A planning application which will do irreversible harm to Lincolns Inn Fields has been approved by Camden Council not least because Historic England failed – yet again – in its duty to protect historic buildings and their setting.
Its future now rests with Communities Secretary Greg Clark.
Camden granted permission in spite of objections from Prince Charles’s Attorney General, Tory grandee Lord Deben and a long list of eminent conservationists and QCs.
The council had been advised by its officers to allow the demolition of a listed building and its replacement with a Modernist structure. It claimed the demolition was backed by Historic England, only weeks after the “conservation watchdog” had to admit a serious error of judgement when it backed Kings College’s effort to demolish historic buildings on the Strand. In that case Kings withdrew its application Following the intervention of Mr Clark.
This time the building in question, known as the Under Treasurer’s House, is attached to the Great Hall and Library of Lincoln’s Inn, which are listed Grade II*, and therefore shares the listed status. However, although it looks Victorian, it was added in the 1960s and is not on the official register.
The replacement being proposed, on the other hand, looks like a crude 1960s design with an odd-shaped roof, not remotely in keeping with the neo-Gothic splendour of the magnificent setting.
Jonathan Crow QC, who acted for the Prince in several recent privacy cases, is himself a “Bencher” (senior member) of Lincoln’s Inn. “I am devoted to the Inn and to its legal and physical heritage”, he wrote to Camden Council. It is the responsibility of any generation to preserve and improve its inheritance for future generations.
“The Inn’s current proposals do neither. On the contrary, they would significantly diminish the existing qualities of the Inn.” It is thought highly unlikely that Crow would adopt a public stance without the tacit approval of the Prince himself.
Lord Deben, aka John Selwyn Gummer, was once in charge of the government’s conservation watchdog English Heritage (now renamed Historic England) but opposes its stance strongly. “The Victorian heritage of Lincoln’s Inn is far too valuable a legacy to be destroyed by such an act of vandalism”, he told me. “The Benchers should be celebrating their inheritance not pulling it down. I thought we had left this kind of behaviour behind in the 1960s.“ Quite.
Historic England is breaching its own rules by backing the plans by Lincoln’s Inn to demolish. In answer to my question, the watchdog admitted it did not know whether or not the building was listed and it was “a thorny legal issue”. Camden’s planning officers, on the other hand, said it was listed, yet recommended demolition anyway.
It has also seriously breached its own rules when it failed to present the application to its expert London Advisory Committee. When asked, a spokeswoman said that a “report” had gone to members of the LAC in June – before the replacement had even been designed. I asked to see this “report”: it was 109 words long and dismissed the listed building because “its quality and craftsmanship are poor”. This opinion is without foundation.
I have also spoken to members of the LAC who told me they had no knowledge of this application and had never seen the June “report”.
Robert McCraken QC, an experienced planning barrister, is a senior member of Lincoln’s Inn and Chair of the Friends of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, McCraken resigned from the Inn’s Development Working Group because he refused to accept their plans. McCracken said Lincoln’s Inn was “an institution whose physical heritage is the responsibility of our generation to preserve and hand on to future generations.”
The Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn and Hardwick’s Library are among the most important buildings in the country. Any plans to demolish or alter can only be approved by the Secretary of State, Greg Clarke. But the application has not been referred to Mr Clarke although he is known to be taking an interest in it.
Conservationists hope he may yet intervene as he did on the in the Strand application and embarrass Historic England – again – for failing in their most basic duty: to protect historic buildings.
Whether or not he does, I will be left wondering, and not the the first time, what Historic England is for.