Westminster City Council has agreed to the sensitive redevelopment of the listed Millbank Tower, to create apartments and a hotel.
The scheme is one of the last to be reviewed under the borough’s old policy on office to residential conversion, which since September 2015 has been tightened to restrict such changes of use. And, in a deal that clipped back original proposals to more substantially alter the landmark building, planners abandoned their requirement for an affordable housing contribution from the scheme.
The approval will see significant refurbishment of the building, which comprises the tower and a Y shaped lower block. The tower will convert from its current office use to provide 207 apartments, while the Y building will become a 150 room hotel. The tower will have two more storeys added, including a skybar. The Y block will have one storey added, with a cultural centre provided within the podium building.
But the scheme, designed by architect John McAslan & Partners, was criticised by heritage bodies including the Twentieth Century Society, and English Heritage. The Twentieth Century Society objected to the recladding of the building, and the addition of extra floors. “The original cladding is an extremely significant factor in the special interest of the building,” noted the society in a critique of the application.
When the tower was designed by UK architect Ronald Ward & Partners in the 1950s, it drew on Modernist architecture from the USA. Originally known as the Vickers Tower, it was for a time the tallest building in London with the Vickers engineering firm having its boardroom on the thirtieth floor, while Legal & General also occupied the building. It was listed as grade II in 1995.
As the council noted in the planning report: “The buildings are concrete framed with applied cladding, one of the first such curtain wall designs to be built in the UK. The quality of construction was high and the complex has been well-maintained over the years. However, after 50 years the original cladding and external framing is in need of replacement. Specialist Engineers have studied the cladding in detail and consider that complete replacement is required to maintain a long term future for the building complex.”
The development is being carried out by property investors the Reuben brothers, through their vehicle Basio Holdings. Though approved, the scheme may not neceessarily go ahead, with a spokesman telling The Times that the current office tenants are on three year leases: “We continue to monitor the market and the scheme and may decide at a later date to retain some offices as part of the overall scheme, subject to market and planning conditions.”
Under Westminster’s affordable housing tariff, the scheme would be required to deliver either 141 flats, or a payment in lieu of £57.35m. The applicants had submitted a viability report, accepted by the council’s consultants, declaring the scheme could not deliver any contribution at all.
The permission did, however, extract a requirement for a free, publicly accessible skybar with a terrace wrapping around the building. A cultural facility will also be included, with the developer responsible for up to £2.5 million of fit out, once the occupier has been identified.
LPA Perspective: Listed landmarks are a double-edged sword. For any owner, the kudos of the building is tempered by the expense of maintenance, and the hassle of winning approval for any changes to the property. This scheme looks like a sensible solution that will largely keep the landmark tower intact, while ensuring it is fit for purpose years into the future.
Will the scheme take place? That depends on the vagaries of the high end London residential market – currently looking weaker than for some time – and the London hotel market, which is just starting to come off the boil.
However, Westminster appear to be missing a trick, in not agreeing an overage on the zero affordable housing contribution. In this location, of any in London, should the new apartments suddenly gain the cool status afforded by one or two celebrity owners, their value will surely soon substantially outpace the values put in the viability assessment the council has signed off.