Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)|
TUESDAY 22 JANUARY 2002
100. Thank you very much. Do any of you want
to say anything, by way of introduction?
(Mr Powell) Perhaps, from a Westminster standpoint,
Chairman, if we could kick off with a few brief words that set
a context. I must confess, having sat and listened to the evidence
of your two previous witnesses, we feel somewhat like the filling
in the sandwich in-between, in terms of the situation that we
take. We do have, in fact, a particularly rich experience to offer
to the Sub-Committee in terms of our role in planning; we are
the largest planning authority in the United Kingdom by volume
of application, and we have considerable experience in dealing
with high and tall buildings. Just to dispel any impressions that
perhaps the City Corporation were having to shoulder the entire
burden of the economy of the UK, in westminster we have nine million
square metres of office space, by comparison with City Corporation's
seven million, which compares with approximately a million in
Tower hamlets; we too contribute over 90 per cent of our UBR to
the national economy, and, indeed, in absolute terms, about 50
per cent more than the City Corporation. we also provide 14 per
cent to the total employment in London, whereas the City Corporation
provides 8 per cent, and we also have many of the people transiting
through the City that provide a comparison. So I think that does
demonstrate, in fact, that some of the economic considerations,
the impact, which Westminster City Council's policies have on
the national economy, complement, at best, the City Corporation's
concerns. There are three brief points i would like to make, in
terms of mapping out the terrain of the evidence that we have
put before you, which is extremely detailed, Chairman. We do believe,
in shorthand, that LPAC did get it right with their guidance,
not simply in saying the case with regard to tall buildings is
open but by going that step further and actually saying, "Nevertheless,
there will be interest and demand for tall buildings and we must
devise a methodology for, first of all, identifying appropriate
locations for tall buildings, and secondly identifying what type
of tall buildings we would like to see, as a nation, in the future."
Three particular areas. I think you will have guessed, from our
general comments, we are fairly catholic in our attitude towards
tall buildings; 75 per cent of Westminster is in a conservation
area, in blunt terms, that makes it tough to find a site where
a tall building is not going to have a significant impact on its
surrounding neighbours. Having said that, we followed the LPAC
guidance, we are one of the few local authorities in London to
have done so, and we have developed a very rigorous set of criteria
for evaluating individual applications that come in for tall buildings;
and sitting on my desk at the moment are the Paddington applications,
where we are giving serious consideration to 20/25-storey buildings,
and we are about to embark on the victoria area.
Tall buildings present unique design considerations; many of the
design considerations for tall buildings are on the cutting-edge
of architectural experience. How they hit the ground, how they
impact on mass transport, how they affect the immediate environment,
in their surroundings, both from an ecological standpoint and
touching on some of the issues of recycling, that were touched
on earlier, are only now beginning to be appreciated. Lastly,
we believe that the current local planning authority-led initial
evaluation for tall buildings is the appropriate way forward,
in terms of dealing with tall buildings, with the very important
caveats that, of course, ministerial call-in, as we have
seen recently with the Heron Tower, or indeed an applicant's right
to appeal, provide ample opportunity for a wider view to be taken.
I think that sets the Westminster position, Chairman.
101. Thank you very much. Do you want to say
something, on behalf of Bath?
(Ms Wilkinson) Thank you, yes. I think, by way of
contrast, I get the feeling, like Simon Jenkins. I should perhaps
introduce Bath & North East Somerset as a unitary authority,
and we have the City of Bath in the middle of that. We have a
population of about 160,000, half of which live in the City of
Bath. Bath is famous for its Roman baths, its Georgian architecture
and its fantastic scenery, its landscape setting. It was designated
as a World Heritage Site in 1987, and it is a remarkably beautiful
City. I have been struggling for words that do not sound emotional
but I think most people would agree that the word `beautiful'
could be used. It is very uniform, in terms of its height, its
urban grain, and particularly in the use of materials. It is surrounded
by green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty on all sides.
