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If you don’t like the view, plant a tree – instead of wasting vast amounts of public money

There is a diagonal view from a tiny part of Parliament Square which would allow you to see the Chipperfield tower, writes Paul Finch

Are we doomed to another public inquiry into a major commercial property development in London because of its ‘view impact’? That is what Westminster Council and English Heritage (EH) are hoping with their legal action over a proposed office and residential design by David Chipperfield next to Waterloo Station.

I should immediately declare an interest, since I was on the selection panel for the design team, chosen as a result of an invited competition organised by the joint-venture client, Chelsfield and London & Regional Properties. The finalist practices were Chipperfield, Grimshaw and Hopkins. The resulting design was approved by Lambeth Council and supported by the Mayor of London. The Secretary of State responsible for planning, Eric Pickles, reviewed the permission and determined that it was a local matter and that there was no reason for him to intervene, though he was lobbied by Westminster, EH and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

Pickles’ decision is now the subject of a judicial review application, partly based on government documents related to the decision being heavily ‘redacted’. This information was revealed by EH chief executive Simon Thurley, when he spoke at the Council for Tall Buildings & Urban Heritage conference earlier this month. This might explain why EH and Westminster, both closely linked to government, and in the case of Westminster to the Conservative Party, would feel confident enough to risk Whitehall’s wrath by going to court.

But the fundamental reason for objection concerns heritage. There is a diagonal view from a tiny part of Parliament Square (about 8 per cent) which would allow you to see the proposed development. If you chose to stand from the correct angle to be offended, you would see the Chipperfield building and the Palace of Westminster simultaneously. It is claimed that this would wreck your appreciation of a World Heritage site, thereby upsetting not just you, Westminster and EH, but also Unesco, which of course dictates what buildings and sites carry this travel agent-friendly soubriquet.

Waterloo

For reasons I imagine he now regrets, Mayor Boris Johnson accepted that the view in question should be included in recent revisions to the London View Management Framework, thereby giving it protected status. This protection is by no means absolute: it is the view equivalent of a listed building, that is to say not to be interfered with willy-nilly, but not preserved in aspic, either. It cannot be denied that it is thought to have some importance.

What happens next will be a matter for the courts. The offensive idea that north London boroughs can dictate to poorer cousins south of the Thames what can and can’t be permitted will be given support by those with an animus against any commercial development.

Much-needed job creation at Waterloo will be further delayed for aesthetic reasons, even though you will still be able to see the Millennium Eye hovering over the Palace of Westminster from multiple views, indicating that modernity is still with us.

There is, in fact, a simple way to save vast amounts of public money being wasted on a court action and public inquiry, which is to install a tree to mask the view that is giving a handful of people the vapours. There is a precedent: when Westminster and EH opposed Heron Tower, they chopped (sorry ‘pollarded’) trees along Embankment, thereby opening up a view they said would be ruined if the tower went ahead. This time they could try the reverse. We could then welcome the demolition of the existing building on the Waterloo site, Elizabeth House, designed by that half-forgotten symbol of another architectural age, John Poulson.

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