two years 3D-modelling the effects of the existing cluster and any potential expansion – within the boundary set by the local plan.

They are looking at the effect on views, conservation and World Heritage areas, public realm, the micro-climate – in particular wind – and daylight, among other factors.

He said the cluster was behaving “like a huddled penguin”, pushing the wind around its periphery – on Bishopsgate and Fenchurch Street, for example.

“We wanted to do a 360-degree assessment of where the cluster could expand,” he said. “It’s a fairly huge undertaking. We hope to get clarity of approach in the next year or so.”

City ‘as busy as ever’ despite Brexit

The City has seen no slowing of interest in office space since the Brexit vote, according to its head of design Gwyn Richards.

“We’re as busy as we’ve been for the last two or three years,” he said.

“Maybe the dust is yet to settle but we are absolutely full-on at the moment and I don’t anticipate any slackening of pace.”

He said Eric Parry’s 1 Undershaft and Arup Associates’ 2-3 Finsbury Avenue were set to go before the planning committee in September, while Make’s 1 Leadenhall was close to being submitted.

“And that’s the tip of the iceberg. We are having ongoing discussions about other sites,” he said.

“On the ground I haven’t noticed anything slowing. I haven’t experienced any deceleration on detailed schemes and we have 10 or 12 major developments being built where we’re having daily meetings on accelerating things.”

The occupancy rate in the City is about 97%, leaving planners with a “challenging few years ahead, but a challenge we relish” to meet predicted demand.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU means some banks are planning to pull staff out of London. But Richards said the City was “resilient” to such threats because it hosted a diverse range of employers of various sizes including plenty of IT, law and professional services firms.

His team is currently modelling the possibility of expanding the existing cluster of tall buildings to include more office skyscrapers.