Unesco officials are soon expected to add Westminster to their “endangered list”, pushing the area close to being stripped of its World Heritage Status.
The international heritage body is due to meet in Cambodia tomorrow to discuss the impact that a number of schemes featuring tall buildings could have on Parliament Square and its immediate area.
At the heart of the furore is developer Chelsfield and London Regional Properties’ £600M Elizabeth House scheme in Waterloo.
Designed by David Chipperfield Architects the project, in which consultants Arup and Jacobs are also involved, is opposite Waterloo Station and features two buildings, one of 11 storeys the other of 29, separated by apublic square.
Lambeth Council approved the development in December, but Westminster City Council and English Heritage have lobbied hard for the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to call the scheme in for public inquiry.
English Heritage said Elizabeth House would cause “significant harm” to heritage assets of “national and international value, including Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster”.
But DCLG has so far refused to get involved. In March communities secretary Eric Pickles specifically turned down the request from Westminster and English Heritage. This led Unesco to criticise the British government for failing to define the “outstanding universal value” of Parliament Square.
Westminster councillor Robert Davis also attacked Pickles’ decision, claiming that there is an “obsession” with building tall buildings, “without proper regard to the impacts of such buildings on our heritage”.
Davis added that: “Loss of World Heritage Status would be very bad news for the country; it would signal that we are failing in our duty to protect our heritage.”
The issue was raised again last week when global tall buildings body the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) held its 2013 conference in London.
This year’s focus was building in areas of historical importance and many speakers warned of the dangers of inappropriate development. These included City of London planning officer Peter Rees (see right).
But Rees said he had sympathies with the developers of Elizabeth House.
Speaking on the final day of the conference, Rees said that the row highlighted the problems of developing in London.
“Building anything in London will always block the view of someone,” he said.
“I happen to think it’s not a bad building. But it just goes to highlight the challenges.”
Former CTBUH chair and head of Laing O’Rourke’s engineering excellence arm, David Scott, defended the scheme.
“There is already a skyscraper there,” he said, citing the Shell House tower in Waterloo.
“The planning regulations in London are sympathetic to recognising the old, and permitting the new if done well. It is really to do with the architecture. The building can be successful if designed well.”
Other schemes cited by Unesco as potentially damaging to the Westminster’s heritage are KPF’s One Nine Elms scheme in Battersea and Squire & Partners’ Vauxhall Island project.
As well as Westminster, Unesco will be considering the status of Hayle Harbour in Cornwall, and the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim.