Chiswick Curve Public Inquiry – week four, closing arguments against

The Curve, CGI representation from developer Starbones.

London Borough of Hounslow’s closing arguments, presented by Richard Ground QC

London Borough of Hounslow’s case is that the height and the huge mass and bulk of the building make it an inappropriate development on a site which has conservation areas to the north and south: Gunnersbury Park, Strand on the Green, Kew Green and Kew Gardens, which is one of four World Heritage sites in London, as well as less well-established conservation areas such as Wellesley Rd, Thorney Hedge and Grove Park.

This being a legal hearing, they sought to show that the proposed development did not meet the requirements of relevant laws and planning policies, both national and local. The Council’s barrister Richard Ground QC argued that it would ‘drive a coach and horses’ through ‘the coordinated range of heights’ for new developments ‘envisaged by LBH’ and that the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) could not be clearer on the need to protect conservation areas and their setting.

It’s not just about the building design

A development of this sort is supposed to take the ‘context’ into consideration from the outset. Barristers like to introduce a bit of levity into these proceedings and much was made of the architect’s missing brief – the suggestion that he came naked into the chamber introducing a note of farce while making the serious suggestion that far from having carte blanche from the developer, the design was very much influenced by the number of residential apartments with view over Kew Gardens he could squeeze in. Richard Ground QC suggested that the heritage aspects had been considered only after the event with “a manufactured post–rationalization” cobbled together for the inquiry. It was telling, he argued that the developer had prevented the architect Christophe Egret from producing the brief from which he was asked to work.

The developer’s case rests mainly on the design quality of the building, that is should stand as a signature statement marking the end of the Golden Mile on the route in to London from Heathrow, but Starbones also argued that it had the support of the Mayor and the GLA and that there would be other tall buildings in the vicinity soon.

Richard Ground QC argued that they couldn’t have it both ways. The Curve couldn’t on the one hand be a towering beacon, a statement building highly impressive from the M4 approach and at the same time barely visible from Kew. If the GLA was so supportive, surely it would have taken over the planning decision from LBH, as it has the power to do, or at least submitted detailed evidence to the Inquiry, and it did neither. As for the other buildings planned, “no other building planned approaches the level of dominance and intrusion which would be inflicted by the Chiswick Curve”. The council would accept a building that was 60 metres high (as they already had when they gave permission for a previous design, the Citadel) but not one that was twice that height. The maximum height of other buildings considered for Brentford East (to the left of the Curve when looked at from the river) was 48 metres.

Computer generated images from environmental impact assessor Mike Spence.

The developers’ images did not show what the Curve would really look like

The London Borough of Hounslow argued that in reality the proposed 32 storey building would be a lot more intrusive than it appears in pictures provided by the developer. For the curve to appear as it did in their images you’d have to be looking at it with one eye closed. As most people don’t walk round with one eye closed, the council employed an independent expert to produce a fairer representation, which showed the building to appear much closer and larger from the surrounding roads.

The Curve does ‘substantial harm’ to the west London heritage around it

The developers accept that Strand on the Green, Kew Green, Gunnersbury park and Kew Gardens are heritage assets. It is illogical to argue, said Richard Ground QC that the conservation of a building or area is important, but then to ignore the massive change inflicted on it by a huge tower immediately behind it. In the National Planning Policy Framework ‘substantial harm’ isn’t defined, but previous case law has established that ‘substantial harm’ is caused when the ‘significance’ of a site is ‘very much reduced’ by a development.

The developers’ arguments are inconsistent

Is the Curve (which would be the tallest building in west London) a marker or is it not? Does it stand out as a spectacular piece of architecture which can be seen for miles around or can it barely be seen from anywhere with ‘heritage’ or ‘conservation’ in its description. Which is it? Hounslow’s case is that it would be “a large, bulky and incongruous addition to an otherwise largely unbroken skyline of traditional buildings”.

The case for such a huge building can easily be demolished

Richard Ground QC went through the evidence of the developer’s architectural heritage expert Philip Grover with one dismissive flourish: “Although Goddard spoke quickly and made a lot of superficially plausible points not many of them survive five minutes of consideration.” Grover argued that because the Citadel (design previously accepted by the Council for the same site) would have been visible from Strand on the Green, visibility should not be considered an issue in this case. This, said Ground was “absurd”.

