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City fears precedent set over blocked Foster tower

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Foster & Partners' plans to erect a 41-storey cigar-shaped skyscraper in the City were last week blocked at the last minute by environment secretary John Prescott. Now the Corporation of London is worried that Prescott's action will set a dangerous precedent and deter other companies from choosing the Square Mile for ambitious architecture or as a location, instead of rivals like Frankfurt and even Docklands.

The design for a new headquarters for the world's second largest reinsurer, Swiss Re, now faces the prospect of an environmental impact study and a public inquiry which could delay planning consent for months. Last Wednesday Prescott demanded a freeze on the planning application only hours before a planning committee was due to recommend the design to City leaders.

The committee was told to wait while Prescott mulls whether to order a full environmental impact assessment (eia) on the building and whether to launch a full scale public inquiry. No eia has been conducted although the development team had offered to do so on two occasions.

The Corporation of London's planning and transportation committee chairman Stuart Fraser told the aj his department will lobby politicians on the importance of the building for London and that is is anxious that Swiss Re will look elsewhere to solve its property problems, given this 'tremendous delay.'

'I think it's a stunning building' he said. 'We've got the world's best architects and you've got to take a bit of a risk if you're going to have interesting buildings. We want tall buildings of about that size and that kind of architectural significance - that's what we want on the skyline.'

Prescott now has three weeks to decide whether to order the report.

'We were surprised and disappointed at his decision as this will mean a delay,' a spokesman for Kvaerner and Swiss Re said. 'But we haven't changed our minds about the Foster scheme.' Architects at Foster & Partners declined to comment.

Prescott's late intervention came after the Baltic Exchange wrote to the detr and the High Court asking for a halt on the plans which would demolish its former headquarters at St Mary Axe.

The Baltic Exchange believes that the original Grade II-listed Exchange building, damaged by an ira bomb, should be rebuilt in any redevelopment. More than £4 million has already been spent on salvaging parts of the building.

An earlier planning permission was awarded which demanded that the original building be retained. But the Baltic Exchange is now upset that the Kvaerner/Foster development is being backed despite its plan to demolish the old exchange.

'This is an issue of principle and consistency,' an Exchange spokesman said.

But site owner Kvaerner also claims that the exchange wanted up to £5 million cash in order to keep quiet about its objection.

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