Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

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 work.

  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 hospitals).

  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 townscape.

  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 deals—in effect public sector bribes—is 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.

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