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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

SIMON JENKINS,

TUESDAY 22 JANUARY 2002

Mrs Ellman

  80. Why is it that the Mayor advocates tall buildings, and at the same time is saying he does not want to create Manhattan here?
  (Mr Jenkins) He does not want to create Manhattan?

  81. He said he does not?
  (Mr Jenkins) Oh, well, he has changed his mind since he got back. I meet many people who are undoubtedly excited, indeed exhilarated, by vast structures which dominate the skyline and somehow lift the spirit and convey a sense of urbanism, I have heard it all. They very rarely want it anywhere near where they live. And also I am not convinced that it is necessary, it is either a part of the texture of London or necessary for its economic future.

  82. Who should decide what happens; do you think there should be clearer Government guidance?
  (Mr Jenkins) I am torn on this, because I happen to believe very strongly in autonomous City government, and when I see Ken Livingstone jumping up and down and saying, "I want lots of tall buildings," this tests my loyalty to his position. That said, I do think tall buildings are a special case, they are quite unlike almost any other planning decision that anybody takes, they dominate totally vast areas of townscape, and they are usually for ever. The argument that went into building the Shell Centre was that Shell would move out of Britain if they were not allowed to build there. The Hilton Hotel was allowed to build at Hyde Park because otherwise Conrad Hilton said he would not have a Hilton in London. These sorts of arguments, these economic arguments, these commercial arguments, are always used to get round the planning regulations.

Sir Paul Beresford

  83. Did they never have any validity?
  (Mr Jenkins) No. I do not think they did, really. As we now know, there was a time when tall buildings were anathema to the property market because they could not let small floor-plates; now they are for multi-lets. The most important thing, I think, is to decide what is the pattern of development of the City that you want to see and then allow the free market to make use of it as it will. There are huge areas of London where groundscrapers are perfectly appropriate, where they will be welcomed by local people, where they fit in with the transport routes that the capital has got already, where they will prevent people having to commute long distances. Good planning says diversify these nodes of office development, and I cannot see why that is a problem. The present proposal from the Mayor, but not, interestingly, from the City, is that there should be far more high buildings over railway stations. High buildings over railway stations are honeypots, attracting more congestion to those railway stations. I cannot see any point in that at all. Also, most unfortunately, many of them are very adjacent to conservation areas, so they have an immediate impact on a much wider area than the station itself.

Mrs Ellman

  84. So then what have you concluded about the limits of City government, mayoral government, and what central government should do?
  (Mr Jenkins) I think that high buildings, like controls on historic buildings, is an area where the appellate system ought to apply. The GLA Act is an anomaly, it allows the Mayor to say no but not to say yes, it is a curiosity in that respect; also, it enables him to do so without consulting his Assembly, which is very peculiar, to my mind. But I do think it is an area where general planning guidance should apply, where the appellate procedure should apply, because these decisions are of such significance to the whole of the capital. I have to say, I think it is odd that the Mayor's two principal advisers on this matter, one is a leading figure of the City of London, whom you have just been hearing from, and the other is a developer's architect; it appears that no conflict of interest need apply.

Sir Paul Beresford

  85. Perhaps he wants London to succeed economically?
  (Mr Jenkins) Can I address this question, because I am familiar with the heckle. I think that the argument says that, in this case, very few property developers who are in this business are the equivalent of the economic success of London. Lord Rogers said that if we were not in favour of his buildings we wanted to live in caves. I might say, no, you ought to live in Royal Avenue, Chelsea. This is absurd. There are ways in which cities develop. London, on the whole, has developed into the most economically successful city in Europe, possibly in the world, without these buildings, or with very few of these buildings; they are not necessary to the economic health of a city. What is necessary for the economic health of a city is good planning, and I think that planning has to apply, in other words, it cannot have exceptions. The difficulty with high buildings is that an exception to a high buildings policy negates the whole policy; and that is what we have been seeing for 50 years in London.

Mrs Ellman

  86. So then, I am still not absolutely clear, how would you like the planning system, in relation to London, to be changed, and would it still be in relation to tall buildings, or are there other concerns as well?
  (Mr Jenkins) I have to say, I think the system is quite a good one. I have to say that we are now having a debate about high buildings that we have not had for two decades, and I attribute that to the fact that we have got an elected Mayor, with an Assembly, who has pushed this item forward on the agenda. I remember the last time high buildings were a big issue, which was during the property boom of the 1980s; it was sorted out more or less within the corridors of central government. It is, to my mind, a great advance that you are discussing it, that the GLA discusses it, that the Mayor discusses it, that the press discusses it.

Chairman

  87. Even if you get some more tall buildings, as a result?
  (Mr Jenkins) I would think that was a failure of the argument. I am not prepared to say the system is bad merely because it might end up with a result I do not like.

  88. This idea of protecting views in London, is it really a sensible way of approaching the issue?
  (Mr Jenkins) I went up onto Richmond Hill to see the famous view of St Paul's through the keyhole, and, while it was quite exciting, I have to say, I did not think it was the be all and end all of planning. I do think that the protection of the views of St Paul's from the west has been an important constraint on even worse towers in the west City; so, to that extent, it has been a useful aid to planning control. But, yes, I do, I think that when you stand on Westminster Bridge, or Waterloo Bridge, it is nice to be able to see some of the more prominent landmarks in the City and the West End.

  89. Tower Hamlets are suggesting that they should have one or two protected views; is that fair?
  (Mr Jenkins) I think it is perfectly fair, yes. It is significant that one of the areas that the City would like to see developed is the eastern fringe, Royal Mint Street, Leman Street, Wapping, running up to Whitechapel and round to the Bishopsgate Yard site. I do not see why the people who live there and use these amenities and these areas should have any fewer rights to conservation or to protected views than the people who live in west London.

Sir Paul Beresford

  90. What about the argument that some of these tall buildings actually frame St Paul's? Rather than going up Richmond Hill, as you can tell by the accent, I skated up to the top of New Zealand House and had a look, and, in fact, viewing from the top there, the tall buildings actually frame it; some of the other tall buildings in south London that have gone up recently have actually contributed to the small, historic buildings there. No doubt you dislike them because they are over sort of about five storeys, but I feel personally they have actually contributed to it?
  (Mr Jenkins) On that, we are discussing aesthetics.

  91. So it is a matter of opinion?
  (Mr Jenkins) It is a matter of opinion, on that, and I can see that you can argue that a particular configuration of tall buildings can frame a historic building; that is almost definitional. Whether you wanted to frame it is a matter of opinion.

Chairman

  92. Is it right that you just protect that view, or is it more important for people that when they are actually walking about it is the whole of the panorama that they see as they walk? Would it not be better to look at that sort of protection, rather than just saying, "This view is going to be frozen in time"?
  (Mr Jenkins) Yes, I think I would agree with you. The trouble is, we have, in so many places, sold that pass; we have point blocks over almost all the West End, you can see Centrepoint or the Hilton Hotel. I would love to see them come down one day; that is my point of view. But I do think that these are the considerations you need to have in mind when you are formulating a tall buildings policy.

  93. Now if you were going to lose the argument, would you prefer to have a few clusters or some pepperpots?
  (Mr Jenkins) If I were going to lose the argument, I would rather have a few clusters.

Christine Russell

  94. Throughout your evidence, Simon, you have said that you are a strong believer in planning but you are vehemently opposed to tall buildings. So, if you had been a member of Salisbury District Council's Planning Committee when the application came in for the Cathedral, would you have opposed it?
  (Mr Jenkins) I hope I would not, and I hope that the same might be said were there to be a proposal to put a very large structure in the middle of Hyde Park, to which I have seen nothing in the Mayor's evidence that he might be opposed. I would say, "Right, if there's got to be one there, let's have it designed in the Early English Gothic style." But, no. I see where you are coming from. There is always a sense in which our acceptance of style changes over time. I happen to think that most buildings prior to the modern movement were buildings that, in some sense, respected pavements, streets, sidewalks and views down streets, in a way in which large steel and concrete and glass structures do not. That is my personal opinion.

  95. So it is the aesthetics that are wrong, rather than the height of the building?
  (Mr Jenkins) No; the height of the buildings is also wrong. But I take your point, that there might be very high buildings that I think are terrific. I can look at a Mies van der Rohe tower and say it is a beautiful Mies van der Rohe tower and still not want it in my back garden.

  96. So if there is quality open space around the tall building that would be okay?
  (Mr Jenkins) That certainly would have applied to Salisbury Cathedral, yes.

Sir Paul Beresford

  97. With my past in local government, I was responsible for knocking down probably about six or eight, as part of the Council, tall, or relatively tall, buildings. We then had the problem of finding accommodation, and space for the accommodation, for the people that were resident in them. One of the difficulties we have is, we are a little island with a huge population, we want our green belt but we also want our accommodation in the cities. Are we not going to have to move in that direction of high-densities, and, therefore, also, higher buildings?
  (Mr Jenkins) I think, higher densities, yes, higher buildings, no. You can drive for 15, 20 miles from the City, in almost all directions, and you will see phenomenally low densities, the lowest densities in Europe are in the outer suburbs of London. There is a huge amount of space in London to do almost anything you could possibly want to do without impinging on the skyline; that is my essential point.

Chairman

  98. In the regeneration of Manchester, and to a certain extent the regeneration of Birmingham, it does appear that going taller than the normal in those cities does seem to be helping the regeneration process; penthouse flats in the centre of Manchester have started to sell at just over a million pounds. Do you not see that there is possibly a regeneration factor in some of these tall buildings?
  (Mr Jenkins) Yes, I do. If you are not going to pull down the Trellick Tower, at least make it a fashionable yuppie residence. There are people who like living in tall buildings; the fact that there are people who like doing things, people might like building helicopter pads in the Thames, it does not mean we have to do it. I think the important thing for planning is to try to measure that particular requirement against all the other requirements. In Leeds, the similar sorts of properties have been put up alongside the canal, with great success, without having to build tall buildings. You can do it either way. You can build very high-density low-rise, and, on the whole, I think it is a more attractive city that results.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence. Thank you.



Chairman

  99. Can I welcome you to the third session this morning. Can I ask you to introduce yourselves, for the record, please?
  (Mr Powell) Good morning, Chairman. My name is Carl Powell. I am Director of Planning and Transportation with Westminster City Council.
  (Ms MacQueen) My name is Rosemarie MacQueen. I am Assistant Head of Development Planning Services, also at Westminster City Council.
  (Ms Wilkinson) I am Jacky Wilkinson, Principal Conservation Officer, Bath & North East Somerset Council, and I head the Historic Buildings team in the Planning Department.

  


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 28 February 2002