TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
Andrew Bennett, in the Chair
Examination of Witnesses
LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON QC, Minister for Housing, Planning and Regeneration, MR PETER ELLIS, Head of Planning Policies Division, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, examined.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am Lord Falconer, Minister of Housing, Planning and Regeneration, and this is Peter Ellis from the Planning Department from the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Could I, very briefly, make a few remarks? I welcome the opportunity to discuss tall buildings with you. The proposals for tall buildings cause passionate debate, and there is an edge on the debate in the evidence that you have heard on the issue. This looks to lump people into highly polarised camps: you are either for tall buildings or you are against them. The Government's policy on tall buildings is to get the right decision out of the planning system. We have a policy to promote good design, we want to see buildings that look good, but good design is more than that, we want the right development in the right place; development that respects its context and development that is supported by the right transport infrastructure. Nothing I say today should be taken as an implied comment on any of the live planning applications. I am for buildings - tall or not - if they demonstrate design excellence. As I have just said, that means that they should be in the right place and sustainable. Preferably, they should be in locations identified by sound forward planning and clear development plans, drawn up through effective engagement with local communities. People want to shape the future of the places where they live and work. The Government expects the planning system to deliver good design, sensitive to people's needs and aspirations. We also want safe buildings. I understand why the tragic events of September 11 has led to public concern about the safety of tall buildings. Whilst we believe that building regulations in the United Kingdom are already more stringent than those in the United States of America, we do not rule out improvements. Once the United States authorities have completed their studies into the World Trade Centre collapse we will consider carefully any implications for the United Kingdom and will listen to the advice of professional bodies such as the committee set up under the chairmanship of the Institution of Structural Engineers, from whom I believe you heard last week.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Tallness has got to be by reference to where it is. So what might be tall in once place would not be tall in another place. You have to be quite careful about looking at that issue in relation to its context. So ten storeys or above could be very tall in some places but not in others. You will know what the requirements for consultation with the Mayor are, at which level beside the river and elsewhere in the City, and that is an indication of the sort of levels in London that represent tallness.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In general yes, I do.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The tall building will very frequently be doing that which the not-tall building is doing. So the question is, is there an economic case for the particular building? You have got developments in London like Broadgate, which are not tall. They, presumably, could have been done tall. Whether it be tall or not tall, what you have got to ascertain is, is there an economic case for that particular building? Is the place they want to put it the right place for a tall building? Is the transport infrastructure right for that proposal?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I envisage that you can make a case for a tall building in the appropriate case, but the issues will be the same issues as they are about any buildings. Is the design right? Is it economically sustainable? Is the transport infrastructure right? Is the location right? So I do not rule out the possibility of making a case for a tall building.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think it would depend upon each individual application. There could be a place for tall buildings that increase density, for example, in relation to housing, but I would like to make it clear that I am not urging a return to the tower block.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Because I think the tower block carries with it a large sense of failure, for example, in relation to the design of those tower blocks and in relation to the construction of those tower blocks. I also think that in certain places tower blocks would be a disastrous way to house, for example, families. People, rightly, look at the tower block era as one that was not successful in relation to provisions for accommodation. In answer to your question, I am saying there may well be a case for a tall building that is more than symbolic - for example, in relation to the densities that it provides.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The words "tower block" conjure up, for me, the Ronan Point type of development, which was poorly designed, poorly constructed, with families unsuitably housed. That is why I am saying I do not want to go back to the tower block era. However, I am saying that in some cases the value of a tall building will not just be its symbolism (which is what your question was about, Mr Grayling) but in fact the utility that it produces, because it can get greater density in a particular case than other places. There are issues about that.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I do not think it would necessarily. There would have to be a sustainable case for it, it would have to be in the right place for transport infrastructure, for design, etc.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Indeed.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Indeed, the Ardent and George (?) developers have done some interesting research in connection with Kings Cross which says that when you get above ten storeys, because of the need for lifts and staircases, you tend you start making quite little gains in terms of density. Would it not depend upon the particular circumstances, as to whether going upwards gives you more density than going along or dealing with it in different ways? I am always told that the Georgian terraces in Liverpool or London produce very high levels of density - much, much higher levels of density than those that are produced by the sorts of housing development that took place in the 60s and 70s. They are producing densities of above 40 or 50 per hectare, whereas the developments in the 60s and 70s were producing densities of about 20 per hectare. That seems to me to demonstrate that tallness does not necessarily mean density, but it can in particular cases.