English Heritage has denied rumours that boss Sir Neil Cossons wants to back out of a public inquiry in York where the conservation agency is scheduled to defend the unpopular Chapman Taylor mixed-use scheme, Coppergate II.
EH issued a statement to the AJ last week reiterating its support for the project as a rebuttal to talk that Sir Neil feels it is wrong that his own institution should be backing the scheme.
But although EH is giving evidence at the inquiry with York City Council, its views on the Chapman Taylor project fall short of the council's own requirements - as pledged in its local plan - for architecture of the 'highest quality'. Only that will be good enough for a historic site judged to be 'of international importance', and including the medieval landmark, Clifford's Tower.
EH said last week that its position on the Coppergate Riverside scheme has been 'fully endorsed' by its commission - but offered a less-than-glowing endorsement of the project as a pre-inquiry statement. 'EH has always expressed support in general terms for the redevelopment of the Riverside area of York, recognising that it would improve the quality of the city centre, which is clearly a site of national importance, ' it said.
EH believes that the design of the Coppergate riverside scheme is 'a significant improvement on the previous scheme and makes a positive response to the historic buildings around it'.
But the agency would only say that it supports the scheme in 'double negative' terms. It supports it 'as it will not adversely affect the setting of Clifford's Tower and can only bring additional economic and cultural benefits to the city'.And EH added: 'We will express these views at the public inquiry and we will continue to work towards detailed improvements in materials and design should it be given permission.'
Incoming York Civic Trust chairman Darrell Buttery said he was 'like a fish out of water, with his mouth wide open in astonishment' at the statement. He told the AJ he will be 'fascinated' to see how EH defends the scheme at inquiry, which he feels will destroy the panorama from Clifford's Tower. 'It's too big. It's a gargantuan scheme that comes too close to one of York's greatest architectural and historic sites. We want something good.'
The Trust feels the project represents 'an act of architectural vandalism' and 'an over-development'.
Sir Neil Cossons, who is presently out of the country, is understood to have said privately that he is at odds with the position adopted by the agency he heads. He has even been contacted on the issue by the Archbishop of York , David Hope .
The public inquiry has echoes of that concerning the KPF-designed Heron Tower insofar as EH will be facing CABE, which criticised the Coppergate II project at design review last March. EH will be siding with York City Council at the inquiry into the Land Securities project, which will be led by inspector Tony Bingham and starts on 15 January in York's Guildhall. But Bingham will also hear a rival landscaping project proposed for the site.
Ironically, given their differing viewpoints on Coppergate II, EH and CABE are about to launch a joint guide into building new schemes in historic environments, written by former Royal Fine Art Commission secretary Francis Golding and called Building in Context.