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Opponents take sides for London tower fight

The public inquiry into Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower begins on 15 April and runs for four weeks. Here Zoë Blackler considers both sides of the argument

During the next four weeks, a case will be heard that will determine the future of London's skyline. Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower - aka Shard of Glass - is on trial by public inquiry. The outcome will determine whether the borough of Southwark will become the site of Europe's tallest tower and a prestigious UK first for superstar Piano. And it will provide a test case into legislation designed to protect the current jewel of London's skyline, St Paul's Cathedral.

The developer behind the 306m skyscraper, Irvine Sellar, has gathered substantial support for his £350 million project. Southwark, which granted permission for the tower in March 2002, is behind him. So is the mayor's office at the GLA (its chief advisor on architecture, Lord Rogers, will tell the inquiry it is a 'true masterpiece') and, apparently, the local population. According to Southwark, not a single individual resident or local business lodged opposition to the plans.

But steadfastly fighting the proposal is the heritage lobby. English Heritage, the government's statutory advisor, is backed by Historic Royal Palaces (owner of the Tower of London) and Camden council, caretaker of Kenwood and Parliament Hills - sites of the two strategic views of St Paul's Cathedral that EH claims are under threat.

Putting the case for EH will be its assistant regional director for London, Nicholas Antram. Antram denies that EH's position grows out of a general antipathy towards tall buildings, pointing out that it supported Foster's Swiss Re and Farrell's Lots Road towers: 'Unfortunately we are cast in the role of being the body that says no. But we frequently enough support exciting modern architecture and we would love to support Piano's building. But we must be bold and say no when we think the harm is too great.'

EH fought and lost the Heron Tower inquiry last year, and Antram is eager to stress that the case against London Bridge is stronger, founded as it is on legally protected, not simply important, views.

Steering a difficult course through the dispute is CABE. The commission's position is a delicate one and hinges on plans for the public realm at ground level - the subject of lastminute intrigue and negotiations. While it would clearly prefer to support a bold piece of modern architecture by an architect of Piano's calibre, it has found itself unable to endorse the scheme fully, without design changes.

The cost of this fight will be substantial.

Estimates place it at £5 million for Sellar and £3 million from the public purse. And Sellar has already pledged £40 million towards improvements to London Bridge station.

But if the tower survives the challenge, and wins over both the planning inspector and secretary of state John Prescott, Sellar's grand projet could begin to take shape late next year.

THE CASE FOR

Supporters of the scheme argue that:

The design of the tower is of exceptionally high quality and will provide a new landmark building for the capital and a dramatic addition to the skyline.

However, CABE has expressed concern about the design at ground floor level and has called for improvements to London Bridge station below the tower and to the surrounding public realm.

London Bridge is an ideal location for a mixed-use, high-density tower that will reinforce the special identity of the area and act as a catalyst for further regeneration.

There are numerous transport links to support the tower's population.

The tower will have a positive impact on London's skyline and will provide a new landmark for the city.

THE CASE AGAINST

English Heritage's case rests on three issues:

Its key concern, and strongest grounds for opposition, is the impact on two of the 10 protected views of St Paul's Cathedral.

However, while the tower will fall within the viewing corridor of the cathedral as seen from Parliament Hill and Kenwood, it falls within the backdrop to the Dome and government policy here (set out in 1991) is unclear. Piano has also reworked the scheme, including 'feathering' the tip of the spire to dilute some of the criticism.

It objects to the impact of the scheme on the listed buildings and surrounding conservation area - the Grade II-listed Guys Hospital, Southwark Cathedral, Tower Bridge and Lambeth Palace.

It claims the scheme will intrude on two of London's World Heritage Sites - the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster.

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