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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540-559)

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

TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002

Chris Grayling

  540. That is all well and good but can you really say that a piece of research like this can give you a true and accurate picture of what the public at large really think? Is it not down to a subjective judgment of an individual question and how you interpret that however you want to into the findings depending on how you read these structured questions?
  (Mr Rouse) I totally agree with that and it was English Heritage who commissioned it.

Chairman

  541. Do you want to defend yourselves, briefly?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) We wanted to try and get a handle on what people thought. The questions were worked out and agreed with MORI who themselves of course advise the client in some detail as to how those questions are framed, whether it is political or any other form of gathering of information, in order to try and clarify public views and, in that, you have a wide variety of views. MORI polls are both strong and weak because of that, but you can read out of that a number of things and you can get a number of views which provide at least some reflection on what the public think. I do not think it is any more than that.

  542. I asked you the questions about the poll because I was leading on to the question of the accountability of the two organisations. Neither of the organisations is really accountable to anyone expect the people on it.
  (Mr Finch) That is not quite right; we are both responsible to DCMS.

Mrs Dunwoody

  543. You do not want us to know what it is you are discussing with them.
  (Mr Finch) Everything that we say in our design review committees for schemes in the public realm are published on our website as a matter of transparency from our perspective and one of the reasons why we produced a joint document was that it seemed that having two organisations, one with statutory responsibilities and one with non-statutory responsibilities, was a kind of replication in parallel when we are both responsible to the same department which would not be useful either to applicants or to local authorities. That it why we tried to work together, honestly acknowledging that there are one or two points where we have a different philosophical position on tall buildings. What we try to do is behave like grown-ups and in fact we anticipated our own disagreement at the Heron inquiry in our own document setting out quite precisely where we had a difference. Of course in a perfect world—it would not be that perfect—we would all agree about everything. We have acknowledged that we have a disagreement there. By and large, I think that our views on tall buildings have been pretty coincident though occasionally they are not.

Chairman

  544. The Mayor really questions your legitimacy, does he not? He says that he was elected and that part of his election campaign in London was that he was going to have tall buildings, so let him get on with it.
  (Mr Finch) CABE is not a statutory body in this sense. We do not have a power to approve or refuse applications. What we do is I hope give a disinterested view on whether what is being proposed is, to coin a phrase, any good or not. It is up to the Mayor and indeed any local planning authority to accept that advice in the spirit in which it is offered and to take it or reject it. We hope they take it but, if they reject it, that is up to them.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) In the case of English Heritage, our advice goes to ministers, it is through ministers, and therefore the democratic process, that that advice can stand or fall.

Sir Paul Beresford

  545. It is very difficult for a minister to say, "no". If you request that the Heron plan was called in, it is very difficult for them to say "no" even if it is a decision which the London Advisory Committee says it should not be and you um and ah and go around without a vote, just a bit of a head count . . . Should there be a clear vote and, if so, in a case like this, should there be a solid majority because the cost—I do not know what it is—is £10 million for that particular inquiry plus the delay. It is outrageous.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) It is not outrageous if a proper debate has taken place—

  546. It is outrageous.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) . . . and if the view of the meeting is broadly together.

Chairman

  547. Could we have one person speaking at a time. What do you think of the Mayor's interim strategy for tall buildings? Is it any good?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) It is a first step but it is only an interim strategy. We want to see that unfurled as something much more substantive in due course.
  (Mr Finch) I think our view about that, if I may, is that it is a very clearly written document and possibly for the first time we have absolute clarity about where the GLA stands on this and I think we would support that because it is not treating tall buildings as though they are the pariahs of the built environment. They are only pariahs if they are poorly designed and antisocial in their effect. We will continue to support good quality higher buildings and we work closely—

Mrs Dunwoody

  548. What is a good quality higher building?
  (Mr Finch) It is a building where—

  549. Which one? I am not clever. Could you tell me one that you think is a good quality building.
  (Mr Finch) I give two examples of ones that English Heritage has listed. The Millbank Tower, not very far from here, I think is an absolutely splendid example of a building which reflects the scale of its context, ie the width of The Thames and, if you compare that tower with the buildings along the Albert Embankment opposite, which I suppose we might call groundscrapers, one has character and distinction and elegance and the ones opposite are dull, dull, dull.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Could we try a second one and see if you and I could arrive at the same area of agreement? What is the second one?

Chairman

  550. I should try the Barbican if I were you!
  (Mr Finch) Let us take a view from Tate Modern. We are looking across to the dome of St Paul's and, from the second floor viewing gallary, you will see one of the Barbican towers apparently growing out of the side of the dome. English Heritage has listed the Barbican towers and, contrary to one of the great lies of the built environment which is that the British hate living in tall buildings, the queue to get flats in the Barbican never ceases to diminish.

