Ken Livingstone accused English Heritage of jeopardising London's economic future by opposing tall buildings. Now its chief executive is hitting back.
Sir Neil Cossons has had enough. Eyes bulging and arms gyrating, the usually genial chairman of English Heritage is displaying signs of anger. After months of silence, he has decided to return fire at the critics who have cast his organisation as the bogeyman stultifying economic growth in London. And, above all, he wants to defend EH's stand on high-rise development in the capital.

"I'm not prepared to see EH caricatured as an organisation that is a stick-in-the-mud," he says with palpable irritation, his shirtsleeves rolled up as if in readiness for a fight. "I won't take lying down the view that we are an organisation that sits in a corner and grumpily says no."

The attacks on EH began with a Building article, published in April, in which London developers and architects expressed frustration with what they saw as EH's increasingly hardline stance against skyscrapers.

But the condemnation reached a peak last month, when Ken Livingstone launched an astonishing attack. "English Heritage poses the biggest threat to the economic vitality and well-being of Londoners since Adolf Hitler," the mayor declared after EH objected to a project he had championed, the 222 m Heron Tower proposed for the City of London.

Livingstone has made no secret of his desire to see the central London skyline enhanced by tall buildings and EH – which he has attacked as an overly secretive quango – has repeatedly thwarted this ambition. Besides the Heron Tower, it has opposed a high-rise residential scheme in Deptford, south-east London, and is likely to object to Renzo Piano's 420 m skyscraper at London Bridge. "The only place they think you can have a high-rise policy is in Croydon, Canary Wharf and possibly Stratford," Livingstone snorted.

Now Cossons has decided to set the record straight, inviting Building into EH's Savile Row headquarters for an exclusive interview.

He appears slightly nervous at first, offering tea and then forgetting to send for it, but he rapidly gets into his stride as he hits back at EH's critics. He is not opposed to skyscrapers per se, he insists, but he is convinced that the present free-for-all – in which developers unveil their gigantic proposals and then everyone else argues about whether they should be permitted – threatens to do immense damage to London.

"We are at that stage in the economic cycle where developers and architects think very tall," he says. "We've been there several times since the Second World War. But we've got proposals coming along now before we've got a strategy. We're all running to catch up with the situation."

Getting such a strategy in place is Cossons' key priority. Next Tuesday, EH and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment will launch a consultation document for national guidance on the design and location of skyscrapers. This will be followed later this month by a protocol document on tall buildings and strategic views for the capital, drawn up with Livingstone's Greater London Authority, that will set out explicitly where towers can be located. This second document will be one of the most important in the capital for a generation, determining the shape of the city's skyline for decades to come.

The joint protocol came about when Cossons, fed up with Livingstone's sniping, arranged to meet the mayor last month to smooth things over. "I think a lot of the issues with Ken had reached disproportionate heights, because we hadn't actually met and talked. It was a very open, direct and fruitful meeting. The crucial thing was for him to understand why we exist. I think we got that across."

Cossons says since the meeting, Livingstone has significantly shifted his position. The mayor's latest comments bear this out. Writing in London's Evening Standard last week, he toned down his rhetoric, saying: "I am not at war with English Heritage. I expect there to be a very small number of tall buildings in places that we can all accept."

The mayor listed Canary Wharf and Croydon among suitable locations – both places he had previously derided EH for proposing. If these areas, rather than the immediate environs of St Paul's Cathedral, are the ones recommended in the EH/GLA protocol, this would represent a significant climbdown by Livingstone.

The Hitler–Canaletto axis
Cossons laughs off the earlier Hitler jibe as mere provocation but suggests that the mayor's agenda had become too influenced by big business. "Ken has a job to reconcile the unfettered interests of business with London as a city in which people can live and enjoy themselves," he says.

He also feels that the mayor became unduly swayed by the Corporation of London, which desperately wants to turn the Square Mile into a "mini-Manhattan" to get even with upstart Canary Wharf. "Trying to shoehorn [towers] into inappropriate locations simply because people say 'I want one here and not there'

Trying to shoehorn towers into inappropriate locations is crass. The solution has to be London-wide

is crass. The solution has got to be a London-wide one, and not just one London borough fighting for its corner."

