Under Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the quango backed a series of exciting designs, from the Swiss Re tower to the V&A spiral. Now it seems to have clamped the brakes on. Has English Heritage reverted to type?
When, In february this year, English Heritage vetoed the 222 m Heron Tower in the City of London – a project that had been supported by the Corporation of London, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the mayor of London – developers across the capital felt their hearts sink.

The year before, those same developers had hailed the new, forward-looking EH. The quango had just approved Foster and Partners' £150m, 41-storey Swiss Re tower (the "erotic gherkin") for the site of the grade I-listed Baltic Exchange, damaged by the IRA – a decision that many saw as a watershed in conservation policy. Then there were all the other flamboyantly modern buildings that received EH's seal of approval, such as Daniel Libeskind's jagged, deconstructivist extension to the Victoria & Albert Museum and Foster's "fencing mask" headquarters for the Greater London Authority on a sensitive site next to Tower Bridge and opposite the Tower of London.

These decisions seemed to back EH's argument that it did not just conserve for the sake of it, but made decisions on a balance of social, economic and environmental factors. Chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens, who moved on in March 2000, seemed determined to stretch EH's brief to support high-quality modern buildings that would be the heritage of the future. The result was that many developers, confident that they were living through the first days of a new enlightenment, rushed to assemble their tower proposals.

That was before EH's fierce opposition to the Heron project. It is thought that EH's London Advisory Committee – one of nine regional committees – approved the tower but was overruled by the double-barrelled dignitaries that sit on the quango's national commission. Following the commission's opposition, the deputy prime minister called in the Heron Tower. Before Christmas, EH also opposed a 41-storey, 164 m high Richard Rogers Partnership tower at Paddington Basin. It is now understood to be setting its sights on Renzo Piano's spectacular 306 m tower at London Bridge. These decisions crystallised developers' fears that the reforming era of Stevens was over, and that under new chairman Sir Neil Cossons, former director of the Science Museum, EH had reverted to an obsession with preserving the past at all costs.

The lack of transparency surrounding these decisions is leading to criticism that EH is undemocratic. "The process in London at the moment is not effective," says Peter Rees, head of planning at the Corporation of London. "There are too many people who can put the brakes on who are not democratically accountable."

Democratic deficits
How, the development community asks, can it make purely discretionary decisions behind closed doors that will scupper complex multimillion-pound transactions, with serious economic consequences for Londoners? How could this rarefied institution remain so enigmatic and impenetrable in an era when government is supposed to be more open and inclusive? Mayor Ken Livingstone has called for the meetings of the LAC to be made public. "Having been created as a quango which is not democratically accountable, they should be part of the debate," he said at mayor's question time in February.

Carl Powell, head of planning at Westminster council, is also in favour of greater openness. "We are unaware of any reason why EH, like local planners, should not hold committee meetings in public," he says. "As long as it holds them in private, it will suffer from the suspicious element among developers, because there are such complicated, high-value transactions involved with these tall buildings and major schemes." EH chief executive Pam Alexander rejected this idea last week, saying that public discussion would lead to less openness. "We are a long way off that happening," she says. "The discussions in the committee meetings are so open and frank now, and they just couldn't be if they were made public." EH has posted minutes of its commission meetings on the internet since last November; the meetings of the committees, however, that make recommendations to the commission, are not made available to the public, despite being a matter of public record under the Freedom of Information Act.

How consistent is EH?
What is galling to the development industry is the apparent inconsistency in EH's decision-making. The director of a prominent London architect said the approval of the V&A spiral sent out a mixed message about what was permissable in sensitive locations. "That is confusing. They need to set out some guidance about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate." Phillip Davies, chair of the LAC, defends the apparent inconsistency between the treatment of Heron Tower and Swiss Re. He confirms that although Heron Tower did not obstruct views protected by statute, such as those of the dome of St Paul's, it would have an adverse impact on other classic views, specifically the view from Waterloo Bridge and the panorama from the terrace of Somerset House – "the one that Canaletto painted". It would also rear up in the airspace between St Paul's and Tower 42, "compromising St Paul's role as the main focus of that area of the City".

