Planning Policy (Tall Buildings)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 29th April 2009.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 4:00 pm, 29th April 2009

I am grateful for this chance to express my concerns about—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House

On resuming—

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

I shall try again, Mr. Benton. I am grateful for this opportunity to express my concern about the rash of planning applications for tall buildings in my part of London. I am talking not about what we usually mean by tall buildings—10, 15 or 20 storeys high—but about buildings of 40, 50 or even 100 storeys. I am not talking either about central London, where there are already clusters of tall buildings such as those in the City, or about Docklands or Croydon.

There are applications in almost every shopping centre in my borough. Some people believe that we need not worry about such schemes, because the recession will put paid to them, but that may not be so. Developers have stopped work on some small and medium-sized schemes, but they seem to be forging ahead with big schemes that take three or four years to build, presumably on the basis that the recession will be over long before completion.

One developer in my part of London is planning to erect two towers, one of 32 storeys and the other of 42 storeys, on the former site of Young's brewery in Wandsworth, and another is planning to erect two towers, both of 42 storeys, next to Clapham Junction station. The tallest buildings in my area are 1960s tower blocks on estates, which many people believe were a mistake and should not be repeated, but the planned towers will be double their height and six or seven times the height of the department store in our shopping centre, and they will dwarf the adjoining terraces of two or three-storey Victorian houses.

The new owners of Battersea power station went even further with a proposal for a 300 m glass tower, equivalent to 100 storeys, which would have been the tallest building in Europe. Fortunately, it fell foul of the long-standing rule that no building should be allowed to spoil the view of the Houses of Parliament from Westminster bridge. I am sure that the Minister knows that Wordsworth wrote:

"Earth has not anything to show more fair" than the view from Westminster bridge. We may have him to thank for the fact that the owners of Battersea power station were forced to rethink their scheme, reducing its height from 100 storeys to about 13. They say that they have been able to redesign it so that it will be no worse than the original plan; in my view, it will be a lot better.

Battersea power station is in the Vauxhall Nine Elms opportunity area, which already has a cluster of tall buildings and is arguably in central London. I am prepared to accept that different rules should apply in the City, Canary Wharf, perhaps in Blackfriars just across from the City where the Secretary of State has just approved a couple of tall buildings, and in Vauxhall, but I do not accept that individual tall buildings should be pepper-potted around London next to Edwardian, Victorian and even Georgian streets and town centres.

I realise that Ministers are more likely to be familiar with central London, but Wandsworth, where my constituency lies, is as far from the City of London as Stockton is from Hartlepool or, in the case of the Secretary of State, as far as Eccles is from central Manchester. No one could argue—I am sure that Ministers could not do so—that heights that are acceptable in the City should, by the same token, be acceptable in Wandsworth.

Wandsworth planning committee passed the Young's brewery scheme although 71 of the 90 public responses were opposed to it. I cannot think what possessed it to do so. English Heritage was against it, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was against it, and both said that there should be a tall buildings strategy for the whole of Wandsworth, which there is not. All the local amenity societies were against it. The Wandsworth Society brought a deputation to the committee to argue against it. The society, which comprises sensitive, thoughtful and civic-minded people, believes that, at least in the Wandsworth context, any building over five or six storeys should be considered tall and that there should be a presumption against its construction. However, the seven Conservative members of the committee all supported the scheme and only my two Labour colleagues opposed it.

I wrote to the Minister to say that I thought that the approval was wrong and the application should be called in, on the ground of excessive height and on the ground that at the last moment Wandsworth agreed to reduce the proportion of affordable housing from 33 per cent. to only 11 per cent. I know that the Secretary of State uses only very rarely her powers to call in planning applications—I believe that there were only 27 call-ins in the whole country last year. In London, where the Mayor now has powers to refuse, there is even more reason for her to use the powers only in exceptional cases.

