Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



  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[1]. 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.

Christine Russell

  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.

Christine Russell

  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 Bath"?
  (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.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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 of choices?
  (Mr Powell) Indeed.

Mrs Ellman

  115. First, to Bath & North East Somerset. Would tall buildings have any impact on your tourism based on historic buildings?
  (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 points.


  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.

Mrs Ellman

  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 up?
  (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 reinforces—and, 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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