Yesterday we looked at how tall buildings can have a devastating impact on the daylight received by neighbouring homes. Regardless of this, they are often still approved by planning authorities.
Why do councils grant planning permission to these buildings that so clearly damage the homes of local residents, even when planning policies say that amenities like daylight must be protected?
The answer is not the need for new homes. The skyscraper glut in London is all concentrated in a few ‘opportunity areas’, and every modern tall building provides little in the way of affordable housing. If planning authorities prioritised the kind of housing that was of use to Londoners, the focus would be on building medium density blocks over a much wider area. The kind of housing that allows for a good quality local environment.
The reality is that councillors on planning committees are often not told about, or are misled about the real impact these new buildings will have. Instead, specialist consultants, employed by developers, manipulate the figures and facts to make new buildings seem far less harmful than they really are.
This gives the impression to councillors that the harm to residents is either much less than or at the very least a debatable point, easing the passage of a controversial planning application.
Let me introduce to you Gordon Ingram Associates. GIA is a firm of specialist daylight consultants based in Waterloo. According to Building.co.uk they may be the UK’s grooviest building surveyor.
According to their website they have been responsible for helping the passage of many of the most significant tall buildings in London. The Shard, The Gherkin, Wood Wharf, The Shell Centre, The Walkie Talkie (yes the one whose light design was so bad that it focused the sun into a death ray so powerful it melted a car) and others. To a large extent they have been key to the reshaping of our city.
The job of a daylight consultant should be to help the architect achieve the best lighting conditions for their building and the buildings around it. They should also provide the facts to a planning authority on how daylight conditions will be impacted as a result of a development.
I first came across GIA when campaigning on the proposed redevelopment of the former Fire Brigade headquarters at 8 Albert Embankment, and again at the Shell Centre. Since then I have come across a number of different instances where GIA acted.
In each case I have seen, the local planning authority were told that buildings showed high levels of compliance with national daylighting guidance and that in their expert and considered opinion, any damage to daylight on neighbouring properties was negligible. In these examples they got that judgement wrong.
Technique 1 – Change the test
Yesterday we looked at Wood Wharf, a large area of land on the Isle of Dogs to the east of Canary Wharf. It is currently occupied by low rise, light industrial units. Canary Wharf Group are planning a major new redevelopment of the area, a new cluster of buildings to match neighbouring Canary Wharf.
As discussed in yesterday’s article, there is a very large impact on the daylight of neighbouring buildings.
Despite this, GIA’s report stated the following:
“It is clear that 91% of neighbouring rooms and/or windows will satisfy at least 1 or more of the daylight criteria set down by the BRE. Given the base position and the massing envisaged, this is a very high level of compliance with the BRE Guidelines.”
To recap, there were in fact a vast number of failures of the BRE guidance. In total 785 windows failed the first BRE test (VSC), that was 36.5% of the windows assessed. 208 rooms failed the second test (NSC) – 13.3% of those assessed.
How did GIA come to the their conclusion? In order to be compliant with the guidance, both tests which make up the BRE guidance must be passed. To make the case for Wood Wharf, GIA simply added a third test to the BRE guidance and then claimed that any window that passed any one of the three tests was compliant with BRE guidance.
That third test, the ADF test, is not part of the BRE guidance but forms part of the British Standard. Rather than look at what is a perceptible change, the British Standard gives a minimum measure of daylight for new homes that should be achieved. As a result of the new buildings at Wood Wharf, more than 40% of the surrounding homes will become sub-standard in terms of their daylighting under the British Standard.
Imagine your child came home after failing French and Spanish exams and said, well, I might have failed but I passed English so let’s just say I passed languages. You probably wouldn’t be too impressed.
However, Tower Hamlets it seems were taken in and Wood Wharf was approved in 2009.
The Fire Station
Wood Wharf was no just a one off mistake. A couple of years later we see GIA pulling the same stunts. Florian Place was a proposal to build two new towers of luxury housing on the site of the former Fire Brigade Headquarters, 8 Albert Embankment, metres away from two blocks of affordable housing.
