How a U-turn on advice to a council has put the heritage watchdog under scrutiny

The built environment conservation watchdog has admitted that it made a mistake in advising a council that controversial development proposals in London's West End would not cause substantial harm to heritage assets.

Strand: proposals have been called in for a public inquiry
Strand: proposals have been called in for a public inquiry

The new communities secretary Greg Clark had been in post less than a week when he opted to intervene in a furious planning row involving proposals to replace a group of late Georgian and Victorian buildings on the Strand in London's West End.

Westminster City Council had approved King's College London's plans in April, but just four days after his appointment the minister issued a direction putting the application on hold in order to give himself time to decide whether to determine the plans himself. Now Clark has announced that he will personally decide the application after a public inquiry.

The council's planning committee approved the plans in late April after an officer's report recommended that permission be granted. The report said the scheme - located in the Strand Conservation Area - has given rise to "substantial opposition", including that from campaign groups SAVE Britain's Heritage and the Victorian Society. It added that, while the proposals would cause "some harm" in terms of the loss of unlisted buildings of merit, "it is considered this harm is less than substantial to the heritage assets affected".

The report cited advice from built environment conservation adviser English Heritage, which has since been superseded by Historic England, that the public benefits arising from the scheme "outweigh the loss of significance caused by the demolition of the unlisted buildings and the harm which this may cause to the Conservation Area".

Following Clark's intervention, Historic England reversed its position on the application, stating that, after a review, it had decided that its advice should change. The council's deputy leader Robert Davis said that it had made its decision on the basis of what was put before the committee, including Historic England's advice. Davis said the council would be "encouraging the minister to scrutinise the role that Historic England has to play in future major applications in central London. Councils need sound advice from professional bodies at the very first opportunity."

For its part, Historic England said it had held an internal review when the case was referred to the Department for Communities and Local Government, and this review had found that its "usual process when it comes to giving advice about sensitive areas had not been properly followed". In a statement, the adviser said: "A case like this should be brought to the attention of a regional director at an early stage, and this did not happen on the Strand. This is a very rare occurrence."

Steven Bee, founder of consultancy Urban Counsel and former director of planning and development at English Heritage, said Historic England responds to thousands of requests for advice across its nine regional offices every year. "The vast majority are dealt with within statutory time limits, without controversy," Bee said. He added that he believes that the error was not symptomatic of an inadequate approach to such consultation, but was instead "one that slipped through".

He said when the opportunity arose to correct the mistake, Historic England took the decision to do so even though in the short term "it might be embarrassing". Acting to correct the mistake rather than letting the incorrect advice stand was important to safeguard the "long-term credibility" of Historic England, said Bee. "It's important that Historic England, when it does realise it has made a mistake, acknowledges it," he said.

Clem Cecil, director of SAVE Britain's Heritage, also welcomed Historic England's "brave decision" to reverse its position. "From our point of view, it makes them stronger as an organisation," she said.

Roger Mascall, head of heritage at planning consultancy Turley, said the high-profile error may have knocked developers' confidence in Historic England's advice. Those working on major schemes in London with the support of Historic England and the local authority should expect to have "confidence that they can move forward, but clearly that's not the case now", according to Mascall. He said he hopes that Historic England's mistake is a one-off, as a pattern would "severely undermine" confidence in the body.

Mascall said the secretary of state's intervention suggests that the government is increasingly receptive to the advice of heritage bodies, such as SAVE Britain's Heritage, which had urged that the Strand scheme be called in, and has also successfully lobbied for public inquiries into the Smithfield General Market and Liverpool's Welsh Streets redevelopment proposals. "There's a pattern developing," he said. "It's suggesting that the government is sympathetic to other heritage bodies, not just the one giving it official advice."

Cecil said SAVE Britain's Heritage had sought to halt the Strand development as it would harm unlisted buildings of merit in a conservation area, and there is a presumption against such development in law. She added that the proposals had caused huge public outcry and a SAVE Britain's Heritage petition opposing the plans had received more signatures than any previously launched by the body. "There was a really strong reaction to this," she said. "It really struck a chord."

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