Tuesday, 30 August 2011

UNESCO to the rescue!

London is apparently to be visited shortly by UNESCO - or possibly their representatives on earth, ICOMOS, the 'International Council on Monuments and Sites' -  who are to determine whether the world heritage sites of the Palace of Westminster and Tower of London are 'at risk'.

At risk from what, you ask?  Flood, fire, dodgy foundations or inappropriate interior decoration? No - at risk from that great curse of the big modern world: big modern buildings.  There is anxiety, it seems, that large-scale new development may be taking over our world city (that's our world city, by the way, not UNESCO's) and ruining its unspoilt Norman (or should that be Victorian plus Victorian sham-Norman knock-off) cityscape.

The UK has signed up to international treaties, promising to look after our heritage, so UNESCO and ICOMOS do have a legitimate locus, and on the face of it they are only doing their job in coming to London.  But like so many in the heritage industry, once the fabric of important heritage is no longer at risk, as it generally isn't in this country, they do like to expand their remit - without any invitation to do so - to everything for miles around the thing they are supposed to be paying attention to.

The language of world heritage and the associated international treaties, and the explanations that one finds on these bodies' impenetrable websites, are distinctly offputting.   It all has a ghastly bureaucratic pomposity to it.  The sites, to qualify, have to have something called 'outstanding universal value', which once designated, sounds about as unchallengable as the Ten Commandments.  But the documents explaining the values tend to lack the pithy and compelling rhetorical qualities found in the Old Testament. And it is not at all clear what the limits of 'outstanding universal value' are in a large metropolis.  But safe to say that they are a lot more bounded than this lot think.

There is hardly anyone who now thinks that the the conjunction of the Tower of London and the Swiss Re tower, seen from the tourist honeypot of Potters Fields on the South Bank and now one of the notable sights of London, is a mistake to be regretted.  The whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts, and says all sorts of interesting and positive things about what London is.  But UNESCO look at things differently and may think they can see evidence of two Norman conquests here -  (1) a ruthless tyrant and his feared henchmen imposing their iron will on the skyline and changing the city for ever with a built symbol of their power, and (2) the Tower of London.

No doubt times are hard for international organisations funded by indebted national governments (i.e. us, ultimately).  UNESCO can save the cost of their trip - neither of these World Heritage Sites is 'at risk'.  Londoners are proud of these sites, but they are buildings in a world city, not exhibits in a museum.  There are plenty of places in the world where heritage is actually at risk, that one might think would be a higher priority -  but such places may not be quite as agreeable, or safe, to visit as London is.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Planning for the return of Mayor Ken

The bookies have Boris Johnson as favourite to win next May's election for London Mayor, but his predecessor Ken Livingstone is not so far behind, and a lot could change between now and then (especially if Ken manages to stop comparing Boris with Hitler). 

Assuming the coalition government remains in power, there is the prospect, by this time next year, of a Labour Mayor in conflict both with Tory councils at a local level and with a Tory minister at the Communities department at the national level.  The Mayor has a power - used at least once by Boris Johnson - to 'call in' big planning applications for his own decision where he doesn't like the local authority's view; and the Communities Secretary has a similar power at the national level.  The power resides in the Mayor personally, not the GLA.

Livingstone has never been averse to provocative political point-scoring. He proved himself surprisingly pro-development last time around, and it is not hard to imagine him calling in a big scheme which he supported but a local authority didn't, on the basis that it is of London-wide importance (for example in respect of its ability to contribute to Crossrail funding).  The Government would then have to decide whether to override him in turn.  We could then look forward to some fancy spinning on who is the 'localest' of them all, with Ken telling the Government to back off, and the Government claiming that it is only using its national-level powers to support the local council....

Mrs Thatcher's Government abolished the Greater London Council, under its then leader Ken Livingstone, in 1986, in a controversial act of political spite which left London rudderless for over a decade.  The present Government supports the idea of elected mayors, but it may come to find that it likes some mayors more than others - even those that are in the same party are not proving entirely problem free.

Could history repeat itself if Ken returns?