Historic England’s Response to the Upper Precinct

Upper-Precinct-1955-postcard

Planning permission for the redevelopment of the Upper Precinct was granted in 2017. However the scheme caused considerable concern to Historic England and following their recommendation, the Precinct was listed by the Secretary of State for the Environment. As a result of this intervention, Listed Building consent is now required for the development to go ahead. The developers have resubmitted their plans with only minor amendments and the application is shortly to be considered by the Council’s Planning Committee.

As part of the consideration of the planning application, the Council is obliged to consider the views of Historic England.

It is no longer possible to see the results of consultation on the Council’s Planning Portal, but Historic England has provided us with a copy of their response, which as a service to the citizens of Coventry we publish in  full below, without comment.

HistoricEngland

Dear Mr D’Onofrio

Arrangements for Handling Heritage Applications Direction 2015 & T&CP (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015 & Planning (Listed Buildings & Conservation Areas) Regulations 1990

UPPER PRECINCT, SMITHFORD WAY, COVENTRY, CV1 1QS

Application Nos LB/2018/2494 & S73M/2018/2495

Thank you for your letters of 29 August 2018 regarding the above applications for listed building consent and planning permission. On the basis of the information available to date, we offer the following advice to assist your authority in determining the applications.

Summary
The scheme encompasses works to the buildings covered by four recent Grade II listings which include much of the Upper Precinct. Those listings recognise the significance of the site as the heart of the heroic post-war redevelopment of Coventry undertaken by the City Council, creating one of the first pedestrianised shopping areas in Europe. Within the proposals there are a number of works that would cause harm to the listed buildings. Cumulatively these works amount to substantial harm to the significance of the listed buildings comprising the Upper Precinct, although there are also some clear heritage benefits as a part of the scheme. In the overall planning balance, your authority will need to be convinced that the substantial harm caused to the listed buildings is justified, in line with Government legislation and policy.

Historic England Advice
Significance
The scheme encompasses works to the buildings covered by four recent Grade II listings (dated 23 March 2018) which include much of the Upper Precinct (Former British Home Stores & Carphone Warehouse; Marks and Spencer and 4-10 Smithford Way; Upper Precinct, North and South Link Blocks and Piazza). The listings recognise the significance of the precinct as the heart of the heroic post-war redevelopment of Coventry undertaken by the City Council, and that the precinct was one of the first pedestrianised shopping areas in Europe. They comprise a set of accomplished examples of post-war commercial buildings. They are elegantly detailed, including the canopies and colonnades, with a careful selection of good quality materials that are integral to the quality of the design. A number of changes were made to the Precinct in the 1990s which caused some damage, but the complex still retains its special architectural and historic significance.

Impact
These buildings were listed after the scheme for the refurbishment of the Upper
Precinct shopping centre was granted planning permission, hence the need for listed building consent and a revised planning application to take account of some changes to the scheme.

Within the proposals there are a number of works that would cause harm to the significance of the listed buildings. The most serious elements of that harm consist of:

the removal of canopies from both elevations of M&S;
the removal of canopies from both elevations of the former BHS;
the formation of two story shop front in north elevation of the former BHS;
the infilling the colonnade and the full enclosure of the inner line of columns on the former Leofric Hotel block.

These involve loss and change to some of the most significant parts of the architecture which are part of the revolutionary concept of a pedestrianised shopping centre. In addition there are number of other less damaging changes, including:

the removal of an internal mezzanine from the former BHS;
the new back wall in modern cladding on north (rear) wall of north link block;
the new canopy over the staircase inserted in the walkway of the south link
buildings;
advancing the shop fronts to front edge of the walkways in the link blocks;
the removal of the bridges connecting the link blocks with no replacements
(1990s fabric replacing earlier structures).

Cumulatively these works amount to substantial harm to the significance of the listed buildings comprising the Upper Precinct.

There are also some undoubted heritage benefits within the scheme, particularly:

the removal of the 1990s ‘Elephants trunk’ (escalators);
the removal of the intrusive 1990s ramp;
the restoration/recreation of the railings and associated lighting on the first floor walkways of the link buildings to their 1950s form.

These reverse many of the damaging changes to the Precinct that were made in the 1990s. While these are very positive benefits, they do not outweigh the cumulative impact of the proposed scheme.

Policy
In determining these applications you should bear in mind the statutory duty of sections 16(2) and 66(1) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 to have special regard to the desirability of preserving listed buildings or their setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which they possess.

At the heart of Government’s recently revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF, July 2018) is a presumption in favour of sustainable development which in this context means guiding development towards a solution that achieves a balance between the protection and enhancement of the historic environment with the economic and social objectives (paragraph 8). The relevant tests to be applied to this application include those set out in paragraphs 193-195.

