First hand account of incident and aftermath and emergency actions taken by the City following the explosion which caused extensive damage to many buildings including 55 Bishopsgate, 99 Bishopsgate, St Ethelburga’s Church, The NatWest Tower and Liverpool Street Station. Provision of office space for disrupted occupiers provided via the CPAT team. Steps taken to protect the financial centre; construction of the “ring of steel” in the City of London; pager alert scheme initiated for building managers, works to car parks and removal of street furniture. Longer term changes discussed, including a change in planning for consents on commercial buildings accelerating the remodelling of the physical structures of the City
Michael Cassidy CBE
2 March 2020
As well as recounting my personal experience of this dramatic event, I am seeking, with assistance from other Historians, to answer objectively the question – did the IRA unintentionally change the direction of planning in the City by their two successive bomb attacks in 1992/3?
It was a bright spring morning. We were setting about Saturday cleaning chores at our Barbican flat with the balcony door open. At 10.24 there was a loud explosion to the east, our door blew in. I thought the target was the AGM of the European Bank for Reconstruction which I knew was starting at their HQ in the north end of Bishopsgate. It was, in fact further south at the junction with London Wall. A 40-minute telephone warning had been given. A large construction lorry was parked with its indicator lights flashing right opposite the tall, glazed tower at 99 Bishopsgate. Two constables overturned evacuation policy on the spot by using loud-hailers in the warning period to order office occupiers down to the car parks, not come out to the street. They idefinitely saved lives at some risk to themselves.
I headed straight to Guildhall, to the press room. All the phones were ringing with nobody there. I picked one up – it was prominent developer Sir Stuart Lipton offering help from his team. I picked up another, this time a senior Corporation officer saying that none of their staff would come in until it was clear there was no second bomb. There was no Guildhall manual at that time for such events despite the St Mary Axe bomb the year before so I improvised one on an A5 double sheet and allocated actions to those who started appearing, mostly focused on recovery over the weekend.
A photojournalist had died close to the lorry and the press were insistent about having an immediate conference on the circumstances. This did not happen until after 2.00pm, not least because the Lord Mayor had been held up at the London Bridge cordon, coming up from Kent. The press officer Nigel Szembel whom, as Policy Chairman, I shared with the Lord Mayor, had used his normal ingenuity to get to the site ahead of most and messaged back “It is worse than the last one”. But along the way he managed to get the cordon moved a fraction so that EBRD delegates were able to get to their conference.
At the press-conference, questions focused on the photographer’s death and how the bomber had evaded security and got away. In contrast with suicide-bombers of today, warnings were given but allowing time for masked perpetrators to escape, hiding from cameras along the way.
I visited the glass-strewn street early on Sunday morning with the District Surveyor who was there to decide which buildings had suffered structural damage. 99 Bishopsgate itself had been shredded, St Ethelburga’s church opposite, totally demolished (although the goldfish in the rear pond were alive). The NatWest Tower had a big question-mark over it because of glass damage and the Japanese Bank at 55, Bishopsgate, only recently completed had suffered a structural shift in its entire facade and later had to be rebuilt.
Papers from a Scottish law firm had spread across the road junction, an immediate candidate for relocation under a scheme led by Historian George Gillon (2 days into his appointment as head of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors City branch) and Deputy City Surveyor Peter Bennett, from a temporary help centre in Guildhall. Surveyors turned out by the dozen to man desks laid out like a first-aid post. Property was fortunately available because the development market was just coming out of a quiet period. A team called CPAT had been assembled in the previous year (primarily to find vacant office space for firms from Eastern Europe who, with the Berlin Wall down, were free to expand abroad) and they were well-placed with their database of empty buildings, to man the service that now tackled the immediate office needs of disrupted occupiers. It also took calls from hopeful glaziers, looking for work.
Energy companies were urgently contacted for repair to damaged utilities. BT had to be tackled because they were only repairing cables serving their own customers, not those served by competing networks.
In Liverpool Street station, all the recently installed roof glass had collapsed onto the platforms, whilst oddly, the old glazing along part of their length remained intact. The Great Eastern Hotel and the shops along Wormwood Street were unusable. Lots of special pleas were coming in from traders to have the police cordon shrunk to allow access but it was rated a crime scene and it took some days to shift. One acute problem arose because a horde of gold bullion was locked away on the top floor of number 99 and it took an intervention from the Governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George, to obtain access to reclaim it. In following days the same building was to suffer pilfering from security staff brought in for protection of empty offices.
