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29 Apr 2009 : Column 309WH—continued

I say bring back the height guidelines. That will give developers the certainty that they need to plan; it will give architects the discipline that they need to flourish; and it will give the public the reassurance of knowing that their local planning committee will not allow a 42-storey tower to be built around the corner from their house.

I am now speaking in one of London’s most beautiful buildings. Let us remember what Wordsworth said about people who do not appreciate it:

I look to the Minister and the Secretary of State to hold the line against tower blocks in inappropriate places by, wherever necessary, calling in applications and using their good sense when making decisions. I also look to them in the longer term and, indeed, in the London plan review, which I understand is now going on, to reconsider and perhaps recast the planning system, which is driving developers, architects and their retinues of public relations consultants—every development now comes with a public relations consultant, who is assiduous in persuading people to put in positive comments—to push for ever taller buildings in ever more inappropriate places.

4.29 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I apologise for not being present at the outset of this important but short debate. I was expecting a second Division in the House. Obviously, Government Members had more of an inkling of what was likely to happen in the vote on the Gurkhas.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on bringing this important issue to the fore. I share his view that there is a risk of tall buildings being erected piecemeal, particularly at riverside or near riverside locations, in such a way that they blight the ambience of the river and of our capital city. That would be to the detriment of my own constituency districts.

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I shall just say a few words, because we would obviously like to hear the Minister’s response to the debate. Under current legislation and guidance, suitable locations for tall buildings include part of London’s central activity zone. In fairness to what the hon. Gentleman was saying about London as a commercial centre, we have had the benefit of Canary Wharf emerging during the past two decades with some large buildings that, none the less, are in keeping with a financial district located away from the historical centre of our City. However, the whole of the City of London itself is within that central activity zone and its role as a business cluster means that parts of the City are considered suitable for tall buildings.

The City of London’s own unitary development plan goes back seven years. It has a policy to permit high buildings where they would enhance the City skyline and not adversely affect to an unacceptable degree the character or amenities of the surroundings or the environment. In practice, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, that means that there is the greatest potential for new tall buildings where they consolidate an existing cluster—in the context of the City, such places include Bishopsgate and the Leadenhall market area.

I very much endorse what the hon. Gentleman said, particularly if we compare the openness of Hyde park with Manhattan in New York City, where Central park is so enclosed by tall buildings on the east and upper west side. Although there are one or two large buildings near Hyde park—the Hilton hotel on Park lane, for example—I think that even many New Yorkers would agree that the ambience is much better.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that the new Mayor of London is committed to revising the London view management framework to strengthen view protection, although I share some of his concerns, particularly about a 42-storey building in an area such as Clapham Junction. Whether there will be a robust funding package to enable such a building to be built is perhaps another matter, but we hope that the Mayor of London, of whatever colour, will use his powers and work closely with the local boroughs to maintain some of the brilliance of London, without having a huge number of tall buildings.

It is perhaps ironic that the only hon. Member awaiting his turn to speak later is the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). There is a large, downtown commercial district in the middle of Croydon. With the greatest respect for his constituency, I am sure that he will not mind if I re-tell a brief conversation that I had with the hon. Member for Battersea in a lift 48 hours ago, in which I agreed with him that we do not want too many Croydon clustered all over London. Perhaps that would also undermine to a large extent some of Croydon’s unique outlook and commercial position outside the centre of our capital city.

I shall now bring my comments to a close because I appreciate that times moves on, and that we are interested to hear, from the perspective of sunny and low-rise Hartlepool, what the Minister has to say.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Benton,
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presiding over us. I always enjoy debates when you are in the Chair. I remember, with affection, the Housing and Regeneration Bill a year or two ago.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) on securing this important debate on planning policy for tall buildings. The thing that strikes me not only in this debate, but elsewhere, is what a fantastic and assiduous campaigner he is on behalf of his constituents. He has reaped awards during his time in the House and, frankly, his constituents are lucky to have him.

I want to address the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on the framework for decision making about tall buildings, specifically with regard to local planning authorities in London. As the hon. Gentleman has said, Hartlepool is somewhat low rise in its buildings although, I hasten to add, not low rise in its ambitions. I wish to point out what guidance is available to help planners throughout the country. My hon. Friend drew attention to several planning proposals for tall buildings in his constituency and elsewhere. I know that he understands the position, because he alluded in his contribution to the fact that the Secretary of State’s formal role in the planning process means that I cannot possibly comment on specific proposals. However, I hope that my general remarks will be useful.

