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Boris Johnson at the NASDAQ New York in 2009.
[Think London via Flickr CC Some Rights Reserved]

Just as the controversial Garden Bridge plan championed by London Mayor Boris Johnson appeared to run into the buffers with Labour mayoral hopeful Sadiq Khan stating he would cancel the pet project of old Johnson family friend Joanna Lumley  if he becomes Mayor next May, Mr Johnson opened up another flank on London’s community campaigners who believe that the Mayor has been far too close to major property developers and investors.  Mayor Johnson has “called in” two of the most controversial redevelopment plans currently on the books of London Boroughs.  These are the redevelopment of the Norton Folgate area of Spitalfields by British Land which was blocked by Tower Hamlets councilors in July and also the £800 million redevelopment of the derelict Bishopsgate Goods Yard at Liverpool Street by Hammerson and Ballymore which is currently held up by Tower Hamlets and Hackney Councils.  This means the decision making in both cases has been removed from the local authority and is now in the hands of the Mayor.  The calling in of the plan by British Land to redevelop Norton Folgate and demolish more than 70% of the fabric of the Conservation area is particularly worrying to campaigners, as it once again raise the question as to whether the Conservative Government and Mayor’s Office are too close to major property developers.  The question arises because on 15 September it was also announced that Adrian Penfold, Head of Planning at British Land, is to become a member of a panel set up by Planning Minister Brandon Lewis which is designed to, in the words of the Department for Communities and Local Government announcement

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“…streamline the local plan-making process…” and “…consider how it can be simplified with the aim of slashing the amount of time it takes for local authorities to get them in place.”

The demands of local plans, or the lack of them, are at the centre of many planning rows, including these two cases and concern has been expressed by a number of organisations, including the Heritage Alliance, that there are no representatives of Environmental bodies on the new DCLG panel, while in addition to Mr Penfold of British Land, Liz Peace former Chief Executive of the British Property Federation also has a seat. The other members of the panel have a local government or legal background.  While there is no suggestion that Mr Penfold or Ms Peace are acting improperly their appointment leads many critics to the conclusion that the panel is being set up to deliver the answer that the Government wants.  That is local plans which contain less regulation and scrutiny, especially from an environmental point of view.  Particularly as any further streamlining of the development of local plans, or planning rules in general, will make it much more difficult for community and expert groups to mobilise and submit alternative views.

Adding to the concern is that Mr Penfold has a record as a Government’s “go to” person if you want a review which ends up recommending relaxing planning rules.  In 2009 at the invitation of the then Labour Government he began the “the Penfold Review of non Planning Consents”.  The final report was published in July 2010 and in the introduction Mr Penfold set out his aims of responding to business and reducing regulation

“I have stopped short of recommending wholesale reform through wide-ranging ‘unification’ of planning and other consents and have concentrated instead on practical, targeted changes that I judge are capable of delivering the benefits businesses told me they want to see and provide scope for additional scaling down of regulation in the future.”

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These were aims and conclusions which would have been music to the ears of the new Conservative led coalition.

The Penfold Review came at the same time as British Land was embroiled in an earlier planning and heritage row, this time over the demolition and redevelopment of the iconic modernist Broadgate development next to Liverpool Street station.  British Land [value of land portfolio in September 2015 £13.6bn] have as a subsidiary Broadgate Estates which owned the Broadgate Complex.

In 2011 Broadgate was turned down for listing by then Secretary of State for Culture Jeremy Hunt, in spite of English Heritage saying it was of architecturally “outstanding quality” and the fact that the original development was one of the most striking projects created by a major contemporary British architect, the late Peter Fogo.

When Jeremy Hunt announced that the Broadgate would not be listed, Chris Grigg, chief executive of British Land commented;

“I am delighted by today’s decision as it allows Broadgate to continue to evolve as a sustainable and flexible office location that will meet the future needs of occupiers whilst maintaining the sense of space and place for which it is rightly renowned around the globe. With the decision made today by Jeremy Hunt, the Government has also sent out a message loud and clear to the world that the UK is… “‘open for business’.”

This was taken as a statement of a principle that, in the Cameron Government’s view, conservation and development were not compatible and if it came to a choice, development or “growth” as the Government prefers to call it, would win out every time, the fig leaf of responsibility being the word “sustainable”.  Both Mr Osborne and British Land re-enforced the “open for business” message when the Chancellor himself publicly affirmed the Government’s agreement with British Land over the issue of listing when the Chancellor attended the ceremony to break ground on the Broadgate Development on 1 March 2011.  A British Land press release quoted the Chancellor as saying

“The Chancellor of the Exchequer, The Rt Hon George Osborne MP said: “There have been those who tried to block the redevelopment of the Broadgate site, but this Government has helped see the project through, so we can send an important message to the world – that Britain is open for business and is unashamedly pro enterprise.”

Others disagreed with Mr Grigg, Mr Hunt and Mr Osborne. Jon Wright of the 20th Century Society said…

 “London may be open for business, but the loss of Broadgate’s best buildings will send another clear message, that the process by which we have assessed and designated our collective built heritage since 1945 has broken down.”

Four years on from the public humiliation of English Heritage and other amenity groups over the Broadgate development many of those campaigners will see Boris Johnson’s calling in of the Norton Folgate and Bishopsgate Goods Yard plans as another piece of mayoral machismo designed to put local authorities, subject experts and community campaigners in their place.  Certainly the portents are not good.

To critics Boris Johnson clearly signaled his direction of travel when he cited the Chancellor’s commitment to driving economic growth in his letter to the Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets informing the Council that he was calling in the British Land plan.

“…it is likely that recent challenges to delivering office floorspace and employment growth are linked to broader economic trends and within this context, it is important that strategic office development in suitable but finite CAZ and City Fringe locations such as this are delivered in order to support London’s globally competitive business cluster while promoting growth.

Clearly the implication is that Mayor Johnson is minded to “deliver” the plan.

Tim Whittaker of the campaigning group the Spitalfields Trust attempted to place a positive spin on the news telling the London Evening Standard

“It is disappointing that Boris Johnson has chosen to intervene, following the democratic decision of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, reflecting the desires of the people of East London. “

“We are confident that when the Mayor looks at this case in more detail he will agree that the council’s decision to reject the scheme was correct – and based on sound planning grounds.”

“We had planned for this eventuality, which is not unexpected. The battle continues.”

However, analysts think the battle could be a tough and uphill for the Spitalfields and Bishopsgate campaigners.

During the seven and a half years of his mayoral administration Mr Johnson has used his powers to “call in” development plans thirteen times, granting eleven of the proposals.  The remaining two are currently still under consideration.  Using other powers, the Mayor has directed a London borough to refuse a planning application just six times.  A fact which causes great concern among community campaigners against these two development plans which opponents see as creating corporate monocultures out of all sympathy and proportion with the historic buildings and long established communities of the two locations.  Indeed the Victorian Society branded the Bishopsgate Goods Yard plan as a “gross overdevelopment” while the East End Preservation Society branded it a”…vast, intrusive and alien development.”

Of equal concern is the repeated suggestion that Historic England [formerly English Heritage] has learned its lesson from the Broadgate debacle and is now reluctant to cross swords with the two ex-Bullingdon Club, big beasts, Mayor Boris Johnson and Chancellor George Osborne, either of whom could be the next Prime Minister when David Cameron stands down as he has promised to do before the 2020 General Election.  There is now a trail of controversial development proposals in London and elsewhere in the Country, which Historic England has declined to oppose in spite of significant opposition from independent experts and expert amenity groups.  These include the Garden Bridge on the Thames at Waterloo which is widely accepted as damaging historic views along the Thames, the Stonehenge Short Tunnel which opponents argue would damage the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the proposed housing development on the slopes of Old Oswestry Hill Fort in Shropshire.  As a result campaigners fear that from an organisation which was once perceived as having a role protecting the historic environment in the public interest, Historic England has been deliberately morphed and neutered by the Government and is now effectively a part of the development arm of the Department of the Communities and Local Government and of course the Treasury, which really calls the shots.

