Westminster’s Bump In The Road: The Mound

Westminster City Council’s deputy leader Councillor Melvyn Caplan resigned yesterday (12 August 2021) over the summer fiasco of the temporary viewing platform that has been built next to Marble Arch, in the middle of the gyratory roundabout where Park Lane meets Oxford Street. From WCC’s press statement Westminster City Council update on Marble Arch Mound:

The Mound opened too early, and we have apologised for that. It has become clear that costs have risen more than anticipated and that is totally unacceptable. Our original forecast cost was £3.3m. Total costs are now £6m, covering every aspect of the project: construction, operation and eventual removal.”

All credit to Councillor Caplan for taking that honourable step. However, so many questions arise from this:

• On the one hand, is it right for one person to carry the can, but, on the other hand, why don’t we see more examples of leadership like this in local or national government when bigger things go wrong?

• Doesn’t the Council deserve at least some credit for being innovative, in the face of the challenges faced by Oxford Street and the west end? There’s surely nothing wrong with “off the wall” projects as a matter of principle as long as behind the scenes they are as de-risked as possible and it will be a shame if the crushing “computer says no” answer to every idea will now be “remember the mound”.

• When is it appropriate for a public authority to take on this sort of project and when should it de-risk via the private sector? Didn’t it in fact ring alarm bells that a private operator wasn’t prepared to speculate on the project, or weren’t they even given the opportunity?

• Did the computer generated imagery serve to oversell the initial experience?

This project did seem to get an exceptionally easy ride.

The application for planning permission was resolved to be approved on 30 March 2021 and planning permission issued later that day, with the application only having been submitted on 19 February (which was the first time, as far as I know, the project entered the public domain). So applications can be determined quickly (in less than six weeks) under the current system then, even for an eight storey high temporary structure on metropolitan open land next to a grade 1 listed building and with the lead-in to a committee meeting! We’ll all have some of that please.

From the report to Planning Applications Sub-Committee:

“The location of the structure is sensitive due to its setting adjacent to the Grade 1 Listed Marble Area [sic] and location on Metropolitan Open Land (MOL). However, the provision of a temporary visitor is aimed at attracting visitors back to the Oxford Street District by increasing footfall, and supporting economic recovery following the Covid -19 pandemic. This is a clear planning benefit which is considered to outweigh the less than substantial harm that would be caused to the designated heritage assets.

I don’t particularly quibble with the fact that planning permission was granted (and I note that it did have much business support – after all it really wasn’t in principle a bad idea), although it is interesting to see the light touch applied to the sustainability of the project in the officer’s report:

Sustainability:

“Relocation of trees, grass, wood and soil. The proposal is that elements used in the construction of the structure, namely wood, soil, grass, and trees will all find new uses in nearby gardens and parks. The submission refers to ‘a co-ordinated dismantling programme to enable the transplanting of the numerous plants and trees used in landscaping of the hill to other projects in and beyond the Oxford Street District for the benefit of its communities’.

The focus will be on greening school environments, community spaces, and housing amenity areas. The planting used on this project will meet the City Council’s priorities for health and wellbeing. It is envisaged that the project as a whole can then contribute to the development and illustration of the Council’s Green Infrastructure Strategy.

The Head of Arboricultural Services advises that there are limitations on suitable space available for such material and attempting to transplant living plant material is likely to result in a high mortality rate. Therefore, this is unlikely to be a practical proposition. In the circumstances whilst the intention to re-use as much of the structure as possible is welcomed and encouraged. Given potential practical difficulties highlighted it is not recommended that this is secured by condition.”

After planning permission was granted, the final go-ahead for the project was given by cabinet in May 2021.

This what was said about costs:

The current indicative construction costs for the mound are approximately £1.998m. These will be met from the £150m investment in Oxford Street District approved by Full Council in March 2019. Capital expenditure of c£522k will ensure a number of permanent legacy improvements are delivered across the district and this will be met from the approved Highways capital budgets. The potential for significant income generation has been further developed. This will be offset against operational and construction costs to reduce the overall net cost.

To these costs were to be added the costs of the operator contract.

Cabinet were informed as to the prospect of income in the order of £2m being generated by the attraction.

Given that entrance is now going to be free for the duration of August, sadly the figures currently look on the optimistic side.

Why wasn’t there more scrutiny of the budget? Was everyone just caught up in the moment and conscious of the narrow window for pressing the “go” button? After all, warning bell surely, the architects, MVRDV, had previously proposed a very similar scheme for the Serpentine Gallery in 2004, which was abandoned for financial and health and safety reasons (see MVRDV’s proposed 2004 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion was “a heroic failure” (Dezeen, 8 November 2015) ).

My final question was as to the computer generated imagery used to “sell” the project. It looks instagram-amazing – and with a project like this the detail was always going to make the difference between success and failure. It is always going to be about that initial opening day wow factor: wasn’t the real problem (as per the first part of that WCC press statement) just that it really wasn’t ready to be unveiled? Worse things have happened, but it’s obviously difficult when you make a false, and unusual, step in such a high profile location.

Picture courtesy Westminster City Council

Who knows, it might turn out largely as illustrated (just late, like everything) and after all (although perhaps a stretch in this instance), perhaps all publicity is indeed good publicity. I’ll pay a visit to see what all the fuss is about, with maybe a little retail therapy en route (which after all is what it’s all about). Overall it is obvious that mistakes have been made, but (1) (oldest of sayings) let who is without sin cast the first stone and (2) (newest of sayings) don’t you just hate to see a combined media and social media pile-on?

Simon Ricketts, 13 August 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Our Planning Law Unplanned clubhouse event this Tuesday 17 August (6 to 7.15 pm) should be fascinating: “An End To Ugly? The Office for Place & National Model Design Code unpacked”, with special guests Nicholas Boys-Smith, Chris Miele and Vicky Payne. Sign up to the app here.

Picture courtesy Westminster City Council

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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