Victorian Society makes rare legal threat to council over Oxford Street scheme

Heritage group the Victorian Society has told Westminster council to expect a High Court challenge if it does not look again at the approval of a controversial Hopkins Architects-designed scheme on Oxford Street.

The proposals, drawn up for developer Derwent London, would see the redevelopment of a 0.28ha site at the intersection with Rathbone Place, with only the façade of a grade II-listed building by Charles Holden remaining in place.

Both the Victorian Society and government heritage adviser Historic England objected to the plans over their impact on the retained building – originally known as Evelyn House, but now named Holden House. The groups also expressed concerns over the demolition of a neighbouring locally listed Edwardian building at 66 Oxford Street, and the proposals’ general impact on the Hanway Street conservation area.

Westminster has now approved Hopkins’ eight-storey scheme twice, both times judging that it causes “less than substantial harm” to heritage assets and provides a range of public benefits. But the Victorian Society argues that Westminster’s stance is at odds with local and national planning policies.

It has taken the rare step of issuing the council with legal documents asking it to reconsider before a decision notice is issued – or face a judicial review of the legality of its decision.

66 Oxford Street

Source: Google Maps

Earmarked for demolition: 66 Oxford Street, by EK Purchase

Hopkins’ steel and glass design effectively doubles the development site’s current floorspace – and adds two storeys to the current height of Holden House, but the design was said to be incompatible with the retention of EK Purchase’s 66 Oxford Street.

The Victorian Society is particularly concerned about Westminster’s willingness to allow the demolition of the structure, one level below nationally listed status, without considering ways to retain at least its façade – possibly through jacking it to align with new floorplates, or rebuilding it as part of the scheme.

“The committee resolved that the proposal would cause less than substantial harm to the conservation areas,” its letter to the authority says.

“It was therefore incumbent on the defendant council to consider alternatives which could avoid that harm. The material considerations of the need to do so and the Victorian Society’s representations were not addressed.”

The society also argues that the planning officers’ report to councillors who approved the scheme failed to properly outline benefits that the proposals would deliver against which harmful elements of the proposals could be weighed, and did not properly assess the scheme against key local and national planning policies.

Oxford Street elevation

Oxford Street elevation of the Hopkins Architects proposals for Evelyn House and 66-68 Oxford Street

“Having made various findings of harm, the council was not lawfully able to conclude that [relevant planning policies] were complied with,” the letter says.

“The reports were therefore irrational in asserting that there was compliance. There is no indication that members realised that the officer advice was wrong about compliance with the development plan and they can be taken as having adopted the error.”

Westminster councillors originally approved the proposals at a planning committee meeting in November last year. But the scheme returned to them the following month after the Victorian Society complained that its letter of objection outlining significant concerns had not been referred to in a report from planning officers.

The scheme was approved for a second time at a planning committee meeting on December 12.

BD asked Westminster for its response to the Victorian Society’s legal letter – issued under the Judicial Review Pre-Action Protocol. It had not responded at the time of publication.

Evelyn House

Evelyn House as it currently stands. The building, designed by Charles Holden, is also known as Holden House