HL Deb 23 June 1980 vol 410 cc1441-64

6.39 p.m.

Earl GREY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they support the obstruction of the historic views of the River Thames, with particular reference to the proposed "Green Giant" development opposite the Tate Gallery. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and, in doing so, to bring to the notice of the Government and the developers, European Ferries, the overwhelming opposition to the proposed construction of a skyscraper on the South Bank of the Thames opposite the Tate Gallery.

This building, which has acquired the nickname the "Green Giant" because of its original green glass construction, will be 500 feet high (21 storeys) by 300 feet wide and will dominate Lambeth Palace and the Palace of Westminster. I believe that it will be nearly twice as high as Big Ben. The idea of this £40 million project is to create 600,000 square feet of offices, flats, shops and sports centres. If it succeeds it will be the third highest building in London after the Post Office Tower, and nearly as tall as the National Westminster building which now dominates St. Pauls.

London is an historic city dating back over a thousand years with its history preserved, to its credit, and for people everywhere to visit and enjoy. London is especially important for those who reside in this City. Londoners are very proud of their heritage and environment. It is unique and must remain so. This generation has a responsibility to preserve our great cities. We have inherited a great past, and over the past few years that past has been undergoing destruction, changing forever the shape of London. These projects, beyond imagination, cannot be described as enhancing the beauty and the historic value that has been London. The proposal to build this complex might well have passed through the planning stage unnoticed, had it not been for the energetic work of the "Friends of Chelsea" who have led a public campaign opposing its conception. The fact that plans of this kind can pass without any publicity or consideration to the residents and public is an indictment that is shameful.

If this building is allowed to be built, it will be the first of seven similar blocks waiting to destroy this ancient city. Even to consider this, the effect on London will be staggering. Anyone who has seen the plans and impressions of what is likely to be must only be appalled and stunned by what is proposed. London is becoming a city for speculators with no thought of the harmful and wilful damage inflicted on the environment for ever. This is not progress or keeping up with the times. The plans of the buildings that have been erected over the past 25 years have lacked imagination and certainly do not blend in with their surroundings. The "Green Giant" would be grossly out of proportion and dominate its surroundings. Possibly that is the idea; I do not know. But I, for one, do not wish to have as the central view from the Palace of Westminster an unimaginative towering office block dominating Parliament and the surrounding area.

I wish to ask the Government whether they feel that it is time to assess what is happening to our cities, whether it is their policy to condone capital speculation of this kind, and whether a new code of practice and standards should be laid down. It seems to me that the new generation of architects and planners follows the maxim "big is beautiful". That is not the case in every respect. We have seen the effects socially of high-rise flats and office blocks. I cannot agree with the developers that these "skylabs" are the only viable buildings from the point of view of cost that can be erected in London. If this is the case, what will be the shape of things to come in 25 years' time? No more character, a faceless city, a disaster and a folly, and once this path is taken, there will be no turning back.

I may be accused of exaggeration and being over-emotional, but to those who think that I am not looking at this in the right perspective, I ask: "Look around you, look at the changing face of London". One has only to have read in the Press of the concern and strong opposition to this project by the editorials and letters of protest: headlines such as "Yet another eyesore" and "Is this the City Londoners want?". The Green Giant has also acquired another less favourable name: the "Incredible Hulk". Such is the emotive feeling this issue has aroused. I am very interested in the views of the Department of the Environment, whose own building in London one cannot describe as beautiful.

Does the department propose to condone the march forward to a city of concrete without taking into account the architectural history and the feeling of the residents of London? I would have thought that we would have learned our lesson by now. There must be tighter control and, I believe, a greater moral responsibility and more publicity given before projects of this kind are planned. It is not civilised capitalism to turn even a paradise into a pigsty—even if it pays. My Lords, I am not against capital growth or the planning of new buildings; but please let common sense prevail.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, we are very much indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Grey, for introducing this subject, one which is of very considerable importance. As he rightly pointed out, it concerns the future of London; and the future of London is something which matters not just to those who happen at the moment to live in London—it matters to all people who come to London. It matters to the inhabitants of this country; it matters considerably to the inhabitants of other countries. It is therefore something which is of international importance and not of parochial importance.

