Broadway Malyan’s plans to flatten and redevelop the Grade II-listed former Birds Eye headquarters have been given the green light
The AJ100 practice unveiled its contentious plans to build 375 homes plus ground-floor commercial units and car parking on the 6ha Walton Court site in Walton-Upon-Thames, Surrey, in March last year (2017).
According to developers A2 Dominion and Crest Nicholson, retention of the existing 1961 building – one of the first corporate HQs to be built outside London – was unviable. It estimated that it would cost £40 million to repair the landmark.
Before the meeting, Historic England, which had originally opposed the development, withdrew its formal objection, though the heritage watchdog said it remained ‘unconvinced that the very high tests for total loss of designated heritage [had been] conclusively met by the applicant’s latest submission’.
Responding to the decision, the Twentieth Century Society, which has been battling to save the empty building, said it was ‘dismayed’ and ‘disappointed’ by the approval.
It said: ‘Government instructs local planning authorities that they should only grant consent for total demolition of a listed building in very exceptional circumstances.
‘They should not grant consent unless applicants have conclusively proved that the loss of the building is necessary to deliver substantial public benefit. We are not persuaded that the case of ‘substantial public benefit’ has been made. In this case the applicants argue that only by demolishing Walton Court can much-needed housing be provided in Elmbridge.
‘[We are] not convinced that providing new housing is a big enough public benefit to outweigh the loss of the historic building.’
The society also took a swipe at Historic England’s stance over its handling of the application. ‘We are greatly disappointed that Historic England withdrew their formal objection to the proposed demolition, although they consider the building to be architecturally and historically significant,’ it said.
‘This case has highlighted failures in current planning legislation’s protection for historically important buildings.’
The conservation group added that it was ‘deeply concerned by the precedent this case could set’ and was ‘exploring the options available … to continue to fight against demolition.’
The development team insists there is no economic way the building can realistically be saved. A viability report drawn up for Crest Nicholson/A2 Dominion as part of the planning application has been supported in a separate independent review undertaken by Knight Frank on behalf of Elmbridge Borough Council.
This report for the local authority also concluded, the AJ understands, that a retrofit of the existing building, which is clad with a series of asbestos-lined, single-glazed, non-thermally-broken anodised aluminium panels, would not be cost-effective.
In 2009, problems associated with these panels led to the granting of planning permission and listed building consent for their complete removal and replacement.
Birds Eye was one of the first companies to move its offices out of London, bringing all its staff together on the site, close to rail and airport connections.
The frozen food giant employed the firm of John Burnet, Tait and Partners to design the building, which would project Birds Eye’s corporate identity through architecture.
Under the Broadway Malyan proposal, a central ‘jewel’ building with an enclosed formal residential courtyard will be surrounded by brick buildings that will offer an architectural counterpoint to the main building.
In the competition for the scheme, Broadway Malyan beat Scott Brownrigg, HLM and Pollard Thomas Edwards to land the job in 2016.
Broadway Malyan has been contacted for comment.
Historic England spokesperson:
’We carefully explored all possible avenues to find a future for the listed office block and the former Birds Eye building through conversion to a new use. We concluded that a case might be made to permit the loss of this Grade II-listed building. We initially objected to the loss of the building as we did not think that a clear and convincing case had been demonstrated. However, after close scrutiny of the case to explore the challenges of re-using the building and the viability of converting it to residential use, we concluded that it was not certain that a rescue project could be viable.
‘We do not think this case sets a precedent’
’When deciding the case, Elmbridge Borough Council did not consider it on the building’s viability but instead on planning policy that demolition of the building might be necessary in order to achieve substantial public benefits. On this basis we withdrew our objection. The permitted demolition of a listed building is a very rare event and we do not think this case sets a precedent.’
Birds Eye Foods office building, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: one of the internal courtyards with ornamental pool - picture taken 1963
Source: John Maltby/RIBA Collections