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29 Apr 2009 : Column 302WH—continued

3.38 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Liam Byrne): I want to start by congratulating all right hon. and hon. Members here this afternoon on what has been an extraordinary debate, which has represented what is best about this House.

Before I reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), Mr. Benton, I hope that you will permit me to say a word or two in his praise. Not only has he shown leadership on this subject, but he has shown leadership in a way that has brought it to national attention, including the attention of Ministers, the Government and this House. My hon. Friend has long taken a personal interest in this subject, and we have corresponded on the matter—sometimes not to his satisfaction—during the past weeks and months. He is the co-author of early-day motion 1175, and he has also worked enormously effectively with his local media. Better still, he has helped other hon. Members to work with their local media, so that some of these stories come to the attention of a much wider audience. I hope that he will persist with such work.

I pay my own tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. The extraordinary work and research that it has done have represented the treasured and sometimes difficult memories of the families involved
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with enormous dignity. The trust has represented, articulated and celebrated those memories with great effectiveness, and by alighting on the inspirational idea of heroes of the holocaust, it has done an incredible job of telling people in modern Britain about the relevance of remembering such terrible experiences. The staff and trustees of the trust should be very proud of what they have achieved in Parliament this afternoon.

What more can I add to what has been said about the holocaust in the debate? Not very much. The population of Jews in pre-war Europe was 9 million and, during the war, 6 million were systematically murdered, along with many others. The Chief Rabbi once said that the deeper one looks into the holocaust, the more one runs the risk of entering a black hole of despair. Yet the holocaust still has much to teach us today in Britain about not just the depths of depravity to which man can sink, but the way in which society, politics, Governments and civil society can miss the warning signs of prejudice and racism. Unfortunately, those lessons are still enormously relevant to Britain today.

Yet when I think about my education, I simply do not believe that the holocaust was a focus and feature of it in the way that it could have been. I remember learning and reading about the holocaust in my brief history lessons, but it was not until I took myself off with a rucksack to the middle east at the age of 19 that my education about the holocaust really began. Like many hon. Members, I can still see the images of what I saw at Yad Vashem in my mind this afternoon, and I can still vividly—all too vividly—remember how I felt walking through that avenue, which celebrates the extraordinary courage of many people who did so much to help to rescue Jews during the holocaust.

That is why, during the past 10 or 11 years, it is right that the Government—and we as a country—have done more to remember the holocaust and to bring its relevance into the modern currency of politics and civil society. Hon. Members have mentioned that yesterday the Prime Minister was at Auschwitz where he said that the UK will permanently support the maintenance and retention of the memorial there. This year, the Government have granted more than £750,000 to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which organises a national Holocaust memorial day. The Government have made more than £1.5 million available to the Holocaust Educational Trust to support its work in raising awareness among younger people of the true horrors of the holocaust. One of the most powerful features of this debate is the personal experiences of right hon. and hon. Members, who not only visited Auschwitz, but had the experience of sharing that education with younger constituents.

Why should we go a stage further and honour heroes of the holocaust? The case for that has not been put better than by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and my hon. Friend. Although the holocaust teaches us about the depths to which man can sink, it also contains some of the best stories of the human spirit. In the midst of such a great crime, a small number of very brave people chose not to stand by, but to act, despite the fact that the consequence for sheltering, aiding or helping Jews to escape was severe.

We have heard the extraordinary story of Jane Haining, who was a missionary working in an orphanage in Hungary and who refused to leave the little Jewish children who were in her care. As a result, she was sent
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to Auschwitz, where she died. We have also heard about the example of June Ravenhall, who was an English woman living in the Netherlands. She hid a Jewish child for, I think, between two and a half and three years. In much of occupied Europe at that time, there was a short supply of food, fuel, and medicines, and the very act of taking somebody in and sheltering them was difficult not just because of the persecution taking place, but because of having to share scarce resources. June Ravenhall took additional risks because I understand that the Jewish child that she sheltered had tuberculosis.

We could also dwell on the other extraordinary stories that we have heard about from right hon. and hon. Members: for example, the stories of Frank Foley, Albert Bedane, Randolph Churchill, Ida and Louise Cook, Charles Coward, Sofka Skipworth and, of course, Princess Alice of Greece. One of the most extraordinary things about those who survived is that they often returned home to lives and communities from which they received no reward or recognition. Even though their stories are today such an extraordinary source of inspiration to us, many of those people did not consider that they had actually done anything out of the ordinary. Surely, such people should be considered one of the proudest aspects of Britain’s war effort during the second world war, and that is why we should be honouring them today.

Another reason for doing so, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), is that honouring those people will help us to teach the lessons of the holocaust when, during the next 20 years, it goes from living history to just history. We need to find ways of helping teachers to communicate the sheer power of what those extraordinary people did. Talking about what they did will help teachers to communicate the wider argument and message that we can still distil and learn from the holocaust.

