"La-a-adies and gentlemen", the chairman might as well have announced in ringmaster tones to the throng squeezed into Committee Room 13. "We bring you performing elephants! We bring you a master of the flying trapeze! But first, bring on the clowns!"
The elephants later turned out to be Westminster planners Carl Powell and Rosemarie MacQueen, who plodded through their well-rehearsed insistence that towers are contextually inappropriate in historic, low-rise boroughs such as theirs. The trapeze artist was Times columnist Simon Jenkins who, with characteristic verbal agility, flipped through his thesis that tallness equals ugliness (except Salisbury cathedral and anything else in the early English gothic style).
Hardly gripping stuff. Instead, it was the clowns who stole the show.
Corporation of London policy committee chair Judith Mayhew and her planning officer Peter Rees have refined their advocacy of skyscrapers into a slapstick double-act of some finesse. The corporation, the authority that governs the City of London, is desperate to see more towers crammed into the Square Mile and the arguments it trots out to further its cause become more comical with each retelling.
Pomposity is always entertaining, but the corporation's sense of self-importance is hilarious. Mayhew apparently believes that the national economy would collapse without more towers in her manor. "Someone has to keep the economy of this country going," she said with a straight face. "It's quite a responsibility." No matter that tower-free Westminster harbours more office space than the City and a greater share of the capital's employment – and that its average rents outstripped the City for the first time last year.
"We're very important to our surrounding boroughs as well," she continued. "The economic wealth cascades out into the surrounding areas." Try telling that to the impoverished residents of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green.
The corporation then launched into one of its favourite one-liners: businesses will relocate to rival cities such as Frankfurt unless towers are built in the City. "Do you have any evidence to support this?" somebody asked. "The Bank of America is moving out of the City," Rees replied, "to a tall building at Canary Wharf!" The ensuing ripple of laughter suggested that most of the MPs present were aware that Canary Wharf was in London, not Hesse.
The elephants turned out to be Westminster planners Carl Powell and Rosemarie MacQueen, the trapeze artist was Times columnist Simon Jenkins, but it was the clowns who stole the show …
But Rees was unperturbed. "Deutsche Bank is actively considering moving its headquarters from Frankfurt to London," he said triumphantly, seemingly unaware that this fact entirely negated his argument.
Next up was the question of how London's creaking transport system would cope with all the additional workers that skyscrapers would entail. "There's considerable capacity within the [transport] system," Rees declared. Commuters who endure hellish conditions on packed trains and tubes may disagree, but Rees had an answer for that one too: reduce the number of trains by 20%. "They're running too many trains; more than the system can cope with. They need to run fewer trains more regularly," he said, to titters of disbelief.
Then they trotted out the sustainability routine. Businesses want to be in the City because they are close to lots of other businesses; staff can walk between meetings. "People spend a lot of time commuting back and forth, and that's very unsustainable," Mayhew declared. But nearly all of the 300,000 City workers have to commute to work because, unlike every other London borough, there is practically no housing in the City.
Ah, but they had a riposte to that one, too: unlike Westminster, where 245,000 people are housed, the City's lack of residents is a Very Good Thing. "We can dig up the streets at night without disturbing people," Mayhew explained.
"Why can't businesses be accommodated in low-rise buildings?" somebody piped up. "You can't have all groundscrapers." Mayhew replied. "We'd have no green belt left."
"You'd end up with a Los Angeles-type effect," Rees added. No matter that global corporations want to be based not in deepest Berkshire but in the capital, where – the Square Mile aside – there is oodles of available land, especially in areas to the east such as Canary Wharf.
This, of course, is the corporation's real fear. It is terrified it will lose its position as the premier location for financial markets not to Frankfurt, but to other parts of London. This is a serious moment in the evolution of London's skyline; the government is currently considering the contentious £187m Heron Tower proposal in the City. If approved, detractors claim it will open the floodgates to a raft of similar proposals. Such a decision should be made in the context of what is best for London as a whole and not on the basis of hysterical arguments.
Marcus Fairs is Building's features editor.