The tall guys

The ramifications of the inquiry into the proposed Heron Tower are far-reaching for the future of the capital's tall building developments. Eleanor Levenson investigates

It is not quite the Erotic Gherkin, as one planned skyscraper for London has been nicknamed, but the less outrageously named Heron Tower is not without controversy. A planning inquiry into Gerald Ronson's planned development at 110 Bishopsgate is currently underway in front of planning inspector Neil Holt. The result will determine whether the development can go ahead and set a precedent for all future tall buildings being built in London.
Heron Tower, which if given the go-ahead will be the second-tallest tower in the City of London, has broad support from London's mayor Ken Livingstone. “High buildings should be assessed by what they add to the skyline, rather than what they take away,” he is quoted as saying to The Independent newspaper.
Recent tall buildings guidance issued by the mayor highlights the positive benefits of tall buildings in supplying top-quality floorspace and promoting regeneration. He has, though, expressed concern that an adequate package of community benefits be secured if the building is given planning permission.
It is expected that up to 20 tall buildings will be constructed in the next 10-15 years, mostly in concentrated areas such as Canary Wharf and City fringe areas. The mayor, however, also recognises the value of 'landmark' tall buildings which stand alone rather than in clusters.
It is, of course, impossible to consider policy on tall buildings without thinking back to the events of 11 September. Some parties argue that there should be a halt to new tall buildings in London in an attempt to protect the City. The mayor disagrees. “I do believe that lessons can be learnt in the wake of these attacks,” he says. “For example, about the structural integrity, fire prevention measures and evacuation arrangements for tall buildings – and all other buildings where large numbers of people congregate.
“I do not believe that recent events will stem the demand for tall buildings in London as we work during the next 15 years to build office space and other infrastructure that is needed to increase London's competitiveness.”
English Heritage, represented by Bond Pearce at the inquiry, is not opposed to tall buildings in principle, but is opposed to them when the development will affect the surrounding location. “We're extremely concerned about the effect of Heron Tower on the view of St Paul's. It would change the dominance of St Paul's on the skyline,” says an English Heritage spokeswoman. It is also concerned about the effect that the development would have on the area around St Botolph's Church and the conservation area around Middlesex Street.
Bond Pearce partner Marcus Trinick is leading the team along with English Heritage head of legal Nigel Hewitson. English Heritage will not comment on what its course of action will be if the inquiry finds against it. Norton Rose is also on the English Heritage panel of preferred law firms and does much of its legal work in London. However, the Norton Rose offices are on the site of the proposed tower and will be demolished if the development is approved; therefore, a conflict of interest prevents it from being involved with the inquiry.
English Heritage is in opposition with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) over this. Cabe is a non-statutory executive non-departmental public body, established by the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, in August 1999. It is funded by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Its purpose is to promote high standards in the design of buildings and the spaces between them. Herbert Smith is advising Cabe, with partner Patrick Robinson leading the team aided by assistant Fiona Macdonald and trainee Robert Moore.
In June 2001, English Heritage and Cabe jointly published a consultation paper entitled 'Guidance on Tall Buildings'. Both organisations acknowledged that “in the right place, tall buildings can make positive contributions to city life”, although it went on to say: “By virtue of their size and prominence, such buildings can also harm the qualities that people value about a place.”
The publication acknowledged that English Heritage and Cabe would not always have identical views about particular proposals. This has certainly happened over the Heron Tower development. While English Heritage is against the proposals, Cabe's design review committee has supported the amended design for the tower. Cabe deputy chairman Paul Finch has submitted a statement to the inquiry, in which he offers support to the development: “Cabe supports this proposal. It praises the innovative building form and organisation of the design and welcomes the provision of improved public amenity to that currently at the site, including pedestrianisation and public spaces within the building at ground and other levels.”
English Heritage's London advisory committee recommended the approval of the proposal, but was overruled by the national commissioners, who called for a public inquiry.
This was granted by John Prescott in his former position of Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
The question the inquiry will be asked to consider does not concern the design, but rather centres on the principle of developing a site that will affect the views of St Paul's.
Linklaters & Alliance partner Ray Jackson has been leading the team advising Heron, a longstanding client of the firm, with assistants Nicky Bradbury and Christian Hudson. “We believe Heron's scheme can be developed without affecting views of St Paul's,” states Jackson. “It's a question of planning policy and whether there's any harm caused by the development. If there's no harm, then it should go ahead.”
Jackson is confident that the development will be allowed to go ahead and that work will start in the foreseeable future. “If the decision was with us in May of next year,” he says, “then it will be finalised during the next 6-12 months and can start the following year.”
The inquiry is set to last for most of November. The parties providing evidence are Heron, the Corporation of London (advised in-house by comptroller and City solicitor Andrew Colvin, instructing William Hicks QC and Neil Cameron of Eldon Chambers), the Greater London Authority (represented by in-house lawyer Allan Ledden, who has instructed John Hobson QC of 4-5 Gray's Inn Square), Cabe and English Heritage. The inspector's report is expected to be available next spring and will go to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions Stephen Byers for a decision on whether the development can proceed. Until then, the parties involved can only do the same as Norton Rose – wait to see if its offices will be demolished.