Talk of texture and colour a ‘smokescreen’

As for the architect Christophe Egret, the “charismatic” architect did his best to persuade the hearing that the colour and texture of the building would make it a thing of beauty, with its curves softening the way the light strikes it and the artistic endeavour to replicate the colours of the river. This was merely a “smokescreen” to deflect attention from the real impact of an enormous building on “cherished heritage assets”.

GLA position not fairly represented by Starbones

The GLA has said that Strand on the Green would be harmed by the building; it only disagreed with the London Borough of Hounslow as to the range and extent of that harm. If Starbones were so confident of their support, why did they not ask the heritage person at the GLA to comment on the design? You can’t describe a building as an example of good design if it hasn’t taken into consideration the impact on the beautiful and historic buildings nearby. In fact “the appellant has acted in flagrant disregard of the key stakeholders”.

What national planning guidance says about ‘heritage assets’

The National Planning Policy Framework talks about how new developments should have ‘natural integration’ with the ‘built and historic environment’. “The Government could not have been clearer that good design does not trump harm caused to heritage assets”. “You can’t just say: ‘We’ve got a really good architect; look at his design’.”

Computer generated images from the developer Starbones.

Why so coy about the brief?

A design has to start with a brief – what is it that you want me to build? Christophe Egret didn’t set out the brief. He was asked to produce it at the Inquiry and promised he would, but was “overruled” by his client, the developer. Why was this? There was “only one sensible explanation” why he was so “coy” about the brief said Richard Ground QC: “namely because the brief was about maximising units and returns. This is a relevant matter because it underpins the evolution of the design”.

A contender for the Carbunkle prize?

In the way that Rotten Tomatoes awards prizes for the worst movies, and the Literary Review accords authors with an award for badly written sex scenes in books, so Building Design magazine makes an annual award for the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months. Richard Ground QC pointed out that Starbones’ architectural experts Richard Coleman and Paul Finch had been advocates for buildings which had previously won this prize. Architect Barbara Weiss, who is behind the Skyline Campaign to protect London’s skyline from architectural atrocities, argued that the Curve could also be a contender. In deference to the architect, Richard Ground QC suggested that this might happen if his design was “dumbed down” if it were given the go-ahead by the Secretary of State, if either Egret were to be replaced or he failed to stand up to pressure from the client for changes made in the construction phase. If he was overruled on the question of showing the Planning Inspector the brief for the building “the idea of him standing up to him in future is fanciful” he said.

Suddenly the Citadel seems like not such a bad option

There was local opposition to a previous design for the site, the Citadel, for which Hounslow granted planning permission, but which failed to materialise. One of the directors, Kim Gottlieb, was involved with both that project and this one. He “now rubbishes it” said Richard Ground QC, which shows inconsistency in the developers’ approach. “It can’t be right that only a taller building will do”… “The appellant has not shown that there would not be other options”.

Classic symptom of over-development

When a building is considered by a local council, one of the things they look at is the ‘amenity space’ –elements which contribute to the overall character or enjoyment of an area, such as trees and the amount of public space available for the occupants to use in which to relax. This building, crowded onto a plot beside the motorway and the roundabout, has “the lowest level of communal amenity space ever in Hounslow” … “barely 20% of the minimum provision which is expected” in an application such as this. The developer could not justify providing “sub-standard living conditions”.

The atrium space, which the developer relies on for their argument that the building is of public benefit is “unlikely to draw public visitors” and the walk to the nearest park for residents of the Curve would be “hostile”. The route you’d have to take would be “hazardous and unpleasant”.

Advertising screens

The council also objects to the proposed advertising screens on the side of the building, as well as to the building itself. The scale and position of the illuminated adverts were also “harmful”, said Richard Ground QC and it was difficult to imagine that the advertisements fitted with Christophe Egret’s ‘vision’ for the building.

‘Substantial harm’

In conclusion the development would cause “substantial harm” to heritage assets. “The appellant’s position at this inquiry if accepted would radically undermine the ability of Hounslow to protect precious irreplaceable heritage assets to pass on to future generations”.