Parks and High Buildings

Chris Sumner compares past and present threats to the cultural landscape

London Landscapes Vol. 17 Hazelle Jackson's fine photograph of the bronze group of the Three Graces that forms the cover to London Landscapes no.17 is a useful reminder of the need for vigilance and of the vulnerability of historic landscapes to the damaging effects of insensitive developments proposed beyond the boundaries of the park.

The view along the Long Water from Hampton Court was threatened some years ago by a proposal to build a medium-rise block of flats on Portsmouth Road in Surbiton, on the far side of the River Thames. That scheme was refused following representations from Historic Royal Palaces, English Heritage and others, and a lower, less assertive building was built.

More recently, proposals to build flats at Seething Wells at Surbiton, which would have intruded into views from the Home Park and Barge Walk, were refused consent following two Public Inquiries. At the time of writing, Elmbridge Borough Council in Surrey is considering a planning application to build an hotel, residential units and a care home on the site of Hampton Court Station and The Jolly Boatman, just across the river from Hampton Court Palace.

Anyone who has arrived at Hampton Court by train will know what a depressing experience it is, a slow and infrequent train service arriving at a semi-derelict station surrounded by asphalt and car parking. The way forward demonstrated early in the last century, when the Ministry of Works bought up the adjacent Cigarette Island, cleared it of the ramshackle hutment known ironically as Venice-on-Thames, and opened it as a public park in order to help preserve the amenities of the palace and park.

Now, by contrast, the local planning authority's planning brief for the riverside site encourages its over- development, and Elmbridge Council is having to consider a scheme that envisages the construction of a large four- storey hotel between the station and the river bank.

Elmbridge Council earned the gratitude of the garden history world thirty years ago, when it stepped in and helped save Charles Hamilton's landscape garden at Painshill. It now needs encouragement to ensure that the right thing is done at the Jolly Boatman site.

I have written as Chairman of the Trust to object to the current scheme and to suggest that the planning brief should be reviewed in the light of the passage of time and of recent planning studies commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces.

Towering Developments

The proposed Doon Street building Four storeys count as high in the context of the Hampton Court riverside, and 144m and 170m tall count as high in the context of central London and proximity to the Thames and to St James's Park and other registered historic parks.

A Public Inquiry opened on 12th February into an application made by Coin Street Community Builders for planning permission to erect a 144m-high block of flats at Doon Street SE1, south of the National Theatre. I have submitted written representations to the Inspector objecting to the scheme on the grounds of its detrimental effect on, most especially, views within and from St James's Park. I have also written to the Secretary of State asking her to call in the planning application for the construction of the Beetham Tower, a 170m-high block at the south end of Blackfriars Bridge, a building of distinctive if unattractive form, that would be damagingly conspicuous not only from the river and St James's Park but also from Middle and Inner Temple Gardens and from Victoria Embankment Gardens.

In my representations I state that the Trust recognises that change and development are necessary to maintain London's vibrancy and dynamism, and that we are not opposed to good new development, so long as it does not have a detrimental effect on the cultural landscape.

Our involvement

These controversial schemes were all considered by the Trustís Planning and Conservation Subgroup. Members of the subgroup also considered the proposals submitted for planning permission for the construction of a new restaurant in the grounds of Chiswick House. This was a scheme we were happy to support, since the new building promises to be a distinguished piece of modern architecture that sits easily in the historic landscape, is an essential component of the landscape restoration proposals, and has been arrived at only after extensive historical research, visual analysis, and consultation with local and national amenity societies.

The Association of Gardens Trusts circulates the monthly lists of local planning authority consultations with the Garden History Society on planning proposals likely to affect sites included in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. The legislation requires planning authorities to consult the GHS on all grades of registered sites, and English Heritage in respect of grades I and II*, but I have the impression that consultation is at best patchy and inconsistent. The current fashion for high buildings of bizarre shapes, attacked recently in a speech by the Prince of Wales, has highlighted the shortcomings of the consultation procedure: a building in central London of 144m or 170m – or of any great height – will inevitably be visible over a large area and impinge on many park and river views: the quality of the architecture is less significant than the location.

It is better to see a good-looking building than an ugly one, but it is often much better still not to see a building at all. Knightsbridge Barracks, which is not without architectural quality, nevertheless glowers over Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, and at 97.5m tall is only two-thirds of the height of the proposed Doon Street flats and not much more than half the height of the proposed Beetham Tower.

Any Trust members who would like to know more about the Planning and Conservation Sub-group can write to me or email me at Duck Island Cottage. I should be particularly pleased to hear from anyone with a town planning or architectural background who would be interested in helping to respond to planning consultations.