The towers were directly to the south of the existing council estate (which means maximum impact on daylight), double the height, and the width of a narrow street away. In the summary of the environmental statement appeared the following:
“The assessment identified reductions to the availability of daylight or sunlight at some windows of surrounding residential properties. However the majority of windows and rooms in the surrounding residential properties would meet the relevant BRE guidelines, thus receiving acceptable levels of daylight and sunlight.”
The summary of the ES was produced by planning consultancy Watermans, working with GIA.
The main environmental statement section on daylight was written by GIA. In that document they said that 59 of the 60 rooms measured at Whitgift House, which was the closest building to the proposed development, would be BRE compliant.
However, Lambeth Council asked GL Hearn, another consultancy, to check. They used GIA’s own figures and tested whether they had correctly found that the impact of the proposed building met the BRE guidance. Their consultant wrote the following:
“I should point out that table 17.3 within the GIA chapter states that 94% of the windows to this property would be ‘BRE’ compliant in relation to VSC assessment and 100% of the windows compliant in terms of the sunlight assessment. From my reading of GIA’s results this is not the case.”
In fact they found:
“The analysis submitted shows that all but one of the windows tested will transgress the BRE Report guideline values for VSC, with the majority of the percentage reductions ranging between 40-59%, against a BRE Report guideline value of a reduction of no more than 0.8 times of the existing values.”
In other words, rather than being 94% compliant, all but one of the windows were seeing losses of between two and three times the levels that would normally constitute a breach of the BRE guidance.
Later the council hired the BRE to look at the figures, they found: In total there are 60 rooms with their main windows in this façade. All 60 would have a loss of skylight well in excess of the BRE guidelines.
How can this wild difference in figures be explained? The assessment of impact used the same trick as at Wood Wharf, added a test to the BRE guidance and then claimed that passing that test resulted in a pass to the BRE guidance.
In the end the 8 Albert Embankment development was turned down by a planning inspector because of the damage it would cause to daylight of neighbouring properties. But this only because some eagle-eyed local resident spotted the GIA deception and started a campaign to get the council to properly defend its residents.
Technique 2 – Move the goalposts
The Bishopsgate Goodsyard is a large area of land off Shoreditch High Street. There is currently a proposal to build a wall of skyscrapers on the site, a development which will fundamentally change the quality of the environment for a vast amount of people currently surrounding the site. GIA acted for the developer.
In this case there are over 1500 windows that will fall below the BRE guideline criteria as a result of these new buildings. With such a huge impact, one might have thought that even the developers might be shy about claiming that the impact was small. However, the non-technical summary of the environmental statement says the following:
“The Proposed Development has evolved throughout the design process to ensure that it has a minimal effect on the daylight, sunlight and overshadowing amenity…the detailed strategic approach to the architectural structure of the scheme has ensured that where possible BRE compliance is either achieved or that the levels of retained light are commensurate with an inner urban location.”
However, when Dr Paul Littlefair, the author of the BRE guidance was asked by a local campaign group to review GIA’s environmental statement, he wrote that the statements contained in the main environmental statement were ‘misleading’ and those in the non-technical summary of the environmental statement (which was written by planning consultancy URS) were ‘clearly untrue’. That report was submitted to the local planning authorities.
Dr Littlefair concluded about the scheme:
“In my experience, I am aware of no other proposed development that has been predicted to have such a large effect on so many dwellings”
How did the developers manage to convince themselves that the impact of this behemoth was ‘minimal’? There are two issues raised by Dr Littlefair. Firstly,the concluding paragraphs of the Environmental statement on the Goodsyard “implies that only 5 households would have a major adverse impact and a moderate to major adverse impact. In reality these two categories actually cover over 200 homes, because some of the ‘properties’ affected are large blocks of flats.”
Secondly, they simply moved the goalposts.
In order to pass the BRE criteria, a window should not see the level of daylight fall below 27% and by more than 20% of its previous VSC value. VSC is a measure of how much light hits a window.
For the Goodsyard scheme, GIA decided that because it was in an urban area, 27% was too high a benchmark, and decided to create their own benchmark of 15%. There appears to be no guidance or study which suggests 15% is a more appropriate benchmark.
They said that they arrived at the benchmark by testing the level of daylight that already existed in surrounding homes. Their argument was that their new benchmark reflected the prevailing daylight conditions in the local ‘urban environment’.
