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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480-499)

SIR NEIL COSSONS, MR PHILIP DAVIES, MR JON ROUSE AND MR PAUL FINCH

TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002

  480. So it is becoming more of an issue. How well do you think local authorities are actually handling these applications? Is there a consistency about it? Are you concerned about their approach in general?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) Not many have come through the system yet and I think that one of the issues facing local authorities is that they lack national guidelines within which they can consider these issues as I think has been demonstrated in evidence presented to you earlier, particularly by Bristol and Birmingham for example. One of the arguments which lay behind CABE and ourselves coming together to try and provide some common guidance was the increased flow of proposals for tall buildings and our hope that there could be a national framework within which they could be properly considered.

Sir Paul Beresford

  481. Would you not consider that to be difficult for many local authorities because of the variation? Bath, for example, is totally different from Croydon.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) Yes, I would. Clearly there are different circumstances that will be applied in different circumstances by local authorities.

  482. But you still want national guidelines that will squeeze the local authorities and inhibit any originality?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) I would not say that that was the purpose of national guidelines. National guidelines are to provide a framework within which intelligent, decision-making sets of proposals can take place.

  483. Do you think there is a danger that that could happen?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) We do not think so, no.

  484. It will be interesting to see.
  (Mr Finch) We think there is a danger of having portmanteau blanket guidelines which imply on the one hand that people must have tall buildings or on the other hand that they should not have them. We think that, by and large, this is a matter for the democratically elected local authorities.

Mrs Dunwoody

  485. Democratically elected? In other words, you would not expect to have any set of criteria to work from?
  (Mr Finch) Local authorities themselves consult English Heritage and ourselves which is why we have produced a document on tall buildings. I think that, in the end, they are the elected planning authorities and one has to be careful about imposing the rules from above when they may be perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what it is that they think they need. Frequently where there is a lack of experience in dealing with tall buildings as planning objects, if you like, they will seek advice from people with a little more experience.

Sir Paul Beresford

  486. What do you call a tall building?
  (Mr Finch) In London, I call it—

  487. No.
  (Mr Finch) Twelve/15 storeys, something like that. It is perhaps where you could see across the city.

  488 That is relative to the site?
  (Mr Finch) Absolutely.

Mr Betts

  489. Even if you have deemed that guidance is inappropriate and it is not sufficient at present and we recognise that local authorities are going to make those decisions, do you think that at present they are getting it wrong with certain common failings in the way that they are approaching proposals for tall buildings?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) I do not think so.

  490. Why do they need guidance?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) They themselves are saying that they would welcome guidance but if you consider the very thoughtful approaches being pursued by Birmingham and Bristol, they are firstly recognising that there is an issue and recognising that the historic environment is one of the important components to be taken into account when tall buildings are being considered and would, I believe, welcome some form of guidance which need not be prescriptive or inhibiting but which would at least provide a framework within which, if issues like this get as far as the Secretary of State, these issues can be taken into account.

Christine Russell

  491. Can I ask you, Sir Neil and Mr Finch, about guidance. Are you actually saying that you produced the consultation paper following calls from local authorities rather than in order to try to address the concerns and the needs of developers? Would you expand on why you both felt that it was necessary to produce this paper.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) I do not think we did it in response to calls from local authorities although we were aware that there were anxieties being expressed by local authorities. I think it was in response to the increasing number of proposals for tall buildings that were coming forward.

  492. Although you have said that you do not expect the findings to be concluded until the spring of next year . . . Is that right?
  (Mr Davies) That is likely. It is quite a detailed study that we are looking at: the social, economic and environmental issues and issues to do with sustainability. I think that will take some time to deliver.

  493. Are you prepared today to share with the Committee some of the early responses that you have had?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) If I might. We put the proposal together last summer and I had written to the participants in early September. After 11 September, we decided that it would not be appropriate or sensible to try and bring together a group of people to have a rational view about tall buildings in the immediate aftermath of the New York/Washington tragedies. I wrote to the same parties again last week to revive the process and we hope to have our first meeting within the next couple of weeks.

