Developer of underground hotel is ‘abusing planning system’ to increase number of rooms – and Camden Council is letting them get away with it, say neighbours

The developer of an underground hotel in Great Russell Street has taken the first step in seeking planning permission to squeeze an additional 42 guest bedrooms into the former car park four and five storeys beneath street level, in a move the Bloomsbury Association says is an “abuse of the planning system”.

Construction workers unloading materials.
Burial site. Criterion Capital are building a 208 bedroom underground hotel despite having only planning permission for 166 rooms in the concrete catacombs.

Centro Planning Consultancy, acting on behalf of developer Criterion Capital, has lodged an application with Camden Council for a “non-material amendment” (known as a s96A application) to the approved 166 bedroom scheme.

The application seeks to remove reference to the number of rooms in the description of the development so that Criterion can make a second amendment (known as a s73 application) to gain permission for 208 rooms.

“This would be achieved simply through a more efficient internal layout (i.e. the amount of floorspace would remain unchanged),” says Centro.

Residents neighbouring the site have been told that construction work is currently underway to create 208 rooms, even though planning permission has only been given for 166. But Camden Council is not intending to take enforcement action for the time being.

Developers frequently make minor amendments to planning permissions. Yet few are as cavalier as Criterion who are presently constructing a hotel that has 25 percent more rooms than it is has permission for, and have been happy to share the fact with neighbouring residents, such is their confidence that the troglodyte dungeon will eventually get retrospective permission from Camden.

The Bloomsbury Association consider that the plans are anything but minor and amount to an over-intensification of hotel use on the site, surrounded by narrow streets which are already busy (outside of Covid-19 restrictions) due to the proximity of other nearby hotels. They are also concerned that Camden’s planning officers are not treating the application with proper scrutiny and should not have accepted the application in the first place.

Roger Wilson, a planning consultant acting on behalf of the Bloomsbury Association has written to Camden’s planning officers stating that the developer is circumventing proper public scrutiny and he warns the council’s planning department against facilitating this.

In applying for the amendment the applicant has deliberately withheld the drawings showing “the scope and nature of the amendments” as part of the s96A application, says Wilson.

“Centro Planning Consultants believe, incorrectly, that a s73 application would deal with the amendments.

“The reason for this device (for that is what it is) is to avoid a new planning application (the conventional route for significant changes in either use or physical form) that would then come under full public scrutiny.

“[The] statements by Centro Planning Consultants are both erroneous and misleading. Indeed, the entire 2-step process is misconceived and would be an abuse of the planning system,” he says.

Wilson says the point of s96A and s73 applications is to allow developers and planning officers to have flexibility and to engage with one another to optimise the design of construction projects that have been given full planning permission. They are not intended to be used to apply for significant material changes.

Camden’s planning officers should have either refused to register the application in the first place, or now make a decision to refuse permission. “To do otherwise would surely lay them open to a charge of wilful incompetence,” argues Wilson.

The increase in the number of bedrooms means that the total number of guests would rise from 332 up to about 450 — a 36 percent increase on the original planning permission.

“It also has a significant impact on fire safety when compared to the Fire Safety Overview submitted with the original application,” says Wilson.

“A new planning application under s70 is required to address what are fundamental and significant deviations from the approved scheme,” he says.

In the application form submitted to Camden, Centro state they received pre-application advice by the same officer that is dealing with the application itself. Yet Fitzrovia News understands that with any delegated decision-making procedure in planning — ie not being decided by a planning committee — it would be good practice if the pre-planning officer and the case officer were not the same person to ensure there are proper checks and balances within the planning department.

However, Camden says: “This is normal practice, officers working within the development management service all provide pre-application advice on schemes and assess planning applications submitted.”

Fitzrovia News asked for a statement from Camden about why enforcement action was not being taken, and why the application was being dealt with in this way.

A Camden Council spokesperson responded saying: “An application was submitted on 23 March 2020 for a non-material amendment to the planning permission granted on appeal in 2016 in respect of 112A Great Russell Street.

“The amendment seeks to amend the description of the development as set out on the permission, but does not seek to make changes to the approved scheme. The application is currently being assessed by [planning officers].

“Whilst we understand residents’ concerns and frustrations that the developer is proceeding to build something in advance of obtaining the necessary consent for it, it is not a criminal offence to build without planning permission. On the basis that the developer has a valid consent for 166 rooms, it was not considered that there is sufficient harm at this stage to warrant taking formal action to stop the works taking place on site.”

Camden says only if permission is refused for the amended scheme will an enforcement notice be served.

“The amendment seeks to remove reference to the number of bedrooms in the description and instead places that (the number of bedrooms) in a condition which controls the permission. The application does not make any changes to the approved scheme, so the plans and drawings do not change and this is why none have been submitted with the application.

“The applicant has indicated that it is their intention to thereafter submit a s73 application for material (sic, see note) amendments to the proposal. That will need to be considered on its own merits, officers will need to consider whether those changes are acceptable in planning terms by assessing them against adopted planning policy and guidance, and subject to consultation,” said the spokesperson.

Fitzrovia News understands that because the Bloomsbury Association has made an objection to the application it will now be referred to a members briefing panel who will decide if planning officers should make a delegated decision or if it should be decided by a planning committee.

Criterion Capital and Centro Planning Consultancy declined to comment.

Planning Application (2020/1438/P) 112 A Great Russell Street London WC1B 3NP.

Note (added 4pm, 27 April): We asked Camden’s press office to clarify the response as we understood it to be incorrect. An s73 application can only be used to make minor material amendments. The press office responded and confirmed this was the case:

“An application can be made under section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to vary or remove conditions associated with a planning permission. One of the uses of a section 73 application is to seek a minor material amendment, where there is a relevant condition that can be varied.

“There is no statutory definition of a ‘minor material amendment’ but it is likely to include any amendment where its scale and/or nature results in a development which is not substantially different from the one which has been approved.”