We can throw stones at Irvine Sellar's glass towers but regeneration is heading down a dead end without them

My Week: The Shard is more or less completely let, as is its smaller “baby” next door

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The Independent Online

On Monday I had lunch at Aqua Shard, one of the restaurants inside The Shard, the imposing broken spire of a tower next to London Bridge. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d been, and, as with the other visits, I was impressed. There are those who knock towers, and I must admit, by no means do all of them work. But this one does. 

The restaurant was pretty full – not bad for a Monday in January – and downstairs the lobby area was teeming. The Shard is more or less completely let, as is its smaller “baby” next door. 

But it’s not just the new structure that is buzzing – the surrounding area has reaped the benefits. Like several of London’s mainline stations, London Bridge was synonymous with run-down side streets. It was not a place to detain anyone, during the day or night. Next door, Guy’s Hospital also suffered, feeling past it and forgotten. 

That has changed. In a spin-off from the project, the transport hub has acquired new walkways; Guy’s has been spruced up; the entire district has been reinvigorated. 

Next, for the developer Irvine Sellar and his colleagues, is Paddington. The west London terminus and its immediate neighbourhood are similarly drab and uninspiring – hardly enticing for those entering the capital from the west. Paddington, too, has a hospital, St Mary’s, that could do with a boost. 

But there is one big difference between London Bridge and Paddington: the former is adjacent to the City, which has towers galore; Paddington sits in a low-rise landscape and a skyscraper will stand out on the skyline for miles around. For that reason, Mr Sellar’s plans for a “Second Shard” designed by the same architect, Renzo Piano, have provoked a storm of criticism. 

Most critics favour a much smaller-scale development, involving the refurbishing of the roads and the avoidance of a tower. To my mind that does not make economic sense – it’s hard to conceive of someone who will take it on. What is required is something spectacular to act as a “placemaker”, to quote Mr Sellar – a magnet for commercial and residential tenants who will breathe life into the district. “A vertical town” is another of his descriptions. 

What seems to rile his critics is that he is in it to make a profit. In which case, find me a person who is prepared to spend 14 years on a single idea (that’s how long The Shard took to build, due to our planning laws) – and find backers prepared to pump in hundreds of millions, not knowing if their vision will attract inhabitants – all for no return. 

Biting the hand that feeds

For Tosca at the Royal Opera House, my ticket cost £215. It’s a huge amount for an evening’s entertainment. If you add in the accompanying meal for four in the ROH restaurant, there is no change from £1,000. 

I was not paying; I was a guest of a financial PR adviser. Judging by the City “faces” I could spot in the audience, I doubt if they’d bought their tickets either. The programme contained the names of many banking supporters.

It’s clear that the ROH is entirely dependent on City cash, as are the National Theatre and other big cultural venues. Yet the arts community is often among the first to attack the banks. I recall taking a very senior executive from HSBC to a theatre I was helping with its fundraising. I introduced him to someone from the artistic side and, without thinking, the theatre person made the sign of the cross as if the banker was Dracula. At that point, all hope of what could have been a substantial, house-saving donation was lost. 

We were discussing the price of the tickets and the likely total bill for the evening. We agreed it was high. But, said the PR, was it any more expensive than good seats at a Premier League match? Truly, “the People’s Game” has changed. 

Dulce et decorum est... 

To a roundtable lunch at Broadgate in the City in honour of Andrew Roberts. The host, who is head of a financial services firm, and the historian are close friends. 

What prompted the occasion was publication of Mr Roberts’ latest book, Elegy: The First Day on the Somme. Everyone was transfixed as he described the horror of that event – the largest single massacre (57,471 killed or injured) in the British Army’s history. 

Most of those casualties occurred in the morning, as the troops moved forward over No Man’s Land, thinking the German defences had been obliterated by an artillery barrage only to find the sustained shelling had failed to dislodge them. 

I say moved, because the picture Mr Roberts painted was of soldiers struggling under equipment weighing 60 pounds, stumbling through potholes and across bodies of the fallen, only to get caught on the still-intact barbed wire. 

We forget, he said, that these men were not like us. They were slight and short by today’s standards, the result of malnutrition. Their packs would have felt even heavier and have been more cumbersome. Many were from the East End of London, not far from where we were sitting. 

On the way back, I couldn’t help looking at the well-fed Broadgate workers, the busy bars and restaurants, and thinking of those poor souls 150 years ago being given the signal and clambering over the top. 

Second only to Amazon

When will the City understand what Sainsbury’s interest in Argos is really about? Yes, it’s true the supermarket looked at the catalogue retailer before and decided against a bid. But that was before Argos developed world-beating IT. 

I know it’s hard to imagine that Argos, owner of the dreariest of branch networks, should be at the cutting edge – but it is. What you see front of house, I’m told, bears no resemblance to the sophistication of the back office and logistical system. No one else, apart from Amazon, can match its online “click and delivery within four hours” offer. That’s what Sainsbury’s wants – the ability, in one go, to make a giant digital leap forward. 

There is, though, puzzlement over why others are staying away. Argos may be ideal for Sainsbury’s but it would be an even better fit with Asda. Walmart, Asda’s mammoth US parent, could buy it without blinking. But perhaps this is a sign that Walmart has little faith in the UK at present, given Asda’s recent run of disappointing results.

Or there’s Amazon. Surely it can’t be prepared to sit back and watch someone else step in and grab Argos’s technology? 

Whatever Asda or Amazon decide, the feeling is that Sainsbury’s may not be a shoo-in – that the Argos battle has plenty of “legs”.