Report of the Chief Planning Officer and Development Director.
The Committee considered a report of the Chief Planning Officer and Development Director regarding Custom House, 20 Lower Thames Street & River Wall, Stairs and Crane, Custom House Quay London EC3R 6EE – specifically, to convert and change the use of the existing Grade I listed building Custom House, formally the HM Revenue and Customs Offices (Use Class E), to a hotel (Use Class C1), with flexible ground floor and roof level retail floorspace (Use Classes E & Sui Generis (Drinking Establishment)), leisure facilities (Use Class E), a ground floor museum (Use Class F1 (c)) and ancillary riverfront public realm. The Committee agreed that the item could be decided in conjunction with the application for Listed Building Consent at Item 4a.
The Chief Planning Officer and Development Director drew the Committee’s attention to the tabled addenda, which advised of corrections to errors within the planning officer’s report, Pan-London and Local Strategic Views, updated recommendations, amended conditions and additional late representations. The Chief Planning Officer and Development Director then advised that the decision in respect of the planning application lay with the Planning Inspectorate, as the application had been appealed on the basis of non-determination.
The Chief Planning Officer and Development Director then introduced the application to Members and presented the officer’s report, informing the Committee about the details of the scheme and its wider implications and outlining the reasons for the officer’s recommendation. The officer’s recommendation was that the Committee resolve to inform the Planning Inspectorate that, were it empowered to determine the application for planning permission, the Committee would have refused permission. The Chief Planning Officer and Development Director advised that the Committee’s decision would be a material consideration in the decision of the Planning Inspectorate.
The Chair invited the registered objectors to address the Committee. Edward Waller, a Conservation Adviser speaking on behalf of the Georgian Group, addressed the Committee in support of the recommendation. The Committee heard that Custom House had a number of points of exceptional significance, also being the earliest purpose-built office building in the City of London. Whilst there had been some rebuilding on the site due to historic bomb damage, many classical arrangement and period features remained. The building was one of exceptional historic and architectural interest, and many aspects of the proposed scheme such as the subdivisions, glass roof and change of use were not desirable for the site. There were three main reasons to support the refusal of the scheme, which were shared by relevant historical and conservation interest groups; objection to the proposed subdivision, objection to the proposals in respect of the roof, and the disturbance of the proposals to the heritage of the site, which must be weighted accordingly in the Committee’s considerations. It was said that it was clear the proposals did not meet the criteria for planning permission, and the Committee was urged to refuse the scheme.
Alec Forshaw, on behalf of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, also addressed the Committee in support of the recommendation. The Committee heard that Custom House, one of London’s great buildings, had a long tradition of public access and was hugely significant in its function as a public building. An initiative like Culture Mile should be considered for the site and surrounding area, and Somerset House and the Tate Modern provided examples of the opportunities available by retaining Custom House as a public building and an amenity for the City of London and the rest of London. SAVE Britain’s Heritage were in agreement with the officer’s report and with the other objecting interest groups, and felt that the scheme did not provided sufficient public access to the site, with the harm done by the scheme outweighing the benefits. The Committee was urged to support the officer’s recommendation and refuse the scheme.
The Chair thanked those speaking in favour for their presentation to the Committee and invited questions from Members, of which there were none.
The Chair then invited the applicant to address the Committee. Michael Squire addressed the Committee on behalf of Squire and Partners in objection to the recommendation, with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation and Gareth Fox, of Montagu Evans, also present to respond to questions. The Committee heard that a hotel would be the best use of the current site, which was no longer a public building as it was privately-owned. The impact of the scheme would be negligible in respect of the views and features of the building, and the scheme would provide substantial public realm, with an open design giving access to and from the Riverside Walk and through the building, which was of significant public benefit. The proposals were consistent with the guidance on balance between free use and ticketed events set out in the GLA Public London Charter. The provision of a free-to-access museum in the most historic part of the building had been agreed during negotiations, providing further public benefit in addition to the rooftop pavilion. This was a special scheme, to which the GLA, Port of London Authority and London Borough of Tower Hamlets, amongst other stakeholders, had not objected, and the applicant had sought to reach proper solutions in conjunction with the City of London Corporation.
The Chair thanked those speaking in objection for their presentation to the Committee and invited questions from Members. In response to questions from Members, the applicant advised that they were not sure why agreement with the planning officers had not been reached, as dialogue had been positive and productive. Whilst there were now thirteen reasons for refusal presented, previously access to the riverside had been the only point left to agree, as planning officers had deemed closure of the quayside unacceptable. However, the applicant maintained that the balance of closure and free access was appropriate, with the public benefit outweighing any harm caused by closure. The applicant advised that they were open to discussing further the remaining issues and wanted the opportunity to resolve them. The viability of the hotel was finely balanced and needed the option of the quayside facility to be viable. The applicant added that they had listened to the officer’s concerns and made concessions, such as the museum, during negotiations.
The Chair then asked that Members move to questions for officers and to debate the application. The Chair opened the debate by advising that he had met the parties involved and regretted the application’s unfortunate position. However, it was felt that there had been a failure on the part of the applicant to understand the planning officers’ view of the building’s capability, and the expectation of diverse and inclusive buildings. The Chair added that in his view, the scheme would render the building insufficiently open and inclusive, and the public benefit did not outweigh the harm of the scheme.
The Deputy Chairman commented that the outcome was disappointing, but the application was not acceptable, as it was not sufficiently respectful of the public nature of the building and the river frontage, to which access was a justified red line. The scheme was contrary to strategic aims to open spaces rather than restrict them, and the application could and should be improved upon. The Deputy Chairman added that great care had been taken by officers to guide the application towards an acceptable solution.
A Member advised that they supported the refusal of the scheme, for the reasons outlined by the relevant historical and conservation interest groups, but expressed their disappointment that the Committee was reduced to offering a view to the Planning Inspectorate rather than determining the application. The Member asked why, if an agreement could not be reached, the application had not been referred to the Committee within the determination timeframe, with a recommendation to refuse the application if necessary.
A Member commented that they supported the point raised on open spaces and did not feel they could vote to close off the Riverside Walk. The Member urged the developer to reconsider the application, adding that there were existing hotels in the area without access to the riverside, indicating that this was not essential for viability. Another Member added that whilst they agreed with the recommendation, they did not feel there was a general objection to the principle of a hotel on the site. However, this would have to be part of an acceptable scheme.
The Chief Planning Officer and Development Director responded that the non-determination was partly due to the efforts made towards finding a solution with the developer. Officers had requested additional information from the applicant and sought the opportunity to resolve issues. Whilst the application could have been submitted earlier, officers continued to try and reach an agreement on the scheme. The Committee was assured that its resolution would be communicated to the Planning Inspectorate and would be a significant material consideration in determining the application. A Member responded that an extension should have been sought, with the application referred to the Committee if it had been declined. The Chair added that planning applications involved negotiations and some applicants would inevitably use their right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.
A Member reported that the Ward Members for Billingsgate supported the officer’s recommendation but urged both parties to try and resolve the outstanding issues, as whilst there were harmful elements of the scheme, it could potentially include enough public benefit to outweigh them.
In response to a question from a Member, the Chief Planning Officer and Development Director advised that the assertion that there had recently been only one point of objection remaining was not his understanding, adding that all points of concern had been set out in the report. However, officers had always sought to minimise any differences and balance these concerns where necessary.
A Member commented that in their view the public benefits of the scheme did not outweigh the harmful elements of the scheme. Whilst there were already plenty of hotels in the area, Custom House was a unique, historic building with a riverside setting, with which great care should be taken. The Member added that the building could be used more appropriately than conversion to a hotel, and advised that they supported the officer’s recommendation and reasons for refusal.
