By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

HAS TOWER POWER MET ITS MATCH?

AGENDA

'That seems like a trend to me', one seasoned observer of the planning scene put it, raising an eyebrow quizzically. 'Perhaps it's the beginning of the backlash'.

This 'trend' amounts to two planning decisions by Ruth Kelly, who, as Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government, took over the final power of life and death over projects from John Prescott earlier this year.

Kelly - who can hardly be said to have had a wildly successful time as Secretary of State for Education, with controversy over sex offenders and trust schools - vetoed Brunswick Tower in Liverpool by Ian Simpson Architects a fortnight ago (AJ 23.11.06) and called in Rafael Viñoly's Fenchurch Street tower in London last week.

What makes these decisions so notable is that with Brunswick the planning inspector had recommended approval - Kelly had to go out on a limb to kill it off - and with the capital's 'walkie-talkie tower' everyone expected her to simply nod it through. It is understood that not even English Heritage (EH) had asked for an inquiry.

Even more interesting, though, is that two experienced observers have told the AJ that they are convinced Prescott would have signed both projects off in the blink of an eye.

It is understood that Viñoly's developer, Land Securities, also shared this opinion, and when it received notice of the inquiry, it reacted with 'bafement'.

After all it is well documented that Prescott loved tall buildings and believed, in a 'white heat of technology' kind of way, that Britain needed more if it was to be seen as a modern, young and vibrant country.

Don't forget that it was Hull's favourite son who approved Broadway Malyan's Vauxhall Tower in South London, despite it being rejected by Lambeth Council and recommended for rejection by a planning inspector.

All this must, of course, come with a caveat. It is undeniably speculative to suggest that everything has changed with the arrival of Kelly - this is based simply on two apparently separate planning decisions.

But it is still important to attempt to work out what is going on. Because if it turns out Kelly is no fan of skyscrapers, then a very significant status quo, one that has governed major parts of the development world for a number of years, is going to be upset.

For at long time now, it has been accepted that Prescott, with the help of London Mayor Ken Livingstone and everyone's favourite design watchdog CABE, desired more and more tall buildings.

If you were a developer with one of these super structures up your sleeve, any decent planning advisor would tell you all you needed was to get the local council on-side and overcome an increasingly toothless EH.

This is exactly what appeared to be happening with the walkie-talkie until Kelly stepped in to the melee.

Imagine, if you will, that this is the pendulum swinging back the other way. If it does indeed emerge that Kelly is more cynical about building tall than her predecessor, then it would re-energise the conservation lobby and give added credence to the many 'conservative' elements in local government. Planners from the likes of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea would be in the ascendancy.

Certainly it could make a real difference to EH. Ever since the appointment of Simon Thurley as its 'groovy young chief executive' in 2002, EH has attempted to project a less combative stance towards developers. Indeed it even jointly produced a document with CABE on where and when skyscrapers would be a good idea.

There can be little doubt that this was because of Prescott and a sense that as a government-sponsored quango it could no longer afford to swim against the tide.

It is well documented that there are many within EH who believe it should have been taking a more traditional stance on the prospect of a forest of mega-structures.

There is, however, an added element to this story, and that is the recent involvement of UNESCO's inspection team. They visited Blighty last month and started making a lot of noises about planned new developments that would neighbour the UK's healthy stock of World Heritage Sites.

They came to Liverpool and they came to London, and they caused quite a stir.

While World Heritage status has no formal position in the English planning system, UNESCO has the kind of gravitas that would make career politicians sit up and take note.

Most telling is that both Kelly's letters - regarding Brunswick and Fenchurch - make reference to World Heritage Sites: Liverpool's docklands and the Tower of London.

It's not as if Viñoly's plans are right on the eastern boundary of the City looming over the tower, is it?

If Kelly's appointment does represent the sea-change that many fear, then there is, it seems, every chance we could be in for an interesting few months.

Everything that everyone believed was settled could now be upset. Hold on, this could be an entertaining ride.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters