Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

SIMON JENKINS,

TUESDAY 22 JANUARY 2002

Chairman

  60. Can I welcome you to the second session this morning. Can I ask you to introduce yourself, for the record, please?
  (Mr Jenkins) I am Simon Jenkins.

  61. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Jenkins) All I might say, by way of contrast to what we have been hearing so far, is that I have lived in London all my life, I think I have seen almost all the tall buildings in London go up over that period of time, they have always been a source of fascination and concern to me, and they continue to be that. I believe very strongly in planning, not as an offence against the free market but as a regulator of the free market, and I think that most of the tall buildings that I have seen go up in London, in my time, have been offences against most good planning; most of them are sad, most of them we regret, and I think we should be very, very careful about doing it ever again.

  Chairman: So are you really opposed to all tall buildings or just the ones that you have seen in London?

Sir Paul Beresford

  62. Or, conversely, are there any buildings you like?
  (Mr Jenkins) I think there is something about the fabric of London and the appearance of London, the texture of London, that is inimical to these very, very large structures. I also think that they find it, in any city, very difficult to fit into a streetscape. If you look at the ones that have gone up in London, almost none of them are street-friendly, they are surrounded by a blighted area caused by their servicing ducts and bays, they are not nice places to be round or to live next to, they are difficult parts of the City, and people, on the whole, do not like congregating to them, and you do not see people casually strolling round the outskirts of the Barbican, or Centrepoint, or Euston Tower, or Stag Place. So, on the whole, I am, I have to admit, rather opposed to tall buildings, yes.

Chairman

  63. And you do not think they work in other parts of the world; if you looked at somewhere like Chicago, or Boston, or New York, are there not some nice examples of tall buildings, reflecting the smaller ones around them?
  (Mr Jenkins) I think there is a distinction to be drawn between what might be called the aesthetic of distance; if you see tall buildings across Hudson River, or across Lake Michigan, or across the harbour in Hong Kong, yes, you feel a sense of excitement and drama. We all remember Ken Livingstone coming back from what appeared to be his first visit to Manhattan and wanting it in London. I think that that sense of aesthetic thrill is quite different from whether we really want to live with these buildings; they are difficult things to live with. Yes, they have been put up in places where they have been very carefully planned, as a whole. I think the central square of Canary Wharf could be regarded as a case in point, although even that I do not find a very friendly environment. But the idea that you can simply locate individual tall buildings more or less at random round a city like London and then expect them to fit in is a fallacy.

Sir Paul Beresford

  64. How do you define a tall building?
  (Mr Jenkins) To my mind, a tall building, and I suppose there are about 2,000 of them in London, is a building that can be seen from a far distance away, in other words, it is not simply a part of its street architecture, and a building that finds, because of the servicing requirements, that it needs a large area of street space round it simply to service it.

Chairman

  65. So somewhere like Canary Wharf is alright, because it is down there rather than up here?
  (Mr Jenkins) It is not very popular with the people in Poplar. No, I know very few people who want to live next to a tall building, rather like a wind turbine; most of the architects of them do not live in them or near them. These are buildings that are justified, as we have heard this morning, almost entirely on economic grounds, or occasionally on the aesthetic grounds that, so to speak, visitors to the City from abroad are excited by; but the building in itself, I think, is often a very difficult thing to handle.

Sir Paul Beresford

  66. So, from your concerns, the Corporation of London would be a special case, because it has so few residents; you were saying people do not like living there?
  (Mr Jenkins) The Corporation of London, I think, I do not want to say has a problem, because the buildings that it has allowed to go up, over the past 40, 50 years, are, on the whole, unattractive buildings. I would point out that I think, this year, or maybe even last year for the first time, average rents of offices in Westminster have overtaken those in the City, because I think a lot of people prefer to work and live, but work, in an environment like the City of Westminster, which is heavily conserved, and which has been hostile to tall buildings, rather than in the City, which is filled, now, with an increasing number of large caverns, which are not attractive places to be in your leisure time.

Mrs Ellman

  67. Is the problem about scale rather than height, is there not a problem with the groundscrapers as well, now, in terms of servicing requirements, that you mentioned?
  (Mr Jenkins) The only way one can answer these questions is to go and walk round the buildings. Broadgate is quite a success. I think the Merrill Lynch building is a success. I do think that it is easier to handle, in the sense of appreciate, when you are walking through a street, which is what we are discussing, a lower building than a higher building. There comes a point when the sheer scale of a structure is overpowering, it is crushing, it makes you feel "I don't want to be here;" you may want to be inside it, if you happen to work there, or maybe live in it, but as a feature of the street architecture it is hostile. And I feel the same about—and here we are coming on to the planning of them—the way in which they have been allowed to arise over the London skyline. I do not go up on Primrose Hill, or Parliament Hill Fields, and look across London and feel any sense of pride in the planning of London; they have not been clustered. Where they are clustered, and from a distance, they look less offensive, to my eye, than they do where they are dotted, as pepperpots. I still would not like to live near one.

