When Carl Powell arrived as Westminster's planning director, developers expected a high-rise bonanza. But the Texan has spent the last two years cutting them down to size.
When Carl Powell arrived at Westminster council back in 1999 as director of planning and transport, many developers hoped they would be given the green light to let rip with megaprojects. They saw him as the embodiment of US-style laissez-faire – after all, he'd helped set up the Docklands free-fire zone in the 1980s, and had moved from there to head property investment firm Rotch.

Fifteen months later, it has emerged that what they have in fact got is a hands-on, restrictive, conservative type, and one who is, furthermore, anti-skyscraper. What's more, the 50-year-old planning chief knows only too well he's got a fight on his hands.

Right now, he's struggling with Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Authority. The mayor has said he has no problem with tall buildings if they are in the right location and have access to transport facilities. Powell is adamant that there must be a distinction between tall buildings and skyscrapers. He says: "Ken Livingstone is doing a very difficult job, but we do occasionally fall out with him. We welcome tall buildings but feel skyscrapers are not appropriate for Westminster." Before Christmas, Westminster rejected proposals for two towers at Paddington, designed by Richard Rogers and Nicholas Grimshaw, because they were too tall. Powell reportedly told Grimshaw to chop 35 storeys off his 45-floor design.

However, Powell does argue that there is scope for negotiations. He adds mischievously: "That's not to say a developer can't come to us with a convincing argument and demonstrate where there is an appropriate site or location." But you get the feeling that it would have to be very convincing.

When I sit at this table and say ‘no’ it doesn’t put me at the top of developers’ Christmas card lists

Stern-looking, bearded Powell says his business management experience pays off when dealing with pushy developers. "When I sit at this table and say 'no' and there are financial consequences, it doesn't put me at the top of their Christmas card lists. But having said that, because I have a private-sector background, rather than talking to me about the colour of bricks, I want developers to talk about what their proposed business is going to do for Westminster." A political science graduate, Powell moved to the UK 30 years ago and qualified as a chartered surveyor before moving from surveying to general business management. He worked at the top level in councils in London, Portsmouth and East Sussex, and spent several years as an executive officer in the NHS, managing hospitals and lecturing in Oxford before going into the private sector.

Why is a planner like a policeman?
Powell is happy to tell how he's now in charge of the largest planning authority in the country – directly and indirectly it employs 2740 staff and processes 10 000 applications a year – and how his department has the lowest costs per application. But then again, he says his staff are underpaid. "Like all professionals, planners can behave like primadonnas, and they don't always get it right. Westminster is unusual in that we very much underpay our staff and I acknowledge that. But we are still able to attract and retain top-quality planners because of the buzz and excitement that this geography generates." Under Powell's leadership, plans to privatise Westminster's planning department have surfaced, then foundered. However, he points out that lower-level planning administration is being market-tested to see whether it could be more efficiently managed out of house.

Personal effects

Age 50
Are you married and do you have any kids? I am married with two daughters who are 21 and 23 and both graduates.
Where do you live? In Pimlico, so on the patch.
How do you travel to work? I walk.
Where were you born? I was born in Texas, which means the new president and I have something in common. But I lived in Seattle.
What car do you drive? When I do drive, an old Ford Fiesta that is economical and environmentally friendly.
What are your hobbies? I’m an occasional oarsman. I enjoy London-based activities like theatre and ballet, and I’m a bit of a film buff.