Quill may go back to drawing board

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The Quill was intended as a landmark student accommodation building for the south London borough of Southwark, designed to celebrate
the area’s literary heritage.

But earlier this month its developer, Investream, suffered a setback when two neighbouring occupiers were given permission for a judicial review of the planning consent. It is the latest in a series of delays that have raised doubts about whether it will ever materialise.

Southwark Council has twice granted planning consent for the scheme, which gives some indication of the project’s convoluted planning history.

During the lengthy process the council has revised its planning policy, thereby shifting the goalposts for developers.

A debate on the scheme’s affordable housing contribution is the latest stumbling block and has given neighbouring landlords insurance group Zurich and Threadneedle Investments grounds for challenge.

However, when plans for the Quill were first submitted in 2009, public concern focused on the property’s design by SPPARC Architecture. Replacing a 10-storey building built in 1965 on the junction of St Thomas Street and Weston Street, the design intended to evoke the area’s links to authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens. It was to contain 470 student rooms for occupation by long leaseholder King’s College, University of London.

Originally imagined as a single block, SPPARC said the tower would create “a dynamic form of interest that delights and inspires”, but few agreed and the application was withdrawn to allow changes to the design.

The revised application of September 2010 split the structure above the eighth storey to create two towers of 21 and 31 storeys. The changes were not enough to satisfy the building’s detractors. Government design watchdog CABE (the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) was unimpressed: “The ‘quill’ concept has resulted in an ungainly form, and awkward and inefficient spaces on plan,” it said.

Threadneedle and Zurich are similarly unimpressed. Beckett House, a six-storey property to the east of the site, is occupied by the UK Border Agency and owned by Zurich. Threadneedle, the property manager, complained that the proposal could prevent the redevelopment of Beckett House. It also criticised the design quality and highlighted the lack of an environmental impact assessment.

Despite objections, Southwark councillors granted consent in November 2010, claiming that concerns about the building height were irrelevant, given the proximity of the Shard and Guy’s Tower.

Eight weeks later the secretary of state decided not to call in the scheme for review. But during this time the council’s planning policies had changed sufficiently to cast its earlier decision into doubt.

An inspector’s report was published on the borough’s core strategy, strengthening an emerging policy that would require student residential schemes to have 35% affordable housing.

Investream could therefore be required to contribute £18.8m for offsite affordable housing and found itself back before the planning committee.

Councillors again agreed to consent, in part because the time since the original application would have made it unreasonable to apply the
new policy.

But the uncertainty was enough for objectors to explore further grounds to challenge the permission.

The judicial review will centre on whether the council’s student and affordable housing policy should apply in this instance and if an environmental assessment of the proposals is required.

A spokeswoman for Threadneedle and Zurich confirmed the judicial review had been granted, but told Property Week: “Due to ongoing legal discussions, we are unable to provide any comment.”

Southwark Council declined to comment on the proceedings, and a spokesman for Investream would only say that the court’s decision was
not unexpected.

Quill’s troubled planning history

2009 Quill proposals launched by Investream and King’s College London at a public exhibition

December 2009 Planning application submitted to Southwark Council. Later withdrawn for design changes

September 2010 Revised planning application submitted. CABE issues damning review of the scheme

November 2010 Southwark Council grants planning permission for the first time

February 2011 Communities secretary Eric Pickles decides against calling in the planning decision for review

March 2011 Southwark councillors consider application for a second time because of a change in planning policy. Permission again granted

January 2012 Objectors Zurich and Threadneedle granted permission at the High Court for a judicial review of the planning decision

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