Chairman

  494. In a sense, you put together the joint consultation paper between the two organisations and, having done that, you are now doing the research to see whether it is justified.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) No. I think that it is a different area of research. I think that part of the experience that we have had—and it may be the case with CABE as well—is that, when we are engaged in debates about tall buildings, the issues to do with the social, economic and environmental criteria that apply to them are debated with very, very thin information and evidence. In a sense, it is a paucity of data that has become apparent since the joint document came out and we are very anxious to equip ourselves and others with more quantitative information about tall buildings.
  (Mr Finch) I think it is worth saying that the responses to the guidance document have been largely positive and constructive and we do not think there is any need to change anything significant in that document as it stands and that is intended to be useful to applicants and to planning authorities themselves. I think that existing policy guidance says that significant buildings, significant through size or difference, should be sent to CABE and English Heritage where relevant for advice and comment, no more and no less than that. Therefore, we already have a duty to make comments on individual proposals and it seemed to us that, if we were doing that, then we ought to set down how we habitually assess tall buildings so that people have some idea of what our procedures are; so we are trying to be transparent.

Christine Russell

  495. Is what you are actually saying to the Committee that jointly you already have a view as to what form the guidance will take and it will be remarkably similar to this?
  (Mr Finch) Yes, that is right. If as many are at the moment coming in for a comment from us on tall buildings, the criteria set out in that document are the ones by which we will make our comment.
  (Mr Rouse) I think it is worth saying in terms of the consultation response that we had about 75 serious responses of which about 60 were broadly positive. I think that there are two or three issues that we need to pick up on and look at again. One was a comment from a number of parties that perhaps CABE and English Heritage should not be looking at the viability of tall building proposals, that that was not our remit. That causes us some qualms because one of the matters we are concerned about is ensuring that what has been put forward is actually going to be built in the way that it is designed, and the only way that you can really test that is to look at the viability of the proposal. I think that because that is a significant comment that has come back through the consultation process, we will have to look at it quite seriously.

Sir Paul Beresford

  496. Do you think that the Government ought to endorse the joint guidance to give it a little more emphasis in the system?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) Yes, I think so. After the consultation process and after we have been able to build any sort of modifications that Jon Rouse has just referred to.
  (Mr Finch) I think it is worth saying that this document should be seen in the context of other documents. You might say that the only difference between tall buildings and other buildings is that they are in fact tall. In other words, height is just one of the factors that one would use to judge their quality or otherwise. For example, how they meet the street, whether they are accessible, and what the circulation is like. Those things would apply to other buildings and there is guidance which is endorsed by government, the DTLR obviously in particular, and I think this really would be useful if that were seen in that sort of light.
  (Mr Rouse) That is the companion guide to PPG1 which deals with urban design principles.

  497. Do you think that your joint disagreement over the Heron Tower rather dents the joint guidance?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) I do not. I think that we have criteria on which we come together and that that is encapsulated in the document, but each of us has our own locus and English Heritage's role to protect and nurture the historic environment leads us to consider very strongly the location of tall buildings whereas CABE, which I am sure can speak for itself, is perhaps more concerned with the specific architecture and form of those buildings.

  498. Just before it does, I have been looking at some of the minutes of your Advisory Committee for English Heritage meetings and, to put it mildly, I was confused. For example, on 28 April 2000, the staff recommendation was that because the Secretary of State asked for an EIA for the Swiss Re building, perhaps you should for the Heron building, and the minutes of the meeting say that there was a lengthy discussion and that the members were divided; it is not that clear which way they were divided. Then, on 17 May, three weeks later, the actual Commission reported that the London Advisory Committee majority had been of the view that the Heron building effect on views did not warrant refusal and that the Regional Director, Mr Davies here, actually said that the EIA was unlikely to add anything of significance to the decision, which is completely contrary to the previous situation. Then the Advisory Committee, on 26 May, recorded that the minutes of 28 April were wrong and that the majority view was that the impact of the Heron building did not warrant a Committee refusal and then, at the end of the day as I understand it, you recommended refusal. There is an Australian saying, "You don't know if you're Arthur or Martha!" Where are you? What is the explanation?
  (Mr Davies) May I respond to that? The application was reported to the London Advisory Committee. The recommendation from the London Advisory Committee was that consent should not be granted for the Heron scheme until there was a London-wide strategy for tall buildings. At that particular point in time at pre-application stage, one was giving a steer on the proposals. The recommendation to the Commission was that consent should not be forthcoming until that wider study had taken place. There was then a discussion about whether or not the scheme was sufficiently damaging so as to warrant a call in. The majority view of the LAC was that it probably was not sufficiently damaging to warrant a call in at that particular point in time. That was reported to the Commission. The Commission is the decision making body. The Commission very clearly took the view that their view and English Heritage's view was that it was sufficiently damaging to warrant call in.

  499. Even though they did not on 17 May? The minutes on 17 May said that it did not warrant refusal.
  (Mr Davies) I am sorry, the London Advisory Committee recommended—


 
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