Chiswick Curve Public Inquiry – week one, opposing cases set out

 

A building of ‘the highest quality’

The Public Inquiry into the proposal to build a 32 storey high skyscraper for mixed office and residential use on Chiswick roundabout opened on Tuesday 12 June 2018.

A ‘prominent landmark’

Russell Harris QC, Counsel for developers Starbones, argued that it would be a special gateway building on the route into London from Heathrow. “A notable and outstanding building at this site could establish a prominent landmark” he said. “It should be a highly recognisable building in views from the A4” and M4 corridor… change the perception of the area, enhance the corridor’s image and instil confidence in investors and developers.” The Curve would be a building of “the highest quality” he said. “This part of the M4/A4 corridor into the City is now one of the most strategic and symbolic gateways to and from the capital city… There is a clear opportunity to mark” this place “with a special gateway building”. Moreover he argued, the architect Christophe Egret is “a world class architect. He has a proven track record of delivering buildings of quality and sensitivity both in the UK and worldwide. His attention to detail in the consideration of context is the touchstone of his work”.

Richard Ground QC, Counsel for Hounslow Council outlined the grounds on which the Council had rejected the planning application – that the building would be just too big and too prominent on the skyline. Historic England and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew were both present to make their case that the building would be detrimental to the historic sites in this area.

‘Substantial harm’

Historic England don’t often get involved in planning inquiries but Richard Harwood QC said they felt compelled to do so in this case because they felt it would do ‘substantial harm’ to an area in which there are many buildings of historic interest, including the conservation areas of Kew Green and Strand on the Green and that the Curve design was ‘wholly alien’ to the surrounding low lying landscape.

‘Negative impact’ on Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens argued that the Curve would have a negative impact on the Gardens and its 46 listed buildings because the Gardens are regarded by the public as a “safe haven in this busy city”. Representing the Royal Botannic Gardens, James Maurici Q.C said that the Curve would be a “visual intrusion” and detrimental to it. He pointed out that as it is a world heritage site there is an international obligation to protect Kew and that Unesco World Heritage Centre in Paris have given their support to the Council’s refusal of planning permission.

Gunnersbury not ‘isolated in semi-rural suburbia’.

The Council’s heritage witness Philip Grover also drew attention to the harm it would cause to Gunnersbury and in particular the cemetery as a quiet place of contemplation. He made it clear that neither he nor other heritage experts agreed with tenor of appellant’s argument that there would be only beneficial effects due to the high design quality of the proposal. Counsel for Starbones, Russell Harris QC, argued “Gunnersbury does not lie isolated in semi-rural suburbia. Part of its context is that it sits adjacent to the M4 corridor into central London” and “much of the park thus already has a visibly contrasting urban setting”. The fact that the Curve would be visible from nearby historic sites such as Kew Gardens and Strand on the Green does not of itself equate to harm, he said. Representing Kew Gardens, James Maurici Q.C argued that it didn’t matter how great a building or aesthetically pleasing the Curve might be, the site where they’re proposing to put it is simply the wrong place for it. Its height, mass and bulk are what make it wrong for this particular site.

Computer generated images from the developer Starbones.

Now you see it, now you don’t

Key to the whole discussion is just how intrusive the building would be and we’re only able to form opinion on that from the computer generated images (CGI) showing how it might look. The Council has employed its own environmental impact inspector with expertise in photography, geography and surveying, to produce an independent set of images because they don’t trust the accuracy of those created by the developer. The difference between them is quite marked. In the developer’s images the building is quite hard to see from any distance, whereas the Council’s image show it as a solid mass quite clearly on the skyline. The Inquiry spent the best part of two days with the Council’s expert witness Mike Spence criticising the developer’s methodology and the Counsel for Starbones cross-examining him. It was important, said Mr Spence, that the CGI images should be made from photographs giving a 360 view of the site and taking into consideration the curvature of the earth. He criticised the developers’ use of a ‘tilt – shift’ lens which directs the eye upward or downward, over emphasizing the sky or the foreground, minimising the building and producing an image quite different from what the eye would normally see. Counsel for Starbones, Russell Harris QC, countered by criticising Mr Spence’s images because they had not included the surface detail. The Curve is largely glass, which the developers argue reflects the sky and blends in with the surroundings, making it appear less solid.

Computer generated images from environmental impact assessor Mike Spence.

Previous planning permission granted for this site

Part of the developer’s case is that the Council has previously given planning permission for another proposal for a tall building on this site. The ‘Citadel’, a proposal for a 13-storey office building was given consent in 2002. That’s less than half the height of the Curve. There was much discussion of the relative merits of the Curve versus the Citadel. Mr Grover, for the Council,  argued that a poorly considered development from the past should not provide a justification for further inappropriate intrusion.

The Inspector Paul Griffiths has until early September to make his report, which will then go to the Secretary of State for a decision.