It has a thriving economy, it has very high house prices, reputedly
second to London, and it has very high retail rentals, it is a
retail City. It has, however, a very booming economy in commercial
activities, including local government, education and other related
industries, including seedbed media industries. The Council is
committed to the stewardship of this environment and sees it as
its asset. It is, however, very concerned to maintain a balanced
economy, to give all of its citizens a quality of life, both in
the centre and in the rural hinterland, and to provide adequate
housing, which is a great challenge because space is limited.
We have published recently, in our new draft Local Plan, in accordance
with the Secretary of State's guidance, a whole new chapter on
design, and we await the support of the Secretary of State when
it reaches him, or her. We are embarking on a World Heritage Management
Plan exercise, which is certainly going to test the aspirations
of our citizens.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
102. Can I ask my first question of you, Mr
Powell. You said, in your introduction, that at the moment you
have got an application for, I think you said, a 25-storey building,
on your desk; is that right?
(Mr Powell) That is correct.
103. Now is that building being proposed because
you have actually got a genuine shortage of alternative sites,
or is it because developers actually prefer tall buildings?
(Mr Powell) The particular scheme that we are referring
to is in the Paddington area, which, of course, is a major redevelopment
centre for us. It is one of a multiplicity of applications that
have come in, and that particular scheme has a rather interesting
history. Initially it came to us as an application for a 45-storey
tower block on the site; having evaluated the impact that such
a scheme would have, we put the matter, as a matter of principle,
before our Planning Committee, and our Planning Committee's view,
having weighed up the merits of the particular application, in
the light of the planning framework for evaluation, which we mention
in our evidence, prepared by EDAW and adopted as part of our current
UDP review, was that 45-storey was simply just too big, 20/25
storeys could be made to work. The interesting comparison for
us though is that, in doing the evaluation of some of the merits
of tall buildings, and the classic checklist of concerns, that
most people trot out, of it is a regeneration beacon, it is a
corporate magnet because it allows consolidation, as we have seen
with HSBC, the economics, or greater density, all of those tests
failed when we applied them in the Paddington context, we were
not getting a higher density by going to 45 storeys by comparison
with going with 25 storeys.
104. So they succeeded at 25 but failed at 45?
(Mr Powell) Indeed, that may be so.
105. So how confident are you that Westminster
will still be able to continue attracting global companies, taking
into account, I have forgotten the figure, was it, 76 per cent
of your properties are in a conservation area?
(Mr Powell) Seventy-five per cent of the land mass
in Westminster is in a conservation area. We have seen the attractiveness
of Westminster grow quite significantly over the last decade;
not only has the residential population risen, from 175,000 to
240,000, the fastest rate of residential growth of any London
borough, but also we have seen a million square metres of additional
office space constructed over the last decade, and that has been
a mixture of office space which caters for the entire market.
And I think that our experience picks up a very important theme
that we would offer the Committee, which is that one size does
not fit all, there is not a principle of saying tall buildings
are good, regardless of where they are put. Our experience of
office demand in Westminster is that the conservation areas, the
rich fabric, the mixed community of having residential alongside
retail, with employment opportunities, creates a strength of demand;
and, certainly in terms of investment returns, Westminster has
fared, as I think Simon Jenkins inferred in some of his evidence,
much more robustly to the peaks and troughs of economic cycles
that we have seen over the last couple of years.
106. Thank you. Can I turn to Bath, and Ms Wilkinson.
You have just heard your colleague, Mr Powell, from Westminster,
say that one size does not fit all; so what do you do in Bath
when a major, global, inward investor knocks on your door and
says, "I want to establish my company here"? How do
you go about providing them with the office floor space that they
need; how do you seek to accommodate them?
(Ms Wilkinson) The nature of the demand is quite different,
as I am sure you would imagine. The great shortage of space in
Bath is for commercial units of a very small scale, what we call
seedbed commercial units, they can be media-based, professional-based,
and, curiously enough, about the size of a Georgian town house,
if you can imagine that. Now, in Bath, we have a conflict, therefore,
between buildings which are now of such high value that people
would like to turn them into homes, very fine Georgian homes,
competing with an equal demand for commercial space on the upper
floors with retail on the ground floor. So we do have an interesting
and very different kind of economic activity.
