07 April 2022
by J.R. Thomas
It’s been a good month to bury bad news. To bury most news in fact. War stories, not unreasonably, trump most stories; a couple of matters involving Tory M.P.’s that would normally occupy the front pages made little noise. The Labour Party’s new slogan “On Your Side”, made even less. Plus the continuing hoo-haa around a certain Royal Prince has shoved things even deeper into the middle pages; even pushing his nephew (busy taking yet more legal action against certain newspapers as well as against the Home Office) almost out of the more serious prints altogether.
So you may have overlooked an important planning enquiry which recently concluded hearing evidence and where the Planning Inspectorate will now be considering their recommendation to their Minister. That Minister is Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Levelling Up, and possibly also for Moving On and Wiping Noses and Anything Else We Have Overlooked.
The planning enquiry is regarding the Customs House. You may be thinking of Dublin, or possibly Liverpool, but this one is in the City of London, hard by the Thames. It is little known even to many employed in the City; for two reasons. One is that the adoption of Lower Thames Street through the City as the main highway east from central London to the Docklands has marooned the Customs House on a virtual island with the Tower of London to the east, the former Billingsgate Market to the west, and the Thames lapping its southern walls. The other is that the Customs House housed the collectors and processors of taxes and duties from around 1380 until a couple of years ago, and the City is not a place that gets pleasure from thinking about tax gatherers, let along admiring their premises. Tax gathering began on this site, or actually next door, in the late C14th. The premises have been rebuilt and enlarged several times since then (taxation being one of those occupations which has shown steady growth over many centuries) and the present building is a very fine classical edifice, built in the early C19th by the little known David Laing. Alas, Mr Laing was not well served by his builders – Miles and Peto, we do not hesitate to name the guilty here – who not only skimped on the walls but also on the foundations, causing the new building to mostly collapse within five years of completion. At that point Robert Smirk was brought in to rebuild and improve it and so it stands today. (Mr Laing was, alas, ruined by the dodgy contractors, the fate of so many an architect.)
Finally the taxmen have gone, leaving a very fine, large, and little altered building. It is a natural for a gallery or concert hall (a very big concert hall). But the City historically has not been keen on that sort of thing, distracting the workers from contributing to Britain’s preeminent role in wealth creation by international finance; or from grinding the faces of the poor, whichever be your leaning. The building is too architecturally important to demolish, but might be amended. So the government sold it to Cannon Capital Developments, a Bermuda based developer, who have, in short, because this is a very complex tale, come up with a plan to make the building into a 200 bedroom hotel, saving some of the historic interiors, but involving a fair old bashing about and the loss of some important space, together with the raising of the roof line.
This has indeed raised the roof. Practically every conservation and architectural history group has come out against the proposal. So, very unexpectedly, has the City Corporation, the local planning authority. The City Corporation is not noted for its friendly attitude to architectural conservation; it tended to regard its architectural heritage as a brake on the pure commerciality of the City, especially with the development of serious competition downriver at Canary Wharf, whence a number of City occupants decamped in the 1990’s. What the City decided it wanted were large office buildings to compete with the Canary, with a few basements and mile high top-floors for bars and restaurants. To be fair, this approach was changing even before the arrival of Corvid19, when it was starting to become obvious that non-office adjuncts to quality of life made life for City workers more interesting and fun. The City even went so far as to release the brakes (a little) on residential occupancy in the City which, other than the Barbican, originally built by the Corporation to house junior City workers close to their places of work, had been a strict no-no. (The other reason was that the City did not want residential voters in the City, a view reinforced when the Barbican elected a Labour councillor!)
It is not clear why the City is so opposed to the hotel conversion of the Customs House. From the days when the only City hotels were pretty much the Great Eastern over Liverpool Street Station and the Tower Hotel, both supposedly making their profits letting rooms by the hour, there are now quite a number of boutique hotels in the City streets; they are often a good solution to reuse of architecturally important buildings, bring nightlife to the City, and keep business visitors from straying to the West End or Canary Wharf.
But the City has been especially hit by the “working from home” trend. The dealers and settlements divisions might need their big office floors still, but a lot of the advisors and bankers, and their lawyers and accountants, do not need to work, as they used to, in big teams. Many already worked a day a week in their home office by 2020, and Covid has reinforced that. Less hassle and cost for the workers, less renting expensive offices for their employers.
The Corporation is thinking about how it keeps its pre-eminence as the centre of big deals, big fees – and big egos. It has a new chief planning officer, Gwyn Richards, brought in from Westminster, who knows how to make a location buzz. Mixed use buildings are becoming the watch word, including perhaps residential and more tourist attractions – if only to look at the views from those towers. It has not said what it would prefer at Customs House. Indeed, it might legally find it difficult to resist an hotel use which kept more of the architectural and historic fabric of the building intact. A leisure use would make sense but it would be hard to find one on that scale which could pay for the long-term use of the building. The City had a similar problem on the north side, in the mostly redundant Smithfield meat market, now being solved by reuse as the Museum of London. Perhaps a Thames side City shopping plaza and art gallery, would complement that, with a new pier to bring the tourists to this location next to the Tower? Or the City has long wanted a world-class concert hall, a vanity project no doubt but one the Corporation can afford. Now, where could they put that?
And there is yet another known unknown; what Mr Gove will say when his inspector’s recommendation lands on any clear space it can find on his desk. This fight is likely to run for a while yet.