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Planning Policy (Tall Buildings)

April 29, 2009

Planning Policy (Tall Buildings)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): 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 the hon. Member for Battersea (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 the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (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.

Mr. Mark Field: 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?

Mr. Wright: 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.