Southwark Council's planning committee has voted to reject Oakmayne's controversial planning application for a 41-storey tower on the Eileen House site on Newington Causeway at Elephant & Castle.
Nearly two years have passed since the scheme first appeared on a planning committee agenda – but a series of objections raised by the neighbouring Ministry of Sound club (plus the occasional administrative bungle) have conspired to delay the process.
Tuesday night's meeting at 160 Tooley Street was one of the most keenly anticipated in recent times: how would the committee reconcile the developer's insistence that the 335 new homes could exist happily alongside the 20-year-old nightclub with the Ministry of Sound's claim that its closure would be inevitable should the tower be constructed?
The scheme has been the subject of a 25,000-signature petition and a high-profile leafleting and advertising campaign mounted by the nightclub which claims its licence is in jeopardy if new homes are built in close proximity.
Council officers recommended the application for approval by the committee despite its failure to meet a range of planning policies on affordable housing, loss of office space, room size and density. The scheme includes no social rented housing. 25 per cent of the units will be available on a shared ownership basis.
Introducing the application, planning officer Bridin O'Connor said that the tower would "form a gateway into the Enterprise Quarter" at Elephant & Castle.
She noted that financial assessments submitted to the council show that "the scheme is currently unviable". Questioned about this by councillors, she explained that schemes which deliver a profit margin of as much as 10 to 12 per cent for their developers can be classed as non-viable.
Asked to explain what made this development an "exemplary" scheme that should be granted permission despite non-compliance with policy, Ms O'Connor said: "We do feel that this is a high quality scheme and this level of density can be justified in this location.
"This is precisely the type of location where you will have very high density schemes."
She added: "The architectural quality of the design is very high. It will be a major contributor to the Elephant & Castle regeneration which is a key aspiration of this authority."
Cllr James Barber asked whether the fact that the developer is based outside the United Kingdom made a difference to the viability assessment, as a company not subject to UK taxes might have a different threshold for what constitutes a viable development.
Ms O'Connor replied: "To the best of my knowledge whether a company is UK based or not is probably not relevant to a viability assessment."
Committee chair Nick Dolezal ruled further questions on this matter to be out of order: "The domicile of the developer is not a material planning consideration," he said.
The committee returned to the question of noise from the club. "We take a different view to the Ministry of Sound as to the likely outcome of any noise nuisance complaint," said Ms O'Connor.
She added: "The noise from Ministry of Sound should not result in noise complaints."
"It is unlikely to happen and even if it were to happen it is unlikely to result in the closure of the club."
Rupert Thornley-Taylor, the noise expert engaged by the council to advise on the planning application, explained that music noise from the nightclub was difficult to discern amongst the traffic noise on Newington Causeway and surround streets.
"It's very hard to measure anything from the Ministry of Sound," he said. "You have to go to special lengths to pick it out."
Later, he said: "If people choose to open the windows they may hear the Ministry of Sound."
He continued: "It's not something I can comment upon as to whether a judge trying a nuisance case would consider it unreasonable to expect to have a noise-free environment with open windows in a location such as this.
"That's something that will only be discovered if it ever came to trial.
"I suspect – with the amount of effort that has been put into the design to prevent a noise problem with the windows closed and alternative ventilation – that it might be that a court would consider that it wasn't reasonable to expect a noise-free environment with the windows open."
The committee was addressed by Ministry of Sound chief executive Lohan Presencer who said: "I am sitting here before you trying to save my business."
He told the committee: "If you allow this scheme to go through, there is nothing to stop residents objecting to us and suing us. If they do, we will close. That's 200 Southwark jobs, 300,000 visitors a year and 20 years of history down the drain."
He rejected suggestions that the club should install new insulation: "If we were a successful and noisy factory, would you expect us to rebuild our premises and close our operation for months? Or expect us to install quieter machinery? Or expect our staff to stay at home on no pay? Should we ask our suppliers and customers not to trade with anyone else while we do the work – all so new residents can get a good night's sleep? Of course you wouldn't."
