Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Fifteen minutes to Save Shoreditch

Hackney Council will allow the community just 15 minutes on 24 July to persuade its Planning Committee not to give the green light to a new skyscraper development on the City of London's northern boundary in Shoreditch.

City developer Hammerson plc plans to build the 51-storey Bishop's Place tower that would dominate historic south Shoreditch. Redevelopment of the site, Hammerson says, requires the demolition of the historic electricity generating station known as The Light. However an alternative scheme put to the Council shows this claim to be untrue.

Alternative treatment of The Light in Willingale's development

Hackney Council owns most of the development site and it has been banking on the £millions it will make, from its sale option agreement with Hammerson, to pay for a new Town Hall Annexe which is now under construction (see para 5.2 of the linked Report on the Hearn St site).

The Planning Committee meeting now set for 24 July was unscheduled. Hackney has had to obtain a QC’s advice that it could specially convene the meeting before the Hammerson option agreement expires on 31 July and before it considers the long outstanding public consultation on including The Light within the new Shoreditch Conservation Area boundaries. Against the advice of its own independent experts Hackney has been recommending to the public that the Light and other buildings should be excluded. Some of the other buildings have already recently been demolished.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, a government appointed body which advises on the design of major schemes, has stated in its report that the 'Bishops Place' scheme represents overdevelopment, that it fails to relate to the surrounding area and that it should not be passed in its present form. This conflicts with the advice of the Council’s own Design and Conservation Officer who supports the scheme.

There have so far been 417 letters of objection sent to Hackney Council opposing the Bishop’s Place development but only 3 in favour. Rebecca Collings, Co-Chair of OPEN's Save Shoreditch campaign, said "The decision to approve this building appears to have been made months in advance of this planning meeting by Hackney's executive.This is a strategic site outside the City's existing boundaries. The City’s development partners want to expand north into Shoreditch and, in the process, to establish a precedent for tall buildings in the area – buildings that will overshadow and dominate residential and business communities and contribute very little to local needs."

The image above was produced by the major City developer, Hammerson, to illustrate its vision of a "City Fringe Masterplan". Hammerson has planned massive developments in south Hackney and Bethnal Green. They plan to extend a curtain of towers from Shoreditch High Street eastwards across the Bishopsgate Goodsyard to Brick Lane with buildings up to and exceeding 50 storeys.

Another neighbouring scheme, promoted by Hammerson and the City of London for the Nicholls and Clarke site, is now under appeal following refusal by Tower Hamlets Council because it too failed to relate to the adjacent conservation areas. Tower Hamlets Council have also objected to the Bishop's Place scheme saying that by reason of its bulk, scale and height would fail to either preserve or enhance the Elder street conservation area" contrary to local and national poicies.

However Tower Hamlets has recently issued planning permission for The Block, a tower at the eastern end of the developers arc of skyscraper developments, contrary to its own Design and Conservation Team advice.

This is the proposed 25 storey tower on Bethnal Green Road and Sclater Street planned by Telford Homes and Genesis Partners. OPEN is challanging the planning approval

The £500 million Bishops Place mixed development scheme totals 1.25 hectares and includes 87,000 sq ft of office accommodation, an 80-room hotel and 189 private residential units. The amenties for children will be woefuly inadequate and there will be separate blocks for just 39 intermediate ("affordable") flats and only 11 (5%) flats for social renting.

The Council report recommends that, in addition to the agreed purchase price, Hammerson be required to pay £14 million, as a condition of planning permission, to subsidise some “off-site” affordable housing. Not for the benefit of Shoreditch resdidents, but in Dalston. Last year, after
demolishing Dalston Theatre and locally listed Georgian houses, Hackney gave away its development site there for a peppercorn to help finance a £39 million concrete slab for a bus turnaround above the new Transport for London Dalston Junction station. The Dalston developer, Barratt, has been facing extreme financial difficulties recently. The lack of any affordable housing on TfL's Dalston site, despite the authorities 50% affordable housing targets, has been a huge embarrassment to the GLA, TfL and Hackney. By robbing Peter to pay Paul the authorities hope to mitigate the controversy over the Dalston development.

Representatives of many local community organisations, English Heritage, the Hackney Society and the Victorian Society all recommended that 'The Light' building at 233 Shoreditch High Street be included in the South Shoreditch Conservation Area. A petition of 6,757 signatures supports retention of the Light Building. But Hackney’s recommendations to its planning Committee includes the advice that The Light isn’t in the Conservation Area and so no special regard need be had to the effect which its demolition would have on the unique character and distinctiveness of the area.

The grant of planning permission could trigger a watershed test for London Mayor Boris Johnson. If Hackney Councillors give the go-ahead then Boris will then have only 14 days to give the thumbs down otherwise the tower can be built. Boris has recently indicated that he will not generally interfere with local planning decisions, but local residents and businesses will be calling on the Mayor to back their campaign and hold the local authority to account.

OPEN’s Rebecca Collings says the London Mayor would have a duty to intervene "If Hackney approve the scheme Boris will have a golden opportunity to show that he is running London for Londoners – not just for developers with money and influence. He must not allow this development to go ahead unchallenged. We will call upon Mayor Johnson to subject this development to rigorous and unbiased scrutiny. We also call on him to allow a genuine debate about the City Fringe area as a whole."

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