A plan to turn the old St Olave's Grammar School on Tooley Street into a 56-room boutique hotel has been rejected by Southwark's planning committee - though communities minister Hazel Blears will now have the final say.
Berkeley Homes proposed to turn the former school into a hotel with restaurant, and add a new lift tower designed by Ian Ritchie – the architect responsible for the controversial Potters Fields development of eight cylindrical towers – to the north of the building.
The proposal came before the planning committee in September – but members requested more information about the extent to which Berkeley Homes had tried to market the building – most recently occupied by Lambeth College's Tower Bridge Centre – for continued educational use before making a decision.
Although the decision is now out of Southwark's hands, the planning committee met this week to make an indicative decision which will form the basis of the council's case if and when a public inquiry is convened to consider the application.
Sources close to the negotiations about the future of the school building and the adjacent contested land at Potters Fields have told the London SE1 website that they are hopeful that a way forward will be found to avert the need for a public inquiry.
"It's a bad scheme on a multitude of evidence," said planning committee member Cllr James Barber, voicing his dissatisfaction with the design of the proposed "carbuncle" extension to the school building, the low level of the section 106 payment (£75,000) and the modest energy efficiency measures (a 10 per cent energy consumption reduction against a 1994 new build benchmark).
"This is probably a pretty poor planning application," agreed committee chair Cllr James Gurling.
Cllr Robin Crookshank Hilton disagreed: "I think this is the best chance we're going to get to save this building for the public," she told her colleagues.
"It's really difficult to take a building of this age and make it comply with modern standards."
The planning committee voted two to one against the recommendation of planning officers that – had they been in a position to determine the application – the decision would have been to refuse planning permission on the grounds of the design of the proposed extension and failure to comply with current council policy on section 106 payments and energy efficiency.
The committee heard conflicting evidence as to the attempts Berkeley Homes might have made to sell the building which it acquired four years ago for £7.1 million.
Whilst Berkeley Homes asserts that the site has been marketed for educational and other uses at a price of £6 million to £6.5 million – considered reasonable by council valuers – the committee received a submission from Kilmore International School, based in Australia, which says that it has been trying to purchase the building since 2004 but has repeatedly been told that it is not for sale.
Kilmore also claims that at a meeting with Berkeley Homes in June 2007 it was told that the real price was actually £19 million.
This claim was contested by planning agent Justin Kenworthy, who represented Berkeley Homes at the committee meeting. He told councillors that as far as he was aware there had been a telephone conversation between the Kilmore International School and agents Kalmars, but no offer had been made.