Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Tony Tugnutt, Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee (TAB 56)


  I have pleasure in enclosing my memoranda for consideration by the Select Committee. While I have produced this evidence on my own behalf, I have also been authorised to also submit it on behalf of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee in my capacity as the current chair.

  Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.


  1.  One of the real difficulties in considering such buildings is that there is no definition of what constitutes a "tall" building. High buildings have been defined as buildings, which significantly exceed the height of their surroundings. This lack of clarity and avoidance of defining tall buildings by a given measure is being exploited.

  2.  At present, there is a policy vacuum, certainly in London, regarding tall buildings. The Mayor has been accused of trying to pre-empt his development strategy by his interim decisions. He has certainly gone out of his way to support the Heron Tower in the most vociferous way, Yet his role is essentially strategic. Olympia and York, the developers of Canary Wharf had to cough up some £98 million to assist the Jubilee Line extension. Whereas, the developer of the Heron tower, for instance, would contribute nothing to the additional costs that it would impose on our transportation system. How responsible is it, in terms of public safety, never mind anything else, to contemplate a whole series of further extremely high density developments in the City area, in addition to the vast amount of space already committed via planning consents? Yet the Mayor would have us believe that he is genuinely interested in the safety of London Underground.


  3.  There is a clear potential danger of this. While it could be said that in the 1960s, high buildings genuinely reflected the spirit and aspirations of that age, the same cannot be said today. We are not quite so naïve as to be seduced by the allure of the "space-age". Although the Mayor appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the high level views and the "sky bar" offered by the Heron Tower, for instance.

  4.  The wholesale destruction caused by comprehensive developments in our town and cities led directly to the conservation movement and to the 1967 Civic Amenities Act, a Private Members Bill. This in turn assisted the evolution of our conservation area approach to development control. This covers much of central London and our other historic urban centres. This was very much a bottom/up, rather than top/down reaction to the destruction of the 60s and early 70s. Today, the settings of listed buildings is also given much greater weight and central government guidance contained in PPG1 and PPG15 is highly relevant.

  5.  These documents embody the underlying, hard-won conservation principles and priorities. These policy documents rightly reflect public opinion, rather than the financial aspirations of developers and their architects; egthe existing floorspace content on the Heron Tower site would be quadrupled! These longstanding government policies would have to be cancelled if any general relaxation in favour of high buildings was to be contemplated.

  6.  Therefore, the circumstances today are quite different compared with the 1960's. We have had a brief and generally disastrous affair with the modernistic future characterised by "Americana". The act of wiping the slate clean envisaged in the 60s is no longer tenable, unless we are prepared to contemplate the destruction our remaining architectural and historic legacy of much loved buildings and areas. Covent Garden is a classic example of an area, once under threat of wholesale redevelopment, which today people enjoy walking around because of the comfortable scale of the streets and buildings and the range of uses. I consider that high buildings are inimical to such established areas because of their visual dominance they belittle their surroundings as well as their localised effects of wind and the overshadowing they cause.

  7.  In the 1960s there was an infatuation with everything American. High buildings were regarded as signs of progress and modernisation. In North American cities, groupings of high buildings are an accepted and expected part of their urban environment. High buildings inevitably define "down town" areas. Our experience and practice could not be more different. I consider that the form of our urban centres should remain soundly based in the tradition of European culture. Our city centres are not defined or signalled by high buildings. Their historic plan forms, the scale of streets and general development renders them wholly unsuited to very high buildings.


  8.  The Mayor of London has taken a very strong line on high buildings. He has decided not to consult members of the Greater London Assembly. He is the Greater London Authority and it consists a Committee of one. Given this his staements take on a aprticular importance. During the Mayors oral question time at the Assembly meeting on 28 February this year, The Mayor stated:

    Once Londoners realise, by the time of next election, that the mayor is a crucial factor in determining the way in which the look of London evolves this will be much more of a factor in the debates in the next and subsequent mayoral elections I think that that is right. Londoners will have a chance to decided on their Mayor on the basis of what the Mayor is likely to do to their skyline and to their built environment. Londoners will increasingly, I think, judge their Mayor on the quality of buildings built during their mayoralty.

  9.  The problem with this approach is the time it takes to get approval and complete the construction of very large buildings is not within one or even two mayoral terms, by which time it would be too late! It is clear that the Mayor does see the Heron Tower as forming a precedent for other towers . In his latest Independent article (22.11.01): "The only way is up," The Mayor stated: "It is my hope that if this tower is approved a precedent will be set, that high-quality design and appropriateness of location should be the basis on which proposed buildings are judged."

  10.  While the Mayor has negative powers, it is the production of his spatial development strategy, which is de facto regional planning guidance, where his real power and influence lies. The Mayor states: "In due course, I will publish my draft London Plan, which will contain detailed draft policy. For this purpose, I have engaged the services of DEGW to carry out research and advise me of policy choices. My team and I will be conducting further consultation with stakeholders as part of this policy development in the coming months." And yet he felt able to give his full hearted support to the Heron Tower, even before he took office!

  11.  The Mayor's draft tall buildings policy will be set out in the Draft London Plan early next year. It will be subject to public consultation and will be examined in public by a Government appointed panel late in 2002. It is clear that there is an attempt by the Greater London Authority and others, to pre-empt and predetermine the future plan.

