Is English Heritage hurting London?
by Ben Rogers
This weekend London plays host to Open House, the annual festival that allows Londoners into buildings, new and old, we can’t usually see.
The last year, however, has been marked by a sequence of high profile battles pitting conservationists and environmentalists – just the sort of people who appreciate the buildings opened up by Open House - against the government and developers. At the national level, the environmentalists won the battle to stop the sell-off of the forests and are now in the mist of another one, supported by English Heritage, the National Trust and The Telegraph, to defeat the Government’s draft planning framework with its ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.
London has also witnessed a smaller but parallel debate this time pitting English Heritage and its supporters against the Corporation of the City of London and developers. Back in April, English Heritage declared that they were considering listing Broadgate, a high quality 1980s Arups development which UBS wanted to redevelop into a new London headquarters. The City, long uneasy about having its buildings listed, complained that too much conservation risked stifling investment into London and weakening the City’s competitiveness. Peter Rees, the City’s chief planner, outraged Simon Thurley, head of EH, by describing EH as the “Heritage Taliban” and claimed that hence forth, the City was only going to give planning permission to architecturally mediocre buildings, in the knowledge that they would not risk being listed. More seriously some in the City’s argued that English Heritage should be required to adopt a “one in one out” policy, meaning that every time it listed a building it had to de-list another one.
The City has a point. As the American economist Ed Glaiser argued in his book the Triumph of the City, published this year, cities are greener than any other form of modern settlement, and at their best they are amazing engines of innovation, wealth and opportunity, especially for their poorer members. Yet too many of the world’s finest and most successful cities are pulling their drawbridges up, imposing height restrictions, preservations orders, and other limits on their dynamism and inclusiveness. Glaiser points to Paris, Berkeley and his native New York as examples, and argued in favour of the ‘one in, one out’ conservation rule. It’s probably true that London is more accepting of new development than Paris and even Berkeley – but it’s not that accepting. Almost every proposal for a new development is opposed by someone. Hence the extraordinary phenomenon of rich Londoners, prevented from extending their old houses upwards or outwards, building themselves ever deeper, ever grander basements.
Even so, the ‘one in, one out’ rule seems to me a step too far. Surely part of the challenge for architects, urbanists, city leaders and developers is not just to preserve a city’s build heritage but add to it. We need to keep a watchful eye on the conservationists, and recognise that they can go too far. Their cause is not always as pure as they themselves believe. But we should also hope that the offerings of Open House 2021 are even richer than they are today.