I suppose that I am in some ways rather a philistine. I must confess that I quite like many of the new buildings. I am not necessarily revolted by every new building that is erected. I have been travelling to New York for something like 50 years. Every time I visit New York, I am excited by the skyline of Manhattan. It is thrilling. I found when I first went there that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were striking examples of architecture. It is true that the Empire State Building remained almost unoccupied for a long time and lost a lot of money. Nevertheless, it was a building which was striking in its appearance and added to the skyline of New York. In more recent years, other buildings have been completed in New York. The Seagram Building is a building of considerable beauty. I remember, too, when I first went to Milan and saw the Pirelli building being built. A little later from that awful mausoleum of a station which they put up in Milan one could see the completed Pirelli building. It is a very attractive, graceful, tall building.

But the question of whether or not a building is attractive, whether it adds to the environment, depends very much upon its siting. It depends very much upon the other buildings round about it. If one takes a city like New York and that rocky island, Manhattan, which is a small island necessarily restricted in size, one appreciates that building high was attractive, especially as right across the Hudson River one had the Palisades, a natural dominant feature. The high skyline of New York was something highly appropriate to the environment. No one can complain about their having created something like that.

I do not find similar high buildings in Chicago equally attractive along the Lake front. I find many of them rather distasteful and I must say that I think the new high towers they have built in New York down by the Battery an affront to the skyline of New York which should never have been allowed. They were put up purely for commercial reasons by the Port Authority, which is the authority which nowadays does almost everything in New York. I do not think these twin towers have added to the beauty of New York: they have detracted considerably from it. They might have been perfectly appropriate somewhere else, but not there.

If one imagined an enormous tower being put up in the city of Bath, dominating the Royal Crescent, would not one feel that that was an absolute outrage? One has to pay attention to where a building is placed; and when one comes to this city of London—and when I use that term, I am referring not just to the Square Mile, but to the whole of London and the Thames running through it—we have there a river which meanders through the city. It has right-angled bends and swings round so that you get a new view all the time as you go along. At least, we do now but, if the River Thames is walled in with massive buildings more than 500 feet high, from where will one see St. Paul's as one has a trip along the Thames? Where will one get a glimpse of the houses of Westminster? Where will one be able to see all those charming little vistas that one gets all the way along? They will all have disappeared.

This is not just a fantasy about one building. This building which is being proposed is over 500 feet high. How high is that? The finial at the top of Big Ben is 316 feet from the mean water level of the Thames. This building will be over 500 feet, and it will not be just one spire, because it is as broad as it is long. In fact, from the plans, I can only imagine that it has been devised as a three-dimensional projection of an economic prospect of the depression that is going to hit us. It is something which does not bear any relation at all to sensible reality; it bears no relation at all to the rest of the buildings along the River Thames. Of course, by the time it is put up and by the time the developers have had the rest of their way, then of course it will fit in beautifully. The only trouble is that you will not see anything else that is beautiful at the present time. All that will have disappeared from view.

There is an interesting article in the Guardian today and there is a paragraph in it which reads: There are planning applications on the stocks for more than six and a half million square feet of offices on the South Bank of the Thames".— that is more than 38 Centre Points and, rightly, it is described in the Guardian as a total wave of development threatening to overwhelm the South Bank from Vauxhall to Tower Bridge. Not even the new Thames barrage will save us from that disaster. That overwhelming disaster is one that cannot be saved just by controlling the flood of water. It can only be saved by preventing a flood of this sort of development.

It one looks at what we have thought of as cities, one has to go back and look at all the great cities in the world and, of those cities, London, to me, is perhaps the greatest. We have to look at them all and see what has been happening. I remember many years ago reading a book which is a classic. It is called The Culture of Cities. I have no doubt many of your Lordships will have read it. It is by Lewis Mumford and he wrote it in 1938. Describing the whole development of cities with affection and regard, he said: many observers of cities, as well as political administrators, tend to look upon the existence of blighted areas as an accidental fact in the modern city's development. On the contrary, the congestion of population at the centre and the effort to compensate for instability by adding to the existing population, gives a large part of the building a purely transitory character. To plan a residential area so that it could only with great difficulty and wholesale changes be converted into any other kind of area, is foreign to the metropolitan engineer's mind". Unfortunately, that has been very true—not always, but it has been largely true—and the City of London was redeveloped after the Great Fire. If ones look back at that period and reads about what was done and said at the time, one finds that King Charles II issued a proclamation to the City of London to tell them what they were to do. He pointed out, very sensibly and reasonably, that they must not have any more wooden buildings because the fire spread so rapidly because there were all those wooden buildings so congested that it was impossible to get any water to them at all. Apparently, the whole bank of the Thames at the time was so congested that it was impossible to draw any water from the river to deal with the fire. He went on to say this: We do comfort ourself with some hope that He will, upon our due humiliation before Him, give us life not only to see the foundations laid but the buildings finished of a much more beautiful city than is at this time consumed … buildings which shall be erected next the river, which we desire may be fair structures for the ornament of the City". That, surely, after 300 years should still be our guiding principle. I hope that after 300 years we have not relapsed to the point where we do not think that it is important to have the banks of the Thames lined with buildings which are true ornaments and which enhance the existing ornaments in the city. If we do not do this, then we are not only destroying something which we can enjoy, but we are destroying something which posterity can enjoy and we are also killing one of the great cities of the world. I hope, my Lords, that when the noble Lord replies for the Government—although I do not expect him to give us exact answers as to what will happen—he will at least give us the sympathetic attention which this House would wish to have on such an important occasion.

7 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that it was a noble friend and colleague of mine, Lord Grey, who asked this Question, because I think it is a matter of much greater importance than the short list of speakers might suggest. I, too, think that we owe him a debt for raising the matter this evening, and I have also listened to the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, with very great interest. I, too, like some modern and contemporary buildings very much.

But let me state my position quite clearly. Along with the two noble Lords who have already spoken, I am strongly opposed to the construction of this budding as proposed. I cannot agree with the praise which some distinguished architects have offered, and I shall return to this point later on. Here, perhaps, I might remind your Lordships of some of the many who oppose the scheme.

In The Times of 16th January the noble Lord, Lord Coggan, as I think we must now call him, who was then still Archbishop of Canterbury, was joined by six other eminent people in a letter which ended with these words: No one who cares for this country and all it stands for can want to see the beauty of London destroyed by buildings out of proportion to its character and style". And it is noteworthy that this letter was sent from Lambeth Palace, only a few hundred yards from this proposed colossus. Sir John Rothenstein has said that it would be "a criminal act against posterity"; and Sir John Betjeman that, The river that Turner and Wordsworth celebrated so magnificently must not be lost to commercial expedience". There are many other distinguished opponents of this scheme and I asked a personal friend, an experienced architect, his opinion. He made two points: first, that the proposed building would be quite out of scale with its surroundings; and, secondly, that it lacked good proportions in itself. But, of course, if you have to allow for office and other accommodation to the tune of well over half a million square feet, as I believe has been done, then your options are limited.

Two questions which I should like to put to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, when he comes to reply are these: one, is this office space really necessary here and in this day and age; and, two, would the approval of this scheme be inevitably followed by a progression along the riverside of further "green giants", as the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, has reminded us is possible?

I, like the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, have seen and been impressed by New York, but I am convinced that the River Thames is greatly undervalued and such buildings here would jar oppressively. I quote from words that have been given to me by the Friends of Chelsea, whom my noble friend has already mentioned. They run: From Venice to Copenhagen, the water front in the city centre is reserved for the most beautiful buildings and for residential use. In nearly every city in the world, the river banks are used for the pleasure and leisure of the citizens and, above all, a choice area in which citizens may live". Their argument ends: We object to the pure blatant hideosity of the (proposed) development. Let me end my few words by saying that I speak in sorrow. I am the son of an architect and have friends whose professional skill I much admire. As I said earlier, I accept that there is not much scope for a variant, when one seeks to crowd a lot of floor space into a limited space area. But, having said that, I am forced to agree with those words in the Evening Standard of Friday 19th January, which ran as follows: Today it all too often seems as though a sense of beauty in great buildings is most lacking among, of all people, architects". If the Government allow this plan through, I believe they will have made a devastating blunder. I believe that those responsible will have lost not only their sense, but also their soul.

A little time back, I watched a dramatic film on television. It was of a great block of, I think, high-rise flats being blown up and razed to the ground in America, having been found totally unsatisfactory for its designed purpose. A slow-motion effect emphasised its fate, but what was significant was that it had been a much praised, gold medal award building in its time. I do not think our children will give us thanks if, in the years to come, they find themselves confronted here with a similar task.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Grey, has raised this issue. I wholeheartedly agree with him and other noble Lords about the importance of this issue and the seriousness of the consequences, if this application were to be approved. Having myself many years ago had ministerial responsibility for town and country planning, I am well aware of the difficult and often conflicting arguments which are regularly advanced. But I think it is clear that, when deciding whether or not to approve applications for new development, the Minister has to ask himself whether the proposed new building is of the right character, of the right size, and in the right place.