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) There is no national planning guidance on tall buildings of any sort, at the moment, but there is national planning guidance on things like good design, transport infrastructure, etc. My inclination is not to have specific planning guidance on tall buildings because I think in each individual case a case has to be made out for the particular building. So, subject obviously to considering what is said in your report, my inclination would be no, because I think you can have too much national guidance. I think I said that the last time I was here.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) As I hope I made clear, Chairman, the way to do that is not to have pages and pages and pages of national planning guidance.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think in the drawing up of the local development framework, which is what the new planning green paper suggested, or in drawing up the development plan now, it is for the local authority to have a process by which they consult the community and form a view about whether or not they want a tall building in their district. I do not think they need central planning guidance to provide, necessarily, the means to either resist or accept such buildings.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The basic point I am making is that if the tall building is well-designed and meets the other national policies about transport, sustainability, density, etc, then there is a case for a tall building. If it does not meet those principles then there would not be case for a tall building. I do not think that there is a bright line answer to where there should be a tall building. It will depend upon the sort of issues that I have identified.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Is there a yes or no answer to whether or not there should be a tall building in a particular place.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not think so. PPG 13, particularly, will obviously have relevance in relation to tall buildings. As I say, my present inclination is you are not going to add much to the process by saying "Let us have a separate national policy on tall buildings".
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) There is already some guidance out there, for example on affordable housing, in relation to Section 106. Yes, I do think that the Government should issue guidance in relation to Section 106 agreements because without guidance there is great uncertainty about what local authorities should ask for. In the documents that accompany the planning green paper we propose a tariff system in relation to planning gain from Section 106 agreements. That issue about planning gain would apply just as much to tall buildings as it would to any other development that was proposed.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is not a betterment tax, it is trying to identify with some degree of clarity what contribution to development in the community should be made by a developer. It is trying to get away from all of the current uncertainties that surround what sort of contribution the developer is expected to make - whether it is the building of more affordable houses or whether it is identification of a sum, does not seem to me to make much difference.
Sir Paul Beresford: I will resist following it up.
Chairman: I am just wondering whether we should not call it a "worserment tax".
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is guidance on tall buildings, a consultation paper. Plainly, it will be referred to in, for example, planning inquiries. The consultation process, I think, has been completed, and I think they have to make up their minds whether they are going to publish it as a final document. It is plainly of some relevance in determining whether or not a tall building should go ahead.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Looking at it, it ----
Sir Paul Beresford
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I heard, yes. You have just had them in front of you, and presumably they did not reach agreement in relation to it.
Sir Paul Beresford: No, they did not even reach agreement on quite how they voted on it.
Mrs Dunwoody: The question still remains the one that Mrs Ellman asked.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It seems to us to make very good sense.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I have no quarrel with any of it.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think it does mean yes, yes. As Mr Ellis is whispering in my ear, quite rightly, it is still in draft, so it may change.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) What I am saying is I agree with the content of the consultation paper.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not want to make any suggestions as to what is missing. It seems to me to be very, very sensible, but I keep coming back to the issue: in relation to each individual tall building a case has got to be made out in accordance with the principles that apply in relation to -----
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I have not had any meetings about tall buildings.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) All the advice they gave me about tall buildings?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It would be sensible for there to be published all of the advice that they think is sensible.
Mrs Dunwoody: No, no, no.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) With whom?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Are you talking about individual cases or are you talking about general guidance?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The note that has been passed to me says "DCMS".
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We do, we do. All that Mr Ellis is saying to me is do not express your own view without making it clear that I would obviously have to consult with DCMS. In principle, we think it would be appropriate that guidance from English Heritage or CABE about individual buildings or about the generality should be published, as long as there is not too much of it.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, no, no, no.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) As long as it does not lead to a lack of clarity.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I hope I am making it clear what I say.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Indeed. In answer to your question, in principle I can see real value in publishing the advice given both by CABE and English Heritage, both in relation to specific cases and in relation to the generality of it.