Cossons says EH opposed Heron Tower primarily because it felt its location – close to St Paul's and intruding into protected strategic views across the capital – was inappropriate. Livingstone has had a field day ridiculing the views, saying development is being held back in large parts of the capital thanks to archaic rules protecting, for example, the view of the Thames that Canaletto painted in 1747.

But Cossons is angry that the debate has been reduced to an argument about a dead painter. "This has become a one-dimensional debate. Just to throw up a picture of St Paul's taken from Waterloo Bridge with some spikes around it and say the future prosperity of the City of London is at stake is naive."

London's protected views are all up for review as part of the EH/GLA protocol, although Cossons believes that the existing ones are "pretty sound" and admits that the possibility of adding new ones is being discussed. He adds: "This is not just about skylines and viewpoints; it is much more an issue of urban landscape and, in particular, to do with density. It isn't a sine qua non that density means very tall."

Although EH's remit is essentially to protect the historic environment, Cossons wants to widen the scope of the debate, asking questions about the social and economic impact of proposed developments. "A lot of the evidence we would like to see put into this debate is, why build tall buildings in the first place?" he says. "Is this just something out of which a developer makes a load of money, or does it actually offer value to London's social and economic fabric and future?"

Cossons, 62, was appointed non-executive chairman of EH by culture secretary Chris Smith in April last year, after a lifetime in the more genteel world of museums. He was director of the Science Museum for 14 years; before that he headed the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and, for 12 years, Shropshire's Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

He is universally liked, drawing warm compliments from all quarters: "He's a wonderful person to work with," says CABE chairman Sir Stuart Lipton; "he's such a nice man," says the Savile Row receptionist. Insiders note the contrast between his friendly approach and that of Sir Jocelyn Stevens, his controversial and high-handed predecessor.

A new approach
In many ways, Cossons is doing much the same at EH as Lipton has done at CABE, taking a body perceived as reactionary and elitist (the Royal Fine Art Commission in CABE's case) and turning it into a dynamic, consensus-building organisation. Cossons wants EH to adopt CABE's strategy of getting developers and architects in at an early stage to discuss their proposals, rather than reacting to plans once they have been unveiled.

He promises a gradual shift towards more openness in the decision-making process, and admits that the organisation has failed to explain the rationale behind decisions in the past. He says: "I am determined it will be less elitist during the period of my chairmanship."

He is unapologetic about EH's role as defender of the historic urban fabric, yet strongly denies that it is anti-modern. He is fiercely critical of planning guidance issued by Westminster council, which calls for new buildings to mimic the scale and pattern of their historic neighbours.

"Heaven forbid the idea that gaps in the historic environment become filled with clichéd pastiche. Terrible. That's more destructive of the veracity and integrity of historic buildings than arguing for good, well-designed new ones." To prove the point, a second joint EH/CABE report later this year will single out 25 examples of successful modern buildings in conservation areas.

But he is sticking to his guns when it comes to skyscrapers. In fact, he would like some towers pulled down. "I went and stood on the top floor of the Tate Modern and sat quietly for a couple of hours and just looked at [the City skyline]. It is difficult to see a single distinguished tall building. If some of those buildings cease to be worth having, we should make every effort to get them down."

Personal effects

What’s your favourite skyscraper?
The Empire State Building in New York. But my favourite city for skyscrapers is Chicago. It’s the best possible introduction you could have to great 20th-century architecture.
Where do you live?
An 18th-century rectory in Shropshire, which I’m restoring. I’m going to install two breathtakingly modern bathrooms, but I haven’t decided yet between Philippe Starck or Arne Jacobsen fittings.
What’s the best view in London?
Walking through the Gilbert Scott frontage of St Pancras Station, looking through Barlow’s train shed.
What car do you drive?
A diesel Rover 75. It’s the sixth Rover I’ve had – it’s a bloody good car. Those small-minded British motoring journalists who haven’t liked it should be taken out and shot.