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Blackfriars Road skyscraper inquiry gets under way

The public inquiry into the proposed Mirax-Beetham Tower at Blackfriars Bridge and the 20 Blackfriars Road development has heard its first evidence.

Mirax-Beetham Tower
Mirax-Beetham Tower
Mirax-Beetham Tower
20 Blackfriars Road

Both schemes were approved by Southwark Council but – mindful of objections from the City of Westminster and the Royal Parks Agency – communities secretary Hazel Blears 'called in' the applications for decision at national level and ordered a single public inquiry to consider the two proposals.

The planning inspector hearing the inquiry is John Gray who also heard the public inquiry into the London Bridge Tower (better known as the Shard of Glass).

The inquiry – which is expected to last four weeks – is being held at the former Interserve offices at 19-23 Blackfriars Road, one of the buildings due for demolition if the 20 Blackfriars Road scheme goes ahead. Details of the inquiry schedule are posted online by the programme officer.

The Russian-backed 52-storey Mirax-Beetham Tower is proposed for the site bounded by Blackfriars Road, Stamford Street, Rennie Street and Upper Ground. It would include an 261-room luxury hotel and apartments.

The Israeli-backed 20 Blackfriars Road scheme includes a 42-storey residential tower and 23-storey office tower along with further buildings of up to seven storeys on the site bounded by Blackfriars Road, Stamford Street, Paris Garden and Christ Church Garden.

The various parties made their opening submissions to the inquiry on Tuesday morning.


Russell Harris QC, representing Beetham, told the inquiry that "the visible need for regeneration is unanswerable" and that his client's tower would "act as a beacon and catalyst for regeneration".

He said that the tower would provide a "destination hotel of the highest quality" and the publicly accessible skydeck on the top floors would attract up to 800,000 visitors a year.

Blackfriars Limited

Christopher Katkowski QC, representing Blackfriars Ltd, applicants for 20 Blackfriars Road, said that the scheme had been designed by "an architect of the highest calibre" with "rigorous attention to detail".

He rejected the claims that the towers would irrevocably damage St James' Park: "A calm and reasonable assessment can only conclude that the proposals ... would 'not dominate or overpower the setting' of these views".

Southwark Council

Southwark Council is represented at the inquiry by Tim Corner QC who insisted that both schemes were properly planned and in accordance with policy, and underlined the regeneration benefits to the north of the borough.

Mr Corner highlighted the recent decision by Hazel Blears on the Doon Street Tower in Lambeth which showed that skyscrapers visible from the bridge in St James' Park are "not necessarily objectionable".

City of Westminster and Royal Parks Agency

Richard Banwell, appearing jointly for the City of Westminster and the Royal Parks Agency, outlined his clients' objection to the "unacceptable harm" the towers would cause to views from the Blue Bridge in St James' Park. He warned that the towers will be "highly visible and intrusive".

Waterloo Community Development Group

"We look forward to the proposals for 1 and 20 Blackfriars Road being interrogated rigorously," said Michael Ball of the Waterloo Community Development Group.

"This is not merely because we consider them unacceptable, but primarily because the scarcest things we have in central London – land and sky – are so highly valued by people who live here that decisions on their use must be based on facts, on policy, and on rational argument."

Ball acknowledged that the area of the proposed developments is not currently a place of beauty.

"To some extent Blackfriars Road is a no man's land, and the monolithic buildings and unmixed uses of the sites developed along it over the past 30 years have exacerbated this. These historic mistakes are underpinned by an absence of strategic planning for this area. It was a mistake in our view that the area in the borough of Southwark west of Blackfriars Rd was not included in the Waterloo Opportunity Area, to which it clearly relates.

Accusing planners and politicians at City Hall and Southwark Council of "dithering" in relation to tall buildings in Blackfriars Road, Mr Ball noted that consultation in 2005 on draft planning guidance for tall buildings in Blackfriars Road came to nothing.

Mr Ball also raised the prospect of an intervention by Boris Johnson who has hitherto failed to overturn his precedessor's support for tall buildings at Blackfriars.

"I understand a letter of objection will be arriving in the next few days, reversing previous support. But we invite the inquiry to consider whether the position of the local planning authority [Southwark Council] has also been confused and its rationale post hoc."

"We look forward to this inquiry helping to resolve the lack of clarity with regard to tall buildings along Blackfriars Road at the application sites."

Ian Simpson

The first witness to appear at the inquiry was Beetham Tower architect Ian Simpson, who said:
• "I have immersed myself in the spirit of the site"
• The tower will provide "stunning views for visitors and a real point of orientation"
• "The site called out for this positive urban marker"
• The tower is "a really beautfiul building derived from its context and rooted in its place"
• "The ambition is to redefine the luxury hotel for the 21st century"
• "This is not a kit of parts, it's an object that's lovingly made"
• The skydeck is "a significant addition to London's public realm"
• "It is envisaged that the plaza will be a home and arena for contemporary art"
• The tower is "a hand-crafted seminal singular form"
• "The top of the tower and the plaza are spaces for people"
• "A site specific solution that is expressive of its function"
• "The most beautiful and appropriate building I have ever designed"

Jim Eyre

Jim Eyre, of 20 Blackfriars Road architects Wilkinson Eyre, also gave evidence to the inquiry. He outlined some of his previous work, including the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and Stratford Station on the Jubilee Line Extension. He told the inquiry:

• "I see the public spaces as being like a little lung in the city"
• The development will create "a stronger portal to Southwark"
• Christ Church Garden is "a slightly curious little church yard" which is "slightly neglected"

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