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Weekend roundup: Court ruling puts Heathrow expansion up in the air

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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Grimshaw’s Heathrow expansion in doubt after court ruling • MIPIM set to brave coronavirus fears • Historic England increases pressure for VAT reform • Traditional Architecture Group to run design review panels

Grimshaw’s £14 billion expansion plan of Heathrow Airport is in doubt after the Court of Appeal ruled that building a third runway would be unlawful on environmental grounds.

The court said the expansion failed to take account of the UK’s commitment to the 2016 Paris climate agreement, which seeks to limit global warming.

Since Boris Johnson has been a long-time opponent of Heathrow’s expansion, the ruling might be quite convenient. Already transport secretary Grant Shapps has said the government will not appeal the court’s decision, though the airport itself has expressed its intention to take its case to the Supreme Court.

Leaving the battle to Heathrow means Johnson can avoid anything as hypocritical as backing the expansion while falling some way short of lying down in front of the bulldozers (either literally or metaphorically), as he pledged to do while he was London mayor.

Now HS2 is going ahead, might the prime minister consider expanding Birmingham Airport, which would only be 45 minutes from London?

In any case, the prime minister’s objections appear to be specifically directed at the Heathrow project rather than the growth of air travel per se. In 2011 he championed building a new airport in the Thames Estuary, nicknamed Boris Island

A detailed proposal was unveiled in 2014, featuring six runways and costing £47 billion – as opposed to the £14 billion currently budgeted for Heathrow. However, it was given short shrift by the Davies commission into airport expansion, which eventually plumped for the Heathrow option.

If the Supreme Court upholds this week’s ruling, will Johnson want to revive his estuary baby? Or, now HS2 is going ahead, might he consider expanding Birmingham Airport, which would only be a 45-minute journey from London once the high-speed line completes? 

Earlier this month, Todd Architects’ plans to expand Bristol Airport were blocked by North Somerset Council on the grounds they were incompatible with combatting the climate crisis. The airport argued that this would simply lead to passengers driving to the London airports, resulting in additional emissions.

Similarly, advocates for Heathrow’s expansion say that if it doesn’t happen, long-haul flights will transfer to Paris, with growth unabated but the UK losing out.

It’s the kind of situation where international cooperation and agreement is urgently needed. Not the best of time then for the UK to be heralding a new age of glorious isolation.

Poll: With Heathrow’s third runway ruled unlawful, what should be the future of UK airport growth?
• Appeal the Heathrow decision
• Expand a different London airport
• Revive the ‘Boris Island’ Thames Estuary proposal
• Drop all airport expansion plans
Vote here

MIPIM takes steps to avoid going viral

Viral cannes mk

Viral cannes mk

Could this year’s MIPIM, the annual property fair held in the south of France, be in trouble amid the growing spread of the coronavirus?

The organisers say it will go ahead, running from 10-13 March, despite concern over the virus and particularly that its Cannes location is only an hour’s drive from Italy, the European country with the most recorded outbreaks. The Cote d’Azur area reported its first case of the virus this week, affecting a woman who had returned from a trip to Italy.

Architects HOK and Austin-Smith:Lord have both announced they will no longer be sending anyone to the fair, citing concerns over staff health and wellbeing; while architectural PR Rob Fiehn questioned practices ‘potentially sending people into a danger zone’.

Are they over-reacting? Italy has around 400 cases of the virus, which in a country of 60 million represent 0.0007 per cent of the population. And MIPIM isn’t even taking place in Italy.

But while it may not be necessary to drastically alter everyday behaviour, is it truly wise to hold an event that involves people coming together from all over Europe – and beyond – to get together with lots of handshaking, shared platters of canapés and general mingling?

The fair’s organisers say they will have a ‘reinforced presence of dedicated medical specialists’ as well as providing hand-gel in all public spaces. And many architects will be anxious not to miss an event that can lead to plenty of new work. But commissions could be thin on the ground if the continent’s property developers are all wiped out in one fell swoop.

Are the days numbered for VAT bias against reuse?

Demolition mk

Demolition mk

Historic England has become the latest organisation to call for an end to the discrepancy whereby the Treasury charges VAT on most retrofits and refurbishments while exempting new builds.

Calls to end this anomaly have been going on for decades, but as the climate emergency becomes ever more pressing, could the government finally decide the situation is no longer tenable?

With the budget just over a week away, Historic England, the government’s heritage adviser, has urged slashing VAT on renovation, arguing that ‘the current application of VAT is a disincentive for the custodians of our historic environment to invest in and care for much-loved homes’.

Its stance follows a similar call from the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which referenced the AJ’s own RetroFirst campaign.

Yet past governments have been reluctant to change the rules, largely because zero-rating all renovation work would lead to a substantial loss of revenue. The other option, to charge a lower rate on all building – both new-build and retrofit – could be revenue neutral, but would no doubt provoke the ire of the volume housebuilders. These firms have significant political clout and would be firmly against a tax that would likely make considerable inroads into their profits.

Nevertheless, the government has recently shown signs of a new willingness to grasp the climate crisis nettle, announcing an end to the sale of domestic coal and wet wood and bringing forward a ban on petrol and diesel cars.

Plus, up to now it has, to an extent, had its room for manoeuvre limited by EU rules. The extent of this restriction has been greatly exaggerated by Brexiteers. The AJ’s interview this week with Belgian design firm Rotor relates that, in Belgium, VAT on housing renovation is 6 per cent, while for new-build it’s 21 per cent.

Nevertheless, it might suit the government very well if, in its first post-Brexit budget, it could proclaim: freed of our EU superstate shackles, we now no longer have to punitively tax retrofit work. 

Time to grapple the real problem: councils’ Modernist bias

Adam housewarwickshire index

Adam housewarwickshire index

Amid efforts to stop the world burning up, some might think that a revival of architectural style wars is slightly missing the point. Not so the Traditional Architecture Group (TAG), which intends to run its own design review panels, in order to tackle the Modernist bias it says is found at most councils.

The group, set up in 2003 by traditional architect Robert Adam, is linked to the RIBA, though the institute stressed that it had not been involved in developing the review panel.

The design review service is being run by US architect Scot Masker, who said people familiar with current panel discussions would recognise a lack of ‘intelligent learned discussion’ of traditional design. He described the existing panels as ‘often a cabal of local design professionals’.

He said TAG’s service would provide councils with ‘in-depth’ knowledge when a traditional design was being considered, adding that ‘many authorities have been very grateful of the service we can provide’.

And he didn’t restrict the panel’s expertise to traditional schemes. ‘If a scheme from a Modernist practice, such as Foster + Partners, were to come before a TAG panel, they would be ‘greatly honoured,’ he said, suggesting that they could provide useful guidance if the scheme was set among listed buildings or a conservation area.

Fosters’ Tulip tower, rejected by the mayor last summer, is proposed for the City of London, which is awash with historic buildings. With its developer set to appeal the rejection, it could certainly be interesting to hear the take of the TAG team.

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