I wish to make it clear—and I emphasise this—that I am in no way whatsoever criticising the quality of the design or the standard of architecture. It, quite likely, achieves the highest standards of modern architecture. I go so far as to say that if sited in the commercial centre of a new town, this building might well be an object of interest and admiration. But sited in central London on the banks of the Thames it is out of character, out of scale, and out of place. I hesitate to say that it would be an eyesore, but there is no doubt that this overpowering glass slab would inevitably constitute a dominating and disturbing feature of the London scene.

But what is far more serious, in my opinion, is that approval of this project—and, again, I am speaking from my own experience in office—would make it virtually impossible for this Minister, and future Ministers, to refuse permission for the construction of more and more and more similar giants all along the river and all over London. I therefore earnestly appeal to the Minister to have regard for the strong feelings which this issue has aroused among so many citizens of London, and to refuse permission for what, to say the least, is a highly questionable and highly controversial proposal.

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, speaks—I apologise for not putting my name on the list of speakers, and I should just like to reassure your Lordships by saying that I have no intention of making a speech—I want just to intervene for a second to say that I am in hearty agreement with every one of the admirable speeches that we have heard this afternoon. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister who is to reply will not tell us that this application has yet been approved, and that it will have the further consideration for which the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, has asked.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, I should not like this occasion to pass without adding my own plea to the Minister, both as a Londoner who is proud of my city, and as one who has the great privilege of being Lord Lieutenant of Greater London. Many years ago, when I first entered this House, I spoke in a very disparaging way about another hideous monstrosity which still stands, partly unoccupied, after about 13 years—namely, Centre Point. I described it then as the most expensive dog kennel in Europe—at that time it had about 20 dogs occupying it and nobody else—and that got into some of the European magazines.

We are deeply grateful to those who have mounted a campaign before this other monstrosity is erected. It would be too late when it was there. The noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, who has just spoken said very graphically that our lovely River Thames would soon be a gutter flowing between these two great monstrosities, because undoubtedly this would be the start of so many. This is what we all fear.

We all recall that that great Londoner, Herbert Morrison, envisaged that the South Bank would have upon it many beautiful buildings. We have the Festival Hall and the National Theatre. Are we going to go backwards now and put there yet another group of offices? We already have too many offices. If we want London to be a city where people live and can enjoy their leisure, this is the wrong way of going about it. I see, in my own borough of Hammersmith, our much promised river walk gradually disappearing still further and further into time, with more and more factories and offices.

I add my plea to those who have spoken so eloquently. This is our city. We not only want to live in it; we also want to enjoy it. As we go out on the Terrace we do not want to have our eyes offended by some of these monstrosities. The people who visit London come here to see what London has to offer. If they want to see wind tunnels, there are plenty of other cities in the world for them to go to. I think the Minister realises that if we do not get what we want this evening we shall undoubtedly return to the matter again, and yet again.

7.12 p.m.


My Lords, may I assure the House, as did the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, that I am not going to make a speech? What I have to say will be very short. I did not put down my name to speak, but when I saw that there were only three speakers on the list I thought that I would try to find something to say about a subject on which I feel strongly. Then it struck me that three speakers from the Liberal Benches would unbalance the debate. However, there have been excellent interventions from the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, and the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, so I do not feel that if I speak I shall unbalance the debate. As this is a debate about balance, one does not want there to be an undue number of people putting forward the same point of view. One thing one can say in favour of these Benches is that usually we put forward different points of view, but on this occasion we do not.

I want to pre-empt one possible point which the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, may make in defence, because he is faced with a very difficult job. He may say that this is not the Government's business, and I do not know sufficient about the constitution to argue with him. The noble Lord is probably a Shakespearean scholar, for his ancestors appear in Shakespeare's plays. There was a notable Scottish tyrant, Macbeth—I am not accusing the noble Lord of being either Scottish or a tyrant—who, when he had planned the war, at any rate condoned the crime and saw the consequences of it coming up not in a green but in a grey form, in the form of the Ghost of Banquo. His first reaction was: Thou canst not say I did it: never shake Thy gory locks at me". He went on to say, which would be appropriate for any Government to say, "Thou hast no speculation in those eyesores." The word "eyesore" has been used about this building. One cannot say that no speculation is involved, and my feeling is that the speculators are behind the times for, in the day of the silicon chip, we do not want, quite apart from the look of the South Bank, buildings of this size to be put up.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, who said that the idea that progress is necessarily going to go up and up and must always be for the better is a fallacy. One sees on the Thames the Tower of London, which is a very strong, formidable and in some ways beautiful building. However, the Tower which I can remember imagining in childhood as the highest tower ever built was the Tower of Babel, which was built in order to prevent a flood. I can only hope that this project, with the help of the Government, will have the same fate as the Tower of Babel and that we shall find something better to put in its place.

