The future of County Hall

Pages 120-123

Survey of London Monograph 17, County Hall. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1991.

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CHAPTER XI. The Future of County Hall

In April 1986, under the legislation abolishing the Greater London Council, the ownership of County Hall passed to the London Residuary Body (LRB), an organization created expressly to oversee the transfer of functions and property to successor bodies, such as the London Boroughs, and the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority. Like other assets not officially needed or transferred, County Hall was to be sold. Not surprisingly, the disposal and future use of so prominent a building attracted a good deal of interest, both in the press and among members of the public.

Proposals for retaining the building as the offices of a public body, thereby reducing the need for substantial alterations, received considerable attention, even though they were unlikely to find favour with a government which had abolished the GLC. Political opponents of abolition were especially keen to see as little change as possible, in the hope that a future government might reinstate the building as the headquarters of a new London-wide authority. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), the Association of London Authorities, and the London Charitable Trust – a group formed especially for the purpose – all considered making offers to purchase County Hall. One local government use proposed was a combined base for the ILEA, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority and the London Waste Regulation Authority. (fn. 1) The ILEA, which was originally intended to survive its parent body, was a serious contender for at least part of the complex. The possibility of using County Hall for government offices was also canvassed. Lord St John of Fawsley favoured the relocation there of the Department of the Environment, as this would allow the demolition of its Marsham Street offices, which he described as 'one of the most hideous structures in London and indeed in the kingdom'. (fn. 2) One proposal would have turned County Hall into a headquarters for the Metropolitan Police; another recommended its conversion to a prison. (fn. 3) Envious eyes were cast on the building from across the river, at least one M.P. suggesting to the government that it might be used for Members' accommodation. (fn. 4) A grander and more appropriate role was envisaged by those who felt that the building would make a fitting meeting-place for the European Parliament, or a headquarters for the European Community. (fn. 5)

The County Hall complex, whose future was being so hotly discussed, comprised some areas of open space used by the public, as well as a variety of buildings, not all of which were of architectural importance (fig. 51). Those of interest included Knott's 'riverside building', the ScottHiorns North and South Blocks, and, from the townplanning point of view, the riverside terrace, and Jubilee Gardens. The Gardens occupied the site of the LCC's first purchase on the South Bank, and in 1951 the area had been used for part of the Festival of Britain site.

The press foresaw considerable difficulties in finding a suitable buyer for what the Financial Times described as both 'the jewel in the property portfolio' and 'the most vexatious asset to sell'. (fn. 6) The London Evening Standard was making the same point when it half-jokingly suggested that a sale notice might read:

Very important property covering 6½ acres, premier position, nine floors, 900 rooms, 12 miles of corridor, marble council chamber, pillared conference hall, kitchens, bars, cafeterias, restaurants, car parks, mod cons at every turn. Suit goodness knows who. (fn. 7)

To the usual difficulties of dealing with a large and famous building in a prominent position had to be added the extra dimension of opposition to the sale, both in Parliament and from the London Borough of Lambeth, and the planning problems thrown up by the proposal to use Waterloo Station as a London terminus for Eurotunnel traffic.

In order to establish possible alternative uses for the building, in the hope of enhancing its marketability, the LRB submitted more than a dozen applications to the local planning authority, the London Borough of Lambeth, in October 1986. These included requests for a decision as to whether the use as offices of any of the buildings involved 'development' and therefore required planning permission; planning applications for office use for them all; and applications for a change of use for the listed 1922 Main Building to hotel use, and to mixed hotel and residential use. (fn. 8) No decision having been made during the statutory period by the reluctant Borough Council, the LRB appealed to the Secretary of State for the Environment, who called a Public Inquiry. (fn. 9)

At this Inquiry, which opened in April 1987, particular attention was paid to the fact that the Main Building is listed Grade II*, and that County Hall is within a conservation area. The question of whether the existing use of the Main Building should be preserved was also addressed. Citing the Department of the Environment's own general guidelines – that the 'best use for a historic building is obviously the use for which it was designed' (fn. 10) – the spokesman for English Heritage urged the desirability of keeping the Main Building as the headquarters of a public or quasi-public authority, 'the nature of whose activities would be likely to ensure the preservation and continued use of such important features as the Council Chamber and ambulatories, the Conference Hall, the Education Library and the principal committee rooms'. Conversion to hotel or residential use would require the introduction of domestic services and other changes threatening the fabric of this 'great civic monument'. In any case, no decision should be taken over the future of the Main Building until detailed plans had been submitted. (fn. 11) Lambeth Council was concerned that the proposed development would conflict with existing planning guidelines, as laid down in the Greater London Development Plan and the Waterloo District Plan, by increasing private office development, thereby putting strain on local transport and car-parking arrangements, and by threatening public access to the riverside. (fn. 12)

