Memorandum by Simon Jenkins (TAB 04)
I have written much on this subject and am reluctant
to burden the committee with cuttings. I limit myself to a few
responses to items in the committee's remit.
1. Tall buildings are not "necessities".
They are totems of urban potency, usually in backward countries
or those lacking cohesive conservation policies. Rules controlling
them are strict in, for instance, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam,
Milan and even New York. Towers are usually promoted by architects
and speculative developers as "signatures" of their
2. Pressure for London towers comes only
at the height of property booms. They have not been popular with
the lettings market, which tends to prefer large floor plates
as at Broadgate or in the West End (where height controls are
rigid). Towers are unsuitable as residences, except for the transient
rich, and mostly unpopular workplaces for firms that usually want
to spread horizontally. Previous towers have often stood empty
until rented by the government (Stag Place, Euston Tower, Tolworth)
or were built or subsidised directly by government (Knightsbridge
Barracks, the "Seifert" West London hotels and the London
3. London is not short of empty sites or
of opportunities for high-density low-rise development, as any
drive or helicopter flight will show. The current property market
is not demanding tower (see the latest DTZ report, The Times,
9.12.01). As development in the West End, Broadgate and the west
City indicates, low-rise is popular and profitable and enables
the retention of streets and alleys of character within the existing
4. Most tower applications at present are
speculative, that is have no tenant and are being sought as "planning
permission banks" for exploitation later. Few will be built
by their proposed architects and are often vacated by the "use"
that was claimed to be vital. The massive Shell Centre is no longer
needed by Shell or the Thorn Tower by Thorn. Decontrolled tower
development, as in Texan cities, tends to be regretted afterwards
as blocks "go see-through".
5. I find all towers rising above the roofline
or spireline in a city such as London visually intrusive and ugly.
The architectural "quality" of the tower is immaterial,
since none pays any respect to its surroundings, unlike the tall
buildings erected by the Georgians and Victorians. Yet all are
regarded as beautiful by their owners and designers. Towers abroad
are usually pictured over water, as in New York or Hong Kong,
because that softens their visual impact. Yet we are discussing
not sculptures but urban developments. They may be appreciated
by "foreigners" from a distance. To their neighbours
they are overbearing, overshadowing and, where covered in glass,
hostile. They obliterate their immediate streetscape for services.
There is never intimacy round a tower.
6. There is no successful "join"
of a tower to a street in London. The best instances are where
the entire neighbourhood has been purpose-designed to service
the tower, as at Canary Wharf. The price paid is a complete divorce
of the development from its hinterland. The committee should walk
the environs of Centre Point, Stag Place, Empress House, Elephant
and Castle, the point block estates of East London and the streets
round the Barbican. They are blighted. These towers are bad neighbours
shunned by pedestrians and devoid of the informal uses that make
cities work. There are no cafe tables near towers.
7. The fashionable line is that tall buildings
are fine if grouped. I accept that as urban sculpture, they tend
to look better this way, as if an admission that ungrouped they
are ugly. But where to group? Why should some communities, such
as Poplar or Bermondsey or Maida Vale, be saddled with buildings
from which others can be declared free? Worse, the groups most
often mentioned have nothing to do with protecting views, parks
or conservation areas. They are simply where the speculative market
has seen an opportunity: Paddington, Victoria, Waterloo, King's
Cross, London Bridge and Bishopsgate. Most of these sites loom
over parkland and river. If towers there must be, they should
at least be in existing "ruined" landscapes, such as
the Isle of Dogs, Croydon and Stratford.
8. The location of towers poses an exceptional
burden of proof on their advocates. The freedoms are asymmetrical.
My freedom to enjoy an uninterrupted skyline and unpolluted street
is completely overridden by a tower. A landowner's freedom to
make money from his land is not overridden by that freedom. It
is subject to the compromise of low-rise development. As was the
case with the Hilton and Queen Anne's Gate gate decisions, a high-rise
policy breached is a policy dismantled. There can be no exception,
or there is no policy. This is where London has been for the past
two decades. It shows.
9. The committee asks about accountability
and the role of government. In the years after the war, the LCC
had a firm high-buildings policy that was enforced. It was overridden
by central government allowing breaches either to cross-subsidise
road schemes (Centre Point, Stag Place) or through ministerial
whim (Hilton and the other hotels round Hyde Park). The present
use of Section 106 dealsin effect public sector bribesis
no less fatal to the policy. That a developer should be able to
"buy" a tower from the planning system is outrageous.
The Mayor has no declared high buildings policy, except that he
seems to like them anywhere an architect wants one. Public opinion
surveys are deeply sceptical. That is why the appeal system must
remain in being, public inquiries permitted and citizens able
to use the law as well as the ballot to hold their rulers to account.