High Court upholds minister's refusal of 32-storey west London tower on heritage grounds

The High Court has upheld the former housing secretary's refusal - against an inspector's recommendation - for a 32-storey mixed-use tower in west London, ruling that the minister was entitled to reach a different conclusion from the inspector in assessing the scheme's harm to nearby heritage assets, including Kew Gardens.

Plans refused: a visualisation of the proposed Chiswick Curve scheme. Pic: Egret West
Plans refused: a visualisation of the proposed Chiswick Curve scheme. Pic: Egret West

Landowner, Starbones Limited, submitted plans to build the 120-metre high tower by Chiswick roundabout.

The proposed development, dubbed the "Chiswick Curve", would provide 327 residential units, 116 of them affordable, together with office and retail space and associated amenities.

The London Borough of Hounslow refused planning permission for the project but, following a public inquiry, a planning inspector recommended that consent be granted.

Despite objections from the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, a World Heritage Site, the inspector was "enthusiastic" about the proposal, describing it as a "landmark building" and "beacon" which showed refreshing architectural "verve".

Praising the proposed building as a "highly sophisticated glazing module, articulated by fins of different colour," he said it was a "quite brilliant response" to the difficult problems posed by the site.

He said its impact on Kew Palace, the Palm House and other heritage assets would be "less than substantial" and it would make the approach to the M4 "a very exciting experience."

But James Brokenshire, then secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, disagreed with the inspector on July 19 last year and dismissed Starbones' appeal.

He was less glowing about the building's design, saying that its mass and scale would "not relate to its immediate surroundings and would dominate the surrounding area".

Although new offices and homes, particularly affordable ones, would be beneficial, he noted that Hounslow Council already has in place a five-year supply of housing land.

And he concluded that the "moderate weight" he gave to the benefits of the scheme did not overcome the "great weight to be attached to the harm to the significance of heritage assets".

Dismissing Starbones' challenge to that decision yesterday, Mrs Justice Lang could find no flaw in the secretary of state's exercise of his planning judgment.

She rejected arguments that Brokenshire failed to take proper account of the fact that the site already has planning permission for a 13-storey office building, known as "The Citadel", which could still be implemented.

Starbones pointed to the inspector's conclusion that the Chiswick Curve would be vastly superior in terms of design than the Citadel, development of which had started but not completed due to viability concerns.

But the judge said the inspector had also observed that the Chiswick Curve would "detract to a degree" from the setting of Kew Palace, the Palm House and other heritage assets at Kew, whereas the Citadel would not appear in any important views.

When weighing the harm to heritage assets, Brokenshire was entitled to take a different view than the inspector, the judge added.

"Ultimately, the matters on which the secretary of state differed from his advisers and the inspector were quintessentially questions of planning judgment for the secretary of state which could only be challenged on Wednesbury (rationality) grounds."

Starbones also argued that Brokenshire failed to give due weight to a policy in the emerging new London Plan which identified the Great West Corridor as an opportunity area that could provide 7,500 new homes and 14,000 new jobs.

The secretary of state, the judge ruled, was entitled to give that policy "limited weight" because the emerging London Plan was at a relatively early stage in the examination process.

Objections to the new London Plan policies had yet to be fully resolved and "might still be subject to change".

After Starbones' challenge was dismissed, the company was ordered to pay substantial legal costs.

Starbones Limited v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government & Ors. Case Number: CO/3356/2019

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