The level of harm caused by the scheme determines the criteria to be used to guide you in making a decision on the listed building consent application. Harm is categorised in the NPPF as ‘substantial’, or ‘less than substantial’, and in this case we believe this amounts to substantial. So the criteria set out in paragraph 195 apply:

Where a proposed development will lead to substantial harm to or total loss of significance of a designated heritage asset, local planning authorities should refuse consent, unless it can be demonstrated that the substantial harm or total loss is necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm or loss, or all of the following apply:

a) the nature of the heritage asset prevents all reasonable uses of the site;
and
b) no viable use of the heritage asset itself can be found in the medium term
through appropriate marketing that will enable its conservation; and
c) conservation by grant-funding or some form of not for profit, charitable or
public ownership is demonstrably not possible; and
d) the harm or loss is outweighed by the benefit of bringing the site back into
use.

Position
We strongly support the city’s objectives to have a vibrant shopping centre sustaining the overall economy of the city through their retail offer and believe that the architectural heritage of the precinct can be a unique selling point. However, as set out above we believe that cumulatively the works proposed amount to substantial harm.

To approve the scheme in line with national legislation, policy and guidance your authority will need to be convinced that the benefits outweigh the harm.

During the pre-application discussions the applicant provided us with a report justifying the need for these proposals in economic terms. We advised that this should be submitted as a part of the application. The report was not included with the applications, and we continue to believe that it is a core part of the evidence for the scheme and needs to be considered by your authority as part of the decision-making process.

Normally in looking at viability we would expect a full financial assessment, including market testing. However, the report shared with us was unusual in that the argument was based on a more fundamental case: that three of the key retail units are unviable because nobody is willing to take on the tenancies without the proposed alterations.

We accepted the analysis offered regarding the retail situation and that Coventry shopping centre, in order to compete in the challenging retail market and to move up the Harper Dennis Hobbs Vitality index, needs to be improved to attract top of the range retailers. We also agreed that for the development to obtain finance, key anchor tenants must be secured as pre-lets to give both funders and other prospective tenants confidence. We endorsed the view that the retail market was very challenging and that potential tenants have a strong hand in lease negotiations, reinforced by the announcement of further store closures by Marks and Spencer. We also appreciate that the situation has not improved since we considered the report.

However, the economic evidence was based on the untested supposition that no AAA tenant would be prepared to lease the former BHS unit with the canopies in situ. The developer’s contention was that this meant that other prospective tenants would not take the space, which in turn made the entire proposal unviable. The only way to really test this presumption would be to market test the space. However, even this test is not 100% reliable as there are many complex economic factors as to why a retailer will or will not take space, and it would be impossible to isolate the canopies as being the
sole factor.

While it was not definitively proven that the retention of the canopies and the colonnades were the critical elements that made the development unviable, on the basis of the viability report we concluded that these works are probably necessary to the economic success of the scheme and that they may be justified if required by prospective tenants.

Clearly the final decision balancing the benefits and harm is one for your authority. We suggest that you need to consider the report as part of the application, updated as necessary to account for the changing market conditions, to test the arguments made. The consideration is whether, on balance, the public benefits that the scheme promises to deliver of a vibrant shopping centre sustaining the buildings and the overall economy of the city, will outweigh the harm to the heritage.

If you were minded to grant consent it would be important to ensure that the works were only undertaken as part of a definitive scheme which realised the full suite of heritage benefits. We would recommend that this should be secured through appropriate mechanisms such as milestones within the Section 106 and appropriate conditions. In particular we recommend that the demolition works be subject to a Section 106 agreement and/or condition along the lines that:

The removal of the canopies and the enclosure of the colonnades should not
take place (in each instance) until the respective tenants have signed leases
and confirmed in writing that they will not take the space unless the canopies
are removed.

Recommendation
Historic England has concerns regarding the applications on heritage grounds.

Despite some heritage benefits of the scheme, the cumulative impact of the proposals causes substantial harm to the listed buildings. We do, however, recognise the uniquely challenging economic circumstances and the arguments set out in the viability report and your authority will need to weigh these carefully in coming to a balanced decision.

We consider that the issues and safeguards outlined above need to be addressed in order for the applications to meet the requirements of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and the NPPF, particularly at paragraph 195.

Your authority should take these representations into account and seek amendments, safeguards or further information as set out in our advice. If there are any material changes to the proposals, or you would like further advice, please contact us.

Nicholas Molyneux
Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas
E-mail: nicholas.molyneux@HistoricEngland.org.uk

You can see the Listed Building application here and the application to amend the conditions here.

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