Their claim that lower daylight conditions are acceptable in ‘inner urban’ locations is frequently deployed in all of the cases I have looked at.
However, the benchmark is vastly misleading, and has little to do with the urban environment. The GLA’s planning report outlines how GIA arrived at their 15% benchmark. First they looked at the ground floor to second floor windows in the nearby Boundary Estate. These showed daylight conditions of between 17%-25%. They then added another building to the mix, from somewhere else in London, which they say had retained daylight values of 11% bringing down their figure to the magical 15%.
The problem with their methodology is so basic that it is scarcely believable, apart from the obvious point that they appear to have arbitrarily chosen another building from another part of town that just so happens to have a very low level of daylight, the Boundary Estate is comprised of buildings of 4-5 stories. By only counting the lower floors of the estate they created a new benchmark that was obviously much lower than the real daylight conditions in the area, and then claimed that it was the norm.
In addition, many of the properties they surveyed on the Estate were not homes, but ground floor commercial properties, where daylight is considered less of an issue. So it was not even an average of surrounding homes at all.
In fact GIA’s benchmark was even lower than 15%, as it was later discovered that GIA had presented misleading figures on how many homes fell below their own new benchmark. They rounded up some of the windows that fell below 15%.
Fortunately for the people of Shoreditch, the GLA, who have taken over the determination of the scheme, commissioned a further study after seeing Dr Littlefair’s analysis. That study also questioned GIA’s analysis and GLA officers have recommended the scheme be refused. The Mayor has now deferred making a decision on the application until some of these concerns are addressed. The application remains in the balance.
Why this matters
In any system which involves any level of technical detail, it is impossible for decision makers to have a full grasp of all the rules, guidance and technical studies that underpin every piece of information they must consider. This is especially the case when it comes to development planning, where often the decision makers are not specialists but part-time politicians.
They simply have to trust that the evidence presented to them is accurate, as the work required to test every single piece of data placed in front of them is beyond the capacity of even the most industrious individual.
Experts, by spending many years concentrating on a particular subject occupy a privileged role, which inevitably carries some weight in the planning process. However, if that process is to work properly experts must behave responsibly and present the facts in a clear and unbiased assessment.
Avid readers of OurCity.London will remember that for these reasons surveyors are a regulated profession because of the public interest in their work. Daylight surveyors are no different, and GIA proudly display on the front page that they are regulated by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
However, instead of presenting the facts, GIA appear to wilfully misrepresent them for the benefit of their clients. They get the guidance wrong, advance spurious arguments and introduce basic errors in statistics that would embarrass a school child. And that is not even the worst of their activities, the next article in this series will look at some of the darker arts of daylighting.
In each case, the errors, omissions and mistakes just so happen to help their client present a case which makes their development seem much better than it actually is. If nothing else RICS should be concerned with the consistency of the poor quality of their work.
It is true that in two of the cases I have highlighted, the authorities have picked up on GIA’s tactics and taken action, but that does not make the attempt to undermine the process acceptable. Neither is the oversight of the planning authority any guarantee that councillors will receive accurate advice. In two of the cases highlighted it took the intervention of the community to get the facts heard, with campaigners around Bishopsgate hiring an expert at their own expense.
At the Shell Centre, Lambeth council hired the BRE to check GIA’s figures, and when they came back with the predictable report detailing how GIA had drastically underestimated the impact of the development, the council officers simply binned the BRE report, and didn’t tell councillors making the decision about BRE’s conclusions. The report only came out later, after I asked for documents from the council under FoI, in preparation for the subsequent planning inquiry, and after Lambeth had committed huge amounts of public money to hiring a legal team to argue for the development.
GIA continue to practise, with their regulator, RICS, apparently taking little notice of their activities. Perhaps they are simply unaware of some of the practices of one of their members. They aren’t now.
GIA were contacted to give them the opportunity to comment for this piece, however, although they confirmed receipt of my request, they declined to respond.
This article was updated on 17 May 2016 to reflect the fact that GIA had not written the non-technical summaries of the environmental statements in the 8 Albert Embankment and Bishopsgate cases. However, they did write the chapters on daylight in the main environmental statements in those cases, the summaries were produced by planning consultancies.