Historic England has welcomed the withdrawal of a controversial planning application which would have seen the demolition of historic Victorian buildings on the south side of the Strand in London by King’s College London. In a statement released following the news, Nigel Barker, the Historic England Planning and Conservation Director for London, states “We are pleased that King’s has withdrawn its application, we are confident this will lead to a revised scheme that will give King’s what they need, whilst protecting our heritage. It is a cherished and important part of the historic environment.” [ http://www.historicengland.org.uk/news-and-features/Statements/the-strand-kings-withdraws/ ]. However, campaigners who have followed the controversy over the 154-158 the Strand development, as well as others concerned at some of Historic England’s recent advice, will be most interested by comments further down the statement. Not only does the statement reiterate that Historic England, which is local and national Government’s statutory advisor in planning matters, made a wrong call in its initial response to the Strand proposal. It also commits Historic England to working with partners [the current jargon for property developers], campaigners and the press, to “make the best of our historic places”. This suggests that senior managers at Historic England may have realised they were running the risk of losing confidence and support in the wider heritage sector and attracting negative attention from the media, if they continued to be seen to support a proposal which had been almost universally condemned.
Historic England had come under fire from a number of heritage organisations, including Save Britain’s Heritage and the Victorian Society, when it advised the local planning authority, Westminster Council, that the King’s College development would cause “less than substantial harm”, even though the buildings under threat were situated in a conservation area and were recognised as unlisted buildings of merit which contributed to the setting of the historic church of St Mary the Strand and Somerset House.
The abrupt about face came in a statement issued on 10 June when Historic England confirmed it had changed its stance following an internal review.
“We scrutinised our role in the case and saw that our usual process when it comes to giving advice about sensitive areas had not been properly followed. A case like this should be brought to the attention of a regional director at an early stage, and this did not happen on the Strand.”
The organisation added
“After review we recognised and stated publicly that our advice must change. Of course we knew we would be criticised for having got it wrong in the first place. But the historic environment comes first, and the Strand is as important as it is sensitive. We then advised that harm caused by the proposed development would be substantial.”
The very precise reasoning set out in the 10 June statement suggests to some observers that, following the vehemence of the opposition to King’s College development proposals and the range of experts lining up against it, Historic England may have realised it had a problem with both the advice and the perception of the advice and found a procedural route offering a convenient way out.
The withdrawal of the planning application for the Strand means that the planned “call in” by newly installed Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Greg Clark, will no longer take place and all parties involved in the controversy now have the opportunity to retreat, regroup, negotiate and resubmit the plan in a way which avoids the causes of the recent public relations car crash.
For Historic England in particular, being perceived as being on the wrong side of a major conservation argument so early in the life of the new organisation could be disasterous. Historic England only took over the advisory role in planning on 1 April when the property portfolio of the former “English Heritage” was floated off to become an arms length charity as part of the Government’s cost cutting strategy. In that context the last thing the new Historic England needed was to be perceived as part of the opposition, by civic, heritage and environmental groups as well as the thousands of members of the public who signed the petition against the development. This need for Historic England to keep the wider heritage sector the public and the media on side is suggested by the fact that the 10 June Historic England statement concluded,
“Historic buildings are part of our national fabric and tell our collective story. It is critical that all those involved in heritage protection – from Historic England to campaigners and the free press, can have an open, mature debate about getting it right. And part of getting it right is being confident and able to say when you have got it wrong.”
The change of heart from Historic England and apparent commitment to seeking a wider consensus will also raise hopes that the organisation might reconsider other controversial advice where campaigners and independent experts suggest that Historic England has again “got it wrong”, by being too tolerant and permissive of developments which would damage the fabric and setting of nationally important sites. In particular those opposed to the proposed development close to Old Oswestry Hillfort in Shropshire and the London Garden Bridge are sure to be looking at Historic England’s change of stance over the Strand and the reasons for it, in detail. In both cases the language used by Historic England in finding that development plans did not cause substantial harm and any changes to the historic setting they caused could be mitigated, is very close to that initially used of the Strand development and which has now been repudiated so comprehensively.