Opinion: The Outernet planning decision reaffirms that Camden’s special relationship with major development companies has crossed the line.
The development scheme known as the ‘Outernet’ in St Giles has become the centre of a planning row after advertisement consent was approved in the face of heavy opposition.
Despite detailed objections and written submissions from every major society in the area, and even an objection from Westminster City Council, the application was approved in a 9-2 vote last Thursday, with the two Conservative councillors voting against.
But the fact that this application even came to the planning committee is representative of the grossly imbalanced planning process in Camden, where major development companies are far more likely to have their applications approved, even in the face of substantial opposition.
Leader of the Opposition and dissenter Oliver Cooper described the decision as a ‘sweetheart deal’, stating that: ‘as a stand-alone application, it is almost inconceivable that it would have got to the planning committee’.
The ‘Outernet’ now has the green light to switch on their ‘immersive advertisement experience’, comprising a number of large animated screens and speakers, with noise possibly reaching volumes of up to 90dB.
Despite the complex itself being situated within a conservation area and being a stone’s throw from four more prime conservation areas, the advertisement complex was deemed to ‘preserve’ the character of the area and ‘bring back the life of the music scene in Denmark Street’, where the development is located.
It is clearer than ever that built heritage and residential amenity weigh very little in the face of large developments and Camden’s special relationship with major developers.
The Outernet is a name that has been given to a major development in the St Giles area, sandwiched between Centre Point, Charing Cross Road, and Denmark Street.
Despite falling within the Denmark Street Conservation Area, the development site was earmarked for total redevelopment in 2004 and following an application in 2013, demolition of a tranche of historic buildings was approved to make way for a new block of glass and steel.
The application saw the demolition of the entirety of the 1981 extension to the Denmark Street Conservation Area, including the northern side of Denmark Place.
But far from being a typical block of glass and steel, the Outernet is home to a large internal courtyard with ceiling-height advertisement screens and speakers, known as the Urban Gallery.
One could easily mistake images of the Urban Gallery for screenshots from a Doctor Who episode: ‘The Outernet: In the year 2020, a strange race of multinational corporates are trapping unfortunate Londoners in a giant advertisement complex, in an attempt to convert human souls and history into regeneration energy.’
But the most disturbing aspect of the Urban Gallery is the fact that the walls of the development retract to reveal the interior, while the ground floor is always open, meaning light and sound will continually leak out onto Charing Cross Road and the wider area.
The Urban Gallery is also to be used as a space for music events, with sound levels of up to 90dB leaking out into the surrounding area. This is roughly equivalent in noise level to a police siren.
The clue is in the name: The Outernet. The aim of the development appears to be to provide the outdoor equivalent of the worst aspects of the internet: overwhelming flashing screens, intrusive advertisement, unwanted sound. The Urban Gallery boasts the ‘highest resolution screens in the world‘, stretching from floor to ceiling. It is ‘always on’, ‘always new’, and ‘always connected’. ‘We’re trying to make it as instagrammable as possible’, we were told by a planning consultant.
But unlike a pop-up advertisement the Outernet cannot be deleted with a click of a button. It is more akin to a computer virus, a fatal infection arising from a corrupted install of the planning process in Camden.
The conflicts relating to the original planning application in 2013 became something of a national exemplar of the follies of top-down ‘regeneration’. While Consolidated, the development company, bought up land in the area and worked with Camden to come up with the development scheme from above, local residents and societies on the ground advocated protection of the heritage of the area, with a number of critical articles appearing in The Guardian and The Evening Standard.
But in Camden these stories only ever end in one way: the application was approved, as though the furious opposition shown to the scheme had been saved in a file format unrecognised by Camden’s planners and councillors.
A Second Chance
But somewhat ironically, coronavirus interrupted the installation of the immense advertisement screens. The developers were required to make a fresh application to have the screens switched on.
A number of local amenity societies began communications across the internet in a last ditch attempt to corrupt the installation of the Outernet.
The BCAAC (Bloomsbury Conservation Areas Advisory Committee), CGCA (Covent Garden Community Association), the BA (Bloomsbury Association), and the Soho Society put in letters of objection, which resulted in referral to the Members Briefing Panel and an upgrade to a full committee hearing. A renewed objection was also put in by Westminster City Council.