7.16 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add a few words to what has already been said by other noble Lords. As there appears to be unanimity in this House on the subject there is perhaps no need to put forward any arguments. We appear to be all agreed. I must declare in the first place a form of personal interest, not a financial interest, in that this building is to be put up in a constituency which I represented in Parliament for nearly 50 years. That is a local interest, if you like. It is also an aesthetic interest because I feel as strongly as anybody else who has spoken that to put up such a vast building in this area would be an abomination and destructive of my major interest in the matter; namely, the pleasantness, the high qualities, the architectural merits of London. One is thinking in this connection not only of Londoners but of all those who visit London.

A building in this position will be seen by tens and hundreds of thousands of people every day. It will be seen by those on the North Bank of the Thames and by all those who cross the river by the various bridges. They will see there a building which of course has architectural merit—I am not an architectural expert and prepared to pronounce upon those merits—but it is not sufficiently outstanding, as some buildings in the past have been which dominated areas: for instance, the great cathedrals of the past. It was very fine to have buildings in Paris or London built by Wren and other great architects which dominated the whole city, but to have this building dominating a large part of the city, as it will do, is a dreadful thought and we must do everything that we can to stop it.

I appreciate that strong financial interests would like a building of this sort to be put up, but it is our job both in this House and in the other place to do what these Houses have often done: to say that the public interest and the aesthetic interest of Londoners of today and of the future must be safeguarded and that we cannot allow this to happen.

I know that the noble Lord who is to speak for the Government cannot announce any definite decision on the matter. Of course he cannot; the inspector's report has not yet been studied. However, he might even now express sympathy with the strong opposition that has been expressed by everybody concerned, not only by Londoners but by others, and say that these proposals should be most carefully scrutinised. Even at first sight, he must be able to say that to put up a building on the banks of the River Thames which will be followed inevitably, as another noble Lord said, by other large buildings, making a sort of barricade along the river front, is wrong and should not be tolerated.

To put up a building which is going to be higher than Big Ben in this important central position is a dreadful idea. I say not a word about the architectural merits of the building—I am not competent to do so—but I express the view as strongly as I can that we should take the lead from Paris and say that no skyscrapers of any sort should be put up in the centre of the city to destroy its whole character. We have had a number of very large buildings put up in London, some of them in the City—some good, some bad—but to spread these skyscrapers to an area where they do not already exist is something we should not permit.

Therefore, I very much hope that in the interests of London and in the interests of Londoners, present and future, the House on this occasion will express the opinion that we will not allow this monstrosity to be erected in the centre of London, in a prominent place, which will he seen and disliked, inevitably, by people who for generations to come live in or near London.


My Lords, may I also apologise for not putting my name down, and assure the noble Lord that I am going to speak for less than a minute, probably 30 seconds. When Charles V—that is Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire—looked at what the Chapter of Cordoba had done by erecting a Christian church inside the mosque which is the greatest Islamic monument in the Western world, he is said to have remarked: You have built something you could have put up anywhere and you have ruined something which you can never repair". May I ask the Minister whether he will ponder these words?

7.21 p.m.


My Lords, after a rather long, unscheduled debate, I rise, with I fear a slightly longer speech, than the two or three or four which have immediately preceded it. I should like first of all to thank the noble Earl, Lord Grey, for introducing this debate this afternoon, and as a former chairman of the Greater London Council Central Area Planning Board, now called the Central Area Committee, I have in other ways been concerned with the development of this site in times gone by.

The debate this afternoon has concentrated very much on the building itself, but I think that we should do well to look wider, at the question of the spoiling of historic views in London. This was particularly referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, in his speech. As the strategic planning authority, the GLC has been concerned to preserve the historic views to St. Paul's from along the river, from Primrose Hill, from Greenwich, from Hampstead Heath. It has been concerned about the historic views from the Royal Parks, concerned about the views from Whitehall. These are all a part of our national heritage and if these historic views are to be destroyed we shall be hurting our national heritage in the process.

One of the things which I think should be of concern to your Lordships' House is that earlier this year the 1980 Town and Country Planning Regulations came into force; in fact they came into force on 1st May this year by statutory instrument. Those regulations removed from the GLC its statutory powers for high buildings, but left the option open to the boroughs to refer high buildings to the GLC if they felt that they were contrary to the Greater London development plan. What this means is that the position now is that a borough could allow a high building to be built without the consent of the GLC and without the necessary consultations with other London boroughs.

