Plans for a spectacular redevelopment of London’s South Bank have been thrown into chaos after a three-way attack by an unlikely alliance of the National Theatre, English Heritage and the skateboarding community.
The £120m scheme, which includes a “floating” glass pavilion, is the subject of a formal objection by Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, who claims it would have a “wedge-like effect” that would separate his own building from the rest of the arts complex. He said the planned pavilion was “overscale”.
As the deadline for objections to the plans arrives Friday, campaigners for the preservation of the South Bank’s historic skate park, the Undercroft, which would be scrapped in the redevelopment, have found an unlikely supporter in English Heritage.
The organisation has also lodged an objection to the plans by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley and has spoken of the cultural importance of the Undercroft, which is reckoned to be the oldest continuously-used skate park in the world – is due to be refashioned into shop units as part of the South Bank’s ambitions £100m redevelopment plan.
In a submission to the London Borough of Lambeth, English Heritage argues that the South Bank’s plans are flawed. “We note the volume of representations from the skateboard community in regards to this application, who value the Undercroft and feel it is part of their cultural identity,” it states. “English Heritage’s primary role is to assess the physical effects of proposed development on the historic environment, but we feel further analysis of the communal value of the Undercroft is necessary to ascertain the impact on recent cultural heritage.”
The submission by Simon Hickman, English Heritage’s Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas, complains of “insufficient understanding of the communal value of the Undercroft area”. It states that skaters “draw their identity from…and have emotional links to” the site. English Heritage also claims that the South Bank Centre’s plans could have an “adverse impact on the setting of the National Theatre in views from the Hungerford footbridge.”
The intervention is a boon for the Long Live South Bank campaign which has garnered 58,000 signatures for a petition calling for the skate park to be saved.
The skaters have other powerful supporters. Simon Ricketts, Britain’s leading planning lawyer, is working for the campaign at a special rate. Ricketts, who works for the international law firm SJ Berwin, is also working for the HS2 Action Alliance in its challenge to the proposed high speed rail link.
“We are a City-based law firm and a lot of our clients are corporate but from time to time I work for other clients including campaign groups where I feel there’s a complex and significant issue,” he said.
“The street culture of the Undercroft interplays with the more formal high culture above and is an important component of the South Bank.”
The skaters have also applied under the Commons Act 2006 for the site to be given protective “village green” status. A hearing in the Court of Appeal earlier this year emphasised that a village green no longer needed to be a grassed area, provided it was used for sports and pastimes.
The campaign has drawn on the Localism Act 2011 in order to have the Undercroft declared as an “asset of community value”, in the same way that Manchester United supporters’ groups are seeking to protect the site of the club’s Old Trafford stadium from unwanted future development.
Skaters of different generations rallied at the Undercroft today. Among them was urban artist Dean Stockton, who updated the graffiti on the park’s heavily-skated concrete banks. “It’s hard to contextualise this to people that haven’t skateboarded…but it is to skateboarders the same as the Oval cricket ground is to cricketers or Wimbledon is to lawn tennis players,” he said. “To destroy this would be a crime.”
As part of the redevelopment, the skateboarders have been offered an alternative purpose-built park, 100 yards along the river bank from the Undercroft site. Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, said the skaters should “budge up”. The Southbank sees the plan as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and its chief executive Alan Bishop said the scheme will have wide benefits.
Alan Bishop, Chief Executive of Southbank Centre, said: "We value our relationship with the National Theatre and remain in active dialogue with them but that this is an extremely important proposal for Southbank Centre, which we believe will bring huge benefits to the National Theatre as well as the rest of the cultural quarter.
"Currently the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery provide a blank concrete wall to the National Theatre. Far from providing a 'symbolic wedge' the Liner Building, along with the new Central Foyer, will provide a vibrant and welcoming face and much-improved connections to the National Theatre, BFI Southbank and beyond.
"For the first time, there will be a full physical expression of the trio of cultural beacons along the river front. We believe it is important to give the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery, together with the new buildings, equal prominence between the Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre."
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