Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Why We Must Kill Bill; A Bid to Demolish the Commonwealth Institute for Profit Spells Danger for Other Major Landmarks. Jane Barry Reports

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Why We Must Kill Bill; A Bid to Demolish the Commonwealth Institute for Profit Spells Danger for Other Major Landmarks. Jane Barry Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: JANE BARRY

HOW seriously does the Government take the regulations protecting our heritage and our built environment? We have already seen the findings of two public inquiries on skyscrapers overturned by a government minister. And now two ministers are bent on bucking our listing system.

No wonder, in a recent poll by Heritage Links, nearly half the heritage groups consulted felt their views were ignored.

When John Prescott used his Secretary of State's powers to reverse the planning inspector's rejection of the 49-storey Vauxhall Tower and the 37-and 25-storey towers at Chelsea's Lots Road, the justification was more affordable housing.

In the case of Culture Minister Tessa Jowell and Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett, who are introducing a parliamentary Bill to allow the demolition of the Grade II* listed Commonwealth Institute (CI), the issue is simply money.

The CI is a charitable trust representing 53 Commonwealth countries, and its building and site are its most valuable asset. Having lost government funding, the CI moved out of the iconic, early-Sixties building in 2002 and wants to sell.

Valued at [pounds sterling]11.3 million on the CI's balance sheet, the prime Holland Park site, held on a 950-year lease, is likely to fetch considerably more, particularly if offered to developers without the listed building. The CI intends to devote the proceeds to its educational projects, including the Cambridge Centre for Commonwealth Education.

An attempt to lift the listing failed last year and the CI has since called in architectural megastar Norman Foster. The CI says it has asked Foster and Partners to make recommendations on developing the site "and, if possible, the building". Foster and Partners says: "Our work with the CI is towards a listed building consent application."

But this seems likely to be an application for demolition. A listed building can be demolished if judged to be in severe disrepair, not commercially viable or not fit for purpose. The CI claims the institute, designed by architects Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall, is all of these - it was built cheaply, defects include a leaking roof and drainage problems, and it cannot be adapted for disability access. Lord Cunliffe, one of the original architectural team, has described it as "a worthy old carthorse" that "should be put down".

However, Kensington and Chelsea council, the planning authority that must approve the application, fiercely opposes delisting. So, in what the CI describes as a "twin-track approach", it has persuaded Jowell and Beckett to facilitate demolition with a parliamentary Bill to de-list the building.

A leaked letter from the two ministers to Ruth Kelly, the minister responsible for planning, states that the CI believes " the unique condi --tions that arise in this case cannot be taken into account by the local planning authority". …

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