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EH and CABE come out fighting as tall buildings debate rumbles on

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Visiting the Houses of Parliament is rather like boarding an airliner for a long flight. Strict security at every turn and a seven-mile trudge down a long passageway before you get to the departure lounge - or rather the committee room, as was the case in last week's winding up of the urban affairs subcommittee inquiry into tall buildings.

This was a session that quickly devolved into a contest between Jon Rouse and Paul Finch of CABE and Sir Neil Cossons and Philip Davies of English Heritage to see whose organisation could attract the fewest disparaging comments while inflicting the most.

The arbiters of the contest were the sceptical members of the subcommittee who - as experienced politicians will - maintained an attitude of amused tolerance. They variously dismissed CABE as 'a club for modern architects', denounced English Heritage's notorious MORI poll as 'useless' and, finally, savoured the 'irresponsible' status of both organisations as exemplified by English Heritages'discomfiture at a recital of its own inconsistency over current towers - supporting Swiss Re one minute, dismissing Heron the next.Why not the other way round?

Through most of the hour-long encounter, English Heritage was on the defensive. A defence, it must be admitted, that was capably handled by its two unflappable representatives who refused to concede that tall buildings were just small buildings only taller (so their fate could be left in the hands of local authority planners); and who stonewalled doggedly while their notorious MORI poll was treated as a joke; and who straightfacedly proposed a new year-long study to produce 'draft national guidelines for tall buildings'.

Inevitably neither the subcommittee nor the CABE men were satisfied with this, and English Heritage was steadily beaten back to its reserve position, clinging to its self-assumed role as final arbiter of where tall buildings should go and how high they should be - both these powers depending upon acceptance of the legitimacy of the doctrine of strategic views which, added English Heritage, should also be applied to all cities without further delay.

After a time, the argument settled on the surprising subject of what people look at when seated in a pavement cafe - looking up and to the right made you an effete EH person, sensitive to the presence of ill-placed towers. Looking down and to the left made you a tough-minded CABE supporter, gulping down scalding coffee as quickly as possible before hurrying back to work, glancing at tall buildings, if at all, as if they were barometers of the economy (and thus by implication the more of them and the taller they were, the better).

Soon it was time for summing up and the two bodies prepared to deliver their heaviest blows. In a powerful unscripted address, CABE's Paul Finch stressed that today's tall building proposals were overwhelmingly privatesector commercial projects driven not by religious, art historical or social welfare considerations but by demand in the property market for up-todate working buildings. He felt that too little attention was paid to the risk and cost of delay that dogged the development of advanced technology high-rise structures, citing the early vicissitudes of Canary Wharf in this context.

For its own part, English Heritage grudgingly conceded that there was such a thing as a private sector property market, but argued that it could not be allowed to be a free for all. Instead, it must be required to 'play out' its creative acts of entrepreneurial competition within the framework of clear local plans derived from national tall buildings policy guidelines.Whether the idea of such a framework will be deemed necessary by the subcommittee remains to be seen.

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