Let me turn directly to the subject of the early-day motion and the debate that my hon. Friend has initiated this afternoon. We have been following this subject with great attention. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and I believe that it is right to recognise the contribution of holocaust heroes. We have had discussions across Government to examine a number of options, and we have concluded that there is a way forward, although I do not think that the precise way that my hon. Friend suggests in his early-day motion is right.

Let me add two points of clarification to explain why. First, if we take the basic principle that an Order of Knighthood relates to a society of people with the sovereign at its head that is bound together by statutes that define people’s rights and obligations as well as their relationship to the outside world, we can begin to see how my hon. Friend’s suggestion is not precisely the way in which appropriate recognition should be delivered. A dead person can take no place as a member of such a society of the living, and membership of one of the Orders of Chivalry ceases on the death of the appointee. That policy and the associated procedures have been subject to scrutiny several times since what I have outlined was articulated in 1922.

Secondly, it might be helpful if I correct a misapprehension that sometimes creeps into debates on the subject, although I am glad to say that we have not heard it this afternoon. Sometimes the idea of honours and gallantry awards are conflated, but it is important
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to remember that, as the name implies, gallantry awards recognise individuals who have consciously put their lives at risk for the benefit of others, and that, under current procedures, awards are made within just five years of the event concerned.

Therefore, we need to find a different way to honour the people we have heard so much about this afternoon. I am pleased to announce that the Government agree that it is entirely appropriate that we should have a national recognition of the holocaust heroes. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and I can announce that the Government will create an award of recognition for the extraordinary acts of courage shown by a number of British citizens during the second world war in helping many Jews and other persecuted groups to escape from the evils of the holocaust.

I want to discuss the precise dimensions of that award further in meetings with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and other interested parties. I hope to meet the families of the heroes we have discussed, debated and heard so much about this afternoon. I hope that we can proceed in a cross-party way, so I would be grateful for the advice and counsel of Opposition Members and greatly privileged if my hon. Friend joined us in those discussions. We have some ideas about what would constitute a fitting award, but we want to hear the views of the families before developing proposals any further. I hope to have the first of those meetings in the next couple of weeks. I hope that all Members will agree that that will mark a clear recognition of those individuals’ bravery, courage and self-sacrifice, and celebrate the outstanding contributions that they made for humanity and the finest traditions of this country.

In conclusion, I believe that this has been an extraordinary and, in a way, unique debate. I have not been in this House for long, but in the four and a half years since becoming a Member I have not had the privilege of being involved or associated with so powerful a debate. We have taken a vital step forward in honouring the gifts, guts and sheer goodness of those men and women from whom we draw so much inspiration today.

3.52 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Planning Policy (Tall Buildings)

4 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I am grateful for this chance to express my concerns about—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming—

Martin Linton: I shall try again, Mr. Benton. I am grateful for this opportunity to express my concern about the rash of planning applications for tall buildings in my part of London. I am talking not about what we usually mean by tall buildings—10, 15 or 20 storeys high—but about buildings of 40, 50 or even 100 storeys. I am not talking either about central London, where there are already clusters of tall buildings such as those in the City, or about Docklands or Croydon.

There are applications in almost every shopping centre in my borough. Some people believe that we need not worry about such schemes, because the recession will put paid to them, but that may not be so. Developers have stopped work on some small and medium-sized schemes, but they seem to be forging ahead with big schemes that take three or four years to build, presumably on the basis that the recession will be over long before completion.

One developer in my part of London is planning to erect two towers, one of 32 storeys and the other of 42 storeys, on the former site of Young’s brewery in Wandsworth, and another is planning to erect two towers, both of 42 storeys, next to Clapham Junction station. The tallest buildings in my area are 1960s tower blocks on estates, which many people believe were a mistake and should not be repeated, but the planned towers will be double their height and six or seven times the height of the department store in our shopping centre, and they will dwarf the adjoining terraces of two or three-storey Victorian houses.

The new owners of Battersea power station went even further with a proposal for a 300 m glass tower, equivalent to 100 storeys, which would have been the tallest building in Europe. Fortunately, it fell foul of the long-standing rule that no building should be allowed to spoil the view of the Houses of Parliament from Westminster bridge. I am sure that the Minister knows that Wordsworth wrote:

than the view from Westminster bridge. We may have him to thank for the fact that the owners of Battersea power station were forced to rethink their scheme, reducing its height from 100 storeys to about 13. They say that they have been able to redesign it so that it will be no worse than the original plan; in my view, it will be a lot better.

Battersea power station is in the Vauxhall Nine Elms opportunity area, which already has a cluster of tall buildings and is arguably in central London. I am prepared to accept that different rules should apply in the City, Canary Wharf, perhaps in Blackfriars just across from the City where the Secretary of State has just approved a couple of tall buildings, and in Vauxhall,
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but I do not accept that individual tall buildings should be pepper-potted around London next to Edwardian, Victorian and even Georgian streets and town centres.

I realise that Ministers are more likely to be familiar with central London, but Wandsworth, where my constituency lies, is as far from the City of London as Stockton is from Hartlepool or, in the case of the Secretary of State, as far as Eccles is from central Manchester. No one could argue—I am sure that Ministers could not do so—that heights that are acceptable in the City should, by the same token, be acceptable in Wandsworth.

Wandsworth planning committee passed the Young’s brewery scheme although 71 of the 90 public responses were opposed to it. I cannot think what possessed it to do so. English Heritage was against it, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was against it, and both said that there should be a tall buildings strategy for the whole of Wandsworth, which there is not. All the local amenity societies were against it. The Wandsworth Society brought a deputation to the committee to argue against it. The society, which comprises sensitive, thoughtful and civic-minded people, believes that, at least in the Wandsworth context, any building over five or six storeys should be considered tall and that there should be a presumption against its construction. However, the seven Conservative members of the committee all supported the scheme and only my two Labour colleagues opposed it.

I wrote to the Minister to say that I thought that the approval was wrong and the application should be called in, on the ground of excessive height and on the ground that at the last moment Wandsworth agreed to reduce the proportion of affordable housing from 33 per cent. to only 11 per cent. I know that the Secretary of State uses only very rarely her powers to call in planning applications—I believe that there were only 27 call-ins in the whole country last year. In London, where the Mayor now has powers to refuse, there is even more reason for her to use the powers only in exceptional cases.

Fortunately, that was one of the rare cases in which the Minister agreed that the scheme needed another look, on quite a number of grounds, and there will now be a public inquiry, which I very much welcome. I know that the Minister is unable to comment on the scheme, because the final decision will rest with him or his Department, but I congratulate him on his perspicacity and judgment in making use of the powers on this occasion.

A huge campaign is under way to stop the towers at Clapham Junction. People feel that they would look completely out of place in a Victorian town centre, where all the buildings have between four and seven storeys. The Clapham Junction Action Group has been set up and is fighting a spirited campaign. The theme of the campaign is that we want to keep our town centre on a human scale. We have 614 objectors on the planning department website so far and we are aiming for 1,000.

I accept that that is a local issue. My concern in this debate is with the wider issue of tall buildings and planning policy. Recent changes in planning policy, moving away from height and density guidelines and judging each planning application as a whole, have had unintended consequences with which we are only now getting to grips.

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First, if there are no height and density guidelines, how does a developer know how much to pay for a site? He does not even know how many flats he will be allowed to build. He has to second-guess the decision of the planning committee, which may be two years down the line. Minerva, the company that bought the Young’s Brewery site, paid £69 million. I have no argument with the company, which has devised a very sensitive scheme that retains the old brewery beam engine and coppers at one end of the site, but it says that that must be paid for and the price is a 42-storey block. To my mind, that is the wrong way to do it. The developer should be told how many flats he will be allowed to build. That will give him certainty. He already has enough uncertainty because of fluctuations in the price of property.

Secondly, developers should be told exactly where tall buildings will and will not be allowed. If the policy is to confine tower blocks to clusters, which I would support, they should be told exactly where they are. If the policy is to allow landmark buildings, they should be told where those landmarks can be. We must not leave every developer to argue that his building is a landmark, because believe you me, they all will.

Scrapping the height and density guidelines has been a disaster. It means that architects compete against one another to build the tallest towers, instead of complementing one another in the creation of an attractive townscape. It means that developers pay too much for sites and then “have to” build high to recover their outlay. The public feel that they are being blackmailed by developers, who will build something good only if we also allow them to build something monstrous behind it.

I want to strike a blow not just against towers in my constituency—the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has a similar problem across the river—but against the whole idea that we can improve our cities by building high. Paris, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Prague and St. Petersburg—there may be others—all consign their tall buildings to defined areas. The result is cities that are elegant, atmospheric and economically successful.

Much as I admired the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, for his policies on public transport—he gave me four new bus routes in my constituency, which I cannot complain about—and for his investment in neighbourhood policing, I did not always see eye to eye with him on planning matters. In his “Interim strategic planning guidance”, issued in 2001, he described how Paris banishes tall buildings to peripheral locations, such as La Défense, and he went on to say:

I have to say that Boris is no better. In fact, in one respect, he is much worse because before his election he gave everyone to believe that he was against tall buildings, but what has he done since? He may have taken a few right decisions in central London, including on Battersea power station, which I have mentioned, but in places such as Wandsworth and Clapham Junction, he has betrayed the expectations of his voters by approving 42-storey blocks in totally inappropriate places. That is made worse by the fact that he has the power—we gave it to him—to direct refusal or to take an application over, but has never used it.

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To return to Ken, he is talking total rubbish when he suggests that cities have a choice to make between being beautiful cities and being successful cities. There may be many other factors in what makes a successful city, but being beautiful is definitely a plus factor, not a minus factor. One of the beauties of London is that it is a largely horizontal city. Most people live in houses with gardens at the front and back, and they are happier to travel a few minutes further on the train than a bit further up in a lift. In other words, they prefer to live out in the suburbs than in very high tower blocks in the city centre.

In any case, as English Heritage pointed out in its document entitled “Changing London: An historic city for a modern world”,

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