Mrs Dunwoody: That is very helpful, and Mr Ellis will tell you off when you get outside.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Could I write to you about that?
Chairman: By all means.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am not sure that they do.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am not sure that land use planners and transport planners do talk enough to each other. I think one of the goals of the green paper proposals is that, particularly in relation to transport but in relation to other aspects of policy as well, there should be a greater connection between land use and other strategies. That particularly applies to transport.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) You keep treating tall buildings as a special sort of transport demand. On Christine's point about can transport cope with the new activity coming from a particular tall building, if there are, as it were, jobs and activity that required the same number of people - whether it not it is through a tall building or whether it is in some other way - that will have transport implications.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In preparing the 10-year plan, of course, the implications for it beyond transport were considered. I cannot tell you the extent to which there was a detailed consideration in each case of the planning implications, because on much of the 10-year plan there are still sites and detail to be worked out. It is at that stage that the planning implications would be considered.
Chairman: Oona, since it is right on the edge of your constituency, do you want to come in on this?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Making it clear that I am not talking about any individual case, if the transport infrastructure was not adequate to meet whatever demand the tall buildings make, that would be a perfectly sensible reason for turning down the application.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) What is the implication for the growth of employment in various parts of London, in the light of what you have said? It is not just a question restricted to tall buildings. In relation to individual applications for tall buildings, transport infrastructure is a vital consideration to take into account. You know there is a public inquiry going on in relation to the Heron building. They have obviously got to consider those issues; the effect of the public inquiry is that they will be aired in detail there. I am being careful not to comment at all about it or to give any indication of what my view in relation to that should be, because of my role in the planning system.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That is obviously right. You can conclude, let us improve the transport infrastructure to a particular place for economic activity to take place so you can develop in a particular way. It would not necessarily involve tall buildings; it would involve any development that would bring jobs and economic activity. You are right.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Where appropriate, yes, I would, particularly if the particular development - tall building or not - has a real impact on transport infrastructure. However, each (I am sorry to say it again) individual case must be looked at on its merits.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not want to go there, if you do not mind, because it is impossible to answer that question without expressing a view on what offers have been made by the developers.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Depending on what pressures it put on the transport infrastructure.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That is very clear, but that is a question designed to put the facts in relation to the Heron Tower to me without saying so.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The appropriate demand made by the local authority should be that which is necessary in relation to the transport infrastructure and appropriate. I am sorry to give such a general answer, but I am trying to avoid expressing a view.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The extent to which I am trying to go is to say that I can quite envisage circumstances where contributions to the transport infrastructure would be entirely appropriate as far as the developer is concerned.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The Secretary of State is entitled to say "I will not approve this because there is an insufficient 106 contribution."