  12.  Perhaps, it is relevant to note that Greater London Assembly Members, including the distinguished present Chairman, Sally Hamwee, were unanimously opposed to the Mayor's attitude to the Heron application. The following resolution was passed:

      "This Assembly regrets that the Mayor has refused the request of the planning Committee to contribute to his decision making on development control matters. It calls upon him to reconsider his decision and permit other London-wide representatives to review planning applications which concern London. This Assembly affirms that, had it been asked, it would have advised the Mayor to direct refusal of the application for the proposed heron Bishopsgate Tower. In any event it now resolves that the application be referred to the Secretary of State for the environment so that he may consider calling it in for his determination."

  A number of Assembly members are also opposed in principle to very high buildings in such an historic area. They are concerned at the precedent that this case could present and its prematurity in relation to the production of the Spatial Development Strategy.


  13.  Cabe has produced guidance on high buildings with English Heritage. However, their pact has fallen at the first fence. Cabe gave strong backing to the Heron tower at the inquiry which closed on the 17 December, a development strongly attached by EH and described by its Chairman as being "unthinkable". The Chairman of Cabe, Sir Stuart Lipton, on the other hand is a keen advocate of high buildings, including Heron and has involvement in property development in London. The original role of chairman was also to chair the design review committee. However, it is clear that the present Chairman could not perform this role as he would have to declare so many conflicts of interest. As the architects on the DRC are also active in property development, they should be required to declare interests in the same way as members of parliament are required to do and these should be available for public inspection.

  14.  Cabe meetings are not open to the public and local communities are not able to voice their opinions, and its Design Review Committee can hardly be regarded as providing a balanced view in the context of current policies as set out in PPGs 1 and 15. I do not consider that Cabe can be relied upon to provide objective advice regarding the acceptability of tall buildings, especially in an historic setting. It simply does not possess the necessary expertise, nor is it publicly accountable, except via the sponsoring government department.


  15.  The Commission is advised by the London Advisory Committee so far as developments in London are concerned. This committee originally held its meetings in public until one of the architect members, considered that there was a difficulty for him to be seen to criticise the work of other members of his professional institute. Since then, the LAC Committee agendas, reports and minutes have been confidential.

  16.  While I understand this is being looked into, it is essential that its deliberations must be undertaken in public in order to ensure the essential scrutiny that this would provide. For instance, it is clear in the case of the Baltic Exchange (Swiss Ré) tower in the City, that a small faction high-jacked the LAC and it reached what is regarded as an errant decision. Fortunately the decision reached on the Heron Tower and the firm stand taken by the new chairman, it would appear that EH is once again in safe hands. However, as with Cabe, the interests of members of the LAC and Commissioners should be declared and available for public inspection. The public is entitled to be able to satisfy itself that everything is above board.


  17.  While practise varies, it is evident, despite the move towards the "cabinet" model, that so long as development control remains in the hands of elected committees, there is still adequate accountability. Some authorities, such as Camden, have long provided the public with the opportunity to speak at planning meetings against proposals recommended for approval. In London, the one exception of course is the Corporation of London, which is overwhelmingly based on the business vote. This is especially worrying given that it is in the City where the demand for very high buildings is especially intense.

  18.  The Corporation witness to the Heron Inquiry informed us that there were up to ten similar towers in the pipeline. In view of the close collaboration between the Mayor and his opposite number in the City, Ms Mayhew, it is very fortunate that the Secretary of State retained his call-in powers in London and is prepared to use them.


  19.  There are existing statements of policy in contained in and generally, it should be left to local communities to decide. and it should be for central government to set criteria by which development is to be judged and then to police decisions via the Secretary of State's call-in powers. These criteria should encompass a range of factors, including adequacy of transport provision, sustainability and so on. I also consider that given the visual and other impacts that very high buildings have, the Secretary of State's "call-in" policy should give greater recognition of this and be applied more liberally so far as developments for tall buildings are concerned.

  20.  Consideration should be given to measures that would enable local authorities to impose a general height limit on developments specific to their area, where the character of the settlement justifies it. Obvious candidates would be historic cities such as Bath, Chester, York and in London, the Cities of London and Westminster.

  21.  The current regime of Environmental Impact Assessments needs review. Ideally these should be undertaken on a more objective basis. Some appear to be regarded more as promotional exercises for the developments they are intended to evaluate, rather than an objective critique. In particular, the government should give guidance on the visual assessment and how the information is presented, This should always form part of the approval in order to ensure that every effort is taken to produce accurate visual images at the planning stage. There have been to many examples of misleading images being provided. While photomontages can be of great assistance these need to produced by a consistent technical methodology

  22.  At the moment, authorities are reluctant to rule out high buildings in principle, while the language of policies is generally one of constraint. For instance, even in the City of London, no area or individual site is identified as being appropriate for high buildings in its shortly to be adopted plan. This means that developers will look for loop holes wherever there is ambiguity as to the true direction and intention of planning policy. This tends to lead to planning by "stealth". It encourages developers to have a go and who can blame them?

  23.  Local authorities should be required to identify sites suitable for high buildings where they consider they are appropriate and these should be open to public scrutiny via the development plan process.

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