Councillor Robert Davis MBE, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for the Built Environment for the City of Westminster, joined Portland for the second in our series of London 2020 events, to discuss the development priorities for the borough, and the future of London as a whole.
Westminster’s award winning planning team is recognised as being one of the most efficient in the country, and Councillor Davis – one of the most experienced councillors in the country – is known for his expertise in the sector and his willingness to work with developers.
Addressing the room of senior figures from the property and development world, Davis gave his insight on the protection of the West End’s office space, the Mayor’s role in planning and shaping the future of the City and the growing debate around skyscrapers in the Capital.
Given its position in Central London and the extremely high land values that come with it, Westminster Council and its planning department faces unique issues. The council has built its reputation as one of the country’s best by engaging and working with developers pre-application to ensure projects in the borough are appropriate and successful, and Davis urged this to continue.
Commenting on his planning priorities in Westminster, Councillor Davis noted that the surge in office to residential conversion was damaging to the West End economy – which accounts for 4% of the UK’s GDP. He said his leadership would seek to prevent further conversions in the central commercial area and applications for change-of-use would not be looked upon favourably.
Reflecting on Boris’ tenure as Mayor, Councillor Davis commented on his penchant for intervening in planning decisions, when in truth, the Mayor’s role was meant to be predominantly strategic. Turning to the ongoing mayoral election, Councillor Davis said he hoped that a Goldsmith mayoralty – his preferred candidate – would not seek to intervene in local decision making in the same way Boris has, but rather provide the Capital with direction and allow individual planning committees to make their own decisions on the future of their boroughs.
Taking questions from the floor, Davis was asked how ‘tall is too tall’ when it comes to new builds, especially in light of the controversy around the Paddington Tower – plans for a 72-storey tower designed by architect Renzo Piano were scrapped in January amid objections to the impact it might have on the skyline.
Councillor Davis said, as a rule, buildings needed to be taller in London in order to meet the office and residential capacity the burgeoning city requires. However, taller does not necessarily mean skyscrapers, and there are many historic views in the City which need to be preserved, presenting an additional challenge for planners and architects. Davis himself has fought many a battle against poorly designed proposals outside Westminster that impact on the City’s historic views.
London’s leaders face considerable challenges in the coming years, as the City continues to grow and the need for housing and office space gets greater, but space for development becomes more and more scarce. For many London boroughs the future is uncertain. Despite this, developers can be confident in the engagement, leadership and direction of the Westminster City Council.
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