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Conservationists to challenge Prescott's 'gherkin' go-ahead

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Conservationist campaigner Save Britain's Heritage is considering launching a judicial review of deputy prime minister John Prescott's decision to duck out of holding a public inquiry over the 180m tall, £150 million Foster and Partners-designed Swiss Re building in the City of London.

The group last week joined the Baltic Exchange in condemning Prescott's final go-ahead for the building, nicknamed the 'erotic gherkin', which will replace the remains of the exchange's Grade II*-listed former building, bombed by the IRA in 1992.

Save's Deborah Churchill said: 'We're disappointed Prescott didn't call in the application and cannot see why English Heritage had a shift in attitude.

In 1992 it insisted that the Baltic Exchange be fully restored and in 1996 that attitude obviously changed.'

Save will begin consulting its lawyers this week over mount ing the challenge to EH's change of heart, after which it welcomed demolition of the exchange if an architect of international repute takes charge of the redevelopment. But Save's recent record in fighting such proposals through the court is not good - last year it fought in vain to stop a school in Liverpool from demolition (AJ 1.7.99) and it famously campaigned against the demolition of the Mappin & Webb building in the City, both against the proposed Mies van der Rohe scheme and Sir James Stirling and Michael Wilford's No 1 Poultry building which was eventually built.

Baltic Exchange chief executive Jim Buckley said he was 'naturally disappointed' by Prescott's decision to allow the demolition of what he called 'a unique feature of the City's architectural heritage' instead of dealing with the conservation issues 'satisfactorily and objectively by a formal public inquiry'.

Prescott's all-clear remained the last stepping stone for the Swiss Re tower after the City planners, the Court of Common Council, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and EH all gave it their seals of approval. London mayor Ken Livingstone also sent Prescott a letter to let him know how important he feels the Foster building would be in terms of the City's ability to attract tenants to large floorplates and 'retain and enhance'London's position as a world city.'The quality of design is of the highest order', he said.'It certainly has my full support.'

Buckley also attacked EH's view that the badly-damaged exchange 'cannot properly be reinstated' as 'nonsense'and claimed that the exchange has been financially disadvantaged to the tune of around £10 million because of the policy U-turns performed by EH in the years following the IRA bomb. But, asked if the exchange was not simply sour about losing out financially, he said:

'Making money is not an issue that's high on our agenda. We're a not-for-profit City institution.' Buckley would not comment on whether he would pursue the case through the courts, however.

'In the wake of the bombing we were told that a full restoration of the building would be required - and we were threatened subsequently with legal action because it was alleged that we were progressing too slowly, ' said Buckley.

The exchange then sold the building and site in December 1994, with many of its important artefacts passing under the supervision of EH for later reinstatement in any appropriate development on site. A year later EH consented to a redevelopment around the core, listed elements of the building.

EHstressed that it did not take the loss of the 'important Grade II* building lightly.' 'With regret, we cannot justify requiring the replacement of the building, ' it said. Reconstructing the exchange would have involved 'a substantial degree of replication', as only limited amounts of the original features and materials could be reused and, since the exchange is not interested in returning, it would be difficult to reuse.

As part of an earlier deal Swiss Re will now pay Kvaerner at least £85 million for the 0.75ha site. The building, London's third tallest at 41 storeys, should be up and occupied in early 2004 after developers make a start early next year.

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