There was reference made by a noble Lord to the 390 ft. high blue giant building which is proposed to be erected at Hays' Wharf immediately opposite the Tower of London. This building is, of course, in the London borough of Southwark, but could have very adverse effect on the historic views of St. Paul's from Primrose Hill, as it will in fact provide a backcloth for St. Paul's if it is allowed to go forward. As the situation is at the moment, local councils in London may not be aware of the implications of building high buildings within their particular boroughs. I know that there are those who feel that the GLC tends to be a very paternalistic authority, but it is the strategic authority for Greater London and there are some aspects of planning which can be best done by a strategic authority, particularly when there are planning matters which cross borough boundaries.

This particular application was considered by the GLC before the regulations were changed, and the Greater London development plan listed this area as one particularly sensitive to high buildings. That meant that any building over 150 ft. on this site had to be looked at very carefully by the GLC. The Lambeth borough council subsequently said in their local development plan that this was an area where it would be inappropriate to have a high building. However, I understand that the GLC view was that it might be acceptable if a slender tower up to 300 ft. in height were erected on this site. This particular building—and I shall come to that later—your Lordships will remember is over 500 ft. in height.

This particular site has been the subject of planning applications for a very great number of years. It was agreed in 1964 by the old LCC that the proper development on this site would be some 300,000 sq. ft. of offices and 100,000 sq. ft. of residential accommodation—that is, some 400,000 sq. ft. of building on the space in total. The GLC when it came into existence agreed to honour this agreement and in fact it remained the planning authority for the site until 1979, when the Lambeth borough council became the planning authority following the winding up of the comprehensive development area.

This particular application which we are discussing this evening is a development of some 562,000 sq. ft.—that is, almost 50 per cent. greater than what had been agreed in 1964. In my view, the sheer bulk on the site is a gross over-development of the site. In all it is proposed that there shall be some 370,000 sq. ft. of offices, 65,000 sq. ft. of residential accommodation, 60,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space and 67,000 sq. ft. of retail and recreation space—sports facilities and the like. The Lambeth council, I know, has been very concerned that even in this massive development the amount of residential accommodation which was originally agreed and proposed as far back as 1964 has not been achieved; this is a matter of great concern to the local borough council.

I say that we are debating this afternoon a particular application on this site, but in fact the truth is that the developers put in eight applications on this site, and at the public inquiry they withdrew two of the applications. So there are still six applications outstanding with which the Minister has to deal, and this particular application is only one of those six.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, has reminded us of the sheer massive scale of this building, 500 ft. high, 265 ft. long and 125 ft. wide. If you can imagine a building which could be anything up to 50 storeys in height and 26 storeys wide, one can get an idea of the sheer massive scale of this building. The noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, pointed this out very forcefully. The noble Earl, Lord Grey, reminded us that it would become the third highest building in London. But of course the higher buildings in London, the GPO Tower at 619 ft. and the National Westminster at 592 ft. are buildings which have, I would say, some architectural merit, a quality which I do not in fact attribute to this particular building. Therefore, what is objectionable about this particular application is its sheer massive scale.


My Lords, I should like to interrupt for a moment. How can the noble Lord say, having just described a monstrosity, that we are debating one of six similar applications? We are debating one single monstrosity.


My Lords, we are debating one single monstrosity, as the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, has rightly said. The other applications which are also being considered by the Minister, in fact, have very largely the same amount of bulk on the site but they do not treat the bulk in the same way—that is, the large tower block is not a feature of the other applications.

However, as regards this particular application—and I do not know whether I am saying something that the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, will be including in his reply—it is clear that the building cannot be built as the plan is submitted at present. Those who have applied for the planning application propose to build the river wall out some 100 feet from the edge of the river. The Port of London Authority has agreed that the river wall can be built out some 50 feet and that new line has been established in conjunction with the Effra site at the other side of Vauxhall Bridge. The developers have said that they could get over this particular problem in a way which would be acceptable to the Port of London Authority, by building the river wall out a further 50 feet—that is, 100 feet in all—the additional 50 feet being on stilts. The reason the Port of London Authority would not allow it to be built out in any other way is that it would affect the regime of the river—it would affect the tidal flows of the river itself. But, so far as the Greater London Council is concerned, in no way would it be prepared to have a situation where an area was built out some 50 feet into the river on stilts, because it would be a trap in which small boats and various things could become enmeshed.

