Chiswick Curve Public Inquiry – week four, closing arguments in favour

Developer Starbones’ closing arguments, presented by Russell Harris QC

Gateway to the global capital

The developer Starbones’ case is that the Golden Mile needs a statement building to mark the ‘gateway’ into London, ‘the global capital’. In his closing arguments to the Public Inquiry into whether the 32 storey skyscraper should be built, Russell Harris QC on behalf of the developer Starbones argued that London needs a building of high quality design by a leading architect to impress people as they come in on the M4 from Heathrow. “The Gateway has the potential to announce the capital, and in many ways the country that it serves”, he said.

“The potential to mark that place, that moment, with a building of world class quality by one of Europe’s most lauded and talented of architects is one that the planning system should not let slip”.

In the view of the developer, Christophe Egret’s design will be recognised as a “world class” building of “immense quality”… A building which represents the best of the new: “a symbol of a diverse, sensitive, post-modern culture that has something of its own to add to the centuries of history upon which it is overlaid”. Christophe Egret is an architect “known and appreciated by architects for his understanding of and response to context”. Russell Harris QC compared the “care, attention and thought poured into this project by the architect and the careless, throw-away analysis of the many who would criticise it”. He described the effect of the use of curves and light as “pointillism” and highlighted the “earth tones” employed to pick up some of the colours in the old houses along Strand on the Green.

The Mayor and the GLA back the design

The developer claims the backing of the Mayor of London for the design:
“The Mayoral team requires the Inspector to tell the Secretary of State on appeal that it takes the view that Egret’s proposal represents the architectural quality of the highest order”. The Mayor’s office also says it is “consistent with the policies which provide a clear and systematic approach to the consideration of tall buildings” and that consideration should be given “significant weight” in making the decision. Russell Harris QC also said that the London Borough of Hounslow “originally recognised the essence of the proposal as compelling” but that it had changed its mind later.

Objections are ‘uninformed’

Most of the four week Public Inquiry was taken up with the issue of what impact such a tall building might have on the many ‘heritage assets’ there are in this area (Gunnersbury Park, Strand on the Green, Kew Green, Kew Gardens and several other more recently created conservation areas of residential housing) and whether or not it might do ‘significant harm’ to their ‘significance’. “The Curve has no direct impact on any historic asset at all” he told the Inquiry. It “will be visible from a number of heritage assets and views” but at most it will have “an indirect and mostly distant impact on heritage assets by reason of its visibility”. “The failure of other parties even to properly engage in an assessment of quality means that the objection to the proposal’s impact is at best partial and uninformed… at times criticisms of the building not supported by any rational analysis were reduced to cartoon level name calling.”

Historic England assessment ‘unfair’

Turning to the evidence given by Historic England, the public body which lists buildings of historic interest and deals with planning, grants, heritage research and advice, he said: “In the absence of a thorough and proper assessment of quality, Historic England’s assessment of harm is simply incomplete and unfair.”

Images presented by the appellant ‘followed the very best practice’

In the opening week of the Inquiry there had been much discussion of the accuracy of the portrayal of the building in the images provided by Starbones. The London Borough of Hounslow had commissioned its own images from an independent environmental impact inspector, Mike Spence, who they then produced as an expert witness. He gave his testimony and was cross-examined over two days. This, said Russell Harris QC was an “unnecessary diversion”. Referring to the developer, appealing against the Council’s decision to turn down planning permission, he said: “the appellant has … followed a now very well-trodden path in the presentation of its images and has followed the very best and fully understood practise.” The Council should have raised any complaint it had with the images much earlier. It had been established that the appellant’s images were “a legally fit basis upon which a planning permission could be granted.” Mr Spence’s methodology he said was “cumbersome” and “unnecessarily complex.”

Left: View of the Curve from Kew Green. Right: View from Kew Gardens looking towards the Orangery

Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew had given lengthy evidence as to why they thought the Curve would do them ‘substantial harm.’ Russell Harris QC made the case that just because the Curve would be visible from some parts of the Gardens, that wasn’t of itself harmful. The Outstanding Universal Value for which Kew Gardens got its status as a World Heritage Site was awarded because of its “rich and diverse historical landscape” and “an iconic architectural legacy.” This is what the planning system had to protect, he argued. “The London Plan makes it clear that all of the World Heritage Sites in London (there are four) are embedded in the constantly evolving urban fabric of London.”

Not all views are equal

It is for decision makers “to strike a balance between protecting Outstanding Universal Value and allowing the surrounding land to continue to change and evolve as it has for centuries… Development proposals should be assessed against the impact on identified strategic and local views” (ie. Not every view). “Not all aspects or setting views of a World Heritage Site are of equal importance … the protection of all views from any impact is not appropriate.” The Operational Guidelines regarding World Heritage Sites and planning matters stress that ‘important views’ should be shielded from unacceptable impact. The important views and vistas for Kew Gardens are identified in the World Heritage Site Management Plan. Russell Harris QC told the Inquiry that all Rule 6 parties (ie. All the opponents who elected to speak at the Inquiry) had expressed a view and all had accepted that none of these key, named views would be unacceptably harmed by the proposal. The opposition had shifted its ground, he said. Kew had tried to make the case that there had been a breach of policy, when actually there was none. “There is no proof that the proposal unacceptably harms these specifically identified views.” At the same time, he said, Kew had decided to ignore its own policy by alleging that “any infraction into the visual envelope of Kew at all” was unacceptably harmful.