There is a no legal definition of a tall building. That is not as stupid as it sounds, because a 10-storey building in a mainly two-storey neighbourhood, for example, would clearly be thought of as tall, but in the centre of a large city it may not be. Consideration of tall buildings needs to be made with reference to their location, but I take my hon. Friend’s point that many recent proposals have been for very large structures, visible from neighbouring boroughs.

I assure my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that the Government are very much aware of the risk that poorly sited towers can bring. Existing streets, public spaces and buildings provide an historical and cultural context, nurturing local pride, that important sense of place and, above all, a human scale—the phrase I think that my hon. Friend used—as the backdrop to our lives. Townscape can also help people feel a sense of ownership—of somehow being at home in the places where they live, shop and work. That does not necessarily mean that we should not allow our cities to grow. We must acknowledge that economic prosperity is important. Cities can change, evolve and develop through new development, and, in the right place, that may include tall buildings.

Let me set out the planning framework within which an application for a tall building must be considered. First, at a strategic level, policy on tall buildings, as my hon. Friend has said, is the responsibility of the Mayor of London. The London plan identifies broad locations where tall buildings may be suitable, and it also includes policies on intensity of site use. Policy 3A.3 in the London plan, on “Maximising the potential of sites”, states:

for each site

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development plan documents “in line with” the policy in the London plan and should

what is known as a density matrix table, which is also included in the London plan. The policy adds, quite firmly—my hon. Friend has alluded to this—that the Mayor has the power to

I now turn to the role of the local planning authority, which is very much in the driving seat in terms of the vision of and ambition for what an area will look like. Boroughs prepare site-specific policies in their development plan documents. It is not expected that rigid height limits for specific locations should be included in local development frameworks. Instead, core strategies should contain broader policy that sets guidance for development in an area. The London plan includes criteria and a set of considerations to help boroughs identify suitable sites for tall buildings and to assess the design and impact of such buildings.

There is no requirement for local policies slavishly to repeat regional ones, such as those in the local plan. Local distinctiveness and variation are to be prized and utilised. However, the borough’s development plan must generally conform with the regional plan. Within the framework of criteria in the London plan, each local planning authority can define what a tall building is in that particular local context. For example, it may define suitable heights in relation to surrounding buildings and acceptable impacts on the skyline. However, I do not think that it would be appropriate to take a blanket approach across the whole borough and to seek to impose height restrictions that cannot be justified. Rather, it is right that a borough must set out, as part of its spatial strategy, appropriate locations for tall buildings.

To achieve that, the local planning authority must prepare a core strategy, which might incorporate a working definition of a tall building and indicate which locations could be appropriate in that particular area or what other factors would need to be taken into account, such as access to public transport. There may also be a requirement in terms of the benefits that a tall building should offer, whether regeneration, affordable housing—a matter of some concern and passion to my hon. Friend—or some other public good that could be solved by sound design, planning conditions or a section 106 agreement with the developer. If desired, detailed criteria for assessing the design and impact of tall buildings can be incorporated in a local authority’s development management document.

Within that broad strategic confine, on every single individual planning application, the views of local people must be invited and given serious consideration. Every site is unique and the planning system requires each case to be assessed on its own merits and on how the particular application is consistent with the borough’s core strategy and local development framework. Decision makers may wish to consider whether, in the circumstances of a particular application, it would be reasonable to require planning benefits from a development being proposed.

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I have mentioned section 106. Perhaps a section 106 agreement with the developer, or conditions imposed on the permission, could require investment in public transport in the vicinity, or a stipulated proportion of affordable housing to be included in a residential development. Of course, the local planning authority has the power to refuse an application that does not come up to such expectations, provided that its views are robust and backed by evidence, as set out in its core strategy.

I have mentioned the local planning authority, which is in the driving seat when it comes to determining what an area should look like. I have also mentioned local government and the Mayor of London. Let me now turn to the central Government’s role. I want to mention two specific areas where I think that the Government can be involved, namely call-in and providing advice and guidance.

In certain circumstances, the Secretary of State has the power to call in individual planning applications for tall buildings—for her own decision to be made after a public local inquiry. My hon. Friend has already mentioned called-in decisions made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and he knows—I reiterate—that I cannot possibly comment on those. But earlier this month, my Department issued a new circular that sets out the circumstances in which the Secretary of State should be consulted on whether to call in a planning application. It includes new criteria in respect of development that threatens a world heritage site.