Mrs Dunwoody: So the answer is yes.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It should be a judgment made by the relevant local authority as to what its priorities are.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) What is the priority for the City of London? What is the priority for Tower Hamlets? What is the priority for Liverpool? They will differ. It is not, I think, for central Government to say the priority everywhere is affordable housing or the priority everywhere is transport. Manifestly, that is not right. The problem of an absence of affordable housing in London and the South East and other parts of the country as well are not reflected in yet other parts of the country. There has to be an element, and a very significant element, of local choice in relation to what priorities are.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, and there would most certainly be scope for a national view in relation to that, but one would hope that at stage one there would be discussion between the City and the boroughs that surround it, as to what the appropriate mix was.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Not entirely, no.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is a document that has been published on behalf of the Mayor, it has not yet been consulted upon, therefore it is not a final document.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think it is a document that could be referred to in planning applications. It would be something that, in considering the position, central Government would pay some regard to, but until it is a document that has been consulted upon its weight is obviously much less than it would otherwise be.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not know whether or not the next Mayoral election will be fought on tall buildings. That is really up to the Mayor, as to whether he makes it a big issue. Our position in relation to it is pretty clear: I think, ultimately, it is a matter for seeing is there is a case for the particular building?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The London Boroughs' Unitary Development Plans should be consistent with the Mayor's Spatial Strategy, in relation to his policy. That should include his policy on tall buildings. We have not yet got to a point where ----
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Consistent with, yes.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Indeed. Once his spatial strategy is adopted, pursuant to all the procedures that have got to be gone through, thereafter the boroughs' plans should become consistent with it.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) They should, in effect, make changes to their plans which reflect the regional strategy of the Mayor in his spatial strategy.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Normally that is correct, yes. That is the hierarchy of the plan.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No. I think the right thing to do is to wait for the whole process to be gone through, and see what the plan is.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) He would consider rejecting it if it was inconsistent with national planning policy in a material respect.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) He would obviously take into account what the consultation had produced, but if there was a clear conflict between national policy guidance and that which was in the regional spatial strategy that the Mayor had produced, then he would direct that the relevant spatial strategy be changed.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) He would have to form a view in relation to it, but if the elected body had concluded this was the right course and it was not inconsistent with national policy, then that body, which has been charged with producing the regional spatial strategy, should decide.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Whether clusters is the right course or whether singleton tall buildings is the right course will depend upon the circumstances in each individual case.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not have a view in relation to that. If a case can be made out for that and the usual requirements that I have referred to, about good design, sustainability, transport etc, are met, then there is no reason in principle why a case should not be made for tall buildings there.
Christine Russell: English Heritage, who gave evidence this morning, have listed a number of what one can only describe as exceedingly unpopular buildings, like Centre Point. Does this undermine your confidence in English Heritage?
Sir Paul Beresford
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am quite loath to be drawn on my personal opinion on particular buildings.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I would not, if you do not mind. The question was, does it undermine one's confidence in English Heritage that they, as it were, support buildings like Centre Point, which have been so unpopular. English Heritage have got to express their views about what they think is a good building, what a building worth preserving is or what they think about new buildings that are not yet built but are proposed to be built. They are advisers on the heritage. We can either take their advice or not, as the case may be.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Subject to what the further consultation is and what I am allowed to say subsequently, I hope we do find out.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes. People now are much, much more conscious of the quality of design. People want to live in houses that they feel much more comfortable in than houses that were built in the 60s and 70s. Much higher standards of design and architecture are, I think, expected by the people who actually use these buildings, whether they be public buildings, office buildings, or residencies.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think people are much more conscious of these issues than they have been in the past. I certainly cannot say that we will not get monstrosities in the future, but I think people are much, much more conscious of what buildings look like and how they affect their lives.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) There is material coming from the States about what they are discovering about the events of 11 September, which are obviously important. I do not know what the time-scale is in relation to that. There is the group chaired by the Institute of Structural Engineers which has got representation from central Government on it. I do not what their time-span is, but they are both looking at the issues, as it were, off their own bat and also seeking to take account of what they learn from America. So we are, in a sense, waiting for them to produce. I cannot tell you what the time-span is. I think you have heard from Mr Roberts, who is the Chairman of the group, last week, and we would envisage, basically, acting as soon as is reasonable upon the views that they take. One has got to act with reasonable expedition, but it is something that needs quite considerable thought.
There is also one other group, the Building Disaster Assessment Group chaired by Her Majesty's Fire Inspectorate, which is looking at issues such as evacuation procedures and whether there should be different evacuation procedures and evacuation requirements depending on whether you are higher than 30 metres or even more than that.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think there are certain things that would not depend on information from the United States of America. We have got to decide whether we do need to act pretty quickly in relation to those. We want proper advice, we want to consider the ramifications before we act on it.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Why are we not asking the Products Directive?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We are certainly in touch with the people responsible for the development of the design codes, including both the British Standards Institution and those involved in Europe in the development of Euro Codes in relation to those sorts of issues. If there are particular bodies that we are not in touch with obviously we should get in touch with them as quickly as possible.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Presumably because there are already British standards that apply, although they may not be legally enforceable, and in some cases there are Euro standards that apply. The overall answer to your question is if there are particular codes or standards that we should be considering that we are not then obviously we should get on to that. If there are particular cases please let me know and we shall write.
