Secretary of State refuses consent for London Bridge tall buildings scheme due to heritage harm to assets “of the highest significance”

22 Sep 2023

Planning and Environment

In a decision letter issued over a year after the close of the inquiry, the Secretary of State agreed with his Inspector that permission should be refused for a tall building scheme on the corner of Borough High Street and St Thomas Street, an area described by the Inspector as “rich in heritage”.

The Appellant, Great Portland Estates (St Thomas Street) Ltd, had sought permission to demolish an existing 1980’s 4-5 storey office building (New City Court) and construct one of two alternative tall buildings, rising to 37 and 26 floors respectively. The lower scheme was described by the Inspector as a “radical design rethink” based on concerns that had been raised in respect of the taller scheme. The proposals would also have involved the restoration and refurbishment of the adjacent Grade II listed terrace on St Thomas Street, creation of new public realm (including elevated garden space accessible to the public) and a new entrance to London Bridge underground station.

The schemes were opposed at the Inquiry by LB Southwark and by Historic England (HE), which was represented by Emma Dring. HE focused its evidence and arguments on the harm to the Borough High Street Conservation Area, Guy’s Hospital (Grade II*), Southwark Cathedral (Grade I), the Tower of London World Heritage Site and St Paul’s Cathedral (Grade I).

The Inspector found that the schemes would add “drama and interest” to the BHSCA as claimed by the appellant, but “for the wrong reasons”. They would have a “very uncomfortable relationship” with Guys Hospital and would create a “flanking and tunnelling cumulative effect” bearing in mind other tall buildings nearby (including the Shard). The buildings would appear “incongruous and intrusive” in the backdrop of Southwark Cathedral from various points, undermining its impressive presence. It would add to the impacts caused to the Tower of London by other tall buildings south of the River.

In addition, whilst both schemes displayed a “distinct quality in the proposed architectural language and in the treatments of the facades”, overall there was harm in townscape terms. The Inspector observed that “good design cannot exist in a vacuum … context is a key aspect”.

The Inspector concluded that:

“Both schemes have much to commend them. However, the extent of the harm caused to a number of designated heritage assets is significant. Plus there would be harm related to a number of aspects of the design and because of this, the schemes cannot be said to be exceptional, or exemplary. The heritage harm is set within the range of LTSH, however considerable weight is to be given to that harm. I am particularly mindful that the harm relates to a wide number of assets within Southwark and across London, including those of the highest significance.”

Whilst “both schemes would bring about a great number of real benefits, heritage and public, which … collectively as a package, would be substantial”, they were not sufficient to outweigh the harms.

Read the full decision letter here.

  • Emma Dring has a busy public law practice focusing on planning, environmental, licensing, local government and climate matters. She regularly represents clients in public inquiries and in the higher courts and is on the Attorney General’s B Panel of Junior Counsel to the Crown. Emma has particular expertise in cases raising heritage issues, having represented Historic England in a number of significant cases over the years.