Mr Presencer described Oakmayne chairman Christopher Allen as "a tax exile who lives in Monte Carlo".
He added: "Oakmayne is registered on the Isle of Man and Eileen House is owned by a British Virgin Islands company.
"We pay nearly £10 million in tax each year. We do a tremendous amount of community work, not because section 106 obliges us to, but because we want to. We're all Southwark people, passionate about Southwark."
Chris Shaw of Oakmayne told the committee that their "signature building" would replace a "1960s eyesore".
He underlined Oakmayne's track record as a major developer at Elephant & Castle and said that the Eileen House scheme would form an integral part of the council's regeneration of the area.
"It is a building of exceptional architectural quality and will mark the entrance to the Elephant & Castle from the north," he said.
"This exceptional and sustainable scheme will provide good quality homes for a further 1,000 or more people, including on-site affordable housing."
He said that the developer's proposed £4 million investment in public realm would "provide a real sense of identity for this neighbourhood".
Mr Shaw insisted that the company was committed to building the Eileen House scheme.
Mr Shaw said that the development's proximity to Ministry of Sound would be "a positive selling feature" for the new flats.
Architect Graham Morrison of Allies and Morrison spoke about how the proposed tower would fit in to the area.
"The Elephant is almost defined by its tall buildings," he said, describing how Strata SE1 has changed people's perceptions of where the Elephant & Castle is located.
"When you get two such buildings with very distinctive rooflines you set up a dialogue between two forms which can then be seen from any part of London."
Mr Shaw also took issue with the use of the phrase "luxury flats" to describe the development.
"The pricing of these flats is not on a luxury basis," he said. "They are priced for the Elephant & Castle market."
Asked why the developers had refused to indemnify the Ministry of Sound, Mr Shaw replied: "What are we indemnifying ? We're indemnifying their scaremongering, not the facts."
The committee was shown samples of the proposed triple-glazing. "We are super confident that this is going to do the job," said Mr Morrison.
Steve Whittaker, vice-chair of the Metro Central Heights Residents' Association (and Strata building manager) addressed the committee as a supporter of the planning application.
Cathedrals ward councillor Adele Morris told the committee that they should refuse the application; she said that she did not believe that such a tall building was appropriate for Newington Causeway. She also endorsed the Ministry of Sound's concerns.
Five members of the committee (Cllr James Barber, Cllr Neil Coyle, Cllr Robin Crookshank Hilton, Cllr Eliza Mann and Cllr Michael Situ) voted to refuse planning permission. The committee chair, Cllr Nick Dolezal, abstained.
The committee has yet to clarify the detailed reasons for refusal, which include concerns about noise and a reduction in office space.
Speaking on Wednesday, Cllr Fiona Colley, Southwark's cabinet member for regeneration, said, "The Eileen House site is a prime location in central London, and in the Elephant & Castle regeneration opportunity area. Any improvement to this area would be of great benefit to local people. We're very keen to see a development go ahead on this site and will be looking into the next steps forward."
"It is not tenable for major sites on Newington Causeway to become 'no go' areas for regeneration – so I hope there is a way forward."
Oakmayne chairman Christopher Allen said: "We are both confused and bitterly disappointed by the planning committee's decision, which was made against their own officer recommendations and the weight of expert evidence in support of Eileen House."
He added: "We are currently considering our options."
Tuesday's planning committee meeting was also due to consider (for a second time) a separate planning application for a 22-storey tower on the eastern side of Newington Causeway. This scheme was approved by councillors in June but was brought back for reconsideration after the Ministry of Sound submitted new information about noise levels.
During the evening the applicants, Neobrand, asked for the application to be deferred to a future meeting. Their request was cheerfully endorsed by councillors who weren't keen to embark on another complicated planning application at 11.30 at night.