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High Court upholds Hazel Blears' approval of 44-storey Doon Street tower

A High Court judge has upheld the decision by former communities secretary Hazel Blears to approve a 44-storey tower on the South Bank.

Doon Street Tower
Doon Street Tower
Doon Street car park
The Doon Street site has been vacant for half a century

Coin Street Community Builders, a social enterprise best known for redeveloping Oxo Tower Wharf and providing new social housing on the South Bank, proposed the 44-storey tower of homes for private sale designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands as part of a scheme which would help to fund a leisure centre and swimming pool.

Lambeth Council had resolved to grant planning permission in August 2007 but a public inquiry was ordered by Hazel Blears at the request of English Heritage.

Critics argued that the presence of the tower would detract from the courtyard of Somerset House as well as the view of Whitehall seen from the bridge over the lake in St James' Park.

Waterloo Community Development Group also argued that the land should be used for affordable housing.

English Heritage and Westminster City Council launched a High Court challenge after Hazel Blears overturned the recommendation of her own planning inspector and gave the go-ahead for the development on the Doon Street car park site near the National Theatre.

His Honour Judge Mole's decision was handed down on Wednesday after a three-day hearing in June.

"We welcome the judge's decision," says Iain Tuckett, group director of Coin Street Community Builders.

"However we regret the huge costs to taxpayers and ratepayers – and to ourselves – caused by Westminster Council and English Heritage's unnecessary legal action."

"The scheme will provide those living, working and studying in this part of central London access to urgently needed facilities and will increase participation in sports and improve health. It will also create 329 new homes."

However, Coin Street Community Builders now faces an uphill struggle to raise the funding necessary to build the development.

Opinion polls of local residents in North Southwark and North Lambeth have regularly shown a high level of dissatisfaction with the lack of public swimming pools.

"I am delighted at the judgement," says Vauxhall Labour MP Kate Hoey who also serves as the Mayor of London's commissioner for sport.

"The benefits to Londoners of the new swimming and leisure facility are huge and will be greatly welcomed. The sooner it is built the better. English Heritage need to be much more careful about how it spends public money on legal actions in future, and it will be a huge waste of money if they pursue this further. I will be writing to its new chairman on this issue."

Westminster City Council is less impressed by the judge's decision.

"We are very disappointed that the court has allowed these towers [sic] to go ahead, as they will be a blot on the landscape for generations to come," says Cllr Robert Davis, Westminster's deputy leader and cabinet member for built environment.

"We are not against the principle of tall buildings providing they are in the right place and do not damage important views, but the impact these buildings will have on some of London's most popular visitor attractions is nothing short of architectural vandalism.

"The council along with English Heritage brought this case to court because Westminster has a rich architectural heritage, and we take our role as the custodians of this very seriously."

He added: "The notion that skyscrapers are an essential expression of the city's economic progress is outdated and we believe now is the time to balance creative initiatives with the preservation of important views and historic buildings."

In a statement English Heritage said: "Naturally, we are disappointed by the decision of the court. English Heritage believed that, in light of the recommendation of the inspector to refuse the application, the reasoning of the decision needed to be reviewed. We are now giving careful consideration to the judgement."

However it seems that the legal saga is not yet over. Judge Mole said: "There are genuine questions to answer about the meaning of passages in the Secretary of State's decision letter.

"Although I am of the view that the answers are sufficiently clear, it is difficult to say that there is no real prospect that the Court of Appeal might see things differently."

Michael Ball, director of Waterloo Community Development Group, said: "Many in Waterloo are bewildered and depressed by this decision, but leave to appeal (to the Court of Appeal) has been applied for by English Heritage and local resident Billy Ashton.

"The Doon Street tower of 329 private flats is supposed to pay for a swimming pool and leisure centre. But Coin Street Community Builders themselves admitted that it will require a subsidy of up to 23 million to build, and have already applied for a 10 million grant from Sport England. Judge Mole stated that it is therefore not clear what Hazel Blears meant when she said that the swimming pool would come "at no public cost", but she was not required to explain herself on this matter (para 83-6).

"The judge bizarrely ruled that local resident Billy Ashton – who had brought the case to the High Court – was not an "aggrieved party" – despite living only 200 metres from the site, nearer than any judge, QC, planning inspector or member of Coin Street Community Builders. Judge Mole ruled that since Ashton had not made personal representations at the public inquiry but had relied on the objections of local community group WCDG, then he was not an aggrieved party eligible to bring the action. This judgement means that all future public inquiries will be swamped by multiple representations from individuals, since anybody who has a concern about a planning matter must make their own individual representations and cannot rely on group action or community representatives.

"We look forward to the Court of Appeal striking out this decision."

• Next month Blears' successor John Denham is expected to make a decision on P&O's plan for a high-rise development of the Elizabeth House site in York Road.

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