Concerns about terrorism, protests and views from the Tower of London have been raised by councillors discussing China’s plans to build its largest European embassy.
Tower Hamlets Council said it is seeking more information from David Chipperfield Architects (DCA) about how it will protect and improve “heritage, archaeology, public realm, access and amenities” on the site of the former Royal Mint building.
China bought the compound, which also includes the ruins of the 14th century Cistercian abbey St Mary de Graces, for £250million in 2018.
The location, in a borough which is home to the UK’s largest Muslim population, has been controversial because of the China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, who have reportedly been detained in camps and subjected to torture. China has denied the allegations.
At a pre-application meeting this week, councillor Andrew Wood said: “My major concern is the public realm outside of the embassy. We are guaranteed to have hopefully peaceful protests outside the embassy on a regular basis. We need to plan ahead for where protesters are likely to gather.
“My second concern is about terrorism. What we will have in this part of London is some of the most likely terrorist targets in London. Opposite this site we have got the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the City of London nearby, St Katharine Docks and then the embassy itself. We, together with the embassy, need to be thinking about security precautions.”
– Credit: Tower Hamlets DCA
DCA’s proposals see the cluster of existing buildings on the site, including the Grade II-listed Johnson Smirke building, refurbished to house the new embassy. The 1980s Dexter House will be converted into an eight-storey residential building for staff.
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Labour councillor Kevin Brady and Conservative Peter Golds raised concerns about heritage and archaeology.
“It became what is believed to be the biggest burial pit for the Black Death and there are potentially many hundreds of bodies buried there,” Cllr Golds told the planning committee.
– Credit: DCA Architects
Graeme Laughlan, from DCA, said it would be unlikely that the building work would uncover the plague pits and views from the Tower of London would only be marginally impacted.
He added his firm is working with the Museum of London to form an exhibition about the history of the site.
“The embassy itself is occupying the Johnson Smirke building,” he said. “It’s a very important building and it has lost its integrity and we want to salvage that. We want to repair and restore the building and protect the historic value it has. Repair the existing facades and rearrange the internal organisation to something more appropriate.”
Barnaby Collins, from DP9 planning advisers, added: “The very measures we are employing around the edge of the site to protect the embassy from vehicle-borne attack will also act as protection for the crowds which might be gathering outside the boundary wall.
“In terms of archaeology, we are using existing foundations and it is very unlikely we will be going near the foundations of the abbey or the burial grounds. We are working very, very closely with Historic England and the Museum of London.”