Let me turn to the second point, which is guidance. I draw the attention of hon. Members present to several items of guidance that planners should pay heed to when they receive an application to build tall. The first is planning policy statement 1, on delivering sustainable development. The guidance is very firm that any proposal to construct a tall building should be evaluated in the light of the general design and planning principles set out in PPS1. Paragraph 34 of the statement makes it very clear that

That key test applies to all development proposals, including tall buildings.

The second item is “Guidance on tall buildings”. The Government strongly endorse the messages in the revised guidance, which the Commission for Architecture and
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the Built Environment and English Heritage issued together in 2007, called “Guidance on tall buildings”. The guidance should be given serious and careful attention by all those designing tall buildings and considering their location. It is a vital complement to national planning guidance, and is likely to be an important—I stress the word important—material consideration for local planning authorities or planning inspectors in cases that involve tall buildings.

My hon. Friend may wish to note that the Secretary of State has always referred to that guidance in determining recent called-in proposals for tall buildings.

Mr. Mark Field: The Minister has touched on world heritage sites, which have great relevance here in central London, particularly in relation to the Tower of London, the Palace of Westminster and, maybe in future years, either the Battersea power station or the new US embassy, which will be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Battersea. UNESCO has expressed some grave concerns that the Government need to strengthen protection. Does the Minister agree that strengthened policy protection for our world heritage sites, particularly here in central London, could help constrain to the proliferation of tall buildings?

Mr. Wright: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has raised a valid point. Time is against me, but I want to emphasise how much value I give to world heritage sites and protected views. I am aware that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea does not have a protected view or a world heritage site yet, and it is crossed only by one protected view corridor, which is very important in considering tall buildings.

That brings me on to my third point regarding policy guidance, which is about planning policy guidance.

Martin Linton: I seek an assurance from the Minister. I appreciate the importance of world heritage sites in planning. But there are many areas—Clapham junction being a good example—which have a Victorian town centre that is not historic, but nevertheless has a coherence and is loved by people who live in it. It would be just as badly affected by an inappropriate tower block as a world heritage site. Is the system not capable of looking beyond world heritage sites at town centres that have a particular character?

Mr. Wright: Very briefly, my answer is yes.

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Time is up.

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Policing (Croydon)

4.45 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Mr. Benton, this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, and a great pleasure it is, too. I thank Mr. Speaker for selecting this subject for debate and the Minister, who has a busy diary, for spending time to come to answer to this Adjournment debate. I intend to draw attention to the need for a fairer share of London’s policing resources to be allocated to the London borough command, ahead of the upcoming discussion on the resource allocation formula.

It is of the gravest concern to me, and has been for quite a while, that young men have been killed through knife crime on our streets in Croydon. It is incumbent on me to speak up on that issue. I appreciate that these issues are devolved matters and that there is a great responsibility on the Greater London authority, the Mayor of London, the Metropolitan Police Authority, its finance committee and the chair of that committee, Councillor O’Connell, to secure the appropriate resources in respect of the resource allocation formula, which can be difficult.

When I was a London assembly member, a great deal of progress was made via thorough consultation on the operation of the resource allocation formula, and it looked as though there would be an appropriate allocation. However, following the introduction of significant discretion for the commissioner, it is fair to say that the resource allocation formula could not come into effect.

In a way, I am appealing to the Minister for advice as to how best Croydon’s politicians can go about their business in terms of lobbying effectively on resource allocation. Perhaps politicians in the city of Westminster and the London borough of Wandsworth are more effective in terms of lobbying for resources.

There is certainly no discrimination of any kind against Croydon—not in any organised way. However, we see a trend in terms of the funding provided for the council through Government grants. A London government quite reasonably puts an emphasis on resourcing for east London in the context of the Olympics and social deprivation issues. It quite reasonably puts an emphasis on the requirements of central London through the discretionary business rate that will resource Crossrail. In Croydon, our hospital is going through a proposed downgrading, with the acute stroke provision being transferred elsewhere, so it is important for us to be able to lobby effectively for resources in Croydon.

It is important to recognise that, since 1997, and particularly since the introduction of the GLA, there has been a significant investment of resources in policing in London, with a transformation in the number of police officers in the Metropolitan Police Service and on our streets—I am thinking of the organisation of policing and the operation of police community support officers. In Croydon, we are fortunate to operate under an acting borough commander, Adrian Roberts, who is committed to Croydon as part of his job. He operates in such a way as to make the best use of resources. We also benefit from the fact that the borough commander works well with Croydon council and the three safer transport scheme teams that are now in place. Croydon is one of the first boroughs to roll out diamond districts.

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