Mrs Dunwoody

  551. I do not think anyone will say that is because of its architectural ability?
  (Mr Finch) People like living in towers, that would be my proposition, and I think the Barbican is one example that proves that point.

  Chairman: Can I just remind the Committee that we have quite a few questions to get through, so can we have short questions and short answers.

Christine Russell

  552. Can I take you back to strategic views and I am looking particularly at English Heritage because, in your memoranda, you highlighted the importance of strategic views and identified ten. With or without cutting down trees, would you like to see more strategic views identified in London for protection?
  (Mr Davies) Not just in London. I think for other cities throughout the country. I think the whole mechanism of having strategic views as important landmark buildings is one that did receive overwhelming support in the MORI poll. It is a very valid mechanism for protecting key landmark buildings and it is an important part, as a development control mechanism, of the wider character analysis that you need to carry out to underpin a plan-led approach to these issues.

  553. So would you like to stick your head out for the benefit of all of us and identify a few more.
  (Mr Davies) Thirty-five in London were identified in the consultants' work for LPAC. Ten were eventually designated. I think it is right that the views that should be protected should come out of the plan-led process, either at a local level or at a regional level with the Mayor's emerging London plan. There may be a case in certain circumstances for the Secretary of State to designate views where those are of national significance, perhaps for some world heritage sites, not just in London but outside. I think the Royal Parks are also an area of particular sensitivity. I think the comments in the Mayor's interim guidance were dismissive and rather unhelpful in terms of recognising what it is about those parks that are actually significant and very precious to London as a world city.

  554. You feel passionate about the River Tyne and its views.
  (Mr Davies) Indeed.

Sir Paul Beresford

  555. Do you agree that there is some validity for the argument that some people feel that a good looking, well-designed tall building can actually frame the view?
  (Mr Rouse) I agree absolutely.
  (Mr Finch) Can I make the point first that we thought that the Mayor's comments on views was a good one, not least because he is asking for more discussion and consultation. I think our concern about the discussion of views is that it is almost a state of mind which says that any addition to what you see must by definition be bad and I think that thinking litters discussion of tall buildings. We were very careful in our joint document by and large to use the word "effect" rather than "impact" because impact always sounds like a car crash and people use it in a pejorative term. The idea that adding one tall building to a skyline, of course it has impact in the ordinary sense of the word but it may improve it and we think that often discussion of views starts off from a mind set which says that any addition is going to make things worse. We reject that view completely.

Christine Russell

  556. Can we move on then from strategic views to tall buildings integrating with their local environment. Do you have any views on that? Would you give us some examples of how a tall building has successfully integrated with the local environment and maybe give examples of ones that have not and how important is it that they do.
  (Mr Finch) I think as popular icons, a tall building may of course not connect very well at its base and actually probably would not get planning permission today. For example, Centrepoint: a rather elegant tower from almost any angle that you care to view it from but what a mess at ground level. One of the constituent features of a well-designed tall building is that it works properly at ground level. I can say exactly the same thing about a shorter building but we think it is particularly important that a tall one works at ground level because almost of the impact of that great structure meeting the pavement. This is a matter of design. It can be done well or badly.

  557. Would you give us an example of one that you think is done well. You have given us an example of one, Centrepoint, where you think it does not integrate very well. Can you give us one that you think does.
  (Mr Finch) I would say that Canary Wharf Tower works well in its context; it has a terrific scale; you can walk into it; it is not a fortress at ground level. I think that a number of proposals we are seeing, including, I may say, the Heron Tower, work extremely well at ground level not least because the new breed of tall building tends to try to animate its ground level, either by shopping or by having access in or through and by its scale. In other words, you do not have a kind of mean-minded set of proportions, you have something rather grander. The best examples of this, I think it must be said, tend to be in America. Our own experience of major commercial high-rise towers is quite limited. I think that is going to change and that the designs we are seeing give some cause for optimism.

  558. Do you think that a component of the integration ought to be economic too and that a tall building should in fact have a significance for the regeneration of the area? That is a criticism of Canary Wharf. You say, OK, it integrates with its immediate surroundings but what has the benefit been for the neighbouring community and should that be a factor in a tall building in that there should be a wider sphere?
  (Mr Finch) I think that, in any city, there is more than one context. You have the street context, you have almost the Cartier context and then you have the whole city context.

  559. The what context?
  (Mr Finch) The cartier, its local quarter. If you take the context of Canary Wharf, is the context Tower Hamlets or is it in fact London as a financial centre including the tall buildings in the City and, as a business centre, is its context in fact from Heathrow out as far east as you want to go? The importance of seeing tall buildings not in a narrow sense but in a variety of contexts I think is very important.


 
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