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Planning Permission Refused for Foster and Partner’s ‘Tulip’ Tower

Hereward Phillpot QC
Daisy Noble

The Secretary of State has accepted the recommendation of his Inspector David Nicholson RIBA IHBC to refuse planning permission for a 1000 ft tower in the heart of the City of London (APP/K5030/W/20/3244984).  

The proposed building was dubbed ‘the Tulip’ by its promoters, and was designed by the same team of architects that were responsible for the Gherkin.  It was intended to provide a high level viewing gallery with fair-ground style gondola features and an education facility.  

The decision is a notable exception to the consistent run of approvals for new tall buildings in the City of London, and contains a number of important findings that will influence the future development of the ‘City Cluster’.  Indeed, the Inspector emphasised that “little or no weight should be given to the previous permissions, or their justification, as setting a binding precedent”.

In July 2019, the Mayor of London directed that planning permission be refused for the Tulip, based primarily on concerns as to the impact of the proposal on the setting of the Tower of London World Heritage Site (‘WHS’) and other heritage assets, the appearance of the Tulip in strategic views, the quality of design and impact on the city’s skyline, and loss of valuable open space within the city.  The developer appealed and a six week ‘virtual’ public inquiry took place in November and December 2020.  The City of London, as local planning authority, had resolved that planning permission be granted and continued to play a supporting role alongside the appellant throughout the Inquiry.  The Mayor, who was granted Rule 6 status, opposed the proposal alongside Historic England, also a Rule 6 party.   

The Inspector found that there would be serious harm to the outstanding universal value of the Tower of London WHS through the development of the Tulip within its setting.  The Inspector’s conclusion was that the Tulip would “seriously detract from the OUV of the WHS, and the significance of the White Tower in particular” and “disrupt the sensitive balance between the City and the WHS”.  In views from the Queen’s Walk it would move the apex of the existing cluster of tall buildings and draw the eye away from the WHS, diminishing its dominance.  The Inspector concluded that there would also be harm to the individual listed buildings comprising the WHS and a number of listed buildings outside the WHS. 

A major theme of the case made by the Appellant and City of London concerning the relationship between the proposed building and the historic environment was that of ‘juxtaposition’, namely, that the juxtaposition between the modern buildings of the City Cluster and the historic environment, including the WHS, was an inherently positive characteristic.  The Inspector rejected the idea that just because juxtaposition between some new development and historic assets had been found to be positive in previous decisions, it would necessarily be positive in respect of every proposal. Moreover, the Tulip proposal’s distinct form, materials and use would make it stand out from the City Cluster, reducing its cohesion. 

Whilst the Inspector said that the proposed tower was “undoubtedly the best presented scheme that I have ever seen in my career or am likely to see”, he emphasised that presentation should not be confused with architectural quality.   The “compromised design”  was found to disclose a “muddle of architectural ideas” that fell short of design of an outstanding quality.  The designers’ brief had placed “the wish to be seen, and for visitors to see out, well above … heritage”.  The result was a design that “would be a poor and unsympathetic response to the historical context”.  The Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that there were too many compromises in the design to amount to world class architecture.  The loss of open space comprising the plaza around the Gherkin was a matter that further weighed against the proposal, in light of the valuable functional role it played. 

Also weighing heavily against the scheme were its poor sustainability credentials.  The Inspector found that “In truth, little if any thought has been given to how the building would function over its extended lifetime” and that its lifecycle had not been properly considered.  The lift shaft, with a very high level of embodied carbon, would have no obvious means of reuse save for large quantities of aggregate.  Nor would there be a ready incentive to remove the tower as and when it ceased to function as a tourist attraction, due to the limited opportunities to re-develop the small footprint on which it would stand. 

The claimed benefits of the Tulip were found to be less substantial than claimed, having regard amongst other things to the number of similar tourist attractions, the uncertainty surrounding the education provision and concerns over its exclusivity.  The benefits were insufficient to outweigh the heritage harm, the conflicts with the development plan (including the New London Plan) and the other harms identified. 

Hereward Phillpot QC and Daisy Noble appeared on behalf of the Mayor of London.

The Inspector’s report and Secretary of State’s decision letter are available here