Cllr Peter Golds is a councilor for Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councilor for almost 21 years and is a board member of the Conservative Councilors Association.
Jules Pipe, London’s deputy mayor for planning, acting on behalf of the mayor last week, refused to consider the Chinese government’s planning application to build a sprawling embassy complex on Tower Hill, which was rejected by Tower Hamlets council in December. Here is the relevant extract from the Deputy Mayor.
“Having now considered a report on this case (GLA ref: 2021/0946/S2, copy attached), I am content to allow the local planning authority to determine the case itself, subject to any action the Secretary of State may take, and therefore do not wish to direct that the Mayor shall be the local planning authority.”
Strategic planning is one of the Mayor of London’s main statutory responsibilities and yet we do not want his deputy to “direct the Mayor to be the local planning authority.” Some may feel that this is a dereliction of duty on an issue of great strategic importance.
The rejected application by Tower Hamlets was for Europe’s largest embassy premises. The site was bought by the Chinese government in 2018 for £255 million. The location, in itself, is extraordinary for an application as controversial as this. The Chinese government has bought the site of the former Royal Mint, which is located on the Tower Bridge approach road and overlooks the Tower of London. The ruins of the Roman city walls are visible. It is one of the major tourist destinations in the world.
The site includes the 216-year-old Johnson Smark Building which was the headquarters of the Royal Mint until 1966. It was itself built on the foundations of a fourteenth-century Cistercian abbey, St Mary of the Graces (often known as Eastminster Abbey) inspired by Edward III, whose transept is believed to have been built over the tomb. London was the first victim of the Black Death. As can be seen from this brief description, the historical importance of the site is immense. The Johnson Smark Building is listed, although the interior was completely rebuilt in the early 20th century, leaving only the exterior in its 216-year-old form.
The London and Middlesex Archaeological Society describes this exact location as “a highly sensitive area of high historical interest”. Some parts of the location are still to be tested. What has been excavated are the substantial foundations of the demolished monastery. There are also identifiable parts of the monastery’s foundations that have yet to be excavated.
Many cemeteries, related to the Black Death have yet to be examined.
As I mentioned above, the application would be for a large embassy complex, 233 flats on site and a residence for the ambassador. It will be a magnet for displays, which will rarely enhance the Tower, Tower Bridge and City Wall as a tourist destination.
Last year tenants and leaseholders of a block of flats, in a side street, St Mary Graces Court, discovered that the freehold of their home had been sold to the Chinese government. Residents fear that the Chinese government will have access to their homes.
The consultation exercise was highly controversial as residents, historians and community groups across the country took part to ask questions. These were conducted by architects and planning consultants. Once or twice the Chinese embassy contributed but demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of how the plan worked and indeed the right of the public and elected officials to ask tough questions.
National and international media interest increased as the process progressed. The constant question was how was it proposed to set up a vast embassy compound in a place of so much historical interest?
Can any other government imagine allowing a controversial embassy compound of this size adjacent to a world heritage site and major tourist attraction? There have been many protests in front of the Royal Mint and calls for an empty slip road to be renamed Uighur Way.
Planning, as appropriate, must consider the application in accordance with the Act and focus on what is permitted within local and regional planning. Councilors on the committee were told that under planning rules there were limits on what members could ask and consider, and said that “the race that will occupy the site is not a material planning consideration.” Members were warned not to ask if the complex would have a “police station” like the Chinese government building in Manchester. However, reports repeatedly mentioned protests at Chinese embassies and existing locations.
When the members got together, the problems were huge. The committee heard from groups of residents, including a local estate that would be affected by traffic but was not specifically consulted, a ward councillor, and myself as a councilor with a borough wide interest.
I specifically raised the point that the abbey foundation and additional burial grounds would be moved to China and surely lost to future historians. I said to members that it is extraordinary that a position of this importance is dismissed with such historical insensitivity. It is a major excavated site of national importance, facing the Tower of London, on the approach road to Tower Bridge, within sight of the remnants of the Roman city walls, and yet it will be lost to future generations.
Bearing in mind this location is a major traffic artery for the Tower Bridge approach and traffic crossing between north and south London, questions by members to officers and statutory bodies about safety, transport and road management have caused confusion. In short, the statutory authorities were unable to address the problems that arose when this location was used for a compound of this size.
After more than two hours of debate, members voted unanimously to reject the application, surprising planning consultants and council officers. At the conclusion, councilors were approached for interviews by print and radio journalists from various countries and the story was covered in media outlets around the world.
Following the meeting, Tower Hamlets Council planners forwarded the application to the Mayor of London. The Mayor and Greater London Authority engaged in pre-application consultation in September 2020 and produced a Stage 1 report in September 2021. However, as mentioned above, the Deputy Mayor of London referred the application back to the Council with the intervention of the Secretary of State. Certainly as this is an application of strategic importance, the Mayor of London should consider the application despite the potential for political controversy.
Since the rejection, there has also been silence from the Chinese government, DP9 (planning consultant) and David Chipperfield (architect). They can accept the local authority’s refusal or appeal the decision directly to the Secretary of State.
This application remains a source of great controversy. Deeply and increasingly unpopular locally, more questions are being asked about surveillance, security, terrorism risks and inappropriate locations.
What we do know is that local communities will not give up their fight to protect their local heritage and resist turning an iconic location bordering a World Heritage Site into a potential armed compound.