A Member advised that they were sympathetic to the concerns regarding process, and it appeared that the deadline had been allowed to pass in an effort to reach a proposal that could be recommended for approval, which was not necessarily the right approach. The Member added that they had concerns about the public offering being compromised or removed at a later stage, and the current proposals sought too many closures of the quayside.
Arising from the discussion, the application was then put to the vote amongst eligible Members, who voted unanimously in favour of the recommendation.
RESOLVED – That the Planning & Transportation Committee:
a) Resolves to inform the Planning Inspectorate that were it empowered to determine the application for planning permission the Council would have REFUSED permission for the reasons set out below:
1. The proposed development would not ensure the continued beneficial use for a historic building. It has not been demonstrated that the proposal would conserve the amenity of existing neighbouring occupiers due to noise and overlooking or provide satisfactory or safe arrangements for servicing vehicles. The proposed development for the change of use of the existing building to a hotel (Use Class C1) would therefore not accord with, Local Plan Policy, CS10, CS11, DM3.5,DM11.3, DM15.7, DM21.3 and draft City Plan Policies HL3, HS3, CV3,DE5, S23, S24, and SB1, and London Plan Policies D3, D6, D13, D14.
2. The proposed development would fail to preserve the special architectural and historic interest and setting of the London Custom House (Grade I) and the River Wall, Stairs and Cranes (Grade II*),causing less than substantial harm to their heritage significance the result of direct and in-direct impacts on setting, resulting from external and internal alterations, extensions, loss and de-contextualisation of historic fabric, plan form and character. The harm would not be outweighed by public benefits. The proposal is not in accordance with policies: London Plan Policy HC1; Local Plan Policies CS 12, DM 12.1,DM 12.3; HE1; Draft City Plan Policies S11 and HE1 and the NPPF.
3. The proposed development would fail to preserve the settings of Old Billingsgate (grade II), St Dunstan in the East Ruin (Grade I) and by association its Walls, Gates and Railings to the Churchyard (Grade II),the Monument to the Great Fire (Grade I and Scheduled Ancient Monument), All Hallows by the Tower (Grade I), Tower Bridge (Grade I), the Eastcheap Conservation Area, the Tower Bridge Conservation Area and the Tooley Street Conservation Area, causing harm to their heritage significance and an appreciation of it by way of contribution made by elements of setting. The harm would not be outweighed by public benefits. The development would not be in accordance with Local Plan Policies: CS 12, DM 12.1, DM 12.3; London Plan Policy HC1; City Plan Policies S11 and HE1; and policies and guidance contained in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Planning Practice Guidance.
4. The proposed development would not comprise a high standard of design as a result of its architecture, in particular the roof extensions, which by virtue of their siting, height, massing, appearance and detailed design, by day and night, would fail to be visually integrated into the overall design of the building when seen from street and higher level view, which would not be sympathetic and contextual to character or history, adversely affecting the character and appearance of the host building, contrary to Local Plan Policies CS 10, DM 10.1 , Emerging City Plan Policies and the NPPF and National Design Guide.
Strategic Views (London):
5. The proposed development would comprise an intrusive form of development causing harm to the characteristics of London View Management Framework (LVMF) designated River Prospects from London Bridge (11B.1-2) and Tower Bridge (10A.1) including impact on the setting of the Monument as a landmark element and the Townscape View from the Queen’s Walk at City Hall (25A.1-3). The development is not in accordance with Local Plan Policies: Local Plan CS 13(1); London Plan HC4; City Plan S13 and guidance contained in the LVMF SPG.
Strategic Views (Local):
6. By virtue of the height, bulk, massing and appearance of the roof extensions, associated terraces and alterations to roof level, the proposal would fail to protect and enhance significant local views of and from the Monument, and would fail to protect and enhance views of identified historic city landmarks and skyline features, namely Tower Bridge, St Dunstan in the East and All Hallows by the Tower. The development is not in accordance with Local Plan Policies: Local Plan CS 13(2); City Plan Policy S13 and guidance in the Protected Views SPD.
