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Demolition of ‘London’s Burning’ fire station at Dockhead approved by councillors

Plans to demolish and rebuild Dockhead fire station - which featured in the ITV drama London's Burning - were approved by councillors last week despite fierce criticism of the design of the new building.

Demolition of ‘London’s Burning’ fire station at Dockhead approved by councillors

Southwark's planning committee voted 5 to 2 in favour of the proposals to redevelop the Wolseley Street site which lies in the St Saviour's Dock conservation area.

Dockhead Fire Station dates from 1928 and has three appliance bays although only one fire engine is based at the station at present.

The London Fire Brigade wants to replace it with a new building with space for two fire appliances as well as community facilities such as a meeting room.

The new fire station would also incorporate a training centre for firefighters to learn how to use breathing apparatus.

It is more than two years since the brigade first announced its intention to rebuild the fire station as part of a London-wide private finance initiative (PFI) project.

Planning officer Alison Brittain told the committee that although this is a "much-loved local building", officers felt able to support the "exceptional case" for its demolition.

In a letter to council planning officers, Malcolm Woods of English Heritage describes the fire station as "an attractive and remarkably well-preserved building with good streetscape value" but argues that it "lacks the clear level of architectural interest and design innovation" required for listed status to be granted.

He goes on to say that "... this therefore seems to be an exceptional case where the proposed works will bring substantial benefits to the community which outweigh the arguments in favour of preservation".

The committee heard from local resident Lucy Richards who spoke in opposition to the demolition of the fire station which she said has "lots of character" and draws many visitors thanks to its TV connections.

Andy Snazell, the borough fire commander for Southwark, told the councillors that the current fire station is too small for modern fire engines and has insufficient facilities for firefighters.

He explained that the London Fire Brigade has looked at remodelling the existing building or relocating to another site but neither option had proved workable.

"Your predecessors seem to have had a better eye for design ... than you guys do," said planning committee chair Cllr James Gurling, launching a fierce attack on a design he described "pretty woeful".

"I hope you haven't spent a lot of money on architects' designs for this because it's truly awful," he said.

Architect Shelley Smith, from Tower Bridge Road-based Jacobs Architecture, conceded that "the fenestration to the front at present is not successful at all" and explained that she and the applicant were happy to accept a condition to the planning permission requiring detailed designs for the facade of the new building to be brought back to the committee for approval.

She added that the scheme had been the subject of a last-minute redesign at the suggestion of council planning officers.

Asked why an obviously incomplete scheme had been brought to the committee for decision, London Fire Brigade project manager Paula Burns explained that the deadline for the brigade to submit its outline PFI business case for the rebuilding of nine London fire stations to central government was just two weeks' away and it was necessary to have planning permission for all the fire stations by that point.

"If we do not have planning permission from Southwark for Dockhead fire station we will not get the funding for Dockhead fire station and it will have to be removed from the project," she said.

The majority of the committee was won over by this need for urgency and the desire to retain a public service on the site, with just two members voting against the scheme.

"When I first looked at these drawings ... I thought 'Legoland' ... and then I thought – even worse – Southwark Crown Court circa mid-1980s," said Cllr Gordon Nardell, who opposed the scheme.

Cllr Toby Eckerlsey said: "In my opinion it damages the conservation area." He also complained that "matters have been handled in a rather odd way".

Question marks over PFI funding for Dockhead

Despite the decision to grant planning permission there is still a question mark over the inclusion of Dockhead in the final nine fire stations to be considered by central government for rebuilding under the PFI scheme.

At the moment Purley, Mitcham, Plaistow, Shadwell, Kingston, Leytonstone, Dagenham, Old Kent Road and Orpington fire stations are slated to receive the PFI cash, with plans for Dockhead being drawn up in case one of the other nine schemes falls by the wayside.

However the planning committee was not given any indication that there was any doubt as to whether Dockhead would be included in the final line-up of stations submitted to the Government.

A paper prepared last month for members of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) noted that it had been "agreed that the [outline business case] would be worked up including Mitcham rather than Dockhead but the latter would continue to be pursued as a fallback should one of the outstanding planning applications not be successful".

A fire brigade spokesman told the London SE1 website that he believed that the LFEPA document was still an up-to-date summary of the situation.

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