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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)

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

TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002

Chairman

  520. I notice that you were talking about people walking round streets; what about the people sitting at pavement cafés? A lot of effort has been made to encourage people to sit out. Once you sit down at a pavement cafe«, you are going to be looking at the whole of the building in front of you.
  (Mr Finch) Again, I think the angle at which you look at things when you are sitting in a cafe«, from personal experience, is that most people look at what is on the table or the person you are sitting with. I think one of the kind of over-hyped arguments about tall buildings—

Mrs Dunwoody

  521. You have given us a new definition of focused thought.
  (Mr Finch) We are social creatures, but I think the idea that—

  522. Focused creatures with blinkers on!
  (Mr Finch) The idea that the tall building immediately means that everybody spends all their time staring at it is fanciful and sometimes—and I think that the inquiry into the Heron Tower was a good example—you would think that there were only two things to look at on the entire London skyline which is the Dome of St Pauls and a tall building and, what is more, there would only be one conceivable place where you would ever want to look at those tall buildings which was on the steps of the terrace of Somerset House and, what is more, having got there, you would be stuck there and that is all you could look at and you would be upset all day long. That is not how we experience cities.

Chairman

  523. You are misleading the Committee because we know that that terrace actually has trees blocking the view at the present moment. We are not quite sure who is responsible for either cutting down the trees or putting a preservation order on the trees.
  (Mr Finch) I can enlighten you because it was English Heritage and Westminster Council who were responsible for chopping the trees down thereby creating new views which supposedly are now being interfered with.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) Chairman, if your question about cafe«s, if I might interpret it in a slightly different manner, is about livability of towns and cities, then I think there are some real issues which go beyond viewpoints and that really lay at the heart of my first opening remark that this debate is about the quality of great cities as places in which people can live and work and I believe that tall buildings are an important component within that definition of quality and the way in which we think about those futures. In other words, there are wider social, economic and environmental factors to be taken into account. We do not fully understand them yet but we are determined to do so.

Sir Paul Beresford

  524. I understood that English Heritage was not supposed to be looking at economic aspects. If they did, some of the decisions might be reversed.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) The document which was presented to Government a year ago, "Power of Place", which English Heritage and some 25 other organisations with an interest in the historic environment, identified, partly as a result of widespread consultation but also as a result of a MORI poll, the way in which people understand and see places. In other words, buildings are parts of wider contexts and it seems to me that the way in which we consider historic environments particularly in urban settings is in context. Buildings are a part of that but there are wider environmental, social and economic issues that we have to take account of.

Mrs Ellman

  525. Are local authorities good at handling planning applications?
  (Mr Finch) Section 106 applications. Yes. It is commonplace that, when a planning authority sees a tall buildings applications, its thoughts turn to what it may get out of it and I think that is not at all surprising, and why should they not? I think our perception of that would be that because it is just a haphazard and unstructured arrangement which varies widely from authority to authority on the basis of the size of the proposal, on the value of the land and on the local planning authorities, that this is not entirely satisfactory and we think that there would be a case for perhaps more clarity for both the applicant and in respect of the local authorities' policies as to what is legitimate and reasonable benefit to expect from the developer of a tall building and what is kind of stretching them out on a rack and which encourage local authorities to grant inappropriate permissions in order to get more planning going. So, there is a balance to be struck there.

Sir Paul Beresford

  526. So the planning gain should relate in some way to the building itself?
  (Mr Finch) We think there is a danger that if it does and if you say, as an extreme case, "We will give you a permission and the more square feet we allow and the taller your building goes, the bigger the cheque you will give us and we will spend it on something else three miles down the road", we think there is a strong case to say—

Chairman

  527. That is just a straight bribe for planning permission.
  (Mr Finch) It is a sort of legalised bribe and I am not saying that it is commonplace but I think there is a tendency and I think we have seen examples where perhaps permissions have been given which are not entirely appropriate and one of the factors is the amount of betterment for the local authority which, let us face it, can always use the resources, usually for good purposes, and that may sway their view.

Sir Paul Beresford

  528. What do you think of the Government's idea in the planning papers for a betterment tax?
  (Mr Rouse) There are three things we are looking for from a planning obligations system. One is greater certainty for the developer: they know upfront what it is going to cost them rather than protracted year long negotiations that go on after the planning permission has effectively been given. One is greater transparency. This is a more open process; it is not some sort of secret deal done behind closed doors. The third one is greater speed which relates back to my first point. Given that, we think there is quite a lot to be said for the tariff proposal which the Government has come up with in the Green Paper. It seems to us that it does potentially provide us with those three things. However, we would also need very clear national guidance to avoid local authorities using additional opportunity for charging what could be a very high tax rate on development. The other point about tariffs is that they are regressive, ie the wealthier the area, the more you actually gain in terms of revenue and that would have to be dealt with somehow through some sort of equalisation process.

  529. It is effectively going to be a stealth tax. The Government can balance it out or take it into account by taking it off the allowance that each local authority gains from central taxation each year and effectively reduce it from those areas that have gained, so that we then have a stealth tax.
  (Mr Rouse) I would not use your words but it is a charge, it is a form of betterment and it is regressive and I think I will leave it at that.

