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Last Updated: Monday, 4 June 2007, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
London's historic views 'under threat'
By Steven Shukor
BBC News London

St Paul's seen from Richmond Park. Photo by Patrick Eagar.

Through the carefully trimmed foliage, St Paul's majestic dome appears no larger than a thumbnail.

Seen from 10 miles away, London's iconic cathedral seems to hover in the distance like a mirage, shimmering in the heat.

This unique "viewing corridor" from King Henry VIII's Mound, down a specially maintained tree-lined avenue, has been a feature of Richmond Park in south-west London, since the early 1700s.

With the surrounding modern buildings carefully hidden by the holly hedging, this "key hole" view of the 18th Century landmark from the park is like a window to London's past.

But heritage campaigners fear new planning laws - introduced by London Mayor Ken Livingstone and rubber-stamped by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly - mean Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece could end up crowded out by sky-scrapers.

Under the new planning rules, the so-called viewing corridor has been narrowed from a width of 150m to 70m.

It is one of ten historic views which have been narrowed - freeing up patches of the city for development where it is currently banned.

"In terms of heritage, it's vandalism," said Tony Arbour, chairman of the London Assembly's planning committee.

Campaigners want to save the views arguing they are part of the city's heritage and its present-day charm.

'High density'

Planning laws were initially relaxed in the 1960s but restrictions were brought in later in the face of rapid urbanisation.

Ten strategic views of St Paul's Cathedral and the Palace of Westminster were enshrined in the statute books in 1991.

London has successfully mixed old and new but the new guidance threatens this balance
Hal Moggridge
Landscape architect

But Mr Livingstone believes the rules need to be relaxed once again to meet the demands of a growing and vibrant city.

According to the Greater London Authority, London needs to accommodate another 600,000 workers in the next decade.

The mayor favours "high-density" developments in the City and the Docklands over the prospect of a never-ending low-rise sprawl.

Construction is about to begin on a 47-storey tower in the City of London, dubbed the "Cheesegrater".

At London Bridge station, developers are pressing ahead with the "Shard", which at 310m (1,017ft) will be Europe's tallest skyscraper.

Under the mayor's plans, several new strategic views have been identified, taking the number of vistas protected under planning laws to 26.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly, approved the changes contained in the London View Management Framework, which take effect from 13 July.

In the consultation preceding the decision, 51% of respondents, including English Heritage, objected to the proposals.

The agency said the new rules failed to stress the importance of the views or how new developments within them will be assessed.

Emotional appeal

Landscape architect Hal Moggridge, former consultant for the Inner London Royal Parks, said the new rules could "ruin the city's skyline".

"People see cities in relation to particular views they know. It seems to be how cities are identified.

"They are iconic views for the most part and therefore have an emotional appeal.

"London has successfully mixed old and new but the new guidance threatens this balance."

London Assembly member Tony Arbour
St Paul's encapsulates the great architectural past of London
Tony Arbour
London Assembly member

The mayor said the viewing corridors needed to be narrowed to meet increasing demand for new homes and jobs.

A spokesman for his office said: "The changes to these corridors will in no way detract from peoples' enjoyment of St Paul's and the Palace of Westminster.

"The Framework ensures that no new buildings will be allowed to block the protected views of London's most famous landmarks."

The spokesman said taller buildings must be considered in some locations to meet demand created by the city's growth.

'Fragile view'

Several developers are understood to have been awaiting Ms Kelly's ruling before pushing ahead with major central London developments.

Legal & General (L&G) said its plans for Walbrook Square, a large mixed development in Queen Victoria Street, hinged on the ruling.

"The narrowing of the corridor allows us to have a development that is bigger than would have been previously permitted," said an L&G spokesman.

Gazing at St Paul's from Richmond Park, Mr Arbour fears this fragile view will one day disappear.

"St Paul's encapsulates the great architectural past of London," he said.

"Architects of the stature of Christopher Wren built for eternity."

Sir Christopher's masterpiece may be built to last an eternity but the worry for some is that the views of his eternal building will not.


View from View to Old width New width
Alexandra Palace St Paul's 300m (984ft) 70m (229ft)
Parliament Hill St Paul's 300m (984ft) 140m (459ft)
Kenwood St Paul's 300m (984ft) 140m (459ft)
Primrose Hill St Paul's 300m (984ft) 120m (393ft)
Greenwich Park St Paul's 300m (984ft) 115m (377ft)
Blackheath Point St Paul's 300m (984ft) 120m (393ft)
Westminster Pier St Paul's 103m (337ft) 70m (229ft)
King Henry's Mound St Paul's 149m (488ft) 70m (229ft)
Parliament Hill Westminster 300m (984ft) 210m (689ft)
Primrose Hill Westminster 300m (984ft) 250m (820ft)

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