Riverfront plans for office buildings of up to 25 storeys near the National Theatre were attacked as “fat, overbearing and shouty-loud” as a public inquiry into the controversial South Bank scheme got underway yesterday.
The £400 million scheme by developers Mitsubishi Estate and CO-RE in partnership with architects Make was “called in” in August by short-lived now former Levelling Up secretary Greg Clark for an inquiry and final decision because of heritage concerns.
The call-in for the scheme, known as 72 Upper Ground, came despite backing for the scheme from Sadiq Khan and Lambeth Council, which concluded earlier this year that the proposal was a “high-quality, sustainable development in a suitable location that will deliver significant benefits to the South Bank area and wider London”.
Now local organisations the Waterloo Community Development Group and Coin Street are lined up alongside campaign groups, including SAVE Britain’s heritage and the Twentieth Century Society, in what objectors have called the city’s latest “David and Goliath” planning battle.
The inquiry will weigh the scheme’s potential benefits against its impact on the National Theatre, the wider South Bank and beyond, its overshadowing of nearby homes and its failure to provide new housing – all in an increasingly heightened metropolitan context of pandemic recovery, economic recovery, climate change, housing need and heritage concern.
The scheme would replace the now closed-up former ITV studios building – originally built for London Weekend Television dating from 1970 – which itself features a 25-storey tower. It supersedes a now lapsed permission granted in 2018 for a joint office and residential scheme which proposed two towers, rising to 14 and 31 storeys, and 213 homes.
The developer’s counsel Rupert Warren KC told the inquiry that alongside “best in class” office accommodation the scheme would provide new “London Studios” production facilities and an auditorium, affordable workspaces, shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and new public space, together creating 4,300 jobs.
Set in a context of “contemporary tall buildings as part of an assembly of different forms along the river” and retaining a “family resemblance” to the Grade II listed National Theatre, the “finely-judged” scheme was not “unduly tall, over-demonstrative or overbearing,” he argued, but would instead add an “exciting and notable new presence to the rich texture of central London views along and across the river”. For Lambeth Council Matthew Reed KC, for Lambeth Council, added that the buildings would be “sympathetic to local character”, with “very limited overall effects on heritage assets”.
Objectors claimed that those “assets”, including the National Theatre’s fellow Grade II listed neighbour the IBM building, the setting of Somerset House across the river and views of St Paul’s, nevertheless remained under threat from the “scale and massing” of the scheme. They added that it is also wholly commercial despite Lambeth’s local plan designating the site for mixed use, including residential. “The city has a housing crisis not an office crisis,” said Waterloo Community Development Group representative Michael Ball. “Affordable housing is the number one priority in this area, but this development will contribute not one dwelling.”
But Warren said the council had wanted a focus on the planning policies set out for London’s Central Activities Zone, which the development site falls into, prioritising business, commercial and cultural activities. He added that the council had confirmed that an undeveloped part of the overall site could be used for housing.
The design of the building will be under scrutiny too, with star witness Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of the government’s new Office for Place, set up to encourage “beautiful” design, due to appear. In evidence submitted in advance of the inquiry he describes the scheme as an “out of place stack of boxes…over-imposing itself on the river…with abandon.”
Ministers will take the final decision on the scheme after Masters’ report and her recommendations reach their desks next year. The inquiry will run throughout this week and next and resumes in the New Year. Full information including links to a live feed of proceedings is available on the Lambeth council website.
Image of scheme proposal from Make.
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