Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships are grateful to my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking for having introduced this important subject at this moment—not only a timely moment; but as he said, a historic moment, because it is taking place before the dread planning decision is issued in its final form. However, I fear with him that it is unlikely to be deflected even by his eloquence, which we heard this evening.

I was chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission for 15 years. In those 15 years I had 15 different Secretaries of State. That had a great advantage because as soon as the reigning Secretary of State had mastered his brief he left and was required to go and pester someone else. That meant that one had a measure of de facto freedom that was most welcome.

However, all the Secretaries of State, particularly my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, were extremely helpful and concerned with the aesthetic values that the Royal Fine Art Commission so coherently and courageously championed. I do not want to repeat my noble friend's points, but skylines and views are crucial in this argument. They are crucial in this case and will remain crucial in the future. We need to raise our voices at every possible opportunity.

The planners have learned nothing about views. Ministers have learned little; certainly the Ministers of the present Government. We still lack a coherent policy on high buildings. Eight years ago the Royal Fine Art Commission published a report on tall buildings in London. I will not ask the Minister whether he has read it; or perhaps I might. Or perhaps it has been kept from him by his civil servants. But this contains the basis of a policy of high buildings in London, which has been ignored by successive governments.

Views are all-important in this city. I am glad to say that the Royal Fine Art Commission of the day—when the then Conservative Government headed by Harold Macmillan was desperately searching for dollars and was pressing for the erection of the Hilton hotel—was the one body that opposed it. If you look
28 Jun 2005 : Column 200
at that building today, you can see that it ruins the proportions of the whole of Mayfair, which had one of the finest townscapes in the world. Wherever you go in Mayfair, if you raise your eyes from pavement level and are lucky enough not to fall into a pothole, and look—

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I hear thunder. Ominous!

Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, it is not ominous at all. It is a sign of heavenly support, and a signal that a telephone call is due—but I cannot delay your Lordships to make one at the moment. I shall make it immediately this discussion is finished.

The other principle that the Royal Fine Art Commission laid down was that no high buildings should be placed around Hyde Park, because once one was built, another would follow, and so on. That is exactly what has happened. Basil Spence's barracks in Hyde Park ruined that park; in fact, he has the distinction of having ruined two parks, because of his Home Office building, which towers above St James's Park.

If you go further round Hyde Park, what do you find—the Royal Lancaster Hotel, as it used to be known, a building of outstanding mediocrity, which is famous for only one thing. When the octogenarian Michael Foot, still happily and mercifully flourishing in Hampstead, arrived in a fainting condition at the door of that hotel, which should never have been built, they refused him entrance. It was shortly after then that they went out of business, which I regard as a very happy conclusion to a moralising tale.

Unfortunately, the buildings have gone on. Take the Regalian building overlooking Kensington Palace. That was opposed by the Royal Fine Art Commission, but there it is—overshadowing another of London's most beautiful spots.

I shall not linger over the London Eye. I believe that my views on the London Eye are probably known by one or two people. It was unanimously opposed by the Royal Fine Art Commission because we thought that it was totally unsuitable to have it overshadowing a world heritage site. That was the very point that was made by my noble friend in his opening speech—that a world heritage site is one to be respected. I have nothing against a London Eye in another position—but not here, towering over this world heritage site and ruining the view from the Horseguards Parade, destroying the proportions of St James's Park. The dying wish of the late Mr Welsh, who was such a distinguished chairman of the Royal Parks Agency, was that it should be stopped. Alas, it has gone on—and now we have the Vauxhall Tower to match it.

Views and spaces are essential. We have still a low and medium skyline, punctuated by occasional high-rise buildings. I am pleased to say that thanks to the initiative of the governor of the Tower of London, a new space has been created so that for the first time for hundreds of years one is able to see the Tower of London as a whole, as it should be seen. The visitors'
28 Jun 2005 : Column 201
centre is tucked away quietly in the corner where it can do useful work and reduce queues and crowds, but the great achievement is the opening of that space. I am glad to say that the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust acknowledged that achievement in its "Buildings of the Year" awards this year.

The Royal Fine Art Commission was swept away by this Government, abolished by a press release. That is a way of behaving that makes even the deprivation of the orthodox Archbishop of London by Constantinople, by fax, for the offence of coveting thrones seem liberal.

The question that we must now ask, which my noble friend touched on, is how this monstrosity got to be built. Another point, besides views and spaces, is the quality of building. Nobody could look at that building for a moment, whether or not they had a tutored eye, without seeing what a horrible construction it is. Now I raise this question—and I want the Minister to reply to this question only, and ignore all the other things that I have said. The reason why that building got planning permission was that there is no independent body to pass judgment on it—and independence can get things done. The Royal Fine Art Commission put an end to the horrific proposal, supported by the big battalions, including the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport at the time, and by the Speaker of the House of Commons, to put a kitsch statue of Sir Walter Ralegh right in front of St Margaret's Westminster—between St Margaret's and the Abbey. The only body to oppose it was the Royal Fine Art Commission.

My noble friend mentioned Mr Livingstone in another context. Mr Livingstone may or may not have crushed developers, but I think that my learned friend has certainly crushed Mr Livingstone tonight. However, he may arise yet again.

I said to the Commissioners, "I will go and give evidence", and I was given a classic Civil Service reply: "You, chairman, give evidence? That would be quite unsuitable". Unsuitable or not, I did. The Speaker sent the Chaplain of the House of Commons along. I am glad to say that, although the Fine Art Commission was abolished—in that extraordinary way—the posthumous triumph was there, because the appeal was allowed and that statue was swept away in potentia and, in Act II, swept away were all the notice boards that had been put up by the dean and chapter.

