In my 2005 director’s report, I covered Tessa Jowell’s decision not to delist the Commonwealth Institute—this was certainly good news, but we knew then that this would not be the end of the story and that sadly her decision did not mean that the future of this excellent building was secure. What we didn’t expect was the outrageous development that you may have seen reported in the press. This summer we were leaked news of a proposed parliamentary bill to delist the building—a sledgehammer of a solution to bulldoze through what the democratic processes in place had denied. OK, that’s a bit of a mix of metaphors—but you can imagine how incensed we were.
We weren’t completely naïve—we knew the Commonwealth Institute would be a contentious case, and that many of the individuals involved were politically well connected. Not least we were worried by the press release put out by the DCMS in July 2005 which quoted TJ as saying “I fully understand why this [her decision not to delist] will be such an unwelcome decision for the Trustees of the Institute, but the advice from English Heritage could not have been clearer. Our experts on the historic environment believe that this is one of the two most important post-war buildings of that period in London.” There was nothing to suggest her personal endorsement of the building’s merits, and in fact her comment that “I did give extremely careful consideration to the arguments that might support de-listing, but my discretion is limited by the terms of the current legislation …” suggested that in fact that if she had had the option she would have struck the building off—she certainly did not come over as either a supporter of this particular building, or of the current levels of protection which listed buildings have. Indeed her note in this context that “we are carrying out a fundamental review of the listing regime…” was very worrying, especially coming from the Minister who we expect –to put it simply–to be on our side.
What we expected to happen next was for an application for listed building consent for demolition of the Commonwealth Institute to be submitted to Kensington and Chelsea Planning Department. This process could have led to a public inquiry which would have considered the circumstances in an open public debate. We were confident that the Society could legitimately oppose demolition, and would have lots of support in doing so. Government guidance is very clear about what criteria are relevant, and we were convinced that we could demonstrate that these have not been met—principally we knew that we would be able to show that the building was structurally sound and in reasonable condition, that there were economically viable uses to which it could be put, and that there was no overwhelming public need to put the site to another use that would have immense public benefit (such as an airport runway for instance).
We have never disputed the fact that the Commonwealth Institute building is redundant as far as the Institute itself is concerned—it’s activities have changed over the years and it now has no need for a large exhibition and administrative building on a prestigious Central London site. Many organisations outgrow their buildings, and when they do so it’s time to move on. However, we are certain that in this instance there are other people and organisations who would be eager to make very good use of the Commonwealth Institute for similar, or perhaps radically different types of activities. Like many other cases in which we are involved, this is one which boils down to being about money—how much would potential new users be willing to pay? There is no doubt that if this was a cleared site then it would be worth more than it is with a distinguished post-war building on it—although there will be other planning restraints beyond listing on a site fronting on to Kensington High Street and backing on to Holland Park. It’s not a bit of land on which just anything is going to be allowed.
Exactly how much money the trustees of the Commonwealth Institute should be able to realise from the sale of this property and whether this is more important than the building is the core issue. We have argued that the building is listed not just to recognise its architectural and historic interest, but if necessary to offer it protection in the face of market forces. Without this being the case there would be very little point in bothering with any of the listed building protection legislation of which this country is rightly proud. If government ministers want to help out the Trustees of the Commonwealth Institute and feel that the educational work they wish to undertake is so exceptionally valuable, then they can give them a grant to do it—there is no need to try and disguise this by letting them knock down a building that should remain an asset to London and the country as a whole.
When we were leaked the letter signed by Tessa Jowell and Margaret Beckett (which is now on our website) we decided to make it public. We were glad that the press were on the whole swift to see the threat that having a special bill represented not just a threat to a fine building of our period, but to all listed buildings—the coverage was widespread and almost universally condemning of the idea of such a bill. We hope that this response and the current Early Day Motion put down by MP Frank Field will convince Government that this is not the way to proceed.
Meanwhile we have been to visit representatives of the Commonwealth Institute at New Zealand House (co-incidentally another fine listed RJMM building). They tell us that Foster Associates have been commissioned to look at possible options for the site, with a view to submitting an application for listed building consent sometime soon after you receive this—we will keep you posted.