Ken Livingstone: The only way is up

As an inquiry begins into a controversial scheme to build a 590ft tower in the square mile, the Mayor of London, argues that the capital needs high-rise buildings to preserve its status as a world city, while, right, The Independent's architecture correspondent takes issue By Ken Livingstone
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The Independent Online

Last week, the inquiry opened into the Heron Tower: a 43-storey tower proposed for a site at 110 Bishopsgate in the City. It was accompanied by the kind of hysteria that tends to characterise any debate with implications for the future of London's skyline.

In the shadow of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, such strong feelings were more understandable than usual. Yet the debate about tall buildings in London goes back further, and is about much more than that. It is partly to do with safety, but it is also about our capital city's capacity to remain one of the world's great cities. It is about continuing to be able to offer the office space, capacity and jobs that London needs to stay ahead.

The Heron Tower is a development I support because I believe it will bring great benefits for London. It is my hope that if this tower is approved a precedent will be set, that high-quality design and appropriateness of location should be the basis on which proposed buildings are judged.

Too many people have attacked the "tall-buildings lobby" without response. It is about time we took on what has become, in effect, the squat-buildings lobby.

To listen to some of those who oppose Heron Tower you would be forgiven for thinking that if development goes ahead it will open the door for developers to do as they please. The reality is less dramatic. I envisage that a number of towers may be built in London in the next decade in areas where they are appropriate and where the infrastructure exists or can be expanded to support them.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre, however, the squat-buildings lobbyists have not been the only ones with concerns about skyscrapers. Understandably, after the horror in New York, the question of whether building another tower is tantamount to giving terrorists a new target must have occurred to many people.

It is worth pointing out that "tall buildings" in London are generally not on the same scale as they are in Manhattan and other high-rise cities – even Canary Wharf, London's tallest tower, is only 50 floors, a baby compared with real skyscrapers around the world. Furthermore, there are many safety lessons that can and must be learnt from the New York attacks, for example concerning structural integrity, fire-prevention measures and evacuation arrangements for tall buildings. It's vital that those people who work in tall buildings know that every possible measure is being taken to ensure their safety.

Any structure where lots of people gather may be seen as a potential terrorist target, from football matches or pop concerts to train stations and the Underground system. Would anyone seriously suggest that in response to the attacks politicians should ban air travel, rather than acting to reduce the risks and increase security? Clearly not, and the same logic must be applied to architecture.

The World Trade Centre was attacked not because it was tall, but because of what it symbolised, as evidenced by the attack on the low-rise Pentagon.

The question comes back then to whether tall buildings are in the best interests of London and Londoners. Provided that strict design and location criteria are met, which in the case of Heron Tower they are, I believe the answer is resoundingly "yes". This isn't some megalomaniacal desire to alter the capital's skyline for the sake of it. It is because, unlike the heritage lobby, which has one extremely important but narrow interest to represent, I have to represent the interests of all of London. The capital will benefit economically and architecturally, and its dominant international position will be sustained.

High-quality design is essential to my support for any development, regardless of height. It is of particular importance in relation to towers because with the right design a tall building can become a new landmark, an addition to London's skyline – as St Paul's did, for 800 years London's tallest building, and much criticised by contemporary conservationists when it was built for dwarfing all else around it.

Unless a tall building is of the highest design quality I will have no qualms about directing a local authority to refuse planning permission. But the reality, in my experience, is that developers proposing tall buildings do insist on the highest possible design standards, precisely because they know that towers are controversial and that permission is likely to be refused unless these standards are met.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many proposals for medium and low-rise buildings submitted every year. I find the vision of a city filled with mediocre, depressing, medium-rise slabs – far too many of which have been approved by local councils without a second thought – far less inspiring than a city with a skyline of innovative, graceful towers and spires.

The proposed Heron Tower is an example of a building that meets these criteria. It is in the north-east corner of the Square Mile, it's well-designed, and includes public spaces where Londoners can go and enjoy stunning views. Both the Corporation of London (the local planning authority) and I supported the scheme, but after lobbying from English Heritage the then Secretary of State called in the application, despite the fact that it contravenes not one single protected view of St Paul's.

St Paul's is an architectural icon and a tourist destination. It is part of London's identity and is held in great affection by Londoners. For these reasons it is also London's best-protected building in planning terms – more so even than Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Heron Tower will not contravene any of these protected strategic views.

It will, however, provide offices for thousands of City workers at a time when office space in London is under enormous pressure. The lack of office supply is pushing up prices, making it increasingly expensive for businesses to be located in the City of London. Without increased supply, London and the United Kingdom face the real possibility of the capital's competitiveness being undermined. London losing its world-city status as the only global competitor to New York and Tokyo, and as the European centre of financial and business services, would not be in anyone's interest.

My support for more tall buildings is not a blank cheque to developers. It is about a new partnership between the key players – including the people who live in London. It responds to London's needs and will help generate a sustainable future for this great city.

People want reassurance about their safety after the attacks on 11 September. That is why it is so important that safety and security lessons are learnt. But it would be a terrible mistake to allow terrorism to dictate the future skyline of our city and prevent us from creating the landmark buildings London needs in order to remain a leading competitor for jobs and growth. It will also provide us with opportunities to address some of the capital's historical legacy of unbalanced growth and traditional job losses.

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