Ps In A Pod: Politics, Planning, Protest & Prevarication

Planning still appears to have been taken hostage by internal Tory political infighting. See e.g. Tory backbenchers rebel over national housing targets (SP Broadway, 2 December 2022).

In a more innocent time, September 2014, I delivered a paper to the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference, Heroes and Villains — Challenge and Protest in Planning: What’s a Developer To Do?   

Since then the antagonism seems to have increased and areas of common ground seem to reduced. Planning and heritage processes are frequently just another battleground in this time of global and cultural division. 

I was going to pull together a few more strands today, for instance on contested heritage (I’m conscious that I haven’t yet covered the Court of Appeal’s September 2022 ruling following the acquittal of the “Colston Four”), the closure by the Wellcome Collection of its “Medicine Man” gallery, on the battle for control of the National Trust and much else besides. 

But I’m just going to pick the most recent item from this week’s news. It’s possible  that politics played as much a role as planning in the decision on 1 December 2022 by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ Strategic Development Committee, against officers’ recommendations, to refuse planning permission for the redevelopment of Royal Mint Court, near the Tower of London, to establish a new Chinese Embassy (replacing its existing embassy on Portland Place), including “the refurbishment and restoration of the Johnson Smirke Building (Grade II listed), partial demolition, remodelling and refurbishment of Seaman’s Registry (Grade II listed), with alterations to the west elevation of the building, the retention, part demolition, alterations and extensions to Murray House and Dexter House, the erection of a standalone entrance pavilion building, alterations to the existing boundary wall and demolition of substation, associated public realm and landscaping, highway works, car and cycle parking and all ancillary and associated works.

51 objections had been received, raising a range of planning and non-planning objections. One has a sense of non-planning issues swirling around from the officer’s report which, after summarising the various planning and heritage based objections received, sets out the “non-material considerations” raised by objectors as including:

  • Concerned about the building becoming a secret police station
  • Concerned about the violent assault of protesters at the Manchester Chinese Consulate
  • Concerned about the actions of the Chinese government in relation to other countries and human rights record
  • All phone calls and fibre optic cables will be listened to as the site is adjacent to a BT telephone exchange”. 

The minutes are not yet available but I understand that the Committee resolved that the proposals would “affect the ‘safety and security’ of residents, such as those at next-door Royal Mint Estate, cause harm to heritage assets, impact the quality of the area as a tourist destination and have an impact on local police resourcing.”

The decision has attracted widespread media attention, not just in the UK (see for instance London council rejects new Chinese embassy amid residents’ safety fears (Guardian, 2 December 2022) and David Chipperfield’s Chinese embassy complex rejected by London council (Architects Journal, 2 December 2022)) but across the world. 

What is going to happen next? The People’s Republic of China has owned the site outright since 2018 and they are hardly going to walk away from the project. Michael Gove could conceivably call the application in before the refusal notice is issued, or China could appeal against the refusal and the appeal would presumably be recovered for his determination following recommendations from an inspector who would hold a public inquiry. 

The political sensitivities are surely going to ramp up, no matter what. Perhaps this application should have been called in by the Government at an earlier stage rather than leave committee members with (1) such a difficult decision, balancing local concerns against international diplomatic responsibilities, and (2) such power. But I’m sure the government would have loved to have left this particular hot potato well alone. And they thought that juggling an appearance of dealing with the housing crisis with an appearance of leaving communities in control of local housing numbers was difficult….

Simon Ricketts, 3 December 2022

Personal views, et cetera

Photo courtesy of Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash