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Government backs down over delisting plan

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The government has made a dramatic U-turn over plans for legislation which could have threatened the listing system and led to the demolition of a raft of architectural gems.

Replying to parliamentary questions on 23 February, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell admitted she would not press ahead with a bill to delist the 1962 Commonwealth Institute in Kensington High Street, west London - a move which could have had far-reaching ramifications for the status of listed buildings.

Last summer it emerged that Jowell and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had drawn up covert plans for a hybrid bill to remove the Grade II*-listing from the RMJM-designed Institute (AJ 01.06.06), effectively clearing the way for its demolition.

The revelations sparked outrage from English Heritage, Kensington and Chelsea Council and a host of heritage campaigners, who felt that the building deserved to be saved and that the proposed legislation could set a dangerous national precedent.

But now it seems that Jowell has bowed to pressure, leading to a change of heart. Replying to a question from Labour MP Frank Field, Jowell said: 'We have no plans to introduce a bill that will give powers to demolish all or part of the buildings on the Commonwealth Institute site.

'We have encouraged the Commonwealth Institute to work with English Heritage on a listed-building-consent application, which we understand they hope to submit to the [council] later this year.'

The surprising volte-face has been welcomed by Field, who was fundamentally opposed to the bill. He said:

'It's a matter of principle. While I think the building is pretty hideous, we do have a series of listings recommended by groups of experts who think certain buildings are important. It is not right that the government could try and overturn a listing because it did not like the outcome.'

Meanwhile, secrecy continues to surround Norman Foster's proposals to redevelop the Commonwealth Institute. According to the latest rumours, the scheme will see the institute converted into a hotel, with larger accommodation blocks behind the original building.

The Commonwealth Institute was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman for RMJM, the original architect of the building, said: 'We are delighted if this means that an outstanding building from the post-war era is to be saved.

'It is good that the people have recognised the contribution of architecture of this period as it was a truly innovative form of construction at the time which resulted in an iconic landmark when 'iconic' really had meaning.'

by Richard Waite

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