Heritage groups have accused the government of failing to protect Britain’s world heritage sites after effectively allowing plans for a development on London’s South Bank that will obscure views of the Houses of Parliament.
Campaigners say this confirms fears that the National Planning Policy Framework, promoted by ministers to encourage house-building, is giving too much power to developers.
Unesco had taken the unusual step of asking the government to reconsider plans that would see the demolition of Elizabeth House in Waterloo, a 1960s tower block, and replace it with two new buildings, one 29 storeys high. The £600m scheme will provide 142 new homes alongside offices and shops, but Unesco said this, along with the Nine Elms Regeneration and Vauxhall island site in Battersea, would affect London’s skyline, and the world heritage status of the sites.
Lambeth Council’s planning committee, which approved the scheme in December, acknowledged that the development would result in a “noticeable” change, but argued that it was not “significant” or “comprehensive”. It would have a positive impact on the local area and create jobs.
English Heritage and Westminster Council went to the high court to try to stop the scheme but failed. Campaigners had hoped the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, would call for the scheme to be revised, but last week the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) announced that it would not be intervening.
The move has drawn a furious response from heritage groups. “This government has abdicated the international responsibilities, to which it signed up under the Unesco treaty, to protect the national and international heritage of parliament by trying to hide behind the fig leaf of pseudo-localism,” said Richard Tamplin, a member of the Twentieth Century Society, who stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity.
There are concerns that the decision will encourage more high-rise developments that will further alter the capital’s skyline. Tamplin said. “We seem to have made no progress on heritage when Eric Pickles can pretend, like Pontius Pilate, that he has nothing to do with the destruction of the heritage of London and the world”
A DCLG spokesman defended the decision. “Ministers have confirmed they are not calling in the Elizabeth House planning application to be decided by government,” he said. “It is only in very rare cases of national significance that planning applications are decided centrally and, having carefully considered the proposals, ministers are satisfied that this case should be decided by the local council. It is now for Lambeth to determine the application.”
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