'WALKIE TALKIE' SIGNALS CHANGE
The decision this week (10 July) to allow Rafael Viñoly's controversial 'Walkie Talkie' office block to be built next to the Tower of London is important for two reasons.
First, the verdict effectively sidelines UNESCO in the debate about new developments near World Heritage Sites - a move which could also have an impact on proposed schemes in Liverpool, Bath and Edinburgh.
Secondly, it gives a vital and intriguing insight into the mind of Hazel Blears, the new Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) chief, who took over from Ruth Kelly in Gordon Brown's cabinet reshufe in late June.
The proactive and can-do attitude demonstrated by Blears, even when facing a potential backlash from heritage bodies, contrasts starkly with that of Kelly, who gained something of a reputation for quashing or stalling tall-tower schemes.
Kelly not only called in the Walkie Talkie project, but also derailed Ian Simpson's Brunswick Quay scheme in Liverpool.
The installation of Blears will be welcomed by developers, which are proposing ever taller towers all over London, and the debate will only intensify when the Greater London Authority's new viewing corridors are unveiled tomorrow (13 July).
Viñoly's 155m-high, 39-storey tower split opinion across the capital, and was most famously derided by former RIBA-president George Ferguson, who branded the office project 'one of the ugliest in London'.
Yet the Land Securities scheme, in the City of London's Fenchurch Street, was unanimously given the thumbs-up by CABE, the City Corporation and London Mayor Ken Livingstone.
It was only when United Nations heritage watchdog UNESCO kicked up a fuss about what it regarded as threats to the Tower of London that Kelly decided to call the Walkie Talkie tower in for public inquiry.
Speaking moments after the tower's future was secured, chairman of CABE's design review panel, Paul Finch, said it would have been an injustice if the scheme had been scrapped 'as a result of one organisation's ramblings'.
'The decision shows that the government has taken the view that the planning system's strict controls in respect of conservation matters have been sufficient to deal with these projects without the need for special consultations, ' he said.
Furthermore, Finch believes that if the UNESCO appeal had been upheld, future development in the capital could have been stied.
'If it was agreed that it was somehow wrong for modern architecture to be visible from a World Heritage Site, we would end up putting large chunks of the city in aspic, ' he said.
'This is very, very dangerous. It's like turning the city into a museum.
'My view is that the Tower of London is so robust that it doesn't need anyone else coming along to look after it, ' added Finch.