Just as I thought my week couldn't get any busier, Nicola Gooch tags me in a linked in post about the called in decision on the former London Television Centre on the South Bank in London. So here I am in the 5am club, on a dark rainy London morning, with a strong coffee!!!
One declaration of interest to make in the first instance. I'm a member of the 20th Century Society who were one of the rule 6 parties for this. I love 20th Century architecture and particularly that of post war Britain. I wasn't involved in any of the inquiry process in detail apart from seeing a few briefings (I have proudly been involved in other campaigns of the C20th Soc though such as the saving of Preston of Bus Garage from demolition some years ago). But, I know the South Bank well. It's probably one of my favourite parts of London. The Festival Hall is, in my opinion, one of the best buildings in London and I am big fan of the National Theatre and the architecture of Denys Lasdun, alongside his other Tecton colleagues. I'm therefore going to be sitting a little on the fence on this appeal decision.
I was looking through the history of the London Television including some of the programmes filmed there. I was initially going to call this blog post 'Surprise Surprise' but I'm not sure there are too many surprises in this decision. Instead I stumbled across a wonderfully retro 1990s show that I only vaguely remember called Faith in the Future which starred Lynda Bellingham and a young Simon Pegg and decided that would be far more apt.
Nicola has covered the legal aspects of the 'severability' of the decision and no doubt Mssrs Rickets and Simons will have something more eloquent and profound to say than little old me. First of all, as appeal decisions go - it's an absolute whooper!!! Just the 252 pages to scan through. Thanks again Gooch! But, here are some of my other thoughts on this decision.
Timing of Decision
The time taken to get to this decision deserves some attention. The existing application was submitted in July 2021 (Just around same time as England were getting to the finals of the Euros - remember that - seem ages ago!). Of course this was on the back of significant pre-application engagement with stakeholders and numerous design review panels . This application also comes on the back of a previous application from 2017 for redevelopment of the ITV site for a 31 storey building that was never implemented.
A resolution to grant was made by Lambeth Council in relatively quick order in March 2022 however, by that time Gove had already called in the decision. The Inquiry subsequently opened in December 2022 and closed in January 2023 after 12 days of sitting. Quite a feat for Christa Masters, as Inspector, to get through that in such a short period given the amount of material to get through, notwithstanding the two rule 6 parties and a long list of interested parties.
However it has then taken Gove over a year to come out with his decision to uphold the decision of the Inspector. That surely needs to be rethought? I realise he's been busy cocking around with the NPPF during that period but the fact that all those people involved have spent a year refreshing the DULCH website for his decision just seems like a colossal waste of everyone's time. It feels like everyone just becomes disenfranchised in the planning process when decisions take this long!
Beauty is in the eye of the 'Beer Holder'
I hope that perhaps one of the reasons that it took Gove a year to make his decision was that he spent some time with a wet towel over his head trying to square the quandary of what role beauty has in all of this?
Looking at the scheme, I do wonder if it could ever be described as beautiful. But then if the south bank shows us anything it is that beauty is a very subjective matter. I happen to think that the National Theatre is a beautiful building, others certainly don't. Even our own King said that the National Theatre seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London. We are actually coming up to 40th anniversary of his speech made at the RBA when he was a young Prince of Wales comparing the proposed extension to the National Gallery as a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well loved friend (something I will be writing more on in the coming months). I don't think we are in 'monstrous carbuncle territory' but design certainly played an important part in the decision making process not least as Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets appeared for Save our Southbank, one of the rule six parties. You would have thought that having him as a witness on design would be like asking Mr Duckworth or Mr Lewis opine on what the outcome of a cricket match should be. He certainly got a good innings in the inquiry and clearly it was a key focus for the inspector. Paragraph 9.3 of the decision sums up the case for Save our Southbank on design very succinctly:
Does it matter if it’s ugly? Isn’t beauty just a subjective thing? No, it’s not, and Mr Nicholas Boys Smith told us why - he of the Building Beautiful Commission. And yes, it does matter. Not only because the NPPF tells us planning has to consider beauty, but that that is the direction of travel, with a new draft NPPF, published for consultation during this Inquiry, that inserts beauty into the very heart of strategic planning
The Inspector certainly found the evidence he provided compelling and clearly grappled with this concept of beauty but ultimately found that this was a subjective matter and assessing design is an objective process.
I'm not convinced of the design. But then I probably wouldn't have been convinced of the National Theatre Design when it was first introduced. I guess we have to trust the process?
I do think though that everyone involved in the planning system has been sold a hospital pass when it comes to design (rugby, cricket and football - I'm really mixing my sports metaphors on this one). It is now central in the NPPF and associated guidance but none of us know what it really means and how decisions should be made.
Isn't it at Odds with the Marks and Spencers Decision?
I expected to see a finely balanced decision off the back of the Marks and Spencers call in decision on Oxford Street from July last year. In that decision Gove disagreed with the inspector on the demolition and rebuild of the Marks and Spencers on Oxford Street on the grounds of embodied carbon in the building and that the case for reuse of the building had not been considered.
I don't doubt that this had been looked at in detail by the Council and Appellant but it seems to get a very light airing in the appeal decision with just a few paragraphs devoted to it. Clearly the inspector didn't find issue with the principle of demolition and that it had been justified but I had just expected more.
I had thought the 'Marksies' decision would be the norm for future call ins but now it seems like it was an anomaly?
How does this all play out in the Gove / Khan spat?
As we know, at the same time as the NPPF was launched in December Gove also wrote to Sadiq Khan telling him of that he had put together a panel of expert advisers to consider the aspects of the London Plan which could be preventing thousands of homes being brought forward. His very clear words, which he may as well have written on shotgun cartridge, - If you cannot do what is needed to deliver the homes that London needs, I will.
But this was one of the key criticisms from the rule six parties, that it was just office space and some public realm. Where is the housing? Where is the affordable housing?
Gove was due to hear back from his expert panel in January. Perhaps he is there once again with his wet towel thinking how he squares decisions like this with his rhetoric on house building in London.
Going back to that retro 90s TV soap, do we have faith in the future of planning in London?
Look, this was always going to be a difficult decision. I do wonder though if this is the final decision and, given the rule 6 parties, I wonder if this will end up in another place?
One thing that is worth doing though my friends is just to read on past all the conditions and look at the 20 or so pages of interested parties oral contributions from the inquiry that have been very deliberately appended to the appeal decision. They are from one of the very few local communities that we still have in the middle of London. They deserve to be read and there is some very fine prose in there.
Do I think this appeal should have been allowed? Do I think this is a beautiful building? Will it be great addition to the south bank? Ask me again in 30 years.