Davies says this is not inconsistent with the decision to pass Foster's Swiss Re because it "sits firmly within a group of tall buildings in the City. It rises up well to the right of Tower 42 and the impact on St Paul's is no more than what is there already." However, Davies acknowledges that there was a strategic dimension to the Heron refusal, as EH knew that several other tower proposals were waiting in the wings. "We were concerned about having to react to tower proposals on an ad hoc basis and agreed a comprehensive policy was needed. We thought it was only fair to give developers a clear steer on the issues at this stage by refusing it." The LAC has since, however, invited deputy mayor Nicky Gavron – a firm supporter of tall buildings – to join it.

Architect Piers Gough, also a member of the LAC, says the criteria on which it bases decisions are documented in dozens of reports. "EH's case history stretches from here to eternity. They have a fantastically good record of picking winners and losers. And when local authorities go ahead with a scheme against EH's advice, the results are pretty damn poor." Gough also defends the direct appointment of commissioners by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport: "Are the governors of the British Museum democratically appointed? No. Does everyone want to go to it? Yes. EH is a hugely professional undertaking of great scholarship by people who are the best in their fields of study."

How well does it know its job?
Regardless of the calibre of the commissioners (Gentlemen and players, right), developers fear that recent devolution of casework to the regions, where officers are less experienced, will result in more conservative, less finely balanced decisions.

EH considers about 18,000 statutory cases a year, 40% of them in London. Its policy centre is in Savile Row, Mayfair, with frontline operations – grants programmes, statutory casework advice and historic properties management – devolved to nine regional offices. "That is the EH lottery," says one leading architecture planning consultant. "Will the decision be taken by a junior officer, will it go up to the LAC or the Historic Buildings and Areas Advisory Committee, or even up to the commission? EH is very short of architectural training and expertise at officer level, and that leads it into poor decisions." Gough, however, argues that devolution should improve regional decision-making, and that EH's new roving urban panel, a joint venture with CABE, will facilitate this. "The urban panel was launched because regional offices were keen to hear how their views stacked up with the views of experts in the field. It was to help them and local authorities. By giving the regions autonomy it is hoped they will find their own way to interpret EH's remit and to encourage great modern buildings. If you give people more confidence in the regions, you will get more sophisticated decision-making." The signs are the developers should not despair at the Heron decision. Help will be at hand soon, in the form of joint EH-CABE policy guidance – a report on new buildings in historic settings is due out next month, followed by a national tall buildings policy in June.

What's more, Davies says EH is looking at ways to make its bureaucracy more streamlined and transparent. A further restructuring looks to reduce the number of advisory committees to three before the summer. Meanwhile, EH remains unrepentant that its prime aim is to defend England's historic environment and not to promote inward investment.

Gentlemen and players: the English Heritage Commission

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport appoints commissioners from an approved list of nominees willing to sit on quangos. Commissioners are appointed for three years and can serve two terms. The commission is presented with 70-100 of the most strategically important planning cases a year and notes the advice of officers. It intervenes in about 40 of these a year. The membership is:
  • Sir Neil Cossons, former director of the Science Museum and founder of Ironbridge
  • Amanda Arrowsmith, director of libraries and heritage for Suffolk council
  • Michael Cairns, adviser to Queens Moat House
  • Bridget Cherry, editor of the Buildings of England series
  • The Duke of Gloucester
  • Philip Davis, leader of Telford and Wrekin council
  • Andrew Fane, businessman and farmer
  • Lord Faringdon, chairman of Witan Investment
  • Eric Fernie, director of the Courtauld Institute
  • Lady Gass, Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, vice chairman of Exmoor National Park Committee
  • Piers Gough, founding partner of CZWG Architects
  • Loyd Grossman, journalist and broadcaster
  • Candida Lycett Green, writer and broadcaster, a director of the Countryside Movement and contributing editor of Vogue, as well as daughter of Sir John Betjeman
  • Kirsty McLeod, writer and editor
  • Richard Morris, former director of the Council of British Archaeology
  • Sue Underwood, director of the North of England Museums Service