107. In your introduction you extolled the quality
of life and all the attractions of Bath; undoubtedly true. So
you would turn away the large American bank, or whoever, who came
knocking on the door and said, "We would like to invest in
(Ms Wilkinson) Personally, I do not think we have
ever had a large American bank wanting to come, wholesale, lock,
stock and barrel, to Bath.
108. I say that because I represent the City
of Chester, and we did have a large American bank come in, knocking
on the door, and we did find a way of accommodating them.
(Ms Wilkinson) I think it must be said that if somebody
like that came you would ask them why do they want to be there,
they want to be there for quality of life; they have to fit into
our environment, to preserve that quality of life. The expression
the `golden goose' was used this morning; our golden goose is
our quality of environment. It can adapt and house many very thriving
economic activities of a different scale from the kind that you
have been talking about this morning, in the City of London, for
example, and that is well understood by the Council, and there
are economic development sites in our area, on brownfield sites,
where there are opportunities for new-build, but they will always
be, by London standards, low-rise type.
Sir Paul Beresford
109. What do you call a tall building; ten storeys?
(Ms Wilkinson) The highest building we have got is
actually 12 storeys, and that is a block of flats. We have no
high-rise office blocks, we have nothing that you could call a
skyscraper. Average modern office buildings in Bath are about
eight storeys high.
110. What about Westminster; what would you
call `tall'? The point was made by the first witness that we are
actually talking about midi, not tall?
(Mr Powell) The ambient level of buildings in Westminster,
at best, is between eight and nine storeys, so anything that starts
to rise above that starts to create a profile. Certainly, in terms
of international standards, yes, we are not into the skyscraper
league of North America or South-East Asia, even with the 45-storey
type development; but anything above ten storeys in the Westminster
context starts to become a prominent development, and we would
consider it as such. But my own personal definition, I think,
if you are at 20 storeys to 30 storeys then that is a landmark
architectural statement that would show where we are. I think,
coming back to the question about how do we attract people, we
have been very successful in Westminster, in the balance. I hesitate
to mention, we actually attracted Enron in, to create their European
headquarters, very successfully, but at the same time we have
managed to attract, within that fabric, Coopers Lybrand, for their
headquarters, before they merged with PWC, Channel Four, Banque
Parisbas came in. And, from the discussions that we have with
the financial community, and particularly the North American financial
community, there is an enormous debate raging at the moment; once
again, the one size fits all does not, in fact, encapsulate corporate
thinking from an occupier's standpoint. There is a tremendous
amount of corporate merger work going on at the moment. And so,
on the face of it, there is a drive towards consolidating corporate
identity and creating tower blocks, or large, single-site occupation,
much as HSBC are going through at the moment.
111. Thinking of some of the ones you have quoted,
the Channel Four building, which I find very attractive, actually,
is very convenient there, it does not seem to give me the impression
it has very large numbers of staff, it is not an enormous corporate
entity, is it?
(Mr Powell) No, it is not, indeed, but it is a headquarters
attraction. The point that I was going on to make is that the
corporate occupiers' attitude though is, often, in particularly
financial circles at the moment, a campus-style approach, where
you have what would euphemistically be described as a groundscraper,
perhaps a ten-storey high, with a much greater density.
112. That is a horrible phrase; from where has
this `groundscraper' arrived?
(Mr Powell) Okay, we can come back to that; but the
113. Is Bath full of hundreds of thousands of
groundscrapers; horsescrapers, perhaps?
(Mr Powell) Certainly, Paddington will be heavily
populated by very dense developments which rejuvenate and provide
economic attractiveness, both from a residential and a commercial
standpoint. What I am trying to finish on is that corporate demand
is mixed, in fact, for groundscrapers and skyscrapers. And certainly
the most recent discussions that we have had with our North American
financial community colleagues is that the impact of September
11, not only in design safety but in terms of corporate psyche,
is still being worked through at the moment, so the case is far
from clear as to which way they want to go.
