Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by City Heritage Society (TAB 32)

  We are opposed to high buildings which we regard as inappropriate in an historic city centre such as ours. Unlike English Heritage we strenuously opposed the Swiss Re tower which we described as the City's great planning disaster of the year 2000.

  We came into being in 1973. Had we been there earlier we would have opposed the National Westminster tower equally vehemently.

  The Society's objections to tall buildings in the City are threefold:

    —  Economic.

    —  Safety.

    —  Environmental.

1.  OBJECTIONS ON ECONOMIC GROUNDS

  We disagree with the City Corporation's view that to maintain its leading position as an international financial centre there is a need for further skyscraper buildings in the City.

  This view is based on statistics said to demonstrate that there will be a substantial increase in the City's workforce over the next decade; and coupled with this the City Corporation is claiming that there is now, and will be in the future, a demand for very large office buildings to satisfy commercial demand that can only be met by building upwards.

  In fact all the current signs, and all the indications for the future, are that the overall demand for office space from the City's traditional employers—banks, insurance companies, dealing houses and the like—is bound to shrink as the logical outcome of merger, take-over, restructuring and changes brought about by new technology.

  Scarcely a week goes by without our reading in the Press of staff cuts in the financial sector eg Credit Suisse First Boston—2000 jobs cut; Deutsche Bank—7000 this year; Dresdner Bank—7800; Prudential—another 2000; London staff have been reduced at Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, UBS Warburg, Lazard, Societe Generale and Standard Chartered.

  The City Corporation's own advisers—the Centre for Economic and Business Research—was reported in the Evening Standard (31 August 2001) as predicting that some 150,000 London jobs will be lost by the end of 2002 with a devastating downturn in the City.

  The City Corporation, relying upon statistical projections, says that such reductions are only cyclical blips and that in the longer term there will be an increase in the financial sector workforce. City Heritage believes that view to be a nonsense. Continuing mergers, restructuring and the impact of IT must to any reasonable mind spell a continuing reduction in the number of workers employed.

  Clearly the mergers and take-overs will also result in the creation of larger conglomerates and such conglomerates might possible require a single large headquarters building. But the demand for such very large buildings is necessarily strict limited. For example, in the 1980's there were still 150 substantial insurance companies in the UK, mostly City-based. Today there is a tiny handful and it is not fanciful to forecast that in the not distant future there will only be two or three major players left—probably American or German owned. So one cannot see a demand for very large buildings from many insurers—the same argument applies to banks and to dealing houses.

  The latest tower proposal, the Heron tower, unlike others, is intended to provide space for smaller firms, not just one occupant, in recognition by the developers that there is now a very restricted demand indeed on the part of major conglomerates for big buildings—there just aren't many such giant concerns left, bearing in mind the downturn in the global economy.

  But why build a tower to house small firms? It is really a contradiction in terms, Bearing in mind the high costs of building upwards, costs which are going to increase substantially since the World Trade Centre attack because there will be more demanding Building Regulations and higher insurance charges, it must be economically more viable to satisfy the demand for space from smaller firms in buildings of low to medium height. Such space will become increasingly available as some of the very big players like HSBC, Citygroup and Clifford Chance move outside the City.

  The danger for the City is that in creating large buildings those buildings are increasingly likely to be substantially under-occupied and therefore not cost efficient. That is already happening. But once you have a skyscraper its demolition and replacement by something smaller is difficult and very expensive. These are the reasons why the Americans appear to have fallen out of love with skyscrapers. Long before the attack on the World Trade Centre, the construction of skyscrapers was drying up and many existing ones emptying.

  We believe that economic dictates and the City's future prosperity lie not in high towers but in high-grade buildings of medium size to house headquarters operations, the key staff who need to be in close proximity to the markets and other related business, and smaller firms.

2.  SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS

  Second, we object to towers on safety grounds. Towers present particular problems in the case of fire, bomb and arson threats, because of their attraction as targets, because of the widespread effects damage to the tower will have on the immediate surroundings and the danger to life of the occupants particularly resulting from the length of time it takes to evacuate people from higher floors. It seems to us foolhardy in the extreme to add to the City's existing vulnerability in all these respects.

  Sir John Keegan, the military historian and commentator, has said that in the light of the destruction of the World Trade Centre he believed that few in any organizations would in future wish to locate in high buildings, nor would staff wish to work in them (Seminar on "Architecture of Defence", Apothecaries Hall 16 Oct 01).

3.  ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

  It has been argued that high buildings have always been a feature of the City, the dome of St Paul's, the other Wren spires and Monument being instanced as examples; and that the process has continued with office towers. This seems to be sheer sophistry. Churches were built to the glory of God and in terms of architectural excellence there can be no comparison between the dome of St Paul's and the Tower 42.

  Existing City towers have already created a visual chaos and the addition of further towers would certainly add to that chaos, and would finally put paid to the dominance of St Paul's dome as the major point of reference on the City skyline.

  The City Corporation's unitary development plan says: "St Paul's is architecturally the most notable building in the City and so demands special consideration. The Cathedral forms a dominant element in the townscape both locally and London-wide. The Corporation wishes to ensure that St Paul's setting within the City is appropriate and that its dominance of the local street scene and its place in the wider skyline is maintained and wherever possible enhanced. The Corporation has therefore adopted the following objectives:

    —  To protect a variety of views of St Paul's.

    —  To achieve a fitting environmental setting to St Paul's".

  The approval for towers such as the Swiss Re or Heron makes a nonsense of these objectives and stated policy. Towers are bound to overshadow and dominate everything around them, inevitably diminishing all the low-to-medium-rise buildings in their immediate vicinity, impacting adversely on surrounding conservation areas and adding to the visual chaos of the London skyline.

  To have as a stated objective the creation of buildings to house thousands of people seems to us environmentally perverse in that it would result in thousands more commuters struggling to find places on already overcrowded trains. It should be an objective of London authorities to restrain the creation of vast new centres of employment until public transport is able more effectively to meet the existing demand.


 
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Prepared 22 January 2002