Ministers ignored official advice which warned that a failure to call in a controversial development proposal could lead to “reputational risks for the government”, LGC has learned.
Planning minister Nick Boles (Con) was told in March that the proposed Elizabeth House development in Waterloo should be called in because it “conflicts with national policies” and could ruin a world heritage site.
The development is now subject to a legal battle with Westminster City Council and English Heritage seeking a judicial review against Lambeth LBC’s decision to grant planning permission.
According to papers seen by LGC, Mr Boles was advised to call-in the planning application because the development “could place the Westminster World Heritage site on the World Heritage Danger list, leading to reputational risk for the government”.
Describing the case as “finely balanced” between the economic benefit of the scheme versus the risk to heritage status, officials told ministers they ultimately “recommend that you call-in this application”.
Although Unesco has not added Westminster to its danger list, a June report to its World Heritage Committee raised concerns about new developments in the area and, “in particular, Elizabeth House”. A spokeswoman for Unesco said the issue was likely to be discussed at the committee’s next meeting in 2014.
However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said the development was a matter for the local council.
“The decision not to call-in the application and not take the decision away from the council was made after a careful consideration of all the issues and representations,” she said.
English Heritage declined to comment on the minister’s decision to ignore official advice, but reiterated its objection to the current design of the scheme which would “harm views of the World Heritage Site from Parliament Square”.
Westminster City Council declined to comment on the minister’s decison.
Both are waiting to hear whether their application for a judicial review of Lambeth’s planning decision will be heard by judges, a move which has resulted this month in a letter-writing row between Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing and regeneration Pete Robbins (Lab) and Westminster deputy leader Robert Davis (Con).
On Thursday Cllr Robbins accused Westminster of wasting public money, while Cllr Davis wrote back the following day to accuse Lambeth of “repeating the mistakes of the 1960s” by “allowing development which will scar the character of London irreparably”.