The visibility of a tall building does not of itself equate to harm

This new stance, that visibility equals harm “kills stone dead any realistic aspirations for the Golden Mile corridor for urban regeneration and for the wellbeing of the areas surrounding the site.” “What the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is now seeking, because it is forced to by the evidence, is a policy which in effect requires no visibility to the world beyond… Any further visual intervention is ipso facto harmful whatever it is, however well designed it is.”

The important views are not harmed

“The evidence does not come close to supporting this substantially altered case” he concluded and “on the important issue of whether the specifically identified, important views and vistas have been unacceptably harmed by the Curve, the emphatic answer is that they have not.” The views referred to are the classic views of the key places people go to Kew Gardens to see. There is required to be a “proportionate and reasonable approach” to be taken to other views not specifically mentioned in the Management Plan, and this is the approach the Appellant had taken.

Just plant some more trees

Russell Harris’s final remarks on Kew Gardens were an appeal to what appeared to be a simple, common sense solution: if you don’t like the look of the building, just plant a few more trees. He didn’t use the term ‘no-brainer’ but his tone was that it was obvious, if they didn’t like the visibility of the Curve it was entirely within their power to screen it out by planting a few trees.

Can’t roll back history

The barrister made great play of how far back in history one should be expected to go in order to remove ‘harm’ to the views from Kew. With particular reference to the Water and Steam museum and the 1960s tower blocks across the river in Brentford he said “In an ideal world the industrial revolution would not have happened and the Brentford water tower would not have ‘intruded’ into the created pastoral views enjoyed by the royal family and its circle.” Neither would post war housing have been built … Nor Heathrow.

Strand on the Green

The Curve would not have a direct impact on the buildings of Strand on the Green. What is in dispute is whether the skyscraper would cause ‘substantial harm’ to the ‘setting’ of the collection of low lying buildings along the waterfront. The setting of a conservation area is not protected by statute, the barrister for Starbones told the Inquiry. “The ability to know and understand that an asset exists and thrives in the heart of a global city is part of its essence and part of its interest” he said. With both Strand on the Green and Kew Green it is the very fact that “these assets display features which are unusual and contrast with the more modern emanations of the Global City in which they live is part of their history, aesthetic and cultural interest.”

The future has already arrived

Mr Harris pointed out that “the future has already arrived in part with the Brentford FC implemented permission.”
Once you accept that “a new level of urbanity and a tall building clearly visible from the Surrey bank need not unacceptably harm the significance of Strand on the Green and should consolidate the layer of townscape visible in the M4 corridor.”

‘Planning by numbers, of the worst kind’

“Imposing arbitrary height restrictions … constitutes planning by numbers of the worst kind… It is as if we have stepped back 25 years in building design and townscape planning.”

Accept the inevitable

From Strand on the Green the Curve will be noticeable and significantly so. “That is in part its accepted function as part of the inevitable and accepted third layer of townscape at this location.” As for the perceived impact on residential streets such as the Wellesley Rd and Thorney Hedge conservation areas, “seeing a well-designed tall building marking an important spatial location” behind Victorian and Edwardian streets “is not harmful.”

A return to the Citadel and the loss of an Egret ‘masterpiece’

A previous plan for a building called the Citadel to be built on the site had been passed by Hounslow’s planning committee but the developer hadn’t pursued the project. Landowner Kim Gottlieb has been a director on both projects. The Citadel was a proposal for offices only, but would have been half the height of the Curve. The landowner is “very likely” to proceed with the Citadel if the Curve is turned down. “It would be a tragedy if the out-turn of this Inquiry was to be the creation of a mediocre and bland building of no merit but significant impact” Russell Harris QC told the Inquiry. The Citadel “will not be a thing of great architectural quality. Neither is it anything other than self-assertive and visually brash and reflective.”

“If the legacy of this Inquiry to West London were to be the loss of an Egret masterpiece and the building of a mediocre gateway to the world’s best city, that would be wholly regrettable.”

Safe for pedestrians

Opponents have argued that the roundabout beside the M4 at the interchange with the north-south circular road is unsuitable for residential housing, one reason being the lack of public space and the ‘hostile’ environment for pedestrians trying to get to the nearest park for example. Russell Harris QC dealt with the allegation of danger to pedestrians by saying Transport for London has the specialist knowledge of highways which is relevant here and it is also the body responsible for pedestrian and cycle safety. TfL has “no issue” with the proposal. “It considered through a series of carefully minuted meetings that the proposal is safe, appropriately convenient and unobjectionable.”

Advertisement are part of modern life

Answering criticisms of the large advertising screens proposed for the side of the building, he told the Inquiry that the ‘film strip’ element of the design would be a “new, innovative and exciting addition to the Great West Corridor.”

A world class piece of architecture

In conclusion, Christophe Egret’s building would be “a public benefit of massive proportion”. The creation of a “world class piece of architecture” would be a new and important feature on the London skyline.

Housing crisis

The truth of the matter is that Hounslow is not now coming close to making the proper contribution to the meeting of its own or London’s housing need … There is no room for complacency. The first duty of the planning system is to provide families with sufficient homes.” The council itself had identified this as a housing site, he said but housing was “simply not deliverable on the first 5/6 floors of the site.”

The Citadel is just an office building and suggestions of a significantly lower mixed use scheme cannot be supported. They are below the level of commercial viability.

Appeal to the Planning Inspector and the Secretary of State

Appealing directly to Planning Inspector Paul Griffiths, Russell Harris QC said:
“You have an opportunity here sir to make a difference – to allow a building which will at once mark the country’s commitment to quality and sensitivity; to grant permission which will act as a badge to our commitment to the best of the new. We urge you and the Secretary of State to take that opportunity.”

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