For the first time since the extinction of the dinosaurs the public body charged with protecting England’s historic environment has objected to a planning application in Camden.
Their consultation response runs into seven pages and waxes eloquent upon the history and architecture of Bloomsbury and Covent Garden, going on to strongly object to the proposed tower and recommend in no uncertain terms that the application is refused.
It represents a significant departure from Historic England’s typically apathetic consultation responses, which do little more than endorse destruction of historic places and undermine the efforts of other conservation bodies.
And while this is not the first time Historic England have expressed some level of concern about a scheme, the strength and technicality of the objection will put Camden in a tricky legal situation.
The objection states Selkirk House will have a ‘major, harmful impact upon the Bloomsbury Conservation Area’ and that ‘[we] are not persuaded that the justification for the harm has been demonstrated, or that significant public benefits could not be achieved with a scheme that causes much less harm to heritage significance.’
It is usual practice for Historic England to restrict their commentary to heritage matters only, leaving the local authority to decide whether the ‘public benefit’ justifies the ‘harm to heritage’, allowing Camden’s planners a clear route for approval. But in this case Historic England have decided to weigh in directly on the ‘public benefit’ and state that the application as stands is unacceptable.
It means Camden will have to discredit Historic England’s response if they are to recommend the application for approval.
And while Camden’s planners and cabinet would typically have few qualms about ignoring Historic England, the strength of the objection puts them at a high risk of a judicial review or call-in if they attempt to approve the scheme as stands.
The well-resourced Save Museum Street campaign, headed by a number of individuals from existing community and heritage groups, has already begun crowdfunding for legal action in the event of an approval.
‘Mid-High Level of Less Than Substantial Harm’
The strong objection from Historic England has been credited to the activity of the Save Museum Street campaign, who have met with and discussed the proposals with senior executives at Historic England.
One of the problems with Historic England in London is that their Principal Buildings Inspector Michael Dunn, who writes responses for large schemes such as this, is universally acknowledged as being absolutely useless.
Mike Dunn failed to object to Belgrove House and hardly mustered a single page of A4 in response to the scheme, where more junior officers typically write pages of feedback to minor schemes.
It has been reported that the response was instead written by a more senior member of Historic England, despite being formally signed off by Mr Dunn.
The objection states that the scheme would cause a ‘mid-high level of less than substantial harm’ to the Bloomsbury Conservation Area. While this sounds ridiculous in common parlance, the phrase carries legal meaning which is in fact remarkably strong.
Where harm is established to an historic place, it can be of two legal types: ‘substantial’ and ‘less than substantial.’
‘Substantial harm’ is a very high test, and if established, means that the scheme must be refused except in very specific circumstances.
For Historic England to assert that the scheme causes a ‘mid-high level’ of ‘less than substantial harm’ makes the objection almost as strong as it could legally be without raising eyebrows, especially given the size of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area.
But whether this represents a new era of Historic England actually making an effort to conserve London or a small blip in a long haze of apathy and ignorance remains to be seen.
If you haven’t already, consider adding your name to the list of almost two hundred objectors to the scheme by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or using Camden’s online form (or both).