Sir Paul Beresford
114. So, essentially, what you are saying is
that we ought to be prepared for a mixture of options and a mixture
(Mr Powell) Indeed.
115. First, to Bath & North East Somerset.
Would tall buildings have any impact on your tourism based on
(Ms Wilkinson) I think they would be enormously harmful
to the landscape setting of the City, for those who know it; you
can see, more or less, all of Bath in one go from many vantage
116. But, a nice, glass, tall building, you
would have two Baths, would you not, reflected in it?
(Ms Wilkinson) There is a Victorian observation tower
on one of the hills. But it is hard to conceive of where in Bath
a tall building could go, and the further out to the edges of
it you put it, of course, the less sustainable it is, in terms
of its infrastructure, or connections to public transport. So
shifting it out to the edge would not work, shifting it over the
hill would not work, and in the valley it would be so harmful,
I think. We have never actually been asked by anybody if they
could put a tall building in Bath, ever, in the planning history
of Bath; so it is not an issue, in that sense. Buildings of a
much lower scale need to be very sensitively handled in the context,
and that is a greater architectural challenge; as great.
117. And, to Westminster, I would like to clarify
your evidence in relation to Government guidance and strategic
guidance generally. In one section of your written evidence, 2.28,
you say: "explicit Government policy expressed through either
a Circular or Planning Policy Guidance would be inappropriate."
And then, at 2.26, you talk about "a danger of repeating
the mistakes of the 1960s." And you say "There is no
agreed strategic framework..." How do those two points add
(Mr Powell) Our experience is that, when, in fact,
Government seeks to provide a centralised guidance system, you
fall into the trap of one size fitting all, notwithstanding how
it might be framed. We have had the dubious pleasure of benefiting
from special Government attention, over the last 40 years, in
terms of direct intervention, over developments such as the Hilton
Hotel, which was a tourist dollars decision, similarly the Knightsbridge
Barracks, with some of the design issues that come from that.
And what that experience has led us to believe is that the strength
of the planning system, and particularly at the heart of the debate
over tall buildings, is local sensitivity and local analysis and
input, in fact, of the democratic process, in terms of planning
committees, but also local expertise, in terms of determining
those applications. So we would support very much central guidance
and the CABE/English Heritage statement, with regard to tall buildings,
we support, with one or two observations, I must confess, we do
tend to lean more towards the English Heritage emphasis on context,
as opposed to the trophy architecture emphasis, perhaps, that
CABE might put, but both of those are relevant considerations
that need to be considered alongside each other.
118. What form would you like the Government
guidance to take?
(Mr Powell) I think that Government guidance which
reinforcesand, of course, we are in the middle of the Green
Paper review at the moment and the consequences of that are currently
being worked through. Government guidance which, in fact, reflects
and perhaps echoes the LPAC approach of saying that if a local
authority is considering tall buildings there is a process that
one should go through, in terms of identification of the impact
on the surrounding community, and then, having carried out that
assessment, a follow-up assessment which looks at the quality
of architecture. But that should be carried out at a local level
and not by way of a national formula which says, "If you
can tick the following boxes then, yes, you automatically get
a planning permission," whether it is in Bath or in Westminster.
119. So you want some weapons to fight off the
Mayor, is that it?
(Mr Powell) Not at all, in fact. We have been quite
encouraged at Westminster, because, the Mayor's initial rhetoric,
after his election, of pepperpotting London with hundreds of high«rises,
every time he makes a pronouncement the number seems to get cut
back further and further. And, of course, he has now been pulled
into the real world of statutory planning and publishing his SDS,
and the lawyers are starting to reign back this unbridled enthusiasm
for anything over 100 metres being good; in fact, many parts of
the interim guidance, and it is only an interim guidance that
has been published at the moment, coincide with some of the values
that we have. But I think that our differentiation with the Mayor
is that we do believe a contextual analysis of each application,
on its own merit, should be the driving force, and not a simple
economic consideration of trophy architecture, overriding the
needs of the local community, be they commercial or social.
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