The high-profile public inquiries into plans for new 72 Upper Ground South Bank office buildings near the National Theatre (pictured) and the wish of Marks and Spencer to pull down and replace its flagship Oxford Street store near Marble Arch have presented the inspectors presiding over them with difficult issues to resolve. The future shape of two of the best-known areas of the capital are at stake, with communities secretary Michael Gove to take the final decisions later this year.
Both proposed schemes are controversial. The M&S case has been described as representing a “clash of opposing world views” , capturing the debate about demolition and re-build or conservation and re-use. The South Bank scheme has been described by local campaigner Michael Ball as a “great crouching toad on the riverbank”. Petitions opposing the projects have each attracted thousands of signatures.
Planning inspectors are used to making finely-balanced judgements – that’s what the process is for. But there are new and possibly unpredictable elements in the mix with these two inquiries: sustainability in the face of climate change with the M&S plans, and for the South Bank scheme in particular, the government’s new insistence that buildings should be “beautiful”.
In Oxford Street, conservation groups spearheaded by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, have led the charge against the M&S plan and its upfront carbon costs, billing the inquiry as the first major planning test of “our disposable, knock it down and re-build attitude to our cities and historic buildings”.
There’s a growing trend for “retrofit”, with the retention of existing buildings a starting point in Sadiq Khan’s London Plan guidance. But demolition is not ruled out where it can be shown that keeping them is “not suited to the requirements for the site”. With M&S arguing that a retrofit approach is neither “viable or deliverable” when it comes to meeting the requirements of “modern customers or staff”, that could be the question the decision hinges on.
The South Bank scheme’s inspector faces a possibly even trickier decision – whether or not the 26 and 13-storey structure Mitsubishi Estate and CO-RE hope will replace the old ITV HQ just along the banks of the Thames from the National Theatre is “beautiful”.
It’s not the only issue in play. Local campaigners want more homes not more offices, arguing that “there is a housing crisis not an office crisis” and that the development would destroy the area’s “special character” by dominating riverside views, overshadowing open space and homes, and “adversely impacting” the Grade II*-listed National Theatre and other heritage sites.
The applicants point out that the site is within the London Plan’s Central Activities Zone where office development takes priority, and that the South Bank sorely needs the post-Covid commercial boost the scheme would bring. They add that the National Theatre had been robustly designed to sit in an “evolving” metropolitan landscape, including taller buildings.
But the key new argument is that building design should not only be high-quality and sustainable but also “beautiful” – expounded in person by Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of the government’s new Office for Place which was set up precisely to empower local authorities to “demand beauty”.
Boys Smith told the inquiry that that requirement is set out clearly in the government’s latest National Planning Policy Framework and argued what what constitutes beautiful design can be objectively codified. There are “discoverable relationships between the places we pass through and live and work in and our mental and physical health,” he maintained. “When you look at the needs, health and wellbeing of the wider population, design is not subjective.”
For him, the scheme falls short. It is an “out of place stack of boxes…over-imposing itself on the river…with abandon”, he said. Very little about it suggested this was a “building situated within London, let alone the South Bank.” Its “generic design attributes” would “fit in to the context of any number of cities across the globe”.
Cue a somewhat philosophical debate between Boys Smith and Mitsubishi’s barrister Rupert Warren KC about what Warren described as that “most nebulous of questions” in modern planning – “would it be beautiful?” Can “beauty” really be defined, he asked, let alone mandated by government? President Trump tried it, signing an executive order decreeing that all new federal buildings should be “beautiful”, with classical and traditional architecture the preferred style, provoking widespread opposition. The order was rapidly repealed by his successor.
In 2021, planning inspector David Nicholson was politely dismissive of attempts to enshrine “beauty” in planning policy when ruling on the 305 metre “Tulip” viewing platform proposed for the City. “The appellant considers that the scheme would be beautiful while objectors think it would not,” he said. “While I certainly accept that innovative designs can be beautiful, in other regards I consider that the concept of beauty or otherwise for this appeal is in the eye of the beholder and that any further discussion is unlikely to be helpful.”
The new NPPF, in draft at the time, is now in place. Warren nevertheless sought to steer the South Bank inspector towards the safer ground of the Tulip verdict. Boys Smith himself had acknowledged, he said, that beauty had a subjective aspect – “it makes you feel a certain way”, as Mr Boys Smith put it” – and in practical terms overlapped with the familiar concept of “excellence of design”.
On that more tangible territory, Warren argued, the scheme scored highly. The proposals were of the “highest design quality” and would “sit harmoniously with the existing modernist ensemble” in a site of “metropolitan status and importance”. In other words, in his ingenious argument, “they would be beautiful”.
Will Michael Gove agree with the two planning applicants when the inspectors’ reports land on his desk shortly, or will he decide that Lambeth and Westminster councils along with City Hall and all their assorted experts were wrong when they approved the schemes last year? Big decisions are coming up.
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