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Betty Boothroyd: UK risks ‘humiliation’ over South Bank towers

Members of the House of Lords have expressed concern about the impact of proposed high-rise developments on the South Bank on the world heritage status of the Palace of Westminster.

Betty Boothroyd: UK risks ‘humiliation’ over South Bank towers
Opponents of the 29-storey Elizabeth House scheme at Waterloo argue that it would be visible in views from Parliament Square

The issue of skyscrapers at Waterloo interfering with views of and from the Westminster world heritage site was raised by Baroness Boothroyd on Thursday morning during the final sitting before the general election.

Thursday's question time was the second time that Baroness Boothroyd had aired this issue in the House of Lords, following a debate last November.

This time former Commons speaker wanted to know what response the government had given to the request by UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) for an updated reply by 1 February to its concerns about the development of the South Bank and its impact on the Palace of Westminster as part of a world heritage site.

The minister, Baroness Jolly, had told the packed chamber that the full report could be read on the UNESCO website.

"My Lords, why have the Government not published that response to UNESCO's renewed concerns about the spread of high-rise development on the South Bank?" asked Lady Boothroyd.

"They have not produced the report for this House. My copy of the Government's response, which I have here, has been provided to me by UNESCO itself. It refers to many things but does not promise the protection that UNESCO seeks for the Westminster heritage site; nor does it reflect the advice of the Government's statutory advisers on heritage policy, whose statement I also happen to have.

"Do the Government no longer care about their responsibilities to the national heritage in London? Who calls the tune? Is it Mr Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, or is it Mr Boris Johnson, the mayor?

"Will the noble Baroness accept that the prospect of Parliament and all it stands for being downgraded in favour of mega projects that cost millions but do little to ease London's housing shortage would be a national disgrace and an international humiliation?"

Baroness Jolly said that all the planning regulations and the whole planning process had been exactly as they should be.

Lord Collins of Highbury, speaking from the Labour front bench, said that by standing on Waterloo Bridge, not many visitors would appreciate just how many of the buildings they see are the responsibility of different planning authorities.

The secretary of state, in refusing to hold a public inquiry on the 29-storey Elizabeth House development, said that it could not have significant effects beyond the immediate locality.

"Bearing in mind what we have heard, does the noble Baroness really share that view; or, like the secretary of state, is she so committed to the dogma or doctrine that a local council should have the sole responsibility, whatever the consequence?" asked Lord Collins.

In reply Baroness Jolly observed: "From where the Supreme Court is you can still see clear sky, which is one of the things that caused concern."

Former English Heritage chair Baroness Andrews said: "My Lords, can the noble baroness confirm that the original reason why Mr Pickles did not call in this application was because he said that it did not have national significance – something that contradicted the best possible statutory advice and the reality of the application?

"This [the Palace of Westminster] is probably the most famous building and skyline in the world.

"Could she tell me what does constitute 'national significance' in the light of Mr Pickles' judgment, and perhaps give some examples of how he has applied that judgment?"

When Baroness Jolly replied that she did not "have the ear of Mr Pickles", Lord Cormack interrupted to say that even at the late stage in the Parliament it was important that she did obtain the ear of Mr Pickles.

Lord Cormack said: "What he has done has placed in jeopardy the whole future of Westminster as a world heritage site. Do we really want to end this Parliament on that note?"

Baroness Jolly said that UNESCO had not warned of a possible delisting of the Palace.

"It has asked that the state of conservation report for the site be submitted by 1 February. The Government have carefully considered UNESCO's request not to approve the scheme (Elizabeth House) but concluded that the level of harm to the world heritage site would be substantially less than that suggested by UNESCO."

However, Admiral Lord West of Spithead pressed the minister on her failure to know the communities secretary's mind.

"My Lords, I am only a simple sailor, but I am slightly confused," he told the House. "Is the minister really saying that she is unable to talk to the minister who is the head of her department?"

But Baroness Jolly stressed that she was answering as a minister in the culture department – which deals with heritage matters – and had not been briefed by the communities department which is responsible for planning.

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