The second reason why it cannot be built as it is now planned is that the residential part of the building is over the outfall of the River Effra sewer, and therefore it would not be possible to build it unless the course of the sewer were altered.

The third point is that the building is too close to Vauxhall Bridge for the Greater London Council to be able to maintain the bridge. Therefore, that aspect of the building would also have to be changed. But perhaps more seriously, the proposed access to the site, which very much determines the placing of the tall building, is such that it is unacceptable. It would be a very dangerous position for the access, which would have to be moved to the East and that would affect the siting of the building. Also, one should say that wind turbulence experts have visited the site. They gave evidence at the public inquiry to show that the wind turbulence resulting from the erection of this massive building would create one of the most unpleasant areas in London.

I hope—and I echo what every other noble Lord has said—that the Minister will refuse this application. I think that he will probably indicate a range of uses which would be acceptable on the site. My view is that the uses proposed in this particular application are far too vast in number to be permitted on this site and one should go back to thinking of the sort of scope of development which was agreed as far back as 1964. But, one should remember that, whatever the Minister does or does not do, the Greater London Council still has the whip hand in this matter as regards the question of land ownership. In the Sunday Times of 20th January 1980, the leader of the Greater London Council is quoted as saying: A lot of water is going to flow under Vauxhall Bridge before this office block can be built … There is no obligation on us to sell the site". So, I very much hope that we can have some assurances from the Minister this evening, that your Lordships can derive some comfort, and that in fact we shall not see this massive addition to the skyline erected here, which would destroy the intimate character of London, which would be visible for a very long way in many directions, and which would destroy many historic views.

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Grey, can take great comfort I think, from having struck a chord upon which your Lordships wanted to play. I congratulate him on getting such very high calibre attendance at his debate. I have listened with great respect and feeling to the way in which your Lordships have waxed lyrical with poetical imagery and praise and I pay tribute to your Lordships' feelings and love for London's river frontage.

The noble Lord, Lord Strauss, talked about dominating high buildings not usually being a good thing. I was wondering whether, in the last century, perhaps Baron Haussmann and M. Eiffel had that same conversation. I have the slight feeling that your Lordships are putting me in an awkward position. You are rather like members of a jury whose minds are mostly made up and who are putting the situation to one who is acting in the position of the judge, whose purpose has to be silent until the end of the case.

However, I shall begin by responding to the general topic raised in today's debate before moving to the particular development proposal on which the debate has focused and which, as I shall explain, has presented me with certain difficulties. I can say at once, of course, that Her Majesty's Government attach great importance to preserving historic views of the River Thames. However, I have to make two qualifications.

The first is that a commitment to conservation and preservation does not mean that we can conserve and preserve everything for ever. One of the charms of a great capital city is its vitality. London has been evolving for 2,000 years and evidence of several hundred of those is clearly visible to the most casual visitor. The river has always had a key role in London—but the nature of that role has changed greatly from the days when it was the main mode of transport and its banks were crowded with industry using it for the transport of goods. One thing that I was not sure I approved of in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, was his idea that it might meander. To me, the Thames is a very vigorous, lusty, well-grown infant. When one sees its litter coming up and down with the tide it does not seem to me to be a meandering old gentleman or old lady—it is full of energy and vigour. We must accept the changes produced by technological and economic progress. We must preserve the best that we have inherited. But London has never been just a museum and it cannot become one while it remains a living city.

The second qualification that I must make—if it can be so called—is that the preservation and, I should like to add, the enhancement, of historic views of the River Thames is not wholly, or even mainly, the direct responsibility of Her Majesty's Government, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. It is a task which we share with the Greater London Council and the London boroughs which border the river —and, indeed, with all those who own or use property near it.

My Lords, some of the work of enhancing the Thames can be done with public money, and the prime example of this must be the GLC's South Bank cultural complex. Some work by the Thames is carried out by private developers on land owned by local authorities. Here the local authority can influence the development as head landlord. However, most development is, rightly, the work of the private sector on privately-owned land and the elected authorities have to work within the provisions of the town and country planning system, including the preparation of statutory development plans and the day-to-day exercise of development control under the guidance of these plans. These provisions have very largely, and to my mind rightly, been placed in the hands of the local authorities. The system does, of course, provide special arrangements for dealing with historic buildings and areas.

Local authorities can declare conservation areas in which special attention will be paid to preserving or enhancing the character and appearance of the area. I understand that local planning authorities in London have designated nearly three dozen conservation areas which specifically include extensive stretches of river frontage. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment also has powers to list buildings of special architectural or historic interest, and they are then specially protected. These powers too have been extensively used along the Thames. I was very grateful to my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys for appreciating the difficulties in which Ministers find themselves in this situation. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, slightly taking what he called in the earlier part of his speech the wider view, asked me about the Hays' Wharf proposals not being referred to the GLC. I understand that these proposals are to be treated as departures from the development plan and will be referred to the GLC, and, if they wish to permit them, to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will then have the opportunity to consider whether there are issues present to justify his calling them in for his own decision.

We are looking at things all the time against the broad planning background for London, which is set out in the Greater London Development Plan. The plan was prepared after very wide-ranging studies; it was exhaustively examined in public and objections were considered. The plan was finally approved, with modifications, by the then Secretary of State for the Environment some four years ago, in 1976. It gives substantial guidance on the River Thames, on historic areas, on skylines and on high buildings. It defines areas of special character in the metropolis and a number of these are related to the Thames. They include Greenwich Riverside, the Tower, parts of the City, the Government precinct, Battersea Park, Richmond riverside and Hampton Court. However, perhaps I may quote the first paragraph of the section on the Thames: The Thames constitutes perhaps the greatest of all London's areas of special character. Its condition and future are matters of strategic concern to the whole of London, and the Council has decided that every chance must be seized when new developments occur to make thorough and effective improvements to the riverside scene". The plan encourages riparian boroughs, when preparing local plans and when applying development control, to give special attention to long and local river views and skylines, opening up selected parts of the river bank to create new prospects of the river and opposite bank, to creating better public access and to redevelopment of present unsatisfactory river frontages.

On high buildings, the plan recognised that the effects of high buildings spread beyond the confines of any local area, and that the plan should, therefore, lay down general principles which authorities should follow when considering planning applications. It defines areas where high buildings are inappropriate, areas which are particularly sensitive, and areas in which a more flexible or positive approach is possible. Again, the special significance of the Thames is recognised.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, asked whether, if allowed, the "Green Giant", which, by the way, I gather, is turning into a grey giant these days, would be a precedent for many other schemes. I am informed that that is by no means so, because each individual proposal will be treated on its merits. The planning applications will be for the local planning authorities to consider in the first instance.

I have spoken about the general planning background to Thamesside development. Discussion today has focused on one particular development proposal, for the erection of a high building on a site which is at present derelict and has been so for many years. Any planning application is considered on its individual merits. A decision is made having regard to the provisions of the statutory development plan and to any other relevant material considerations. While, therefore, the statutory development plan is a most important part of the background, it does not in any sense make a decision on a particular case automatic.

The application on which the debate today has concentrated has been called in by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for his own decision. An inspector appointed by him has held a public inquiry into this application and a number of alternative outline planning applications by the same company for development of the same site. He has reported to my right honourable friend, who will be issuing decisions as soon as possible. I can assure your Lordships that the Guardian report today on the inspector's decision is speculative in the extreme and, with all the emphasis at my disposal, I totally rebut what the Daily Telegraph says today about my right honourable friend having made up his mind. The Secretary of State's role in this case is a quasi-judicial one, and I am sure you will understand that I must say nothing that could be held to have prejudiced his decision. I can, however, perhaps clarify the situation a little.

When the Secretary of State holds a public inquiry into a planning application he has called in for his own decision, the procedure to be followed before, at and after the inquiry is laid down in rules established by statutory instrument. Before the inquiry, the Secretary of State is required to serve a written statement of his reasons for directing that the application be referred to him and of any points which seem to him to be likely to be relevant to his consideration of the application. In this case, while making it clear that he would consider all planning aspects of the proposed development for the site in question, he said that on the information so far before him, an aspect likely to be relevant to his consideration of the application was the suitability of the scale and form of the proposed development of the site in question". I think this should make it clear that he is fully aware of the visual importance of the site.

The public inquiry occupied 13 days in December and January, and so the planning issues were quite fully aired. However, while the inspector's report will cover only representations made at the inquiry or beforehand, the Secretary of State will consider representations made to him afterwards, along with the inspector's report. The procedure rules provide that if the Secretary of State is disposed to disagree with the inspector because of evidence received after the close of the inquiry, there must be further consultation, and the inquiry may be re-opened.

I can assure noble Lords and the noble Earl that all that has been said so strongly today will be drawn to the sympathetic attention of the Secretary of State and will be taken fully into account by him. I can do no more. The Secretary of State will make his decision on the basis of all the planning issues which have been put to him.

The Lord Olivier—Took the Oath.