Protecting the view: how St Paul's Cathedral has been shaping the rest of London for centuries

Because the world will end if you can't see it from Richmond. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Fosh

As well as all your standard planning rules – not accidentally constructing a huge mirror that sets fire to cars if there’s the wrong sort of sun, etc. – London has another unusual consideration for would-be skyscraper builders: you have to ensure you don’t ruin the view of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Some of this concerns the area immediately surrounding it in the City of London, referred to as “St Paul’s Heights”, established in 1937. Within this area, the City’s planning department aims to preserve the existing views of St Paul’s, although there are quite a few buildings that already infringe it – either because they predate the current iteration of planning policy or because, like the new Blackfriars station, they’re not in the City so it couldn’t do anything about it.

No tall things please, we're British. Image: City of London.

But the effect of the cathedral on planning spreads way past the borders of the City: several viewing corridors exist to keep St Paul’s visible from other parts of London. The longest, and oldest, runs all the way to King Henry VIII’s Mount in Richmond – far enough way they’ve had to set up a telescope to enable you to see it as much more than a tiny dome-shaped blur. The view of the cathedral is also protected from Parliament and Primrose Hills, although the growth of the skyline around in over the last century means it barely stands out anyway.

The view from Primrose Hill. Find St Paul’s, win a pound. (N.B. You will not win a pound.) Image: Wikimedia Commons/Diliff.

In recent years, there’s been huge pressure to relax some of these rules given the increasing demand for ludicrously shaped tall buildings in London –  when Ken Livingstone was mayor, he decreased the size of the viewing cones from 440m to 210m – and the sky has, as yet, failed to fall in. Even if you do care about views, the argument could be made that a skyscraper can be as interesting to look at as a cathedral.

The various protected views of London. Image: OpenStreetMap.

While London is notable for having so much planning policy dictated by a single building (although views of parliament and the Tower of London are also protected), it’s certainly not the only city to operate this kind of policy. Quite a few places in the UK have laws that restrict building heights or otherwise protect views around their cathedrals – simply because, like St Paul's, they had been the tallest building in the area for centuries.

In the US, Portland, Oregon has a Scenic Resources Protection Plan to manage development, partly inspired by a popular view of the local mountain being ballsed up by the pointy KOIN Center building.

A spectacularly sarcastic section of a planning report. Image: portlandoregon.gov.uk.

While this sort of thing might carry a general sense of worthiness, it is not necessarily without cost. San Francisco’s extremely restrictive planning laws are in part about preserving key views in the city – but they also mean hardly anyone can afford to live there, as demand has massively outstripped the ability to build enough new homes, high density housing being difficult because of the height restrictions.

If nothing else, perhaps there should be an exemption on constructing tall stuff in these areas if there’s a hilariously spiteful reason to do so. The impressive Art Deco Kavanagh building in Buenos Aires was commissioned in 1934 by Corina Kavanagh, an Irish millionaire. According to local legend she’d tried to marry into a local aristocratic family, but the match was rejected because she wasn’t from noble enough stock. In revenge, she bought the land between the family’s mansion, and the fancy local church that they’d paid for, and blocked their favourite view with her new skyscraper.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that if you really want to protect the view of St Paul’s Cathedral, you should have to marry it.

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The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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