Fortunately, that was one of the rare cases in which the Minister agreed that the scheme needed another look, on quite a number of grounds, and there will now be a public inquiry, which I very much welcome. I know that the Minister is unable to comment on the scheme, because the final decision will rest with him or his Department, but I congratulate him on his perspicacity and judgment in making use of the powers on this occasion.

A huge campaign is under way to stop the towers at Clapham Junction. People feel that they would look completely out of place in a Victorian town centre, where all the buildings have between four and seven storeys. The Clapham Junction Action Group has been set up and is fighting a spirited campaign. The theme of the campaign is that we want to keep our town centre on a human scale. We have 614 objectors on the planning department website so far and we are aiming for 1,000.

I accept that that is a local issue. My concern in this debate is with the wider issue of tall buildings and planning policy. Recent changes in planning policy, moving away from height and density guidelines and judging each planning application as a whole, have had unintended consequences with which we are only now getting to grips.

First, if there are no height and density guidelines, how does a developer know how much to pay for a site? He does not even know how many flats he will be allowed to build. He has to second-guess the decision of the planning committee, which may be two years down the line. Minerva, the company that bought the Young's Brewery site, paid £69 million. I have no argument with the company, which has devised a very sensitive scheme that retains the old brewery beam engine and coppers at one end of the site, but it says that that must be paid for and the price is a 42-storey block. To my mind, that is the wrong way to do it. The developer should be told how many flats he will be allowed to build. That will give him certainty. He already has enough uncertainty because of fluctuations in the price of property.

Secondly, developers should be told exactly where tall buildings will and will not be allowed. If the policy is to confine tower blocks to clusters, which I would support, they should be told exactly where they are. If the policy is to allow landmark buildings, they should be told where those landmarks can be. We must not leave every developer to argue that his building is a landmark, because believe you me, they all will.

Scrapping the height and density guidelines has been a disaster. It means that architects compete against one another to build the tallest towers, instead of complementing one another in the creation of an attractive townscape. It means that developers pay too much for sites and then "have to" build high to recover their outlay. The public feel that they are being blackmailed by developers, who will build something good only if we also allow them to build something monstrous behind it.

I want to strike a blow not just against towers in my constituency—Mr. Field has a similar problem across the river—but against the whole idea that we can improve our cities by building high. Paris, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Prague and St. Petersburg—there may be others—all consign their tall buildings to defined areas. The result is cities that are elegant, atmospheric and economically successful.

Much as I admired the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, for his policies on public transport—he gave me four new bus routes in my constituency, which I cannot complain about—and for his investment in neighbourhood policing, I did not always see eye to eye with him on planning matters. In his "Interim strategic planning guidance", issued in 2001, he described how Paris banishes tall buildings to peripheral locations, such as La Défense, and he went on to say:

"But these cities pay an economic price for their largely heritage-based policies. They can beat London in the 'city as a museum' stakes, but are not in the same league in the...financial, insurance, trading, banking...and legal markets."

I have to say that Boris is no better. In fact, in one respect, he is much worse because before his election he gave everyone to believe that he was against tall buildings, but what has he done since? He may have taken a few right decisions in central London, including on Battersea power station, which I have mentioned, but in places such as Wandsworth and Clapham Junction, he has betrayed the expectations of his voters by approving 42-storey blocks in totally inappropriate places. That is made worse by the fact that he has the power—we gave it to him—to direct refusal or to take an application over, but has never used it.

To return to Ken, he is talking total rubbish when he suggests that cities have a choice to make between being beautiful cities and being successful cities. There may be many other factors in what makes a successful city, but being beautiful is definitely a plus factor, not a minus factor. One of the beauties of London is that it is a largely horizontal city. Most people live in houses with gardens at the front and back, and they are happier to travel a few minutes further on the train than a bit further up in a lift. In other words, they prefer to live out in the suburbs than in very high tower blocks in the city centre.

