Virgin to take over County Hall project: Joint venture will turn GLC's old home into hotel and leisure complex

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The Independent Online
RICHARD Branson's Virgin group is to take over the redevelopment and management of County Hall in London in partnership with Shirayama Shokusan, the Japanese company that bought the site for about pounds 65m last year.

The former home of the Greater London Council on the south bank of the Thames is to be transformed into a 570-bedroom hotel and leisure complex with an emphasis on 'family and fun'.

Attractions at the pounds 150m complex will include a wedding chapel; walk-through aquarium; a virtual reality entertainment centre; a museum; a family library and business conference rooms. There will be French, British, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, shops and a creche. Most will be open to the public and some, such as the library and museum, will be free of charge.

All the bedrooms will have views of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. A room for a family of four is likely to cost less than pounds 100 per night. Should the project move to a second phase, the number of bedrooms could be expanded to 1,200 - although not all facing the river - making this the largest hotel in London.

Mac Toyota, managing director of Shirayama in Europe, said all the historic features would be preserved and treated with sensitivity. The tiered council chamber, meeting rooms and ballrooms will remain with their original features, such as wood panelling and chandeliers.

'The hotel will be the first in London to pledge itself to offering four- star hotel luxury at accessible and affordable prices,' Mr Toyota said.

The 50/50 joint partnership between Virgin and Shirayama will be capitalised at pounds 10bn. The joint company will manage the County Hall project under a lease from the Japanese parent group, which is financing the pounds 150m scheme from its internal resources.

The joint venture was agreed only last week, although Virgin, which owns hotels in Britain and Spain, was approached by the Japanese almost a year ago and has been secretly involved in planning since then. At the end of last year, Mr Toyota was quoted as likening his philosophy to that of Mr Branson.

Mr Branson said there were tentative plans to build a walkway from the international rail terminal being built at Waterloo Station. Talks are also under way for the redevelopment of an adjacent site, which Virgin envisages could become an international trade fair centre, again capitalising on the proximity to Waterloo. The site, which houses former annex buildings to County Hall, belongs to the London Residuary Body.

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