Documents released as part of a 136-page FOI response suggest Belgrove House is on course for rejection.
Documents released as part of a Freedom of Information request show that Camden have consistently raised concerns about harm to heritage done by Belgrove House, and remain unconvinced by the public benefits offered by the proposal.
As recently as last month, their independent Design Review Panel raised ‘significant concerns’ about the Belgrove House development on King’s Cross Square, given its ‘sensitive and unique location‘.
Despite Camden’s planning department previously withholding comment regarding the scale and design of Belgrove House, it is now clear that the development is under fire from all angles.
The DRP has recommended that the developer ‘explore whether the occupier’s needs can be met in a scaled back proposal’, and go on to say: ‘the height, mass, and architecture of the proposals form a backdrop which is not deferential to this unique setting.‘
Echoing the advice given by the BCAAC and their emphasis placed upon the highly significant historic setting, the panel has called for a ‘world-class piece of architecture’ to respond to the Grade I listed stations.
And while the BCAAC raised concerns that the proposal paid little regard to the historic setting of the surrounding streets and King’s Cross as a whole, the panel has asked that the developer come back with an explanation of exactly how the surrounding townscape has informed the design of the development.
The report states: ‘Whilst the panel finds much to admire in the ‘heroic’ nature of the building’s expression, it feels the proposed architectural expression appears ‘monumental’, which accentuates the building’s scale in this sensitive setting.
‘In its view this is not the appropriate setting for a building of this nature. This site requires a distinctive building which defers to its context.
‘The panel would like to see the architectural language of the proposal responding to the distinctive context at the south of the site, which is more modest and domestic.‘
The advice given accords almost word for word with that given by the BCAAC in conjunction with other local societies.
The ball is now in the developer’s court. They can either make an application in the near future, or take the advice given and come back with a scaled-down and more historically sensitive proposal.
The BCAAC and other local societies await to see whether a meaningful dialogue can now be opened with the developer to ensure the delivery of a world-class example of historically sensitive development at Belgrove House.
Insight into the Planning Department
As part of the Freedom of Information request, a number of other documents and emails were released relating to Belgrove House, affording an invaluable window into the way Camden’s planners work with developers.
A string of emails and reports were included showing that both Camden and the developer were unaware of Belgrove’s history as a former coach station until BCAAC research and the subsequent Save Bloomsbury article revealed Belgrove House’s true history. Every report leading up to the article was based upon Camden’s entirely incorrect 2003 appraisal.
This is despite Camden’s claim that a re-appraisal of the site had been done, and Historic England’s claim that they had informed Camden of the correct history of the site.
We will be calling for a full and thorough re-appraisal of our conservation areas in light of this mistake and the failure to properly re-appraise the site during the pre-application process.
A string of emails also suggests that an assessment was done on the viability of retaining the existing building, strengthening its structure and adding a rooftop extension, something the BCAAC and other local groups would support.
But most interesting of all is a recurrent theme of Camden’s planning department reiterating the importance of the heritage of the site and its surroundings while the developers consistently attempt to undermine and ignore heritage concerns.
At one point Camden’s planning department sent a strongly worded email criticising the developer’s approach to their heritage statement, which apparently sought only to undermine Belgrove House’s importance while claiming it makes no positive contribution to the history of the area, and failing to take any account of how the heritage of the area has influenced the design.
This corroborates our initial view that the developers are adopting the common two-pronged approach of undermining heritage while playing up public benefit.
And a number of emails expressed concern that the views impact assessments provided by the developer were neglecting to show the development in the proper context, particularly regarding the small scale development to the south of Euston Road.
A number of emails confirm that the planning department have from the outset judged that Belgrove House will cause harm to the historic environment, stating: ‘The submitted views confirm that the proposed new building would be out of scale with its neighbours and would compete with the architectural and historic importance of the listed buildings, most notably the St. Pancras tower, undermining its significance and harming its setting.‘
The planners go on to confirm that the development would cause ‘less than substantial harm’ to the surrounding heritage assets, meaning the development would require a substantial package of public benefits to ensure approval.
But an email as recently as April 2020 states ‘we remain unconvinced by the package of public benefits… the current approach is high-risk’.
This suggests that as the proposals stand they could be recommended for refusal on grounds of unacceptable harm to heritage.
Surprisingly, Camden’s planning department consistently encourage meaningful engagement between the developer and the community, particularly Friends of Argyle Square, to ensure that proper consultation is had on how Belgrove House could improve public safety in the surrounding area.
Yet the developers have thus far refused to engage properly with any community group.
The correspondences all point to a developer attempting to undermine and ignore heritage concerns and neglect proper consultation, while Camden’s planning department have consistently been attempting to rein in the scheme and encourage proper consultation with residents.
This is in stark contrast to the impression thus far given to community groups, where planners appeared to be ‘on the developer’s side’.
It all goes to show that transparency in public affairs is the best option to retain public trust. Given that Freedom of Information has now been successfully used to access previously confidential pre-application information, it paves the way to Camden engaging the community in pre-application discussions for future applications, rather than relying upon developers to implement token consultation exercises.