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Sajid Javid puts Piano's Paddington Cube on ice

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Communities secretary Sajid Javid has issued an Article 31 direction, preventing Westminster City Council from formally granting planning permission to Renzo Piano’s controversial Paddington Cube

The move comes after conservation groups including SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society urged Javid to launch an independent public inquiry into the £775 million scheme, which will replace an Edwardian former Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington Station.

While planning permission for the cubic building and new public realm was granted at committee in December, this permission has yet to be formally issued. Javid’s holding direction allows him additional time to consider whether the planning application should be called in for a public inquiry. 

A letter written on behalf of Javid to Westminster Council stated: ‘The secretary of state hereby directs your council not to grant permission on these applications without specific authorisation. This direction is issued to enable him to consider whether he should direct under Section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 that the applications should be referred to him for determination.’

SAVE’s deputy director Mike Fox said: ’Issuing an Article 31 holding direction is an unusual step in the call-in process and not routine procedure, but we can’t read too too much into it. We continue to believe that this controversial application must be the subject of a public inquiry at which all the complex issues can be examined, tested and challenged.’

According to SAVE, Article 31 directions are normally reserved for ‘complex applications that require greater scrutiny’.

James Hughes, senior conservation adviser for the Victorian Society, said: ‘This is a very promising step towards the prospect of a call-in. We are hopeful that Sajid Javid MP will heed the advice of the heritage groups and call in this damaging proposal for a public enquiry; the substantial harm the development would cause to the conservation area demands it.’

However, Daniel Astaire, Westminster City Council cabinet member for planning and public realm, said: ’This [planning] application [for the Paddington Cube] was determined at a public meeting of the planning applications committee and in accordance with Westminster’s planning policies. The committee, as they always would, listened carefully to objectors concerns before making their decision.

’The committee members considered the scheme’s impact very carefully, but concluded the substantial social, economic and regeneration benefits coupled with the substantial public benefits outweighs the less than substantial harm to the heritage assets, and this view is also supported by the mayor of London.’

The 14-storey office block scheme replaced an earlier concept featuring a 72-storey skyscraper nicknamed the Paddington Pole. That proposal was was ditched last January following criticism from architects, Westminster Council, residents and campaigners concerned about its effect on the capital’s skyline.

But both SAVE and Historic England, the government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment, remain unhappy with the revised proposals.

SAVE accused Westminster Council’s former cabinet member for the built environment Robert Davis of presenting the scheme to other committee members in a ‘partisan one-sided manner’.

The group claims that Davis, who left his role as chair of the planning committee last month after nearly 17 years, disregarded ‘significant objections’ and noted how he had previously voiced his support for the scheme in the media. 

During an interview with the AJ in September, Davis praised the building and said it would make Paddington ’the coolest place in London’.

SAVE added that his support for the scheme showed Davis had ‘predetermined his position and should not have taken part in deciding this application’. 

SAVE director Henrietta Billings said: ‘We remain very concerned about its impact on the historic streetscape, and the way the proposals were handled before and during the planning committee discussions.

‘The abrupt departure of [planning] committee chairman Robert Davis following recent calls for a review of his involvement, adds weight to our view that this scheme needs robust and independent scrutiny through a public inquiry.’

She added: ‘Conservation areas are all about celebrating and protecting special and recognised townscapes with important buildings and history.

‘The Paddington Cube throws the whole question of this protection into disarray. What is the use of conservation areas if mega-blocks like this, next to Grade I-listed buildings, can be nodded through planning committees?’

Meanwhile, a petition to Javid, calling on him to stop the plans, has garnered more than 1,000 signatures. 

The design for the 14-storey building raises it 12m above a public space, leading some, including Barbara Weiss, co-founder of the Skyline Campaign, to argue that it is the equivalent of 19 storeys. 

Weiss told the AJ that the building was ‘still incredibly tall in relation to the existing context, and would be very harmful to the character of the surrounding conservation areas’. 

She added: ‘From a design perspective, the Cube still comes across as a “greedy” solution; too big for its site, and of no great architectural merit or finesse. The much-vaunted new public realm – the carrot that is constantly brought up as the main benefit to locals – lacks vision.

‘It is shapeless and utilitarian, not the result of the thoughtful and skilled design we might expect from Renzo Piano for such a prestigious location; it is more about a utilitarian sorting out of the many conflicting circulation needs of the Cube’s surrounding neighbours, whether Paddington station, St Mary’s hospital, or the Mercure Hotel.’

She said the new proposal should have been subjected to a ‘city-wide debate’ and scrutinised using a ‘3D city-wide virtual model’. She also agreed with SAVE that Davis had decided his position prior to the building going to committee, claiming he ‘had decided from a long time ago that this building was going to be built’. 

The 54m x 54m x 54m perfect cube is planned to house 33,445m² of offices, shops and restaurants above 0.5ha of newly created public realm, including a piazza and pedestrian links to public transport.

Westminster City Council has been contacted for comment

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