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Peter Rees: The Man Who Built The City

How a solitary Welshman almost single-handedly shaped the Square Mile 

If you are reading this at a desk in the Square Mile, Peter Rees probably signed-off the building in which you are sat. Having served as chief planning officer at the City of London Corporation for 29 years, it was under Rees’ watchful eye that almost 80 per cent of the City was redeveloped.

“No two forces have had more effect on the London skyline than the Luftwaffe and Peter Rees,” says architect Ken Shuttleworth, who, along with Rees, gave us the Gherkin.

Rees was the man developers had to charm. He was also the man to whom architecture critics turned if they wanted a salacious sound-bite. In an age on self-censorship, where those in positions of power live in fear of a sensationalist media that’s always ready to pounce, Rees shot from the hip. He was always good for a quip. “I like tall buildings because you have more time to snog in the lift,” he once offered, tongue firmly in cheek.

“No two forces have had more effect on the London skyline than the Luftwaffe and Peter Rees”

I first met Peter three years ago, when I was invited on a walking tour of the City. It was clear that Rees wasn’t your typical suit – he was wearing a denim jacket for a start. His passion for the City was infectious. He came across more historian, more comedian, than he did town planner. If he’d charged for the tour, I would have happily paid. The City was in safe hands.

Then, 12 months later, I read that Peter would be leaving the Corporation, an institution that he’d helped steer for the previous three decades. The official line was that two departments were merging into one, and that Peter’s position had become superfluous. “I think they expected one of us to walk,” says Rees of the two department heads. “I decided that I needed a fresh challenge.”

I next met Peter last month, at University College London, where he’d studied architecture as an undergraduate and where, since 2014, he’s been employed as Professor of Places and City Planning. He’d lost none of his knack for storytelling, insisting on showing me the preserved remains of UCL-founder Jeremy Bentham before we sat down in the university common room to thrash out the current swathe of developments earmarked for the capital.

Peter often causes controversy. Judge for yourself whether his comments are melodramatic or plain common sense. It’s rare to hear an interviewee speak with so much clarity and so much conviction. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a person better equipped to advise on planning policy in London. Sadiq, if you’re listening, give this man a job.

What’s the secret behind good architecture?
Getting architects and developers to discover the essence of a place, then making it work better without taking away what is most important. Some architects try to provide the outside world in one building. You don’t want people spending their whole day inside. That’s what Google tries to do – lock its staff in before 9am and not let them out before 7pm. The giant corporation trapped inside the perfect building is a very American concept. 

Are 22 Bishopsgate and 1 Undershaft good-looking buildings?
I don’t want to comment on things that have happened outside of my time in the City – not that I would necessarily have negative things to say about those developments. The most important thing is that we get the floor space. You can argue as long as you like about the impact on skyline but having agreed to build a cluster [of skyscrapers], the most important thing is to get on with it.

What about the Walkie Talkie? That one you did sign-off.
It’s divided opinion but I’m still proud of it. It’s a building that people know and a building you can visit as a member of the public without having to pay. It’s a building that’s distinctive on the skyline.

Will the City not soon be flooded with an oversupply of office space?
There is a building boom in the City, but that’s against a background of an incredibly low vacancy rate, around 5%. We always reckoned the lowest healthy vacancy rate was around 8%, less than that and there isn’t the flexibility for people to expand and move offices. On the West of the City, around Fleet Street and Fetter Lane, it’s around 2%. That’s dangerous.

What if there is another banking crisis?
The strength of the City isn’t in banks; it’s in business – especially insurance. 

Does London’s international clout nullify fears over an EU exit?
London is bigger than Europe. The UK isn’t, but London is. I would struggle to name a third city in the same league as London and New York. For all the screams of "If Britain leaves Europe then we’ll leave the City", well ok, you guys said that when it was about us not joining the Euro. London is so powerful companies have no option but to be here, unless we’re stupid enough as to not provide the accommodation they need. 

Did you see Canary Wharf as an aid or an irritant to the City?
Both Canary Wharf and the [modern] City were products of the Big Bang. They were alternative solutions. Canary Wharf was effectively designed by Americans for Americans. It feels American. When the Americans do eventually pile into a war, they want to do it their way. Both ended up full, as did the West End. We needed all three options at the same time.

You’ve described Canary Wharf as the new Croydon...
Croydon was the first satellite business district of central London. The two are the same animal at different stages of their development. I’m not saying Canary Wharf cannot find a way of evolving and staying alive, but there are dangers in satellites that they boom quickly and then they decline quickly. 

Are you in favour of elected mayors?
What do elected mayors do? They change the buses, build garden bridges, construct cable cars that go nowhere. It’s all bread and circuses... By the time a planning decision goes before a mayor, you have a planning committee of one – that’s dangerous. That’s too open to influence. At the City, I had a planning committee of more than 30 people to report to. 

To what extent should politicians be involved in the planning process?
Once you’ve got policies, it’s a professional planner’s job to implement them. Introduce party politics into a local planning system and you can end up with the politicians doing the negotiating. Politicians are at a huge disadvantage. They are amateurs. They will, by and large, be a push over for the developers who can pay for the best consultants. 

How does London solve its housing crisis?
By building the right kind of properties – homes to rent. Rental doesn’t mean low end, it can mean every part of the sector. Look at Marylebone, one of the best kept parts of London [largely managed by the Howard de Walden Estate]. Politicians are still stigmatising rented housing and making you feel like if you don’t own your own home you are not a true stakeholder in society. It’s nonsense. The French don’t feel like that, the Germans don’t feel like that. In Paris, Vienna, Berlin, most of the residents rent rather than own. 

Will the ‘Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea Opportunity Area’ be a success?
You have a government that wants to redevelop derelict land with a showcase project without anyone asking what the land is being used for. You only have to look across the river at Chelsea Harbour or Imperial Wharf to see examples of ghost towns, places that have been mopped up by the international property investment market. I can’t understand why anyone would believe that wasn’t going to happen if you provided more of the same product on the opposite side of the river. 

What’s the alternative to high-rise?
The idea that to increase density you have to build high is, frankly, bollocks. To achieve high density, you build around the edges of a site, put a nice garden with trees in the middle, five to seven storeys tall. Cities from Helsinki to Naples have developed like that over 100s of years. When you build a high-rise block in the middle of a site, the open space is in the wrong place, it’s around the outside of the site where the traffic is. It doesn’t feel private. You don’t want to sit in your deck chair looking out on Vauxhall Cross. 

How do you deflate the investment property bubble?
By building high density housing that will appeal to the domestic market. Not by building blocks of glass towers that are sold on the fit out of the kitchen and the view from the window off-plan to property investors in Hong Kong. 

Is the Garden Bridge a vanity project?
It’s at a point where we don’t need a bridge – and there are plenty of places where we do – and if you wanted to build a park, you could build 20 for the same money where they would work better. The area is already overheated with tourists along the South Bank, why the hell are we trying to attract even more people to the area? It’s so that a prime-minister-in-waiting can claim it as one of his achievements. 

From what countries can London learn?
If a German wants to invest money in property, they can put it into a property investment fund – money that can be used to build homes, schools, hospitals, infrastructure. They get the profit, they get the security, but the capital is active, it’s being used. It’s much more efficient for an urban economy to have people rent property. You can get more actual density into an area if it’s rented rather than privately owned, but it needs to be professionally managed, not owned by individual investors but run by companies. 

What does London need to succeed?
People in their 20s from all over the world. It is because they are here, that London is strong. If they can’t afford to live in London, they won’t be able to come.