The inaugural MIPIM UK event came to a conclusion today and it’s been a pretty exciting three days, if not always for the right reasons. There have been a few rocky moments – not least the ‘intimate’ welcome from the very noisy protestors on day one; and a few teething troubles too – I’ve already mentioned the terrible acoustics in the Red and Blue seminar rooms, where the background hubbub was a constant distraction from the debates we were trying to focus on.
But, overall the first MIPIM UK appears to have been a success. Olympia seemed to be permanently abuzz with activity and there were very few stands suffering from a lack of interest. The panel discussions I attended were consistently engaging and the organisers saved one of the very best until the final day.
Skyscrapers, or tall buildings to use the infinitely more boring technical descriptor, have always been a Marmite subject, with people tending to either love or loathe them. A top-notch panel comprising Jane Duncan, President-elect of RIBA, Nigel Barker, Planning and Conservation Director at English Heritage, Brian Smith of Aecom and chaired by Peter Wynne Rees, Professor of Places and City Planning at The Bartlett, University College London (and former City Planning Officer at the Corporation of London) took up the debate over whether building tall is about vanity or necessity.
Our chair clearly wasn’t interested in being a neutral moderator. Having justified the ‘cluster’ of tall buildings granted planning permission during his tenure in the City on the basis of meeting a pressing need for office space, he then launched into an attack on the ‘investment residential properties’ springing up elsewhere in the capital. Rees accused the ‘identical twin’ Mayors Boris and Ken of setting a ‘horrific trend’ and creating a market where swathes of the city are being frozen from use ‘for generations’ by external investors buying up properties with no intention of occupying them. Rees cited his own home as an example. The Heron Tower opened over a year ago, yet over one third of apartment owners still haven’t collected their keys.
Whilst the other panellists were somewhat more diplomatic in their appraisal of the value or otherwise of residential tall buildings in urban locations, all were in agreement that context is vital in determining their need or otherwise. Nigel Barker acknowledged that London has always been home to tall buildings, describing the Tower as a tall building of its era, and they have always been built partly through vanity and partly through necessity. Jane Duncan and Brian Smith both highlighted the need for consistency of guidance and advice from planners. All the panellists were in agreement that planning departments across the country are woefully underfunded and should be afforded both the money and esteem this vital role deserves. And this was, all the panellists agreed, a more fundamental matter that impacts on all new development, whether for tall buildings or not.
Rather like MIPIM UK itself, the session started on a controversial note, but concluded on a forward looking and important one. As Jane Duncan very eloquently summed it up; we are all the custodians of London and the UK’s current and future heritage, and we owe to our own and future generations to take that responsibility very seriously.