April 20, 2005
A tower block and a wind farm: two hideous monuments to BlairismSimon Jenkins
John Prescott is like a Hull tycoon depositing his industrial dirt on the workers’ gardens
IF TONY BLAIR wins on May 5 he will have one goal in mind: history. As the last voter vanishes from his rear-view mirror, grim-visaged history will loom over the road ahead. He can boast to voters, but before history he must cringe. It is the grim reaper from whom there is no escape.
I comb Mr Blair’s utterances at present and find no awareness of this. The election is percentage politics, shorter waiting lists, more policemen, fewer thefts. Today’s spat is tomorrow’s lost statistic. History prefers things that last. It remembers great works of political architecture, Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation, Helmut Kohl’s reunited Germany. It honours Sixtus V for rebuilding Rome, Eisenhower for the American freeways, Mitterrand for his “grands projets”.
I believe that Blair’s Britain will be remembered not just for Iraq, but also for how successfully it guarded the nation’s fragile environment from its post-industrial prosperity. Did it treat wealth as having an obligation to public aesthetics? Or did it believe that private affluence was inseparable from public squalour, and that anyway beauty is a matter of opinion?
In such a spirit have historians deplored the urban sprawl of the 1930s and the high-rise errors of the 1960s and 70s. Britain may have been rich, they said, but what a mess it made with the riches. So much money wasted on so much ugliness.
This lasting legacy of Blair’s Britain came vividly to mind this week in two policies, ignored on the hustings, that will transform the future appearance of Britain. One is John Prescott’s astonishing decision on Monday to overrule his inspector and permit a single 50-storey tower of flats, virtually the height of Canary Wharf, on the bank of the Thames opposite the Tate Gallery. The other is the inquiry which opened yesterday into a five-mile corridor of 27 turbines , 400ft high, at Whinash, high on the edge of the Lake District in Cumbria.
Both decisions change policy and with have a devastating impact. Both are in every sense totemic. At Vauxhall Mr Prescott has torn up any remaining skyline control in London simply, it seems, because a developer asked. A public bribe comes in the form of some cheap flats, to be awarded for life to a few incredibly lucky “key workers”. Such flats never stay cheap for long. This is no more than a gigantic property development.
It would be futile to ask how Mr Prescott’s decision fits into an overall vision of London’s appearance. He cannot have one. These towers are now being proposed wherever an architect can sweet-talk the mayor and Mr Prescott into giving him a permit. The zoning of high buildings in London is a complete shambles, contrasting with the clear rules observed in Paris, Rome, Barcelona, even New York (where high buildings are clustered).
Central government has been the worst offender. It broke zoning with hospitals, offices and barracks round London parks. John Gummer sought to make the Thames a canyon, with high rises west of Chelsea. But until now very high buildings (VHBs) have been confined to east of the City.
By allowing a 60-storey skyscraper behind London Bridge and now the Vauxhall tower Mr Prescott cannot refuse VHB applications across the whole of Central London. The effect will be to litter the capital with isolated blocks wherever a site is vacant, like the one still deplored by Parisians at Montparnasse. None of the towers has any civic significance and their scale and servicing invariably blights their neighbourhoods. They are not a “matter of opinion”. They are one person’s opinion (and profit) dominating everyone else’s. Unlike low-rise development, which can achieve similar densities, these massive structures are visual dictatorship.
Similar totems to Labour’s love affair with macho capitalism are sprouting in city centres across Britain, in Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. They are not needed, there being land aplenty in these city centres. The movement is like the high-rise enthusiasm in the 1970s, a yearning by architects and politicians simply to show off. In modern Britain you can sue the authorities if a paving stone is out of line by one inch, but you can do nothing if a building is out of line by 50 storeys.
Mr Blair’s legacy to rural Britain is no less totemic. His banning of hunting will forever be a black-letter day in most country calendars, but is at least reversible. In its place the uplands of Britain are being industrialised. Already some 1,200 wind turbines are up and running. Patricia Hewitt, the Energy Minister, wants 6,000 more, which should make them visible in all the wildest and most unspoilt parts of the country. By subsidising the market rate for electricity to the extent of 300 per cent and offering £1 billion in other subsidies, Ms Hewitt has invited a Klondike goldrush from American, Japanese and European entrepreneurs. The Whinash scheme in Cumbria is subsidised desecration.
Few Britons, especially those who holiday abroad, will have any idea just what is being done to the western uplands of Britain in their name. These turbine parks are truly massive, requiring to be serviced by networks of new roads, quarries, pylons and substations across virgin moorland. The saving in greenhouse gas is negligible — less in a year than is exhaled by one transatlantic jet. The subsidies would be infinitely better spent cleaning coal and gas stations, insulating houses and investing in nuclear power. Turbines look good on “green” brochures; they are literally nothing but spin.
Until last year some attempt was made to keep the turbines away from national parks, proof that even ministers knew them to be ugly and intrusive. Mr Prescott has reversed this requirement, allowing their erection along national park boundaries. Wildness lovers must look the other way. The Deputy Prime Minister is like a Hull tycoon depositing his industrial dirt on the workers’ gardens.
If anything will be regarded as precious in post-industrial Britain it is the quality of life invested in landscape, urban and rural. Turbines would be objectionable even if they were productive, like the railways or cooling towers which already intrude on the countryside. But they intrude far more, and with far less justification.
If Mr Blair were serious about global warming he would invest in a new generation of nuclear stations as a talisman of ecological seriousness. Yet last year he funked the issue by asking a Commons committee with a laugh, “Would you want one in your constituency?” Nobody has dared put one wind turbine on the Chilterns overlooking Chequers. The Prime Minister carefully holidays abroad.
Towers and turbines may not seem as pressing as cancer but, like Ozymandias’s “vast and trunkless legs of stone”, they will be monuments to our age that will last for a very long time. A civilised society that has has cared for its environment for centuries seems suddenly to have lost the plot. The Stuarts took pains to regulate the appearance of booming London. The Victorians did likewise, building with a studious respect for the past. The Germans are now struggling to reclaim the beauty of cities destroyed in the war. Isolated high buildings are normally a feature of Latin American and oriental regimes desperate to display commercial virility.
Elected governments do not regard foreign treaties as negated by elections. They last until renegotiated. The same should go for compacts formed by past generations to protect Britain’s landscape and heritage on behalf of the future. That Mr Blair can allow a 50-storey tower across the Thames from Parliament and subsidise a useless power station on a Lake District moor fractures that compact. Towers and turbines will stand rampant on his escutcheon, long after schools and hospitals have disappeared. These erections will push themselves over the horizon, crying “I’m Blair, look at me!”
I cannot believe this is how the Prime Minister wants history to remember him. But thanks to Mr Prescott it will.