This view was reinforced by the press release Historic England published in the wake of Tower Hamlets’ rejection of the latest Norton Folgate planning application.  Historic England stated

“The diversity of new uses that were proposed had the potential to revive the area and reflect its residential and commercial past.”

Significantly the press release added

“Our role is to advise the local authority on managing change to the historic environment.”

It is this suggestion that the role of Historic England is to “manage change”,rather than question whether that change is always in the public interest, which is causing most concern.

Prior to the planning meeting in July Historic England posted a summary of its advice to Tower Hamlets which stated

“Please note our role is not to endorse the plans in any way – this information is just designed to let you know what is proposed and give background to our advice to the local authority.”

However, in a statement published by the Spitalfields Trust after the Tower Hamlets decision the Spitalfields Trust campaigners asked if Historic England was so even handed why had Historic England London Region elected to

“…make a series of public statements supporting the scheme (the last published on 23 July),”

the Trust continued

“it also elected to attend the planning committee and speak in favour of the scheme and the developers promoting it. It is virtually unheard of for HE to attend planning meetings at this level….”

In the light of these events and the perceived co-opting of so many agents of corporate influence into the Government’s decision making processes over planning perhaps many will agree with architectural historian and long standing Spitalfields campaigner Dan Cruickshank who told a protest meeting in April 2015.

“English Heritage’s position is shocking,…They are rather strange at the moment.  They should be our allies but have been either useless or on the wrong side of the barricade. It’s heartbreaking.”

Mr Cruickshank added a possible explanation

“They are subject to political control. The money comes from the government and the government is pro-development.”

It is a conclusion which many campaigners might sympathise with.  However, they might also sympathise with the contributor to the same meeting who claimed to be an employee of English Heritage/Historic England and who spoke in a personal capacity saying

“Our position on Smithfield was baffling. Our position on loads of things is baffling.

There are people at English Heritage who give a shit about these things. We do a lot of good work but it’s like the NHS – people only hear about the mistakes and not the everyday successes. There’s a lot of buildings standing in this country [thanks to Historic England].”

The problem is mistakes in planning in London can destroy hundreds, if not thousands of years of history, damage established communities and small businesses and leave nothing but outsize, high rent, corporate monuments with 1% affordable housing and a lifespan of around thirty years [or on past experience about three boom/bust economic cycles in the City] before fashions in commercial spaces change to the extent that a building is no longer viable.  The really special developments, such as the now infamous car burning “Walkie Talkie”, win the “Carbuncle Cup.”

Given his track record over responding to lobbying during the procurement of the Garden Bridge and with the, albeit unproven, suspicion of collusion in the air, the Spitalfields Society are also currently awaiting the outcome of a Freedom of Information Act request asking for details of any meeting which may have taken place involving Mayor Boris Johnson and his staff and British Land prior to his decision to call in the application.

The stakes are high for all involved.  As Alex Forshaw, the former town planner, urban designer and conservation officer for the London Borough of Islington,  said in a report appraising the British Land proposals sent to Tower Hamlets

“To approve the current scheme would be to threaten the very survival of not only the small Elder Street Conservation Area, but would put the wider Spitalfields and Shoreditch areas under further and greater threat.”

The big question is, does Mayor Boris Johnson even care about such concerns. But of course there is an even bigger question.  If planning permission is finally granted to British Land, will he or Chancellor George Osborne be invited to the ceremony to break ground?  If they are invited Adrian Penfold might well be there too and they probably won’t need to be introduced.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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