The objections were obvious: unacceptable harm done to amenity, including noise and light pollution to nearby residential properties and the historic environment. Amanda Rigby from the CGCA rightly pointed out that Shaldon Mansions, a residential housing block, is only a number of metres away from the Urban Gallery and will be unacceptably impacted by noise pollution. But the developer stated the sound levels were ‘only equivalent to the installation of an air conditioner’.
References to Camden’s own renewed policies on advertisements and heritage were angrily waved back at their planners, which quite clearly stated such screens are generally unacceptable, especially in conservation areas.
But Camden’s planning officers recommended the application for approval.
They argued that as the advertisement screens could be shielded by retractable louvres, the impact of the advertisements upon the area was lessened, and that in total, the special character of the conservation areas and nearby listed buildings was preserved.
It was also argued that the sound provided by the screens chimed with the musical heritage of Denmark Street, and that the development as a whole was integral to the rejuvenation of the area.
Particular weight was given to the fact that the same advertisement consent had been previously approved in 2015. Arguments were made by the BCAAC that Camden’s own planning policy had changed in 2017 and 2018, while the new London Plan is also a material consideration in planning decisions, yet Camden’s planners were of the opinion that planning policy had not changed since 2015.
But in Camden, these stories only ever end in one way: the application was accepted, with 9 votes to 2.
Conservative councillors Oliver Cooper and Andrew Parkinson, the two dissenters, raised a number of concerns about the effects upon amenity, with Cllr Cooper rightly stating that ‘basically every local amenity group… everyone has objected to it, which suggests that the amenity of the area is quite significantly affected’.
Cllr Cooper was particularly critical of the scheme, and while he advocated ensuring that residents’ views were afforded particular weight during the one-year review, he claims: ‘it was a concerted decision not to give weight to residents in the review – which makes the review a bit of a sham.’
He also added: ‘As a stand-alone application, it is almost inconceivable that it would have got to the planning committee – this was a sweetheart deal. The whole argument was effectively that the applicant had done so much work through the other 100 applications that we were compelled to grant this one – which flies completely in the face of taking every application at its own merits.’
The Special Relationship
The most concerning aspect of this saga is not that the planning committee and department were largely dismissive of impacts upon amenity, but that the application even made its way to the committee in the first place.
Applications for advertisements, especially illuminated advertisements, are treated with especial caution in Camden’s Central London conservation areas. Illuminated signage of any type is almost always rejected, even when there is an obvious precedent of illuminated signage remaining from a previous era.
A recent application for two small illuminated signs on a shopfront on Leigh Street in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area was refused by Camden, despite the applicant previously having illuminated signs on their shopfront and having already installed their new signs.
The reason for refusal was that the harm done to the amenity of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area was too great. The application was swiftly refused by the planning department without any recourse to the planning committee.
And yet all-encompassing advertisement screens equipped with sound, placed in a prominent area and forming a dominant aspect of the Denmark Street Conservation Area are not only approved, but are whisked along by the planning department, with Camden’s most senior planning officials involved in having the application approved.
The type of application made for each was identical, with the exact same planning considerations apparently being taken into account. The approval of one and rejection of the other shows in high relief the deep distortions of the planning system in Camden, where the depth of pocket of the applicant appears to outweigh every other material consideration.
One only has to ask the simple question: how can two small illuminated signs be unacceptably harmful to amenity in one decision, but enormous animated advertisements with sound of up to 90dB be acceptable in another decision within the same month?
In the face of this contradiction it is apparent that major developers have a special relationship with Camden.
This ‘special relationship’ is undoubtedly the greatest threat that the built environment of Camden’s Central London area faces today, with the approval of this application simply the latest symptom of a chronic disease. The huge sums of money which Camden has learnt to extract from major developers is a vital source of income for the public realm projects which make Camden famous, while being friendly with the authority which approves or rejects planning applications is vital to the success of major developers. But the addiction to development as a source of income has left development companies with significant leverage to get inappropriate applications like this one approved. No matter the importance of the heritage of an area, nor the negative effects upon residential amenity, the approval of large applications seems to be almost guaranteed. As Cllr Cooper rightly put it, this was a ‘sweetheart deal’.
Yesterday’s decision makes it clearer than ever: Camden has a special relationship with major developers, and one which has become too close for comfort.
Who does Camden serve?