Mrs Dunwoody: I shall be delighted to do so. I apologise.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) One of the things that needs to be looked at is the regularity of safety inspections. I do not know whether annual is the right period and I do not know whether or not it should be different depending on the particular height and size of the building. Equally, I am not sure whether one should just be focusing on tall buildings or on any buildings where there are great conflagrations of people, for example sports stadia, for example exhibition centres.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am not sure what the answer to that is because I do not know whether the Fire Inspectorate or the Health & Safety Executive would say the right course is to inspect as and when they think there might be an issue.
Mrs Dunwoody: You have not laid down even to the standards that other European --- I rarely find myself in the situation of quoting other European nations ---
Chairman: I was a little puzzled!
Mrs Dunwoody: But the situation is that apparently we are not issuing national requirements to conform even with the limits set in the EC fire test for the generation of smoke and fumes. It is terribly important.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Could I? I have only got to the stage where there is a group looking at this. I am not sure what the right answer to it is.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That is fine. Mr Ellis has passed me a note. Buildings are the subject of routine inspections by fire brigades, but I do not know the regularity of that. I do not know whether it would differ from place to place and I do not know whether or not pressures on individual fire services ---
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Indeed I will. You merely have to ask and I will immediately supply all that you wish.
Mrs Dunwoody: At least it always expands my vocabulary when I talk to you, my Lord.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Material from the Americans.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not know.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not know what the position in relation to that is. I am being told, and this seems sensible, that material will emerge from what happened on 11 September and we obviously need to be informed by that as far as it is relevant to what we do about safety in tall buildings here.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am not aware of any such buildings, no.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In their view, my view?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No. Good design plainly could not of itself be sufficient. You would be quite wrong to build a well-designed building for which there was, for example, no economically sustainable future or, for example, no transport infrastructure that could sustain it. It is much, much more than issues about design.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) There are already protections in place, the listing system, etcetera. English Heritage is, as it were, the guardian of the historic heritage. I think the protection that is currently in place is sufficient.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think it is a different question as to whether there needs to be protection of the historic environment.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Not enough interest in the historic environment? I do not think that that would necessarily be increased by greater protection for it. There may be things that people can do to draw attention more to the historic environment but I do not think any legal changes are required it protect it.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think that the legal structure is fine.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If that happened it would be a massive failure of the planning system.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is for the local authority to decide whether or not there is an economic case for the particular tall building. That will depend inevitably on how it is to be supported and if it depends upon market take-up of places in the tall building then the market will, in effect, be the determinant.
Chairman: The British Property Federation put to us fairly firmly that they did not think local authorities had the skills to judge the economic case and that it was much better to leave it to the market.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The local authority, the planning authority must have some role in this. It cannot just be a situation where it is said, "Although all the indications are that nobody wants to work in this particular building (taking a hypothetical building) nevertheless we will just let you build it." That cannot be the way we deal with it.
Sir Paul Beresford
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Obviously mistakes will be made and judgments will be wrong without people acting badly, but there needs to be for any building, tall or otherwise, some justification that it is a sustainable development, whether it be a tall building, whether it be Broadgate, whether it be a housing development, and the local authority as the planning authority plainly have got a role.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The man with the cheque believes, presumably, that there is some sustainable future for it. I do not believe it is right for a local authority to say if there is a man with a cheque prepared to build a building, that is fine by me. They have got to look to see whether there is a sustainable future for this building and that will involve from time to time looking at the economics of the sustainability of the building.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Well-designed buildings in the right place, with the right transport infrastructure, whether tall or not, can most certainly be a driver.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think there was one subjunctive clause.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) You mean areas that were economically deprived and have now become economically regenerated? Not areas where there is already existing economic activity like for example the City of London?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Not at this particular moment I cannot, no.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) "Love" may be overstating it!
Chairman: On that note can I thank you very much for your evidence. I should have asked for the Committee's approval at the beginning that the uncorrected transcript should go on the Internet as soon as possible.
Mrs Dunwoody: Where it will be quite clear for all the public to read.
Chairman: Thank you.