In any case, as English Heritage pointed out in its document entitled "Changing London: An historic city for a modern world",

"Successive studies have concluded that tall buildings are not necessary for the future of London as a global financial centre and that there is no evidence that London will lose jobs to other cities without them. London has flourished as a World City in the past 20 years by building medium- and low-rise. By comparison, an enthusiastic policy for tall buildings in Frankfurt has not prevented the steady seepage of German business headquarters to London."

I say bring back the height guidelines. That will give developers the certainty that they need to plan; it will give architects the discipline that they need to flourish; and it will give the public the reassurance of knowing that their local planning committee will not allow a 42-storey tower to be built around the corner from their house.

I am now speaking in one of London's most beautiful buildings. Let us remember what Wordsworth said about people who do not appreciate it:

"Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty".

I look to the Minister and the Secretary of State to hold the line against tower blocks in inappropriate places by, wherever necessary, calling in applications and using their good sense when making decisions. I also look to them in the longer term and, indeed, in the London plan review, which I understand is now going on, to reconsider and perhaps recast the planning system, which is driving developers, architects and their retinues of public relations consultants—every development now comes with a public relations consultant, who is assiduous in persuading people to put in positive comments—to push for ever taller buildings in ever more inappropriate places.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 4:29 pm, 29th April 2009

I apologise for not being present at the outset of this important but short debate. I was expecting a second Division in the House. Obviously, Government Members had more of an inkling of what was likely to happen in the vote on the Gurkhas.

I congratulate Martin Linton on bringing this important issue to the fore. I share his view that there is a risk of tall buildings being erected piecemeal, particularly at riverside or near riverside locations, in such a way that they blight the ambience of the river and of our capital city. That would be to the detriment of my own constituency districts.

I shall just say a few words, because we would obviously like to hear the Minister's response to the debate. Under current legislation and guidance, suitable locations for tall buildings include part of London's central activity zone. In fairness to what the hon. Gentleman was saying about London as a commercial centre, we have had the benefit of Canary Wharf emerging during the past two decades with some large buildings that, none the less, are in keeping with a financial district located away from the historical centre of our City. However, the whole of the City of London itself is within that central activity zone and its role as a business cluster means that parts of the City are considered suitable for tall buildings.

The City of London's own unitary development plan goes back seven years. It has a policy to permit high buildings where they would enhance the City skyline and not adversely affect to an unacceptable degree the character or amenities of the surroundings or the environment. In practice, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, that means that there is the greatest potential for new tall buildings where they consolidate an existing cluster—in the context of the City, such places include Bishopsgate and the Leadenhall market area.

I very much endorse what the hon. Gentleman said, particularly if we compare the openness of Hyde park with Manhattan in New York City, where Central park is so enclosed by tall buildings on the east and upper west side. Although there are one or two large buildings near Hyde park—the Hilton hotel on Park lane, for example—I think that even many New Yorkers would agree that the ambience is much better.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that the new Mayor of London is committed to revising the London view management framework to strengthen view protection, although I share some of his concerns, particularly about a 42-storey building in an area such as Clapham Junction. Whether there will be a robust funding package to enable such a building to be built is perhaps another matter, but we hope that the Mayor of London, of whatever colour, will use his powers and work closely with the local boroughs to maintain some of the brilliance of London, without having a huge number of tall buildings.

It is perhaps ironic that the only hon. Member awaiting his turn to speak later is Mr. Pelling. There is a large, downtown commercial district in the middle of Croydon. With the greatest respect for his constituency, I am sure that he will not mind if I re-tell a brief conversation that I had with the hon. Member for Battersea in a lift 48 hours ago, in which I agreed with him that we do not want too many Croydon clustered all over London. Perhaps that would also undermine to a large extent some of Croydon's unique outlook and commercial position outside the centre of our capital city.