7. The proposed development would not result inclusive access by closure wholly and partly for events on the Quayside and limited internal public permeability which would limit the interpretation and enjoyment of a seminal heritage asset. The management, pedestrian movement, curation, detailed design and look-and-feel of the internal and external public realm, including the interface created between these would result in a non-inclusive form of public realm. The vibrancy or animation of the riverside for public use with limited active frontages and restricted publicly accessible open space would fail to deliver a fairer, more equitable and inclusive place which is welcoming to all communities whilst conflicting with the spatial aspirations of the emerging Pool of London Key Area of change. The proposal would not be in accordance with Local Plan Policies CS9, CS10, CS19, DM10.4 the overarching good growth objectives in the London Plan, London Plan policies D5, D8, S4, SI14 and SI16, Draft City Plan S17, S19, DE3, S14, OS1, CV2, HL1, the aspirations of the Riverside Walkway Enhancement Strategy SPD 2015, Mayor’s Public Charter.
8. It has not been demonstrated that the proposed development would provide highest standard of accessible design including disabled access provisions or facilities both within the hotel development and externally within the Quayside area or adjacent areas of Public Highway. The development would not meet the highest standard of accessibility and inclusive design and would not be in accordance with Local Plan policies CS10, DM10.1, DM10.5 and DM10.8, policies D5 and E10 of the London Plan or policies S1 and S8 of the draft City Plan.
9. The lay-by would result in the width of the pavement being reduced on Lower Thames Street therefore not promoting active travel by walking and diminish pedestrian comfort levels (PCL). The development would therefore not accord with Local Plan Policy DM16.1, DM16.2, emerging City Plan Policies AT1 and AT2, London Plan Policies T1 and T2, The Mayor’s Transport Strategy and the City of London Transport Strategy.
10. In the absence of a scheme for offsite consolidation it has not been demonstrated that the development would facilitate safe, and efficient deliveries and servicing of the site, including adequate safety and servicing of the Quayside for events. The proposed would therefore not accord with Local Plan Polices DM16.1 and DM16.5, London Plan Policy T7 or emerging City Plan Policy VT2.
11. It has not been demonstrated that the proposed development would not have a detrimental impact on Pedestrian Comfort Levels as a result of the change of use of the site and the potential for increased capacity. The applicant has failed to demonstrate that the closure of the quayside would not create unacceptable Pedestrian Comfort Levels and would therefore not be in accordance with London Plan Policy T4 or TfL Pedestrian Comfort Guidance for London 2019.
12. The applicant has failed to enter into an appropriate legal agreement to secure the provision of appropriate site specific mitigation including; Highway Reparation and other Highways Obligations; Local Procurement Strategy; Local Training, Skills and Job Brokerage Strategy (Demolition; Construction and End Use); Delivery and Servicing Management Plan (including Consolidation); Travel Plan (including Cycling Promotion Plan); Section 278 Agreement (CoL); Section 278 Agreement (TfL); Declaration of City Walkway; Visitor Management Plan; Cultural Strategy and associated Cultural Plan (including Cultural officer, Cultural Committee and Heritage Partner); Public Access Management Plan; and Quayside Events Management Plan and Planning Obligations in relation to Affordable Housing; Local Training, Skills and Job Brokerage; Carbon Reduction Shortfall; Section 278 Design and Evaluation; and S106 Monitoring Charge. The development therefore conflicts with Policy CS4 and the City’s Planning Obligations SPD.
13. It has not been demonstrated that the proposed development would achieve an adequate urban greening factor or that urban greening has been optimised on this site contrary to London Plan Policy G5, whilst having regard for emerging City Plan Policy OS2; and
b) Delegate authority to the Chief Planning Officer and Development Director to inform the Planning Inspectorate of modified Reasons for which the City Corporation would have refused the permission (were it empowered to determine it) in response to any further information that may be provided by the Applicant.