Last Wednesday I woke up to the news that a helicopter had struck a crane attached to the St George Tower, had subsequently spiralled downward and narrowly missed the railway bridge before crashing onto the Wandsworth Road not far from Sainsbury’s, where it exploded.
My first thoughts were: “I don’t believe it!” and then: “That was too close (to Vauxhall Grove) for comfort”. It was a misty morning and helicopters, usually flying by sight, tend to follow the river. Maybe the pilot had difficulties seeing the river and that’s why he came to fly as low as 180 m (or a little above, as 180 m is the height of the tower).
Most would agree that it was sheer luck that not more people were killed or badly injured – had the helicopter crashed into a building – for instance Sainsbury’s – it doesn’t bear thinking.
It’s the sort of thing that no one seriously believes will ever happen, and if anyone ever did, Lambeth developers and planners certainly don’t seem to be keen on airng such concerns in public.
London is particularly tricky to negotiate by air and helicopters have to share the air space with incoming flights approaching Heathrow. The river acts as a corridor for helicopters flying at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. The new St George tower is considerably taller than any other structure this close to the river and stands exposed on the inside of a pronounced bend in the river (the words ‘sore thumb’ and ‘sticking out’ come to mind). If a helicopter was to strike anything, then this was it. Fortunately the rest of the cluster hasn’t been built yet, as surely at least one of the many planned tall towers would have been in the doomed choppers downward path.
Ever since the Vauxhall Cross area has been declared part of the VNEB Opportunity Area it seems that whenever risks associated with high rise architecture are flagged up, we’re told by those in the world of planning: ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.’
And there are several other conceivable scenarios were things might go badly wrong: looming large in recent years is the increased risk of flooding, bearing in mind that Vauxhall is in a flood plain. Will the Thames barrier (which had to go up twice in one week not long ago) be able to ward off flooding in Vauxhall in the future? And if not, are there emergency rescue plans for the area, especially regarding the new skyscrapers? When asked about the risk of flooding in the VNEB Opportunity Area a developer replied that the residential units in the tall towers would be sticking out above the flood line and that therefore there was nothing to worry about.
Questions also remain unanswered regarding the very real risk of fire breaking out in the upper floors of a tall tower ( say, for example, as the result of a helicopter strike?). How well would the fire brigade be equipped to deal with something on that scale? A person died recently in an apartment block in Southwark because the fire brigade couldn’t reach them – how would they rescue hundreds of people from the tallest residential tower in Europe for instance (to be built in Vauxhall)? The fire brigade themselves don’t seem too confident , especially in the face of continuing cuts.
And what about concerns raised by local residents regarding potential architectural wind caused by the Kylun Towers and indeed the cluster as a whole? Everyone knows how unpleasant wind tunnel effects near tall buildings can be, but since an incident in Leeds in 2011, where a pedestrian was crushed by a lorry that had been lifted up by a sudden gust of wind at the bottom of a 110 m tower, we’re now also aware that it can be extremely dangerous too. But all these concerns were dismissed as immaterial by the inspector presiding over the Kylun appeal – even though the Kylun’s own Environmental Statement went as far as to admit that on certain days winds generated by the Kylun Towers will make waiting in the bus station a very uncomfortable experience. Never mind the odd roof slate or tree branch coming down …
Or what of the slightly more banal eventuality of a water shortage? Water experts were telling us during last summer’s drought that stand pipes in the street were a real possibility. Presumably the prospect of an extra 40.000 power showers in the VNEB Opportunity area would further exacerbate the problem. Might this mean queueing for water from stand pipes in the street for thousands of future high rise dwellers ?
But thankfully they can use the lift to carry the buckets of water back up to their flats in the sky. And modern, well-maintained lifts hardly ever break down like they used to, do they? Well, a few days ago I talked to a resident of the Strata tower in Elephant & Castle who said that he’s okay because he only lives on the 7th floor, so when the lifts fail, he is able to negotiate the stairs, being fit and healthy – ex-army – adding that people living on the 30th, 40h or 50th floor weren’t so lucky. NB: The only local lift servicing company, Otis, upped sticks some years ago. Lift engineers now have to drive in across London from Essex or Croydon – high rise dwellers could be stuck for some time.
All this shows that the ongoing love affair with extremely tall towers should be tempered with the real risks and down-sides created by high rise architecture, and these should also be taken into account in the planning process. I’m not at all confident that this is happening in Lambeth.