I shall now bring my comments to a close because I appreciate that times moves on, and that we are interested to hear, from the perspective of sunny and low-rise Hartlepool, what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 4:33 pm, 29th April 2009

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, presiding over us. I always enjoy debates when you are in the Chair. I remember, with affection, the Housing and Regeneration Bill a year or two ago.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Martin Linton on securing this important debate on planning policy for tall buildings. The thing that strikes me not only in this debate, but elsewhere, is what a fantastic and assiduous campaigner he is on behalf of his constituents. He has reaped awards during his time in the House and, frankly, his constituents are lucky to have him.

I want to address the concerns raised by my hon. Friend and Mr. Field on the framework for decision making about tall buildings, specifically with regard to local planning authorities in London. As the hon. Gentleman has said, Hartlepool is somewhat low rise in its buildings although, I hasten to add, not low rise in its ambitions. I wish to point out what guidance is available to help planners throughout the country. My hon. Friend drew attention to several planning proposals for tall buildings in his constituency and elsewhere. I know that he understands the position, because he alluded in his contribution to the fact that the Secretary of State's formal role in the planning process means that I cannot possibly comment on specific proposals. However, I hope that my general remarks will be useful.

There is a no legal definition of a tall building. That is not as stupid as it sounds, because a 10-storey building in a mainly two-storey neighbourhood, for example, would clearly be thought of as tall, but in the centre of a large city it may not be. Consideration of tall buildings needs to be made with reference to their location, but I take my hon. Friend's point that many recent proposals have been for very large structures, visible from neighbouring boroughs.

I assure my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that the Government are very much aware of the risk that poorly sited towers can bring. Existing streets, public spaces and buildings provide an historical and cultural context, nurturing local pride, that important sense of place and, above all, a human scale—the phrase I think that my hon. Friend used—as the backdrop to our lives. Townscape can also help people feel a sense of ownership—of somehow being at home in the places where they live, shop and work. That does not necessarily mean that we should not allow our cities to grow. We must acknowledge that economic prosperity is important. Cities can change, evolve and develop through new development, and, in the right place, that may include tall buildings.

Let me set out the planning framework within which an application for a tall building must be considered. First, at a strategic level, policy on tall buildings, as my hon. Friend has said, is the responsibility of the Mayor of London. The London plan identifies broad locations where tall buildings may be suitable, and it also includes policies on intensity of site use. Policy 3A.3 in the London plan, on "Maximising the potential of sites", states:

"The Mayor will, and boroughs should, ensure that development proposals" for each site

"achieve the maximum intensity of use compatible with local context, the design principles in Policy 4B.1 and with public transport capacity. Boroughs should develop residential density policies in their" development plan documents "in line with" the policy in the London plan and should

"adopt the residential density ranges set out in" what is known as a density matrix table, which is also included in the London plan. The policy adds, quite firmly—my hon. Friend has alluded to this—that the Mayor has the power to

"refuse permission for strategic referrals that, taking into account context and potential transport capacity, under-use the potential of the site."

I now turn to the role of the local planning authority, which is very much in the driving seat in terms of the vision of and ambition for what an area will look like. Boroughs prepare site-specific policies in their development plan documents. It is not expected that rigid height limits for specific locations should be included in local development frameworks. Instead, core strategies should contain broader policy that sets guidance for development in an area. The London plan includes criteria and a set of considerations to help boroughs identify suitable sites for tall buildings and to assess the design and impact of such buildings.

There is no requirement for local policies slavishly to repeat regional ones, such as those in the local plan. Local distinctiveness and variation are to be prized and utilised. However, the borough's development plan must generally conform with the regional plan. Within the framework of criteria in the London plan, each local planning authority can define what a tall building is in that particular local context. For example, it may define suitable heights in relation to surrounding buildings and acceptable impacts on the skyline. However, I do not think that it would be appropriate to take a blanket approach across the whole borough and to seek to impose height restrictions that cannot be justified. Rather, it is right that a borough must set out, as part of its spatial strategy, appropriate locations for tall buildings.

