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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500-519)



  500. Perhaps I misread it. As I read the minutes, it said it did not warrant refusal. When did the Commission decide to ask for a refusal or a call in?
  (Mr Davies) When the matter came to the Commission on the basis of the LAC minutes.

  501. So that was 17 May?
  (Mr Davies) I can give you the dates, perhaps afterwards.

  502. Was that a majority decision?
  (Mr Davies) Of the Commission?

  503. Yes.
  (Mr Davies) My recollection was that the Chairman who chaired the meeting went round and asked every member of the Commission their view on the particular proposals, both on the nature of the new building and on the impact on historic environment. Everyone was asked for their view and it was a clear majority view that it was sufficiently damaging to warrant call in.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) I was particularly anxious that each member was asked specifically at the end of that debate.

  504. I thought what I heard was that the majority was a majority of one.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) No. There were certainly anxieties expressed by commissioners which was why I was very anxious at the end of the debate to go round the table and ask each commissioner individually and there was no strong dissent against the proposal for call in.

  505. So what was the majority?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) I cannot remember.
  (Mr Davies) A vote was not taken. The Chairman simply summarised the views that were then expressed at that meeting.

  506. At the inquiry, I thought you said there was a majority vote.
  (Mr Davies) No. I think you are confusing the London Advisory Committee and the Commission. At the London Advisory Committee there was clearly a vote and a majority of members of that committee, which advises the Commission and staff, did vote. At the Commission, there was no vote.

  507. At the end of the day, there seems to have been considerable to-ing and fro-ing and see-sawing on the whole thing that has ultimately cost £10 million.
  (Mr Davies) Not at all. The Commission is the decision making body for all schemes that we look at; they take into account the views of the London Advisory Committee and the views of staff and, in this case, they came to the clear view that it was sufficiently damaging as to warrant call in. It is no different to any other scheme in that respect.


  508. Since this is all a matter of public interest, why are those meetings not held in public so that people can hear the arguments put?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) One of the primary reasons is that English Heritage advise ministers and we have been engaged in a debate with DCMS, our sponsor department, over recent months about the extent to which discussions and decision making processes should be transparent and we have opened doors to enable that to happen in part. The current state of affairs is that because we are presenting advice to ministers, we do not need to nor is there departmental support for open public access to either the Advisory Committees or the Commission meetings.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Open government, in other words.

Mr Betts

  509. That must mean that the Department does not want them to be open.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) It was at my initiative that we took the recent moves towards increased transparency three months ago.

  510. Is that "yes"?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) And what we have agreed is that we will see how this works for six months and we will consider later this spring how we are getting on and we will open up the debate again with the Department. What we want to try and do is take this a step at a time and I think that to have taken an immediate decision to total openness, supposing we had had support for that, would have been difficult for us operationally. What we certainly can do, I believe—and that is what we are doing now—is be more open than we have been and, at the end of the six month experimental period, we will see how that is working.

Mrs Dunwoody

  511. You really mean, you said "yes", they said "no" and more or less you lost.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) No, I do not think that is the case. What I am saying is that we had a discussion on increased openness in English Heritage led by me.

  512. I think we heard that.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) And I was keen to see more openness because I believe in openness. I accept too that there are issues particularly in terms of the confidentiality of some of the cases that come before us and the fact that confidential advice needs to go to ministers where openness may not be appropriate. So what we are doing is taking it in two stages.

  Chairman: You are on the side of the angels, but the Minister has to be converted yet.

Christine Russell

  513. Can I return to your guidance paper. I think in your earlier responses you both indicated that you believe that the Government should also be coming up with some help. Is that right?
  (Mr Rouse) From CABE's perspective, we think there may be a case for embedding some basic criteria, some of the basic principles within an existing PPG. That could be done in the context of the revision of PPG1, it could be done through a number of appropriate PPGs which are 15; there are a number of them due to be revised over the next 18 months which would be appropriate. However, we do not think it should go into a great deal of detail because, at the end of the day, it should be for local authorities through their local development plans to set the locational criteria and the design criteria for the tall buildings in their area.

  514. Does the fact that we have already had evidence from authorities like Bath and Bristol mean that the existing planning system is not working effectively in applications for tall buildings?
  (Mr Finch) The planning system is a whole area all of its own. The planning system is perfectly capable of dealing with tall buildings in the sense that there are the mechanisms and the procedures and indeed some criteria laid down in the local plans for instance as to whether tall buildings would be generally desirable. I think what we have found and why we get so many references from local authorities is that the experience of dealing with tall buildings simply does not exist. For most local authorities, their legacy of tall buildings were the often unsatisfactory product of a pure supply-side product, ie 1960s and 1970s system built, concrete frame, high-rise local authority flats. Most of the proposals that we see coming through now are not of that sort. There is a lack of experience. That is why we are there to help and I think anything that can promote the fact that design quality applies to tall buildings as much as to anything else and that tall buildings are not some strange ogre where you need special kind of protective gloves to handle them because they are completely different to any other sort of building . . . They are not completely different to any other sort of building at all.

Mrs Dunwoody

  515. If they are ugly, there are a lot more of them.
  (Mr Finch) I do not think there are a lot more of them because almost—

  516. I mean in each individual case. If you do not like the design, there is a lot more of it.
  (Mr Finch) One of the things about cities is that, by taking a few steps or looking in a different direction, you do not have to look at anything that you do not like.

  517. So we can walk round with our eyes closed and then we will not have to worry about the quality of the built environment at all.
  (Mr Finch) If you are walking down Oxford Street, you cannot avoid Selfridges yet it is not a very tall building. I think it is a myth that tall buildings have more impact on somebody walking along the street. Most people walking along the street are not looking upwards, or not for very long because they bump into things. It is a banal enough point but it is true. In fact, research on people's behaviour when walking round the streets shows that they are more likely to look down than up and I think that actually puts—


  518. So the pavements are more important than the tall buildings?
  (Mr Finch) It depends what is on them, Chairman!
  (Sir Neil Cossons) This might be an area where we perhaps have a different perspective than CABE, Chairman. Coming back to Jon Rouse's earlier point about the need for guidance in response to your question, we would agree with that in every respect.

Christine Russell

  519. And you think that mechanism would be through a revised PPG?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) Yes and I think to in particular establish the methodologies that need to be pursued when considering tall buildings.
  (Mr Davies) I think there is a clear methodology that could be developed and set out in a PPG which would allow for a clear and rational plan-led approach to the process of identifying areas which are appropriate for tall buildings and those that are inappropriate. If that were set out in national policy guidance, then I think local authorities would adopt that as part of their plan making process.

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