SAVE Britain's Heritage is about to go to court to fight the proposed £150 million, 180m tall Swiss Re tower and halt plans to demolish the former Baltic Exchange.
The conservation group threatened action against deputy prime minister John Prescott's decision to duck out of holding a public inquiry on the issue last month, but industry observers expected that threat to fizzle out as popular backing for the project grew - and because similar SAVE fights have been costly and unsuccessful.
But SAVE secretary Richard Pollard told the AJ this week: 'We've decided to go to court.We're definitely going ahead and will probably lodge an application in the courts on Friday.'
The Foster and Partners-designed tower, nicknamed the 'erotic gherkin', passed its final planning hurdle last month. It is all set to replace the Grade II* remains of the Exchange, which was bombed in 1992. But the case sparked a storm of controversy after the Baltic Exchange expressed its anger at the way English Heritage changed its mind from preventing demolition taking place to welcoming a new building.
Pollard said SAVE aims to take deputy prime minister John Prescott to the High Court in the judicial review and has been advised that the best course of action would be to also involve the Corporation of London - but not English Heritage - in proceedings.Pollard said SAVE aimed to fund the case through 'a series of private donations'which it has received - speculation suggests the Baltic Exchange may be one of those donors. 'It's impossible to say how much we'll need, ' Pollard said.
Richard Holder, senior architectural adviser to the Victorian Society, said that if SAVE lost, compensation calculated in terms of delay to the project could end up being 'millions' but he welcomed further analysis of the case.
'We've never seen to our satisfaction the spelling out of why English Heritage changed its mind, ' he said. Left unchallenged, Prescott's decision on Swiss Re, 'could give free rein to developers to demolish virtually any building'.
SAVE's actions echo its battles against Lord Palumbo's Mies Tower and Stirling's No. 1 Poultry, both of which were proposed for the site of the listed Mappin & Webb building in the City. SAVE's finances were hit hard after losing its battle against the latter, with costs of around £200,000 talked of and unconfirmed rumours that funds to bail it out came from the Prince ofWales.
Swiss Re, the company which will occupy part of the new building, was growing impatient with delays to its scheme but its plans appeared to speed up after a Swiss Re representative expressed concerns at a seminar hosted by prime minister Tony Blair.Now the company hopes to begin demolition work before its planned January start date. Site clearance work has already started.
SAVE has also urged Islington Borough Council to reject a 'drab and insensitive' Rolfe Judd-designed scheme for new office blocks and a large hotel to replace nineteenth century workshops alongside King's Cross station. Pollard said the 'terrible' scheme for developer P&O was 'frankly depressing' and 'a missed opportunity' to create a 'vibrant' new quarter. The project has already been attacked by CABE and English Heritage.