The public inquiry into the proposed Mirax-Beetham Tower at Blackfriars Bridge and the 20 Blackfriars Road development has heard its first evidence.
Both schemes were approved by Southwark Council but – mindful of objections from the City of Westminster and the Royal Parks Agency – communities secretary Hazel Blears 'called in' the applications for decision at national level and ordered a single public inquiry to consider the two proposals.
The planning inspector hearing the inquiry is John Gray who also heard the public inquiry into the London Bridge Tower (better known as the Shard of Glass).
The inquiry – which is expected to last four weeks – is being held at the former Interserve offices at 19-23 Blackfriars Road, one of the buildings due for demolition if the 20 Blackfriars Road scheme goes ahead. Details of the inquiry schedule are posted online by the programme officer.
The Russian-backed 52-storey Mirax-Beetham Tower is proposed for the site bounded by Blackfriars Road, Stamford Street, Rennie Street and Upper Ground. It would include an 261-room luxury hotel and apartments.
The Israeli-backed 20 Blackfriars Road scheme includes a 42-storey residential tower and 23-storey office tower along with further buildings of up to seven storeys on the site bounded by Blackfriars Road, Stamford Street, Paris Garden and Christ Church Garden.
The various parties made their opening submissions to the inquiry on Tuesday morning.
He said that the tower would provide a "destination hotel of the highest quality" and the publicly accessible skydeck on the top floors would attract up to 800,000 visitors a year.
He rejected the claims that the towers would irrevocably damage St James' Park: "A calm and reasonable assessment can only conclude that the proposals ... would 'not dominate or overpower the setting' of these views".
Mr Corner highlighted the recent decision by Hazel Blears on the Doon Street Tower in Lambeth which showed that skyscrapers visible from the bridge in St James' Park are "not necessarily objectionable".
Richard Banwell, appearing jointly for the City of Westminster and the Royal Parks Agency, outlined his clients' objection to the "unacceptable harm" the towers would cause to views from the Blue Bridge in St James' Park. He warned that the towers will be "highly visible and intrusive".
"This is not merely because we consider them unacceptable, but primarily because the scarcest things we have in central London – land and sky – are so highly valued by people who live here that decisions on their use must be based on facts, on policy, and on rational argument."
Ball acknowledged that the area of the proposed developments is not currently a place of beauty.
"To some extent Blackfriars Road is a no man's land, and the monolithic buildings and unmixed uses of the sites developed along it over the past 30 years have exacerbated this. These historic mistakes are underpinned by an absence of strategic planning for this area. It was a mistake in our view that the area in the borough of Southwark west of Blackfriars Rd was not included in the Waterloo Opportunity Area, to which it clearly relates.
Accusing planners and politicians at City Hall and Southwark Council of "dithering" in relation to tall buildings in Blackfriars Road, Mr Ball noted that consultation in 2005 on draft planning guidance for tall buildings in Blackfriars Road came to nothing.
Mr Ball also raised the prospect of an intervention by Boris Johnson who has hitherto failed to overturn his precedessor's support for tall buildings at Blackfriars.
"I understand a letter of objection will be arriving in the next few days, reversing previous support. But we invite the inquiry to consider whether the position of the local planning authority [Southwark Council] has also been confused and its rationale post hoc."
"We look forward to this inquiry helping to resolve the lack of clarity with regard to tall buildings along Blackfriars Road at the application sites."
• "I see the public spaces as being like a little lung in the city"
• The development will create "a stronger portal to Southwark"
• Christ Church Garden is "a slightly curious little church yard" which is "slightly neglected"