The public message for Monday morning was “business as usual” and so it was with commuters pouring in, some to temporary offices away from their damaged sites. An urgent meeting had been called at No 10 Downing Street with Prime Minister John Major. He wanted to know what the Commissioner, Owen Kelly, proposed to do to prevent another incident, having little sympathy with the plea that Saturday mornings often saw construction vehicles parked on yellow lines. The police response was to be the “rolling roadblock”, random armed searches of vehicles across the main access routes into the City.
The Prime Minister seemed surprised when informed that the NatWest Tower alone cost the Government £12million a year in lost rates while it was restored. And there arose a tricky issue straight away when he confirmed that there would be no Government safety net for insurance for damaged properties (unlike the scheme in Northern Ireland). Many policies excluded damage by terrorism. Later a limited scheme was introduced that carried a Government under-pinning of insurance but it forced owners to cover all their properties, not just their City ones. Transport for London, to mention just one, elected not to be covered at all against terrorism because damage to their assets turned out to be manageable as against the costs to insure.
Meanwhile, a steady campaign was building, that more needed to be done to protect our financial centre. Japanese banks en masse wrote to the Home Secretary demanding protection for their nationals in London and seemingly threatening to move to Dublin, of all places. Even Eddie George joined forces with the Chairman of NatWest to demand that the Corporation take more direct steps.
The result, a few weeks later, was the “ring of steel”, the closure of over 30 streets coming into the centre, leaving only 8 ways in, each manned by police day and night, undertaking searches and later backed up with cameras which gave quick checks on number plates. Disruptive for some (taxis hated it) but with rapid press and public endorsement as it settled down. The road closures had already been programmed for a traffic-reduction scheme that might be implemented one day but which had been stalled until now; plastic cones appeared all over the City. The Transport Minister tried to block this in Cabinet, only to find it already had his boss’s approval. He tried to get the Commissioner and I to swear an affidavit that it was all for traffic-control not security purposes. He felt it called for a “Dunkirk” response – we can take it! I declined and it was found that we were within our statutory powers to implement a temporary version of what is now a permanent camera scheme that can record the face-images even of passengers in the rear of vehicles.
The stop-and-searches had unexpected consequences. There were motor-cycle police stationed, looking out for u-turning vehicles as they approached the check-point – one such was arrested with a large quantity of drugs, the driver only having left jail that morning and not up to date with the news. Another, a wanted criminal, identified by number plate whilst waiting at the lights in Cannon Street, had a tap on his windscreen.
Other initiatives sprouted. A pager-alert scheme was offered to building managers to get instant alerts of warnings. Car park entrance heights were limited after visits by security specialists. One thousand litter bins, only just commissioned, resplendent with City emblem, were removed because of the shrapnel risk from devices.
The Corporation secretly commenced a reward scheme, in partnership with a national newspaper, for information leading to the arrest of suspected terrorists – the engine of the vehicle used in the previous year’s bombing was found high up in a next-door tower and its last transfer traced, only to have assistance from the seller countered by a death threat from the IRA. The reward scheme was directed at that type of dilemma.
So much for the immediate measures. It was the Corporation’s job to settle the long-term issues as well.
A debate continues as to whether the terrorists had inadvertently set the scene for a change in planning policy on consents for commercial buildings.
This theory gained some credence from the strange affair of the “Gherkin” planning consent, following directly from the 1992 bomb having demolished the listed Baltic Exchange building in St Mary Axe. Although the brickwork had been saved and the Exchange owners thought it would have to be rebuilt, when the new owners of the site probed further, they found that a new building of notable quality might overturn the listing requirement. The Baltic had failed to retain a share of any excess permitted space from the site and an
almighty row ensued when Norman Foster’s firm helped secure permission for a remarkable tall replacement skyscraper.
The Gherkin is of course now one of the main landmarks of the City but was this more than just a product of its own circumstances rather than a deliberate change of policy? Certainly, the subsequent building period was notable, surplus space being partly taken up by the sudden demand for “contingency floors” from banks protecting themselves against future alarms. But also driven by the expansion of financial sector demand and supportive planning policies. These scrapped “plot ratio” limits on heights of new buildings and encouraged formulation of an “ Eastern cluster” of high-rise buildings, out of reach of the view corridors protecting the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. I asked Peter Rees, long-time Chief Planning Officer, whom I had appointed
way back in 1986, when I was Planning Chairman. He had no doubt that “……the long-term effects of both bombs were fundamental to accelerating the remodelling of the physical structures of the City which were essential to meet the changing needs of international finance and business.”
The road scheme has, of itself had long-term consequences, with through traffic still at half of the pre-bomb period figures, augmented by specific moves affecting Bank Junction, increased cycle provision and slower speed limits.
And as for the Corporation, we have delivered an effective response to the terrorism threat, helping to maintain a thriving financial centre and a skyline that is witness to its resilience to adversity.