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Hall McKnight's contentious Strand plans dropped

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King’s College London has ditched controversial plans by Hall McKnight which would have seen a row of historic buildings on the Strand flattened

Earlier today (19 June) the university confirmed it had withdrawn the proposals, which were approved by Westminster City Council in April but subsequently called in by the Secretary of State, in response to the ‘groundswell of opinion’ against the £50million scheme.

As a result a public inquiry into the plans will now be cancelled.

The 4,400m2 project next to Somerset House was widely criticised by conservationists and campaign groups including SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Victorian Society, The Ancient Monument Society, the Courtauld Institute and the Somerset House Trust.

Historic England had originally raised no objections to the plans, but later changed its mind following a review of the case. Last week the organisation admitted ‘it had got it wrong’ and said it was now concerned the scheme would cause ‘significant harm to the surrounding Strand Conservation Area’ (see AJ 21.05.15).

Explaining its decision, a spokeswoman for King’s College London said: ‘Our project to redevelop the Strand campus was granted permission after a wide-ranging consultation, which included working closely with Historic England throughout. 

‘However, we recognise the groundswell of opinion and are sensitive to the heritage values of our city. As a result, we have today withdrawn our plans and will consider alternative options. 

She added: ‘As always, we will balance our commitment to the architecturally significant environment in which we operate in the heart of London with the need to maintain our position as a world-leading academic institution. Vital to this is continuing to provide our staff, students and partners with the very best resources, research facilities and teaching and learning spaces.’

Last week the AJ reported the university was thinking of going back to the drawing board, in light of the Historic England u-turn. However King’s College London confirmed today it was retaining Hall McKnight, which won the commission following an RIBA Competition in 2012, to look at any revised designs.

Christopher Costelloe, director of the Victorian Society, said: ‘[We are] delighted that King’s College has responded to public and expert concern and withdrawn its proposals for 154-158 Strand.

‘The majority of Londoners will be happy with this decision. We look forward to seeing a scheme which will both respect the Strand’s unique history and allow modernisation of the King’s College campus.’

Meanwhile SAVE Britain’s Heritage said it had begun working on an alternative scheme for the site with architect John Burrell ‘to show how, with an imaginative and sensitive design approach, these buildings can be be brought back into use’.

SAVE collaborated with Burrell on its rival, ‘less destructive’ designs for Smithfield market in 2012 (see AJ 14.11.12).

Comment:

Clem Cecil of SAVE Britain’s Heritage

‘We salute King’s College London’s decision to withdraw their application for the demolition of the Strand buildings following a strong public campaign led by ourselves.

‘This is fantastic news for all those who love London. SAVE is working on a scheme for the site with an architect to show how with an imaginative and sensitive design approach these buildings can be be brought back into use and the concerns raised by King’s about any challenges these buildings may present, can be resolved. The overwhelming support for our campaign by the general public indicated the strength of feeling people have for London’s historic streetscape.

‘This is London’s main ceremonial route from Westminster to St Paul’s - a group of these buildings have already been lost in the 1960s to make way for the King’s College Brutalist building, it is vital that no more are lost. These are quintessentially london buildings of great character and charm that stand on their original, narrow medieval plots.’

Previous story (AJ 11.06.15)

Historic England: ‘We got it wrong over Hall McKnight’s Strand plans’

The heritage organisation originally raised no major objections to the controversial proposals which would see a run of historic – but unlisted – buildings on the central London street flattened and replaced by a 4,400m2 academic block.

Westminster City Council subsequently approved the scheme despite protests from campaign group SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Victorian Society, The Ancient Monument Society, the Courtauld Institute and the Somerset House Trust.

However, when communities secretary Greg Clark issued a ‘stop order’ on the scheme last month (AJ 15.05.15), Historic England dramatically changed its stance, stating that the £50 million would cause significant harm to the surrounding Strand Conservation Area. The planning approval has since been called-in (AJ 09.06.15).

In a frank letter to The Times, Historic England’s planning and conservation director Nigel Barker, admitted that the case had not been ‘brought to the attention of a regional director at an early stage’ and that its initial advice was wrong.

He wrote: ‘We held an internal review when the case [was] referred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. We scrutinised our role in the case and saw that our usual process when it comes to giving advice about sensitive areas had not been properly followed.

‘After review we recognised and stated publicly that our advice must change. Of course we knew we would be criticised for having got it wrong in the first place.

