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23/05/16

Jason Tann, Head of Commercial Real Estate comments on the West End Green development

Last month Westminster City Council approved Berkeley Homes’ controversial West End Green development next to the Paddington Green police station after eight storeys were lopped from the tower forming part of the scheme.

Jason Tann, Head of Commercial Real Estate at Pemberton Greenish LLP, examines the rationale for the planning decision and considers whether it is likely to set a precedent for other developers seeking to raise West London’s skyline to new heights.

Berkeley first submitted its application to redevelop the 2.66 acre site on Edgware Road in December last year. A revised application followed in February that included a reduction in the height of the main tower in the Squire & Partners’ scheme to 30 floors.   In April Westminster granted consent to the mixed use development and Berkeley are hoping to start work on it in the summer.

The height reduction seems to have been key to shoe-horning the proposal into the underlying planning policy. Westminster’s policy, against which all planning applications have to be assessed, is clear that there is limited scope for “tall” buildings anywhere in the borough.  This is with the exception of a single tower identified in the Westminster City Plan to anchor the Paddington Opportunity Area.  That is the already consented 1 Merchant Square scheme nicknamed, the “Cucumber”.

Most people would consider a 30 storey tower to be a tall building. However, the High Buildings Study that Westminster undertook in 2000 which informed its subsequently emerging policy described “tall buildings” as those above 25-30 storeys.  Whilst there have been applications for towers that exceed that (notably Irvine Sellar’s 72 storey headline grabbing “Paddington Pole”) no consents have been granted in Westminster for anything above 30 storeys other than the Cucumber.

It is clear that there is no policy basis for anything above 30 storeys and if Berkeley had proceeded with its original application it would have been difficult for Westminster to agree to it. Whilst cited in Berkeley’s application the Paddington Pole scheme was withdrawn in February and it seems likely that a significantly revised scheme will be put forward that comprises a much lower, but wider tower.

30 storeys seems fairly arbitrary and West End Green has been met with strong opposition despite the height reduction. The Skyline Campaign led by architect Barbara Weiss lobbied for a height reduction to 25 storeys.  Whilst this seems equally arbitrary what is more significant is their claim that the grant of permission will set a precedent for further towers in Westminster.

Westminster’s policy acknowledges that there may be the potential for further development in Paddington that is characterised by taller and large scale buildings. This development would need to be justified in a number of different contexts not least it must fit in the local townscape.  There are existing high buildings in the Paddington area which may justify others in design terms although nothing apart from the Cucumber currently gets close to 30 storeys.  Whilst each scheme is assessed on its own merits it does follow that the higher the existing buildings the higher the new development can go.  A new 30 storey tower can only add a significant amount of fuel to that fire.

Some negative environmental impact with tall buildings including overshadowing and daylight/sunlight reduction as well as aesthetic consideration is inevitable. These are taken into account by local authorities and weighed up against the benefits of the proposed development.  In the case of West End Green, by taking a vacant site that has been considered an eyesore for 30 years and replacing it with a scheme providing jobs, and much needed housing (including affordable housing) together with a significant package of other public benefits will have made the case for refusal that much harder.  It is not lost on local authorities that the test for affordable housing provision is based on viability and the more money that can be made from a scheme the more affordable housing the developer can be expected to provide.  High rise, high density residential development can directly translate into more affordable housing.

Of course there is a balance to strike between the benefit and disadvantages that follow from high rise development and it is the job of the planners to make sure that they get that balance right. The precedent emerging in Paddington could see a clustering of high buildings that might eventually lead to the policy boundaries being pushed beyond 30 storeys.  This is not the case in the remainder of the borough, however, and given the race to the clouds that is taking place in other parts of London, Westminster’s position overall seems to be conservative in comparison.

This article was first published online by Construction News on 12 May 2016.