  68. Do you reject the economic case that we have just heard about, when we have just been told that the economy is booming, the only way we can maintain and improve on that is by having tall buildings?
  (Mr Jenkins) I have to say, I wondered which city I was living in, this morning; it was as if the City of London was on a different planet from the rest of the conurbation. If we are discussing this in any sensible terms at all, we are discussing the planning of tall buildings, and they should be planned, surely, on a London-wide basis, not purely for the interests of the City in its ferocious battle with Canary Wharf. I think that the important thing about planning these buildings is to say to what extent does a building of, let us say, for the sake of the argument, more than 12 to 20 storeys genuinely contribute to the economy of the City; you asked the question this morning, I did not think you got a very satisfactory reply. Ken Livingstone talks about no more than 12 to 15 towers, as he calls them; the idea that that is going to have any impact at all on average rents for office accommodation across the metropolis is absurd. I have been to Frankfurt, I have asked people in Frankfurt why it is all their young people want to come and work in London. Not one of them says, "Oh, well, we hope you're going to have some tall buildings;" they speak about the quality of life in London, the enjoyment of London's night-life, the extent to which the City has got attractive neighbourhoods that they want to spend their time in, these are the reasons why they want to come to London. It is one reason why I think the City has difficulties over its long-term future as an office centre, because it has ignored the importance of conservation and has allowed Westminster to steal its thunder.

Mr Betts

  69. It is fine when people from Frankfurt want to come and live in London because of all the other reasons, but they also want a job, and if the case were made for saying that the only way we can provide more office accommodation in London is by building upwards, would you still oppose it?
  (Mr Jenkins) Yes. I am sorry, I would not accept the argument in the first place. It is ridiculous to think that a few towers, on the eastern fringes of the City, are going to transform the economy of London. Apart from that, I have to say, this theory that London is running out of land for offices is absurd; even on the City fringes there are acres of sites available to be developed. Even if you were to accept the absurd argument that we must concentrate ever more workers in the City, ten million more square feet of space in the City, given, as you said earlier, the transportation problems of London, is reckless planning, to my mind.

Sir Paul Beresford

  70. So you do not accept the argument that this is a specialist situation, with a specialist type of business; we are not talking of bureaucracy, as we would find around Whitehall, we are talking of a financial centre, it is quite specific, and the people that would come there would be coming there to work but to enjoy the City elsewhere? In other words, in addition to those points, going to a planned system that is applied right across London would be an enormous mistake, I think you and I would agree on that, if not on much else, because the people that would be coming from Frankfurt, or wherever, would be coming to work in that area but to enjoy the other aspects of London, which Clive Betts was touching on, elsewhere?
  (Mr Jenkins) Why do more of them want to come to Westminster now?

  Sir Paul Beresford: I think it is probably because—you should be answering that yourself—but, if I were to take words from the previous witness, my suspicion would be, the point that she was making, that specific types of businesses want to go into the City; those that go into Westminster may not be those specific types of businesses.

Mrs Dunwoody

  71. They get a special deal on housing, too?
  (Mr Jenkins) Absolutely. I am sorry, I asked the question—I beg your pardon—which was rhetorical.

Sir Paul Beresford

  72. That is alright; have you got an answer?
  (Mr Jenkins) I believe in the free market. I think that the free market should operate within the constraints of planning. At the moment, the free market is directing office demand, if price per square foot is any indication, towards Westminster and away from the City; there must be a reason for that, and it cannot be that the City has not got any tall buildings.

Mr Betts

  73. So you are arguing then for extra office development, where, in Westminster, instead of the City?
  (Mr Jenkins) I would be arguing for extra office development outside the inner ring, I really do think that, quite strongly. Also, I have to say, I think that we are seeing the last gasp of these large floor-plate office booms, as someone indicated earlier. Canary Wharf is beginning to empty, it is not the case that Herongate is pre-let, there is, pretty certainly, something of a slump about to take place in office property in London. I have always predicted that part of Canary Wharf will end up being completely empty; maybe I will be wrong. All I know is that the office towers that went up in London in the sixties and seventies ended up being let to the Government; they were let to the Government because the speculators could not let them to anybody else.

  74. Should we worry too much though about what the City themselves are going to do, because will not the economic factors take care of themselves and the buildings will not go up because there will not be a demand for them?
  (Mr Jenkins) I have to say, of all the tall building issues that I think one can encounter in London, the City is one of, to my mind, the less critical ones, because it is, indeed, an office concentration already, it has got some high buildings in it already, it is, I suppose, in the high building sense, already a goner. But I just hate to hear arguments that the City needs ever more economic development, by definition, at the expense of other parts of London, and that high buildings should be allowed, as the Mayor would like to see, more or less at random across the whole of inner London, frankly, because he likes them.

Mrs Dunwoody

  75. Yes, but the difficulty about that argument, having to be devil's advocate for a minute, is, if you look at areas like Hammersmith, which originally had a very scaled, sensible housing and shopping complex and then was invaded by the odd large building, and then another odd large building, what it did was it destroyed the working-class homogeneity of the area but it did not put anything back?
  (Mr Jenkins) It is interesting that almost all those nodes, like King Street in Hammersmith, or Tolworth Tower, Kingston, or the Euston Centre, or Archway Tower, somehow one got away, at some point in the sixties or seventies, a very large building went up, usually designed by Colonel Seifert, and all of us regret them, we just regret them.

  76. Being built by Mr Seifert, not designed?
  (Mr Jenkins) No, he designed them, actually, to be fair to him.

  77. (Just ?) to make use of the English language.
  (Mr Jenkins) Alright. But these were unplanned, there was no sense in which somebody said, "What is the most attractive way of redoing the centre of Archway; though I think we need a large office block?".

  78. But then I am saying to you, if we have a concentration of ugliness, should it not be in one place?
  (Mr Jenkins) I think I would say yes, to that.

  79. But then surely you are actually arguing against what you have said about the City?
  (Mr Jenkins) Possibly; but I think the job of planning is to avoid concentrations of anything of ugliness, and it would be a pity to have it in the City or anywhere else.

  Sir Paul Beresford: Would you accept that your comment on there being ugliness is actually an opinion, but there are people of opposite opinions?

  Mrs Dunwoody: No, that was my opinion, not his.


 
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