Historic England has admitted it ‘got it wrong’ when it said Hall McKnight plans to redevelop King’s College London’s Strand campus would not cause substantial harm
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:
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.
Historic England Planning and Conservation Director, London
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.’