To achieve that, the local planning authority must prepare a core strategy, which might incorporate a working definition of a tall building and indicate which locations could be appropriate in that particular area or what other factors would need to be taken into account, such as access to public transport. There may also be a requirement in terms of the benefits that a tall building should offer, whether regeneration, affordable housing—a matter of some concern and passion to my hon. Friend—or some other public good that could be solved by sound design, planning conditions or a section 106 agreement with the developer. If desired, detailed criteria for assessing the design and impact of tall buildings can be incorporated in a local authority's development management document.

Within that broad strategic confine, on every single individual planning application, the views of local people must be invited and given serious consideration. Every site is unique and the planning system requires each case to be assessed on its own merits and on how the particular application is consistent with the borough's core strategy and local development framework. Decision makers may wish to consider whether, in the circumstances of a particular application, it would be reasonable to require planning benefits from a development being proposed.

I have mentioned section 106. Perhaps a section 106 agreement with the developer, or conditions imposed on the permission, could require investment in public transport in the vicinity, or a stipulated proportion of affordable housing to be included in a residential development. Of course, the local planning authority has the power to refuse an application that does not come up to such expectations, provided that its views are robust and backed by evidence, as set out in its core strategy.

I have mentioned the local planning authority, which is in the driving seat when it comes to determining what an area should look like. I have also mentioned local government and the Mayor of London. Let me now turn to the central Government's role. I want to mention two specific areas where I think that the Government can be involved, namely call-in and providing advice and guidance.

In certain circumstances, the Secretary of State has the power to call in individual planning applications for tall buildings—for her own decision to be made after a public local inquiry. My hon. Friend has already mentioned called-in decisions made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and he knows—I reiterate—that I cannot possibly comment on those. But earlier this month, my Department issued a new circular that sets out the circumstances in which the Secretary of State should be consulted on whether to call in a planning application. It includes new criteria in respect of development that threatens a world heritage site.

Let me turn to the second point, which is guidance. I draw the attention of hon. Members present to several items of guidance that planners should pay heed to when they receive an application to build tall. The first is planning policy statement 1, on delivering sustainable development. The guidance is very firm that any proposal to construct a tall building should be evaluated in the light of the general design and planning principles set out in PPS1. Paragraph 34 of the statement makes it very clear that

"Design which is inappropriate in its context, or which fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions, should not be accepted."

That key test applies to all development proposals, including tall buildings.

The second item is "Guidance on tall buildings". The Government strongly endorse the messages in the revised guidance, which the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Heritage issued together in 2007, called "Guidance on tall buildings". The guidance should be given serious and careful attention by all those designing tall buildings and considering their location. It is a vital complement to national planning guidance, and is likely to be an important—I stress the word important—material consideration for local planning authorities or planning inspectors in cases that involve tall buildings.

My hon. Friend may wish to note that the Secretary of State has always referred to that guidance in determining recent called-in proposals for tall buildings.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

The Minister has touched on world heritage sites, which have great relevance here in central London, particularly in relation to the Tower of London, the Palace of Westminster and, maybe in future years, either the Battersea power station or the new US embassy, which will be in the constituency of the hon. Member for Battersea. UNESCO has expressed some grave concerns that the Government need to strengthen protection. Does the Minister agree that strengthened policy protection for our world heritage sites, particularly here in central London, could help constrain to the proliferation of tall buildings?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has raised a valid point. Time is against me, but I want to emphasise how much value I give to world heritage sites and protected views. I am aware that the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea does not have a protected view or a world heritage site yet, and it is crossed only by one protected view corridor, which is very important in considering tall buildings.

That brings me on to my third point regarding policy guidance, which is about planning policy guidance.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

I seek an assurance from the Minister. I appreciate the importance of world heritage sites in planning. But there are many areas—Clapham junction being a good example—which have a Victorian town centre that is not historic, but nevertheless has a coherence and is loved by people who live in it. It would be just as badly affected by an inappropriate tower block as a world heritage site. Is the system not capable of looking beyond world heritage sites at town centres that have a particular character?

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. Time is up.