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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)




  340. But is planning not a question of balance, and you have to weigh the strength of the two arguments? Surely the economic argument is you have to weigh up how important that is.
  (Mr McKee) Indeed it is, and I totally share your view, but what I think has happened in the planning system over the last thirty years is that that judgment of where the preponderance of social welfare rests has been lost. I think one of the reasons why most recently the Treasury has shown such an interest in the planning system is because the needs of economic growth has fallen away over the years against the requirements of the heritage lobby. It is a balance: my view is the balance has swung too far against economic growth and economic welfare.

  341. Is it not a failure of organisations like yours to put the case?
  (Mr McKee) I certainly think the property industry has a good way to go to make the case for its economic importance, but that does not mean that it is not economically important

Chris Grayling

  342. Sticking with the BPF, you have said that the protection of views should be reconciled with economic loss. How do you do that?
  (Mr McKee) Planning policy over the years has done it: it has defined which are the strategic views in London which should be protected. From the earliest days of the GLC policy back in the middle 1960s that has been a feature of London planning policy, right through to the Mayor's current policy, and those are the areas where the planning policy says, when you make that balance between economic need and the protection of the historic environment, the historic environment is the most important. To that extent planning policy does define the balance between the two.

  343. What do you think the balance should be? Do you think we should be willing to sacrifice historical views for economic necessity?
  (Mr McKee) For the most important historical views, my view would be no.

  344. Are there any examples outside London that we could draw on?
  (Mr McKee) Where—?

  345. Where we could draw on the experience of the balance between achieving protection of historical views and economic necessity? Where do you think the right balance has been found?
  (Mr McKee) If you look at some of the most important historic towns—Bath, Chester, Canterbury, towns like that—then the kind of commercial development which one sees in other cities, not just London but Birmingham, Manchester and other places, has been on the whole restricted by the planning system because of the undeniable quality of those environments.

  346. Would you want to see tall buildings in historic towns?
  (Mr McKee) Personally I think that would be a mistake in a town of the kind I have just described.

Sir Paul Beresford

  347. Do you think there is a scenario where a tall building can enhance, pick out, frame, set up, set out, historic buildings or historic interests?
  (Dr Damesick) If I may, I think there are cases which one can find in London and in other cities where the presence of a tall building has added something to an urban skyline which may have both historic elements and also modern elements in it.

Mrs Dunwoody

  348. Which one did you have in mind?
  (Dr Damesick) I would say in the case of the City of London, and we are venturing here into the realms of personal opinion and subjective taste, that while the Nat West Tower may not objectively be the most beautiful building in the world—

  349. No, it may not!
  (Dr Damesick)—I think nonetheless its position from certain views within the City skyline juxtaposed with the views of St Paul's mean that it has become very much a landmark which signifies the City and in juxtaposition with St Paul's also you have there the historic connection, but I can think of a not very tall building in Cardiff which used to be called the Pearl Tower, located not very far away from the Castle and the civic centre there, where there seems quite a harmonious balance between the traditional and the new, represented by that mixture. But, as I say, these are matters of subjective taste. If I may return to your point about the importance of balance here, I think achieving the balance of views is very important. I fear, however, the debate has become polarised where from one quarter, represented mainly by the opponents of tall buildings, the view seems to be no more than, "We do not like them; we do not want them; you—the occupiers—do not need them; and, if they have to be built at all, they should be put where we cannot see them".

  350. It sounds like a perfectly reasonable attitude to me!
  (Dr Damesick) But not one I think, Chairman, which one could regard as a balanced view. I think balance is important in this case. Also, in the analysis of economic loss versus the preservation of strategic views, some very simplistic analysis has been applied here which I think is nonsensical. The criteria seems to be that, if we cannot find any evidence that London, for example, is losing major financial institutions to Frankfurt because of the lack of tall buildings, then clearly the policy of restricting tall buildings is not causing any harm. Would we use the same criteria, for example, with respect to the state of London's transport system? Where is the hard evidence that any company has left London and gone to Frankfurt because of the state of the Tube? I would argue you would have trouble finding that. Do we, therefore, conclude that the state of London's transport is fine? This is a very high, very restricted, very simple sort of standard. Economics does not work like that; it erodes competitiveness and productivity and efficiency at the margin if you do not have an adequate and appropriate range of choice for office occupiers.

Chris Grayling

  351. Do you believe there should be, particularly in areas where there is historic sensitivity, a framework set out by government?
  (Mr McKee) I think it would be very difficult to set out a national policy framework for tall buildings. It is entirely possible, and has been for the last 30-40 years in planning policy, to set out clear guidelines in local development plans.

  352. Does not though a certain vagueness in planning policy effectively open a door for more development rather than less?
  (Mr McKee) Not in my experience.
  (Dr Damesick) If I could add to that, I think a certain vagueness in planning policy, in fact, creates huge uncertainty and potential problems for those putting forward proposals for development. If there was to be any additional government guidance with respect to policy for tall buildings, one would hope that what it would do is set out a clear set of criteria for the guidance of local authorities in their assessment of proposals for tall buildings. There are great difficulties created for developers where the planning framework is so vague than one really does not know whether a particular proposal is likely to be acceptable—not just at the first stage of achieving planning consent but also via the appeal process and so forth. Developers and occupiers would like more certainty and more clarity.

Sir Paul Beresford

  353. Would you not say there is another argument that some vagueness, as you put it, or we put it, allows an opportunity for innovation, for different thinking, for new ideas, and for us to "progress"?
  (Dr Damesick) "Vagueness" I think is not perhaps the right term. What I think you are referring to is flexibility, but I think it might be the case that in any planning guidance there could be provision for local authorities to take a flexible and welcoming view towards innovation, but to try and clarify the criteria by which these proposals will be judged. I think that would be very helpful to the development industry in general and also occupiers, who at the end of the day want to know whether the building they would like to occupy can be delivered.

  Sir Paul Beresford: Do you think there is a high risk of being, like the Chelsea Society, stuck in the 1920s, because the greater the flexibility the less the restrictions certainly become, and discussion between potential developments and the planning authority would overcome some of the certainty problems in that they could discuss their prospects with the planning authority at a very early stage, which is what has been encouraged by this government and the previous one?

  Mrs Dunwoody: Discuss!


  354. Do not discuss; just say "Yes" or "No" because we are tight for time!
  (Dr Damesick) Yes, I think there should be flexibility. It is an argument for keeping the criteria under review and letting them evolve.

Christine Russell

  355. Can I ask you about the conclusions of the London Planning Advisory Committee only about three years ago, when they said there was no economic need for tall buildings in London. Has anything changed since then?
  (Dr Damesick) Yes.

  356. What?
  (Dr Damesick) It is easy to have the benefit of hindsight but I think, even if one went back to the conclusions of that study and looked at the evidence that it considered, including the background economic implications working paper, which provided a lot of the evidence, it would have been possible at that time to draw a different conclusion and a conclusion that there was, in fact, an economic need. There is an inconsistency, I believe, in the LPAC report that where, on the one hand, it is accepted that a building like the Citicorp Tower in Canary Wharf is a state of the art building for those major international occupiers who want to consolidate their activities in London, it is not perceived as a problem that there might be a restricted supply of such state of the art buildings. It is accepted that tower offices for small occupiers have been enduringly popular and achieved premium rents; that is not interpreted as indicating clear demand and an excess of demand over supply. The report in general was insufficiently forward-looking: it did not anticipate what we have seen in the last four years in terms of a whole series of major acquisitions of office space in tower buildings which have occurred in London. Basically the evidence in that report and the evidence behind that report could have been used to reach a different conclusion.
  (Mr McKee) Just briefly, it did not look particularly either at the change in structure of the nature of white collar jobs in the City, and the impact that has on the kind of occupiers and the kind of demand for space coming forward.

  357. But we are also told in evidence that office accommodation costs are falling in London. Does that not prove the argument that it is supply rather than demand-led?
  (Dr Damesick) At the present time, against the background of a global economic downturn, the collapse of the TMT sectors which were a very important driver of demand up to a year or so ago and the events of 9/11, we are seeing at this present moment in the London office market some easing in the pace of demand.

  358. So you are saying that, because of the events of 11 September, the demand for tall buildings, the interest, is waning?
  (Dr Damesick) No. I am not saying that; I categorically am not saying that. I am saying that the events of 9/11 crystallised to some degree weaknesses in the economy and in the demand for office space which were being driven by general economic trends. I do not think we can identify any specific effect of 9/11 on the demand for office space in tall buildings.

  359. So are you then saying that it is the historic trends triggering the demand for tall buildings, ie when the economy is booming you get the demand for tall buildings, and then a waning interest—
  (Dr Damesick) No, I am not saying that either. The demand for tall buildings and for large units of space in tall buildings by single occupiers is being driven by structural changes in the organisation of business producing, by merger and acquisition and organic growth, very large organisations some of whom want to consolidate their activities in a single building, for which a tower office building can provide the most efficient form of building.

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