Charles Wright: Fate of Thames South Bank TV studios scheme in contested balance as Gove delays

Charles Wright: Fate of Thames South Bank TV studios scheme in contested balance as Gove delays

It will be a long summer for both proponents and opponents of the 26-storey 72 Upper Ground office scheme proposed by the Mitsubishi Estate London as a replacement for the former ITV studios on the south bank of the Thames, just along from the Grade II*-listed National Theatre. Communities secretary Michael Gove blocked the application last year. He had been due to give a final yes or no on the £700 million project this week following a public inquiry, but has now delayed his decision until early October.

The scheme, on Upper Ground, had previously given the green light by Lambeth Council’s planning committee and by Sadiq Khan, despite almost 6,000 people signing a petition against it. Local campaigner Michael Ball described it as a “great crouching toad on the riverbank”, and Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of the government’s new Office for Place, called it an “out of place stack of boxes…over-imposing itself on the river…with abandon”.

Gove has recently – and contentiously – thrown out Marks and Spencer’s plans to pull down and replace its flagship Oxford Street store near Marble Arch, in that case against the recommendation of his own planning inspector. The future shape of another of the best-known and most prominent locations in the capital now rests on his decision.

It’s not the only significant scheme on the South Bank. Further along the river, plans for three towers of up to 200 metres in height, designed by Foster and Partners, have just been submitted to Southwark Council. The site, once home to Sainsbury’s sausage factory and vacant since 2016, would see a 49-storey office block go up alongside two blocks of flats, 40 per cent of them affordable, rising to 26 and 44 storeys, plus shops, food outlets and new public space.

The development would stand between the prominent 50-storey One Blackfriars tower and the South Bank tower – formerly called King’s Reach tower – which dates from 1972 and was converted into apartments and extended to 45 storeys in 2016. It’s all part of a growing high-rise cluster, with more to come. And another residential, office and life science scheme, with five blocks of up to 16 storeys by Waterloo station, has been given the go-ahead by Lambeth and City Hall.

These recent proposals have attracted sometimes vehement criticism from local residents, heritage and conservation groups and from prominent architectural commentators. Historic England has been particularly concerned about their impact on the setting and views of the Palace of Westminster.

There is a long tradition of strong reactions against development on this strip of riverbank. Its wharves, industrial buildings and power stations set it apart from the grander north bank. Post-war institutional intervention in what was then a declining area was not always welcomed. When it was opened in the 1960s, the Queen Elizabeth Hall was proclaimed in a Daily Mail poll as the “ugliest building in Britain”, and Prince Charles described the National Theatre, another part of the South Bank complex, as looking like a nuclear power station.

Some office development began there in the 1960s too. The residential population was falling rapidly, as was that of London as a whole. In the early 1980s, according to the Coin Street Community Builders social enterprise (CSCB), the area was “bleak and unloved, with few shops and restaurants, a dying residential community and a weak local economy”.

Resident action groups eventually saw off plans for a hotel tower and more than a million square feet of office space between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges. With support from the Ken Livingstone-led Greater London Council, a long-running battle between commercial interests and “people power” was resolved in favour of the residents’ plan for affordable housing, shops, workshop space and a new park on what had effectively been derelict land.

The area has stepped up its cultural and tourism credentials too, with the Tate Modern, the London Eye, Borough Market and the South Bank regularly listed among the capital’s top visitor attractions. But more recent development has had a more commercial bent, amid continuing debate about affordable housing – local campaigners argued at the 72 Upper Ground public inquiry that “there is a housing crisis not an office crisis”.

The area’s remaining “brownfield” sites continue to attract developer interest, and with it the worry that, as Times commentator Richard Morrison recently put it, “bit by bit the south bank of the Thames is becoming a cluster-mess of architectural monstrosities”. For the Observer’s architecture critic Rowan Moore the Upper Ground scheme is the product of “no particular plan or logic beyond a desire to put as much profitable volume as possible on its site” and a “distillation of commercial and political attitudes that have radically changed the Thames”.

Others, of course, will see successful regeneration at work, albeit not to everybody’s taste. What is the right trade-off in a location which, after all, was built on commerce?  The scheme’s barrister, Rupert Warren KC, argued at the inquiry that it is “more than a local place” and “of metropolitan importance, at least” deserving of “statement” architecture. He pointed out that Lambeth councillors and the Mayor agreed that the scheme would bring a sorely-needed the post-Covid commercial boost. As Gove ponders his decision, there’s a lot at stake.

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