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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560-573)



Mrs Ellman

  560. Would you accept that tall buildings are not suitable for mixed use?
  (Mr Finch) No, I would not accept that. I think there has been a reluctance, for reasons of institutional funding, for having more than one use in a building. That is not true in other cities and in other countries and I think it is ceasing to be true here as well. It is slightly more complicated from a funding point of view and I should say that we try not to second-guess commercial markets. It is an aside but it is often said that nobody wants these tall buildings. I give you the Canary Wharf complex. The buildings are all let and they are building a lot more. We do not think it is our business to second-guess demand which is proven.


  561. It was a bit of a struggle to let the original tower, was it not?
  (Mr Finch) Property development is a struggle, it is a risky business, but the fact is that they proved it and nobody can deny it and they are building some more. For anybody to say that they should not be building more or that nobody will occupy those buildings I think is trying to secondguess the market. It is a very foolish activity. The market will decide whether those buildings are needed or not and, in the case of Canary Wharf—

Mrs Dunwoody

  562. So we do not really need your views anyway.
  (Mr Finch) It depends if you want the buildings to be well designed.

  563. No, it does not. You just set out to us very clearly that you are quite happy to have mixed use but in fact there is no mixed use; you feel that it does not matter so much what the view is because people never look up; and, as far as you are concerned, you are not going to secondguess the market anyway. So, with the greatest of respect, why are you there?
  (Mr Finch) Let me give you an example of a high-rise building that we supported which was perhaps the first one we had seen which had significant variety of mixed use. This was a tower complex out of Paddington by Richard Rogers Partnership which had substantial public facilities and uses at ground floor level, not just at the base of the building but around it; it had offices in it; it had a hotel in it; it had a public bar and restaurant at the top; and it had associated housing next door. We supported this proposal; it was opposed by others and was withdrawn in favour of a scheme which is less mixed use. It still has some mixed use. So, there are people wanting to do this and we do support mixed use but we accept that, in that case, Westminister, the local planning authority, did not like it so it is not happening.
  (Sir Neil Cossons) It is important that market forces are played out within the context of a planned approach in which there is a strategic view which the local authority can have, can declare and which gives the sort of clarity that developers want but also is the subject or has been the subject of consultation so that the views of the community have been properly reflected in that plan. So, unmediated market forces, it seems to me, is a recipe for disaster. Market forces that can be played out within the framework of a clear local plan provides an opportunity for something which is worthwhile and which provides a variety of benefits to the community at a variety of different levels.

Mrs Ellman

  564. You also accept that tall buildings drive forward innovation with new technology. Do you stand by that or is it not rather risky looking at the Lloyds Building and the Millennium Bridge?
  (Mr Finch) No, not at all. Innovation inherently carries some risk, as in the case of the Millennium Bridge horizontal rather than vertical, but the fact is you learn from your mistakes. The new breeds of tall buildings coming through now—to give one example—have been investigating for some while how it is that you can ventilate without the need for sealed air-conditioned boxes, as one might say. The buildings services engineers and the techniques that they are exploring of how to use natural ventilation and a variety of other systems, is pushing the boundaries of what we know about the behaviour of air in such buildings and, indeed, in response to the people living and working in them.

Chris Grayling

  565. Can I play devil's advocate with English Heritage? There are those who would say that you have listed Centre Point and the Trellick Tower, you have supported the Swiss Re Tower and opposed Heron Tower. What actually do you really think?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) Can I just say this about listing, to begin with? The London we have is the London we love, warts and all, and what we do in recommending to the Secretary of State in listing is to consider buildings in terms of their architecture, but also in terms of their historical and cultural significance. We have recommended the listing, for example, of Cold War bunkers, not because we regard them as architectural masterpieces but because they are a part of the events of history, part of the unwritten record that people in future will be able to read and understand about what life was like in this country in the post-war period. The listing of Centre Point, for example, is in that context. We have listed 17 buildings over 12 storeys in the whole of England: nine in London and eight outside London. So it is a very tiny sample indeed. It is a sample which, we believe, will be reflective of that period and which people can understand in the future. It is also worth remembering that listing is not preservation, listing is really a call for pause for thought before alteration or demolition takes place. Similarly, with our listing what we have done has been to pinpoint some aspects of that period in the 50s, 60s and 70s which we believe are worth pinpointing, no more than that.
  (Mr Davies) Can I deal with the second part of the question, which was the differences between Swiss Re and Heron? They are completely different cases. Swiss Re was acceptable to us because it stood within the centre of an established group of buildings in the City and it did not have a significant impact on St Pauls and the classic views from the west—Westminster and Waterloo Bridge. That was a view shared by others, not just us—the Dean of St Pauls included. It had very local impacts within the City, the most significant local impact was on the St Helens conservation area, which is already surrounded by tall buildings like the Commercial Union Tower, as part of its character and context. So we have taken an absolutely consistent approach to both these cases. In the case of Heron, the City Planning Officer himself accepted that was to the north of the established cluster of buildings in the City, it had a major, we thought, adverse impact on the setting of St Pauls, which is a building of world significance, and it had a much greater impact on the local environment of the City, particularly the Middlesex Street conservation area and right opposite the Grade II* listed St Botolph's Church. They are two different cases, and it comes back to the point that I started from, that what is important here is to look in every case at the character, context and location. Those are the crucial considerations. They are different cases and we dealt with them in a very discriminating way and highlighted those issues at the inquiry. I do not think I have said anything there that is not before the Secretary of State at the moment.

Sir Paul Beresford

  566. I thought you asked at one of your early meetings for a EIA because there was such similarity between the two buildings or the two proposals.
  (Mr Davies) It is for the City Corporation to decide whether or not they wish to—

  567. The suggestion was made to your LAC, even though you changed your mind later on.
  (Mr Davies) I am sorry, I missed your question.

  568. We were comparing the two different buildings. I understood your recommendation or your staff recommendation to the LAC, back in April (and I cannot remember the actual date) was that there should be an EIA before the Heron building because of the similarity between the Heron building and the Swiss Re building. Later on you changed your mind.
  (Mr Davies) No, we did not change our mind.

  569. You recommended, did you not, that the Commission should not take regard because you thought than an EIA would not actually show any difference to the opinion you already had.
  (Mr Davies) I think when the Commission took its view on the scheme the advice that they were given was that it was very unlikely that an EIA would add anything significantly extra to the issues that they had already discussed. They have already made it very clear that they were concerned about the impact of the Heron Tower on St Pauls and on the wider environment of the City. I think an EIA would not have added anything that would have diminished that impact.


  570. So the Committee can be seen to be fair to both sets of witnesses, is it fair to say that CABE is really a sort of fan club for modern architects?
  (Mr Finch) We are supportive of good contemporary design, yes, we are, but we are not a fan club for architects. We are the supporters of architecture and we criticise or applaud as we find. In particular respect of tall buildings, we are just suspicious of attempting to pre-judge tall building applications; we think that they ought to be seen in the round. We agree with English Heritage that location is, of course, extremely important; we do not think that location is the be-all and end-all. I suppose the reason that we think that is because there are too many examples from history of things that would certainly not get planning permission today, for 101 reasons, which in fact are widely admired and, in many cases, listed. I think from a philosophical point of view the proposition that it is okay to list yesterday's warts because they are yesterday's is a dangerous starting point for making propositions about the future. I suppose, quite properly, English Heritage is concerned in part with its statutory duty. We are more concerned with the future because we see our duty in respect of proposals that are being made, which by definition is about the future. We feel confident and optimistic about the future, provided that the people who are going to design it are paying due care and attention to all the factors that have been mentioned.

  571. Is there not a temptation for architects to want to go for tall buildings because more people will see them than for putting good design into ground scrapers, or ground huggers—whatever you want to call them?
  (Mr Finch) Architects work for clients. I do not deny that no doubt architects in their dreams have ideas of designing the tallest building ever made. Some of the great architects have done it from Frank Lloyd Wright to Norman Foster, but the reality is, on the ground, one might say, tall buildings only emerge if somebody wants to propose them, to pay for them and to build them. These are very, very difficult things to do. They take years to do. This is not some frivolous, aesthetic exercise, this is massive investment in time and resources and technology, and we think that that is the spirit in which these things should be judged, not as a kind of "What is the measure of the diameter of the dot on the bow tie?"

  572. Sir Neil, do you want a very brief last word?
  (Sir Neil Cossons) In listing, what has happened, I think, is a proper process for which English Heritage is the Government's lead adviser. By listing, I do not think there is any supposition that that restricts our ability to create better things for tomorrow. On the contrary, it seems to me that the process of listing, which, as I said before, is one of signalling what is relevant and important to us, is a means by which we can think about and plan the future and ensure that there is good architecture, and that there are good buildings in the right place. Clearly, in the right circumstances, tall buildings can have inspirational qualities and values that add to city-scapes. Equally, one takes Ken Livingstone's evidence to you that the large proportion of applications that come to him are not tall buildings—300 plus of them—and the quality of the architecture in most cases is abysmal. So it seems to me that if CABE is going to be the champion of tall buildings—and there is nothing wrong in that, as long as the debate about where those are built is properly played out—there is a desperate need to ensure that what will be the large majority of buildings that come forward in London and other cities in the future are well-designed.

  Mrs Dunwoody: We should start by planning a new group of architects?


  573. You never thought you would get the last word! Can I thank you very much indeed.
  (Mr Finch) Thank you.

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