PRESS RELEASE: Emphatic refusal of Custom House hotel plans sets stage for public inquiry
27th October 2021
The City of London’s Planning Committee has voted unanimously to refuse plans to convert London’s Custom House into a hotel, citing the lack of public access proposed and harm to the building’s heritage significance.
In the first in-person planning committee held for two years, City of London councillors yesterday backed the recommendation by planning officers to reject plans for a 200-room hotel on the site. The unanimous vote will now be considered by the Planning Inspectorate when the plans are examined at a public inquiry in January 2022, following an appeal by the developer that the application had not been determined quickly enough.
As well as submitting a detailed statement ahead of the committee meeting, Alec Forshaw, heritage and conservation expert, representing SAVE also addressed the committee, stating that “Custom House is one of London’s great public buildings, of national and international importance. SAVE agrees with other objectors that the current proposals harm the historic fabric and appearance of the building…but our main concern is that the scheme does not provide adequate secure, permanent, inclusive and unfettered public access. The harm caused far outweighs the public benefits offered.”
Opening the lively debate, Chair of the Planning & Transportation Committee Deputy Alistair Moss made his objections clear, stating that: “Unfortunately the applicants have failed to grasp where the City is going and what this building is capable of. We cannot have selfish buildings being consented in the City, or buildings which do not offer genuine public space and are not properly open to the public. I’m afraid to say that as we see in all the objections here…this is not going to be a properly open or public or accessible or inclusive space, when the irony is that this building was [historically] a very open building that means a lot to people and to the history of London.”
Mr Moss’ objection was also echoed in objections raised by other members, including Deputy Chair Oliver Sells QC, Chief Commoner Deputy Brian Mooney, Cllr Graeme Harrower, Cllr Randall Anderson and Cllr Marianne Bernadette Fredericks, who stated that “this building is our jewel of our riverside and we should take great care…because it [represents] the history that speaks of this city”.
Marcus Binney, executive president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says: “The Custom House occupies a prime site on the Thames with a magnificent river terrace, away from traffic. This terrace, once open to the public, must now become a public space in perpetuity."
Of consistent concern throughout the debate was the lack of sufficient public access proposed to the buildings interiors and enviable quayside overlooking the Thames, which would be severely restricted to limited areas and times under the control of the hotel operator. Several committee members described the public access proposed as “extremely underwhelming and ungenerous”, falling short of the City’s ambitious expectations and policy targets for regenerating its public spaces.
The public benefits of the scheme asserted by the applicant, which are required by planning policy to balance out heritage harms incurred, were also questioned by members. In his concluding statement, Cllr Randall Anderson said that “in essence every public benefit we are being offered is so limited as to be nearly illusory, so on balance I agree that we clearly have to support the officer’s recommendation [to refuse the application].”
In the officer’s report, published ahead of the meeting, planning officers had cited 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 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 the Ancient Monuments Society. Concerns regarding the plans were also recently published in a detailed article in Spitalfields Life.
The YouTube video recording of the committee meeting can be accessed here.
Our concerns regarding the proposals
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.
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 for our previous press release
3. For more information contact SAVE Britain's Heritage at firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7253 3500.
4. 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.