Mrs Ellman

  530. Do English Heritage have any comments?
  (Mr Davies) I echo many of the points that Jon Rouse has made but would like to add that planning permissions are not for sale and should not be for sale. I think it is right that a developer should plough back some of the development revenue and profit into the immediate surrounding area around the development and I think it is right that it is now pretty much common practice that, when schemes come forward, the advantages, if you like, should be secured to the public realm around a building. That seems to be straightforward. I think it is more difficult if the advantage is separate or discrete from the building.

  531. Do either of you have any evidence or documentation on how individual local authorities approach this and which are effective in policing the agreements and which make reasonable agreements and unreasonable ones? Do you have any information on individual local authority bases?
  (Mr Rouse) We do not but I know that DTLR did some research on this about three years ago and I think they are coming on next and, if so, I think it would be a good idea to ask them.
  (Mr Davies) We do not have any detail. I know, for example, that Westminster City Council in London has set up a community chest for the development of the area around Paddington Station and that has been subject to very extensive local consultation so that any advantages arising from that scheme are ploughed back into the community based on what the community identifies as being priorities.

  532. In your consultation documents, you do put special emphasis on the importance of Section 106 agreements and, if you think that is important, you are going to have to address the policy of the individual local authority, are you not?
  (Mr Finch) I think that is a very good point. By coincidence, we had a meeting of various local authority planners yesterday thinking about our response to the Green Paper on planning and, anecdotally, the arrangements by which Section 106 agreements are drawn up and then monitored, not just by the people who draw them up at the time but in many future years—some of these agreements may go on for decades—is not a matter where there is commonality amongst authorities and we think that it does need attention.

  533. Could I turn to the role of Government on tall buildings in all these issues. What are the areas where there should be clear Government guidance? Mr Rouse mentioned one issue a moment ago.
  (Mr Davies) Can I just pick that question up because I think it comes back to this question of methodology and building on best practice that I think is encapsulated in the joint English Heritage/CABE guidelines, and that is to have Government national guidance that makes it clear that tall buildings should really only come forward in the context of a plan-led approach where there has been a full analysis of the character and context of an area. Identifying areas that are appropriate and inappropriate for tall buildings. That enables public consultation to be carried out at an early stage in the process. Having identified areas that are appropriate, then perhaps to model the impact of tall buildings on that area, either computer modelling or other forms, and to have a clearer idea of the impact on the public realm, transport links, permeability, all of the issues that one would want to assure oneself were being addressed when one is looking at place making and to have a clear, logical methodology set out by Government based on the English Heritage/ CABE guidelines would be enormously helpful and provide some clarity for local authorities.

  534. Do you think that should be guidance from local Government?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) If it is guidance from the centre, it would not necessarily be prescriptive but it could set out the methodology that Government would advise local authorities to pursue when considering these issues.

  535. Do you think that local authorities should be clearer and more specific about which areas they would agree to have tall buildings in and which they would not?
  (Mr Finch) I think they should have thought about it and I think that the opportunity to do that exists in the review of local plans and I know they themselves have been the subject of discussion in the Green Paper. The mechanism certainly exists for all local authorities to have an attitude of some description, even if it is to say, "We will look at each case on its merits." That also exists; so I think that, yes, it would be useful to have some loose guidance in national documentation but I think to get too prescriptive and too tight for local authorities would be a mistake. They have their own situations and, as has been pointed out, Bath may not be the same as Central Birmingham.

Chairman

  536. My question is to CABE: Do you think that the English Heritage MORI poll was valid?
  (Mr Rouse) Do you have a copy of it?

  537. We do not have the full details of it.
  (Mr Rouse) Perhaps I could hand it over. It is very interesting how statistics are presented and I thought I would just give you a slightly different take on the MORI poll if you will allow me to. One statement was, "There are too many tall buildings in British cities today." A majority of people disagreed to that statement; they presumably thought there should be more tall buildings, that there are not enough. What was very interesting was the disparity in the poll between the views of young and old people. Amongst young people, 64 per cent disagreed with that statement that there were too many tall buildings in British cities nowadays.

Mrs Dunwoody

  538. With respect, to ask, "Are there too many buildings?" to which people say, "No" does not mean to say that there should be many more tall buildings.
  (Mr Rouse) I am not drawing that inference. All I am saying is that there are two ways of presenting the same statistic. Another question was, "Tall buildings should not be allowed in city centres." Only 22 per cent of people agreed with that particular statement. The one that intrigued me the most was when young people were asked which criteria should be applied in deciding whether a tall building should go ahead. The highest percentage, which was 69 per cent, said that it depended on the number of jobs that were created. I thought that was very, very intriguing. The lowest was the effect on the skyline which was 28 per cent.

Chairman

  539. So you are not doing a very good job educating people into the importance of the built environment.
  (Mr Rouse) I would actually agree with that, but I think that this is an astounding insight into how young people actually think about our built environment.


 
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 6 March 2002