Last night, after a marathon 3.5-hour debate, Kensington and Chelsea council decided to block planned oversite development around South Kensington tube station.
The plans would have seen the row of Victorian shops and flats rebuilt behind the retained facade, the bullnose in front of the station rebuilt with additional floors, and on the south side where the station is an open cutting, a row of flats built.
In the planning session, which was noted by the Chair as the busiest they have had in several years, it was clear where the public gallery observers preferences lay. The objectors put forward their objections, with each speaker applauded after they finished, and the developers put forward their views, with silence from the public gallery.
Although only a small, if very important part of the development, the plans to provide step-free access from the street to the Circle/District lines absorbed a lot of the debate.
The developers didn’t do themselves any favours in the evening by not providing a clear simple explanation though, that the lift gave step-free access from the street to both the ticket hall and the subway leading to the museums, and that step-free access to the Natural History Museum and V&A will be possible, with the Science Museum maybe later. A lack of clarity about the existing plans to add step-free access to the Piccadilly line later also didn’t help the cause.
A commitment was offered on the night to alter the legal agreement so that step-free access to the ticket hall and subway would be offered upfront, but that was clearly not enough to sway the planning committee.
This was because, although a lot of the debate on the evening was about the step-free access, the decision was largely based on the visual impact of the buildings, and in particular the bullnose in front of the station.
The developers argue that without the bullnose development, then the economics would render the project unviable, and were pressed to confirm that they wouldn’t come back later with a bullnose-light project having found a way of funding the rest of the development.
The planning officer report before the meeting recommended that the development should go ahead as the benefits were greater than the “less than significant harm” caused by the development. This resulted in a lengthy debate about the meaning of less than significant harm in a heritage context, and whether the view from one side of the bullnose of frankly, another row of houses on the other side, being impaired by the bullnose development was a heritage issue.
The building planned to sit at the far back corner of the station was also a matter of some concern, with objections to its size and modern design sitting on a corner with a mix of Edwardian and Victorian buildings.
A controversy occurred though, when the objectors submitted, just one day before the planning meeting, a series of amended views of the buildings, which later turned out to have possibly been based on older plans, and a debate about the use of wide-angle and narrow-angle camera lenses for the design mock-ups took up a fair bit of time.
Following representations by objectors and the developers, and then a session of questions to the councils’ own planning officer, the vote was taken and was swiftly unanimous in refusing planning permission.
A spokesperson for the Native Land and TfL joint venture has said: “We believe our plans, which are policy compliant and were recommended for approval by RBKC’s planning officer, who cited architecture of the highest quality, provide for a considered scheme that would help bring a renewed sense of place to South Kensington. We will now review our options.”
The Chair of Kensington and Chelsea’s Planning Committee, Cllr James Husband, said: “We have given this application detailed consideration and rejected the scheme based on significant concerns about the impact of the architectural design, height and massing of the proposals on the Conservation area and listed buildings. Councillors agreed that step-free access to the Circle and District lines would be a benefit, but does not, on balance, outweigh the harm done by the design.”
This is the latest in a long line of attempts to revamp the land around the tube station and renovate the station itself. While the plans for the station refurbishment are already approved, the step-free access to the street was always going to be dependent to some degree on the property development, not just for funding, but mainly so they could leave a hole in the new buildings to provide the lift shaft.
Over the years, plans have been architect-led and always faced strong local opposition. About half the people objecting last night seemed to be generally against any change, while half accepted change was needed, and maybe even desirable, but not the changes being proposed.
Going forward, they may have to open up a public competition where anyone can submit top-level concepts for a general scheme, that could then be short-listed and refined into options to be put to the local community. Set some basic minimum criteria, to take into account the economic and engineering constraints, and see if local residents are able to come up with something that meets those requirements, while also being popular enough to push ahead with.
The architects suggested a range of decent quality if frankly slightly unchallenging modern architecture, but if building a row of fake Victorian frontages is what it’s going to take to get planning approval, then maybe that’s what’s should be built.
This morning, the council suggested that it may be able to assist in funding the step-free access at the station.
The council’s Lead Member for Environment, Planning and Place, Cllr Johnny Thalassites, who does not sit on the planning committee has said that knowing how expensive adding step-free to the station without supportive funding from the development would be, that he is “looking at our Council budget to see if we can offer a financial contribution to Transport for London to make step-free access a reality.”
That could mean the station finally gets the step-free access it’s long needed.
(amended after publishing to add comments from the council)