There has been nobody with an independent judgment here. The Secretary of State has supported this tower. The Deputy Prime Minister has supported this tower. It has been supported by the body set up to succeed the Royal Fine Art Commission as a watchdog.

I now come to my crucial question which I put to the Minister. When will CABE be given independent status? What is it? It is a creature of the department. It is a private company the shares of which are owned by the department, of which the Secretary of State has a golden share enabling him to determine the course of all its decisions. It is not independent. Having raised this matter on various occasions, we were promised that it would be given independence. The whole of the
28 Jun 2005 : Column 202
previous Parliament has gone by, and it is still not an independent body. When will it be so? When do the Government intend to take action on this matter?

Meanwhile, we repeat our deep gratitude to my noble friend for having raised this very important question and for having enabled it to be thoroughly discussed in this House.

8.1 pm

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for introducing this debate on an important point. It is an important point, but I will try to resist as far as I can responding to comments on the inspector's report and the detail of the Secretary of State's response to it.

It is important because it raises a point of principle: how far Parliament should respond, if at all, to a decision which in this case is not a decision of the Executive but a quasi-judicial decision. Although there is much in what the previous two speakers have said with which I agree, that is why I would ask the Minister to resist revisiting—I suppose that means revising or rescinding—the decision.

Criteria are published by the Government for the Secretary of State to "recover jurisdiction", as it is called, and there are criteria for calling in decisions. Those are less precisely defined. The Library found for me a statement of government policy in answer to a Parliamentary Question. It was that the Secretary of State would,

I stress the word "necessary". What is necessary is clearly a matter of judgment.

I share in a great deal of what has been said, but in my view it is important that these decisions are taken at the right level. They are taken in a quasi-judicial manner, though by political bodies. The issue has been raised of whether there should be a separate independent body to look at planning applications. We have that to an extent, of course, in the planning inspectorate.

What we have now is an extra tier of government—a regional tier. Though I am no particular supporter of the current Mayor of London, I shall say a word or two about the importance of having a planning framework for decisions in London. I question whether it was right for Mr Livingstone to spend £96,000 on the appeal. When I, through the mechanism of a formal Question to the Mayor, asked about the cost of his attending MIPIM, the developers' conference in Cannes, the answer that I got back was that it was all right because the London Development Agency paid for it. That did not seem to be an answer.

As politicians, we all strive for accountability and transparency, and so it is right to spell out the criteria on which decisions should be based. That is what we find—maybe not perfectly and maybe we disagree with all or parts of it—in the London plan which, with the Lambeth UDP, is now part of the development plan. I share the regret that Lambeth's view of the design of the tower did not prevail. Its comments in the decision
28 Jun 2005 : Column 203
on the design were firmly rooted in the London plan. It quoted policies in the plan and in its own deposited draft unitary development plan and it commented on the proposed tower not being of sufficiently high quality and the world-class, iconic—there is that word again—standard of architecture required in the location, in view of its inevitable prominence. That is rooted in adopted, progressing, or emerging—as the planners always say—documents. In the case of the London plan, it went through the long and sometimes tedious public inquiry.

We may individually disagree with parts, but it is fair to say that in dealing with tall buildings the London plan included the issue of clusters. Much of what is being complained about is already in the planning framework, and it is often a matter of interpretation. The London Assembly, which I currently chair, would love to control the Mayor, as the invitation was issued earlier, but the legislation setting us up does not allow us to do that. The Mayor is currently consulting on the London view management framework.

I am well aware that the noble Lords who have spoken, and perhaps also other noble Lords, will regard me as a philistine. I am not commenting on the particular design of the building, but it is very much a matter of taste. I am well aware of the views of the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, on the London Eye. I differ from him there. I have come to accept that there is often no single correct view on those matters. It is essential to articulate the reasons for the view—forgive the pun—based on agreed criteria.

I do not know on what technical basis the Government could revisit the decision, but I urge the Minister to decline the invitation, not just because of the merits but because the Secretary of State's decision was taken in a quasi-judicial manner. Although he is assisted in unscrambling some of the difficult issues of affordable housing, which we were left with, the matter is best left back with the local planning authority where it belongs. It looks like the outcome is the one that we all anticipate.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that Parliament should have a particular role regarding height. I agree that the height of buildings, the impact on views in London, and the impact on important areas of London are hugely important issues, but why only height? Many aspects of planning are hugely important, and one of those aspects is affordable housing. I am sorry that I have already taken slightly longer than I intended, but I will use this occasion to raise one related point, regarding the importance of so-called affordable, or social housing.

I understand that in a recent case a judge determined that the value of market housing is diminished by its proximity to social housing. I have not given the Minister notice of this point, but I hope that the Government will consider it seriously. Clearly, much depends on the detail of that case. It would be unfortunate to find ourselves as a society going down the road to accepting that there is something undesirable about social housing.
28 Jun 2005 : Column 204

I cheer myself up by recalling that in the ward that I used to represent there was a wall between an area of private housing—blocks of flats quite tall for the area— and what at the time was a council estate. The private owners had insisted on the wall being erected at the time the council housing was built. They then decided it would be quite nice to have it down. It was the occupiers of the council housing who said they did not want to be in with "that lot", and that they would retain their own independence.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page