Michael Gove brushes up his softer side with an environmentally driven rejection of Fosters’ tulip and a rethink on who pays for cladding replacement. Meanwhile wrangles over Twickenham Riverside continue unabated
Housing secretary Michael Gove has rejected Foster + Partner’s Tulip tower, proposed for the City of London. This comes as quite a surprise since, as reported in this column three weeks ago, the word on the street – or at least the Daily Telegraph – was that he was set to do the exact opposite and warmly welcome the 304m-tall structure into the fold.
The announcement was made on Gove’s behalf by housing minister Christopher Pincher and backed a 210-page report by the planning inspectorate which concluded that the client’s appeal should not be upheld.
Pincher cited a number of reasons for the decision, including the effect on local heritage assets such as the Tower of London, but what is surely most significant is the concern expressed about the tower’s embodied carbon emissions.
He backed the inspectorate’s view that the ‘vast quantities of reinforced concrete for the foundations and lift shaft’ would ‘result in a scheme with very high embodied energy and an unsustainable whole life cycle’.
Joe Giddings, campaigns coordinator at the Architects Climate Action Network, told the Architects’ Journal that the ruling was a ‘huge moment’ and set ‘a vitally important precedent for future decisions to be made on the grounds of embodied carbon.
The Tulip was first proposed in 2018 for Brazilian conglomerate the Safra Group, which owns the Gherkin, also designed by Fosters. The tower was budgeted at £500 million but would have essentially comprised a viewing platform, restaurant and a floor of education facilities.
Fosters’ design provoked a largely derisive response, but the City of London approved it calling it ‘a truly unique visitor attraction’ which could ‘play an important role in realising our vision of the Square Mile as a vibrant 24/7 city’.
Mayor Sadiq Khan had a rather different view, saying its design was ‘of insufficient quality for such a prominent location’.
His overturning of the City’s approval led the Safra Group to appeal to the government, resulting in a subsequent public inquiry, launched just over a year ago.
Ironically, the inspectorate’s report also said that the Tulip would have made ‘substantial intrusions into … the setting to the Gherkin’, suggesting that it may have partly been the quality of a previous Foster project that prevented this latest one being realised.
There remains the matter of why the Telegraph so confidently predicted the tower’s approval, which it would surely only have done if it had received a reliable tip-off. In its report, the newspaper suggested that the decision might partly be fuelled by Boris Johnson wanting to get revenge on Sadiq Khan for scrapping his Garden Bridge scheme.
Perhaps in a week when Johnson was at COP26 giving dire warnings over the climate crisis, ignoring the inspectorate’s criticisms of the scheme’s poor environmental credentials would have looked particularly unimpressive.
Or perhaps it is a sign of Johnson’s waning fortunes. It seems to be widely accepted in Westminster that he will not be Tory leader by the time of the next election, with chancellor Rishi Sunak seen as the most likely successor. But Gove will probably be considering another tilt at the job himself, and with Sunak repeatedly refusing to consider levelling the VAT charged on new-build and refurbishment projects, the environmental angle may be a canny one to emphasise.
Policy change likely on who pays to replace dangerous cladding
A further indication of Gove making his mark is his decision to challenge the situation where some leaseholders must pay to rectify dangerous cladding on their homes – a policy his predecessor Robert Jenrick had defended.
Speaking to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, the housing secretary said he would pause a scheme to provide loans to pay for repairs, adding that he was disturbed by the principle of leaseholders having to pay anything.
The committee had previously estimated the cost of fixing all residential fire-safety problems would be £15 billion, while the government’s Building Safety Fund only has £5 billion. This has left thousands of flat owners facing the prospect of paying to make their homes safe – even though they would have bought them in good faith, unaware of any safety issues.
Gove spoke about introducing a ‘polluter pays’ type policy, whereby those responsible for the unsafe buildings would foot the bill for their repairs.
‘It would seem to me that developers and construction product manufacturers, if they say they are squeaky clean, are wrong,’ he said.
And he made specific reference to evidence given to the Grenfell Inquiry that suggested certain cladding and insulation manufacturers had manipulated safety tests for their products.
Gove also signalled a government U-turn over its ‘advice’ that combustible walling materials were not permitted on residential buildings between 11 and 18m in height, thus reducing the number of schemes which will require remedial cladding works.
Meanwhile Gove has apologised for leaked reports that Grenfell Tower is being prepared for demolition. Many residents have been campaigning for the tower to be retained as a memorial to the 72 people who died in the 2017 fire, but structural engineering experts have strongly advised that the tower be taken down owing to safety concerns.
The housing secretary said the leak had caused ‘tremendous and justified upset’ to many of those bereaved by the tragedy. He added: 'Any decision on the future of the tower will be communicated not through anonymous briefings, but directly and respectfully to those affected.'
Twickenham riverfront saga faces fresh hurdle
The long-running planning saga concerning part of the Thames riverfront at Twickenham has taken a further twist.
Hopkins Architects won a competition to redevelop the location two years ago, but its proposals are now being challenged by a residents group that holds the lease on part of the site.
Back in 2015, classical architect Francis Terry won an earlier competition to redevelop the site. His design was for a three-storey development in the ‘Regency style’ including an amphitheatre and flats.
Richmond Council had specifically asked for architects with a track record in classical style, which it said was necessary for the design to be complementary to the area.
But, despite being revised twice, the design was not popular with local residents. In the 2018 council elections, the Conservatives were voted out of power, losing all three seats in the Twickenham Riverside ward. The Liberal Democrats took control of the council and promptly ditched the scheme.
A new competition was held in 2019, asking for a mixed-use scheme with at least 50 per cent affordable housing along with a major new public space. Hopkins won, beating Cullinan Studio and Haworth Tompkins among others.
But now residents group the Twickenham Riverside Trust has said it will oppose Hopkins’ scheme. The group holds the lease for Diamond Jubilee Gardens, which would be redeveloped under the proposals.
It argues that proposals for the reprovision of the gardens are not good enough and says it will challenge the council’s compulsory purchase order of the site.
The council expressed exasperation at the latest development, saying that during the competition process, the trust had written a letter in support of Hopkins’ design. It added that the scheme provided a larger overall amount of open space.
It says it will continue with the compulsory purchase order while hoping to reach a negotiated agreement with the trust.