‘[But] part of getting it right is being confident and able to say when you have got it wrong.’

It is understood King’s College London is now looking at whether to pull its approved proposals ahead of the public enquiry and potentially submit a revised design.

A spokesperson for the college said: ‘We have spent a year consulting around our proposals and working very closely with Historic England and Westminster Council on the application that gained consent, but we do recognise the groundswell of opinion with regard to the Strand façades.

We are committed to finding a sympathetic solution

‘We are committed to finding a solution that is sympathetic to the architectural and cultural importance of the site, while still meeting the needs of our staff and students.’

Meanwhile a spokesman for Westminster City Council, whose planning chief recently questioned the ‘role and value’ of Historic England following its u-turn, added: ‘We have seen the letter, but we would still expect the decision making process at Historic England to be scrutinized as part of any public inquiry.’

The Historic England letter in full:

Sir

The role of independent bodies like ours is to advise government on important and often difficult issues. Like any other public body, we expect and are subject  to the highest levels of scrutiny (Inquiry into Strand Demolition, 10 June). We work hard to ensure our advice is robust, expert and evidenced.

We held an internal review when the case of the Strand was referred to the Department for Communities and Local Government (see AJ 15.05.15). We scrutinised our role in the case and saw that our usual process when it comes to giving advice about sensitive areas had not been properly followed. A case like this should be brought to the attention of a regional director at an early stage, and this did not happen on the Strand. This is a very rare occurrence.

After review we recognised and stated publicly that our advice must change. Of course we knew we would be criticised for having got it wrong in the first place. But the historic environment comes first, and the Strand is as important as it is sensitive. We have now advised that harm caused by the proposed development would be substantial.  It is for the Secretary of State to decide whether that harm is justified by any public benefit.

Historic buildings are part of our national fabric and tell our collective story. It is critical that all those involved in heritage protection  – from Historic England to campaigners and the free press, can have an open, mature debate about getting it right. And part of getting it right is being confident and able to say when you have got it wrong.

Yours faithfully,

Nigel Barker

Historic England Planning and Conservation Director, London

Strand Buildings which are set for demolition

Strand Buildings which are set for demolition

Comment:

Steven Bee, principal Urban Counsel and former director of planning and development at English Heritage

‘Some mistakes you can live with, others have to be put right. It depends on the consequences. The long-term credibility of the advice of a statutory body like Historic England is more important than the complications of a particular case. The process for determining Histoic England responses to consultations on development proposals is designed to be clear, consistent and helpful. In the King’s College Strand case, this process obviously didn’t follow its normal course. It’s embarrassing in the short term, and may have financial and other implications, but it’s not unique. Nigel Barker’s honourable admission that a mistake was made, and his taking the opportunity to correct it, raises two important questions.

‘First, would the correction have been made had SAVE not campaigned to get Westminster’s subsequent approval overturned? I’d like to think it would, and I can think of at least one example from my time at English Heritage when we took action to recover such a position.

‘Secondly, did SAVE force Historic England to change its opinion?  Both are important organisations, but they have different responsibilities and obligations. Historic England works within a statutory context and aims to help people make changes to our historic environment that allow present and future aspirations to be met.  It also has to present a balanced opinion that will stand up to scrutiny within the context of planning policy and law. SAVE has a freer hand to campaign for buildings it judges to be threatened by change, and gather support for its cause widely.

‘The clash of these positions over the General Market Building at Smithfield demonstrated the power of the latter, and will. I’m sure, have forced Historic England to review its procedures and its approach. But I hope Historic England will stick to its principles of  constructive conservation – helping historic places to adapt while conserving their historic significance.

‘In The Strand, Historic England obviously acknowledged, a little late, that the loss of historic significance could not be justified by what was being offered. It may not be much consolation to KCL or its Architects, or Westminster Council, but the continuing public debate over how to balance these is surely a good thing.’

 

 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • It is good to see Historic England acknowledging that a mistake has been made and correcting it. It may be harder to admit, but the same is true of Robin Hood Gardens.

    It is also good that the client is retaining Hall McKnight, whose design was a sophisticated proposition. They are more than capable of meeting a redefined brief.

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  • It's important to be fair to everyone involved, but it leaves the question of whether 'meeting the brief' is sometimes followed too slavishly by those supposedly qualified to know better.

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