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Councillors blast Russian space rocket tower plan into orbit

Southwark's planning committee has rejected the controversial Gagarin Square scheme for a 30-storey tower next to the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark Street.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson is expected to review the scheme on Thursday. If he decides not to 'take over' the planning application himself, then an appeal is likely to be lodged against Southwark's decision to refuse.

Don Riley, who was responsible for the restoration of the Menier Chocolate Factory building, has – with Russian investors – for several years planned to redevelop the adjacent site at 55 Southwark Street with a high-rise tower inspired by the rocket that took cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin to space in 1961.

The scheme has been designed by Nikita Yavein of Studio 44 architects in St Petersburg.

The tower with nine very large flats would sit above a new theatre, museum and restaurant building on Southwark Street.

At Tuesday night's planning committee meeting senior planning officer Yvonne Lewis told councillors that the scheme's Russian-inspired design had "no relevance in Bankside" and the 30-storey tower was inappropriate in a location not identified as suitable for tall buildings in planning policy terms.

The committee heard from Joy Grimshaw, chief executive of the YWCA Central Club which operates The Bridge the women-only gym in Southwark Bridge Road, who said that her board trustees "objects very strongly" to the scheme.

"We think that the site is overdeveloped and doesn't bear any relationship to its surrounding buildings," she said.

Local residents Zanna Wilford and Chloe Beeney also spoke to register their support for the planning officers' recommendation that the scheme be rejected.

Don Riley explained that the proposal was driven by the success of the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre and its popularity with overseas visitors to London.

Mr Riley said that the rocket tower had been designed to be as slender as possible and is the same width as the 74th floor of the Shard and "no fatter than the Tate chimney".

The committee heard that the rocket tower would let off steam to mark special occasions such as the annual Anglo-Russian victory day commemorations on HMS Belfast.

He said that the design included many elements with symbolic significance in Russian culture.

Asked about how the scheme fitted with planning policy, Mr Riley said: "It has to be considered an exceptional one-off design for Theatreland."

Mr Riley compared his difference of opinion with Southwark's planners to Sam Wanamaker's struggles with the authority when he was trying to build the replica Shakespeare's Globe in the 1980s.

He claimed that Southwark Council leader Peter John had encouraged him to press ahead with the scheme, and cited endorsements from the daughter of Yuri Gagarin as well as Tom Stoppard, Tom Conti, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn.

Architect Jonathan Dransfield, who has been advising the developer, complained that council planners had been "hostile' and "wholly negative" towards the proposed scheme.

Planning officer Yvonne Lewis explained that the scheme was so far away from being policy compliant that it was not worthwhile entering detailed discussions.

Cllr Adele Morris – who represents Cathedrals ward and is a planning committee member – said: "I love the idea of having a tower that isn't one of the boring, bland towers that have so often been approved at this planning committee."

She added: "I think it's a great shame that this hasn't been a refined enough proposal, because I think it would have potentially been an exciting proposal if it had been the right height and if it had ticked a lot of boxes which clearly it hasn't."

The five Labour members of the committee voted to refuse planning permission, whilst the two Liberal Democrats abstained.

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