PRESS RELEASE: City planners recommend refusal of controversial hotel proposals
20th October 2021
SAVE Britain’s Heritage welcomes the recommendation by City of London planners to refuse plans to convert the Custom House and quayside to an exclusive hotel complex. With a planning committee decision due next week, SAVE has written to councillors supporting the City’s position and arguing that public access to this grand River Thames landmark is critical to protecting its historic significance and future use.
The City of London planning report cites four key grounds for refusing the plans, including insufficient public access to the building and quayside terrace, heritage harm, poor design, and harm to strategic views from the rooftop extensions proposed.
The report states that “Officers consider that the scheme does not respond to, and build upon, its key riverside location” and that, “The scheme would not enhance public access or provide a genuinely publicly accessible and inclusive scheme that would bring diverse vibrancy to the riverside.”
SAVE has submitted a detailed statement supporting the City’s recommendation written by heritage expert Alec Forshaw. In the statement, which focuses on public access, Alec Forshaw states that: “the proposals fail to provide the degree of public access which the significance of this historic public building justifies and demands. The Custom House is a heritage asset of the highest national importance, and derives much of its special significance from being a public building of long standing. As such it is an irreplaceable resource and must be conserved in a manner appropriate to its significance, so that it can be enjoyed for its contribution to the quality of life of existing and future generations. Public access is crucial to the conservation and enhancement of this unique heritage asset.” See our full statement here.
Marcus Binney, executive president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says: “The spacious river terrace opening directly on to the Thames boasts spectacular views of Tower Bridge and the Southbank. This once great public space has in recent years been a private carpark for HM Customs, but now there is a chance to reopen it to the public again in perpetuity. London's Square Mile needs more open sunlit space and this south facing terrace will never be overshadowed by high-rise development as it is right on the river."
Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says: “The Custom House is one of England’s forgotten architectural treasures. It tells a remarkable story about the country’s history of trade and exchange. After over 200 years in public hands as the home of HMRC, it is set for a new lease of life. This is a once in a generation opportunity to re-open the magnificent inside and outside riverside spaces to the public. The proposals currently on offer fail to provide the degree of public access which the significance of this historic public building justifies and demands.”
The plans have drawn strong objections from numerous heritage groups including the Georgian Group, London and Middlesex Archaeological Society (LAMAS), the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), and Historic Buildings & Places (formerly Ancient Monuments Society). Concerns regarding the plans were also recently published in a detailed article in Spitalfields Life.
An alternative vision architect John Burrell published by SAVE in October 2020 illustrated how the Custom House could be given a more public role. Included in the report is a cross section drawing by John Burrell showing the Long Room opened up for public events and new connections created between the lower floors and vast basements. New public space on the River Thames is transformed with the historic ship SS Robin moored alongside and open to visitors.
SAVE agrees with the concerns raised by others over the harm caused by the loss of the historic and unique surviving offices in the West Wing, and by the damage to the skyline and various views of the building, particularly from the south bank of the river, caused by the proposed construction of glazed roof extensions to the East and West wings.
Our main concern is that the proposals will not provide the degree and perpetuity of public access that are necessary to preserve the significance of the heritage asset which derives so greatly from its historic public use.
Public access to the interior (including the Long Room) and to the Quayside Terrace is critical to securing the City Corporation’s vision for regenerating the Riverside. In our view the current proposals do not provide adequate permanent unencumbered public access to the interior or to the Quayside Terrace. In addition, the potential requirements of the hotel for private and exclusive events appear to take precedent over public access.
The lack of adequate public access is harmful to the significance of the building, and the proposals involve the loss of unique historic fabric in the West Wing. In our view the public benefits offered by the applicant do not outweigh the harm caused by the proposals
The proposals are set to be heard at an on-line meeting of the City of London’s Planning & Transportation Committee this coming Tuesday 26th October 2021 at 10.30am. Live streaming on YouTube can be accessed here.
What you can do
Submit an objection to the proposals by writing to the City of London Corporation ASAP. Comments can be submitted up until the day of committee, but sooner would be advisable. Please write in your own words and include OBJECTION in the subject line, quoting Planning Application references 20/00632/LBC and 20/00631/FULMAJ.
Notes to editors:
1. Read SAVE’s full submission to the City of London’s Planning Committee here, which includes details of the significance of the grade I listed building.
2. See here to download SAVE alternative vision report by architect John Burrell
3. See here for our previous press release.
4. For more information contact SAVE Britain's Heritage at email@example.com or 020 7253 3500.
5. Main image: Aerial view of the Custom House and quayside in 2020 (Alamy).
6. SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architectural historians, writers, journalists and planners. It is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic built environment.