The Inspector, David Keene Q.C., allowed the office applications for the subsidiary buildings, but rejected all four planning applications seeking a change of use for the Main Building. Any office use other than by a local authority would constitute 'development' requiring a planning permission. He also took the view that the main purpose of County Hall 'had been a governmental one albeit confined to London, but with the distinct characteristics of an elected government use', and that in 'balancing the competing need to retain County Hall for London governmental use against the need for office use' he thought that the Main Building ought to continue in local government use. The Inspector concluded that the outline applications for change to residential and hotel use could not be granted without the submission of detailed information to allow the implications for the listed building to be assessed. The problem of inadequate parking space also had to be resolved before consent could be granted for conversion for residential purposes. (fn. 13)

The Inquiry's findings and the Secretary of State's decisions were made public on 20 October 1987. The Secretary of State, Nicholas Ridley, accepted that a change to general office use needed a planning application, but he did not agree with his Inspector's finding that there was 'an overriding need' for local government use to continue. Ridley therefore granted outline planning permission for County Hall to be used for general offices, and he also stated that with the submission of proper detailed plans, neither hotel nor residential use would be unacceptable. Although concerned about the lack of parking space, he was more worried that the application was not detailed enough to allow a proper assessment of its likely impact on an important listed building. He therefore refused consent for residential and hotel use. (fn. 14)

The Secretary of State's decision was challenged in the courts by Lambeth, the ILEA and others on the one hand, and the LRB on the other. The point ultimately to be resolved was whether the Secretary of State was legally bound by his Inspector's 'competing need test' – the desirability of preserving an existing use weighed on its planning merits against the need and desirability of the proposed new use – and although the House of Lords eventually decided, in July 1990, that he was not so bound, the delay caused by these legal actions proved embarrassing. (fn. 15)

The implication of the Secretary of State's decision was that hotel and residential use were not ruled out. Soon after the original announcement of the results of the Inquiry the LRB asked the well-known estate agents, Richard Ellis and Partners, to find a purchaser. In the prevailing favourable economic climate, they were able to attract over 300 inquiries, from which some twenty serious applicants emerged. Potential developers had to be assessed not only on their size and viability, and the amount of money bid, but also on the likelihood of their schemes receiving planning approval. (fn. 16)

Twelve developers finally submitted proposals for the building, and four were selected for further consideration. From these the scheme prepared by the American architectural practice of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for the County Hall Development Group, was chosen by the LRB in June 1988. (fn. 17) The underbidders' names were not officially released, but a few of the other schemes were discussed in the architectural press. One was by the Building Design Partnership (BDP) in association with the Heery Group, another by Aukett Limited for the Thamesside Development Corporation. (fn. 18)

The Heery-BDP scheme proposed considerable environmental improvement for the whole South Bank area. This included the creation of a public park between County Hall and the National Theatre to provide a landscaped setting for the major buildings on the South Bank, the relocation of Charing Cross Station across the river at Waterloo East, and the building of a new square in front of Waterloo Station. County Hall itself was to be split vertically into lettable units, though the Principal Floor would be retained intact. The Conference Hall and Education Library were to house a National School of Contemporary Dance. The Island Block and the Addington Street Annexe would be demolished and several local roads re-routed underground. North and South Blocks were to be replaced by new offices. (fn. 19)

The Thamesside Development Corporation also proposed to demolish the North and South Blocks, but planned to retain the Island Block, refurbished as highquality commercial offices. Public open space was to be enhanced by the landscaping of Jubilee Gardens, while County Hall itself was to be given as public a use as possible, as a hotel and arts centre. The arts centre would include a Saatchi Gallery, housing the private collection of over 700 works of modern art, built up by Charles Saatchi and his wife. (fn. 20)

The County Hall Development Group found strong Anglo-Japanese backing to fund the costs of development, which the Property Correspondent of The Times estimated at £950 million in February 1989. British investors were said to have put up half the capital for the development and the Japanese the other half. (fn. a) (fn. 21)

The Group's architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, had proposed the retention of most of Knott's Main Building and the conversion of its southern end into a 400 bedroom hotel and business centre, incorporating conference and exhibition facilities. The Members' Courtyard would form the main entrance to the hotel, with additional entrances in new stone-faced blocks with which it was intended to replace the 1970's glass infill walls. The northern end, from Block 2 northwards, would be converted to over 300 residential units arranged around a new enlarged courtyard reminiscent of an Oxford college quadrangle, the intervening range (Block 12) being demolished (Plate 48a). To provide a clear garden space it was proposed to dismantle the Education Library and reassemble it below the Conference Hall, and to floor over the whole courtyard at third-floor level with a raised terrace above the Conference Hall.

All other County Hall buildings were to be demolished. A new office building, the Belvedere Centre, including a shopping mall, would be erected on the sites of North and South Blocks, between Belvedere and York Roads. The Addington Street Annexe was to be replaced by the octagonal Addington Centre, a considerably larger and more magnificent building, and the Island Block by a great traffic circus (Plate 48b). The centre of this circus would be graced by a circular island with a central column, similar in scale to Nelson's Column, surmounted by a statue, representing, it was suggested by the Daily Telegraph, either Florence Nightingale or the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. (fn. 22)

The scale of the proposed development inspired some hostile criticism, Gavin Stamp describing the Belvedere Centre as 'one of the most cynical and greedy overdevelopments of a sensitive central London site I have seen'. (fn. 23) The Royal Fine Art Commission, too, was unhappy with the size of the Belvedere Centre, which the Chairman, Lord St John of Fawsley, called a 'monstrous white elephant of an office building' whose bulk and height would dominate Knott's riverside building and 'cast a giant shadow in front of it'. (fn. 24) Marcus Binney, on the other hand, thought the Group's scheme for restoring and reusing Knott's 'Edwardian baroque masterpiece' could 'hardly be bettered', and he welcomed the demolition of the 'hideous' Island Block, 'resembling nothing so much as an overblown three-pin plug'. But the architecture of the Belvedere and Addington Centres disappointed him, the former being likened to a giant slab of shiny gelatine 'partially wrapped in those paper cutouts which open up to provide an endless repetition of a single motif, and the latter to the 'largest pill box ever constructed'. (fn. 25)

The successful consortium applied to Lambeth Borough Council for planning permission in February 1989, before the appeal from the original Public Inquiry was concluded. When Lambeth again failed to decide the application within the prescribed statutory period of eight weeks, the County Hall Group and the LRB applied to the Secretary of State, who called a second Public Inquiry, under John Taylor, Q.C., which opened in September 1989. (fn. 26) The Inspector reported in March 1990, expressing dissatisfaction with the bulk of the Belvedere Centre, as well as with some lesser matters, such as pedestrian access to the traffic island, and he recommended that the applications should be rejected. But in July 1990, the then Secretary of State, Chris Patten, gave the Group three months to produce acceptable revisions which would meet the Inspector's criticisms. (fn. 27)

A revised scheme had been expected in early autumn, at which time the Group should have completed the contract for the purchase of County Hall – scheduled for 1 October 1990. But the Inspector's call for a reduction in the size – and therefore lettable space – of the Belvedere Centre had effectively threatened the profitability of the whole scheme at a time when the property market was severely depressed and finance difficult to raise. In the circumstances the consortium was unable to proceed with the completion of the purchase on time. It tried unsuccessfully to persuade the LRB to agree to defer the completion date, and it attempted to renegotiate the selling price, offering to buy County Hall for around half the sum originally agreed. The LRB, under an obligation to maximise the return from County Hall, refused the new offer, and on 8 October 1990 the County Hall Development Group called in the receivers. (fn. 28)

At the time of writing (December 1990) the LRB is looking for a new buyer for County Hall, but it has decided to continue with the planning application for the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill scheme, subject to some modifications. (fn. 29) The new Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine, has announced the re-convening of the Public Inquiry under John Taylor in January 1991 to consider how the Inspector's criticisms have been resolved. This Inquiry is still in progress at the time of going to press.

The LRB moved out of County Hall in August 1990, having occupied the building for just over four years, during which time they also acted as landlords to a variety of successor bodies. Another more unusual role was as location agents for various film and television companies, and County Hall has been captured in a number of different guises, providing a recognisable background in everything from feature films to television commercials. The cognoscenti will have recognised the building as KGB headquarters, a Parisian night club, a British court-room, and even viceregal Delhi. (fn. b) Not all the roles were worthy of County Hall, but these glimpses will serve to amplify public knowledge of a great London interior. (fn. 30)

Hôtel de Ville into Hotel Proper?

The idea of turning the building into a hotel was not a new one. Indeed, the possibility was raised in 1892 – long before the present complex had even been conceived – in a pamphlet entitled The Doom of the County Council of London. Though satirical in tone, the writer reflects a very clear concern among Moderate (Conservative) public opinion about the threat posed by the LCC, pointing out how much the Council had achieved in its first three years of office, 'on what it has attempted and declared its wish to accomplish'. Written from an extreme Moderate position, the fantasy imagines an LCC which, by 1911, had achieved its various objectives, including that of building a new County Hall – in Trafalgar Square. Amongst other powers, it had been given that of policing London and as a result had built up an army of 30,000 men. With this force in hand the Council had taken over Parliament and the House of Lords, where the ineffectual 'Lord Tulipstalk' – Rosebery – was in their thrall. The Progressives ruled from an Hôtel de Ville built on the site of the National Gallery, gathering about them the powers of a centralized state and taking over all public services. The end result was a triumphant revolution by the Moderates, after which:

the tramways and omnibuses, and the docks were sold to private companies, and the proceeds applied to the reduction of the municipal debt... while the Hôtel de Ville became the property of a Limited Liability Company, and was transformed into an hotel proper, which was largely patronised by wealthy American visitors. (fn. 31)


  • a. The members of the original consortium were New England Properties, London & Metropolitan, Lazard Brothers, and TR Property Trust. They were joined by National Provident Institution, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons, Gulliver Property Unit Trust, and the pensions funds of the BBC, Vauxhall, Rank Xerox and Rolls-Royce, together with a Japanese group including the Shimizu Corporation.
  • b. Among the productions for which County I Iall was used as a location are the feature films Buster, Golden Eye and Scandal, and the television productions Mountbatten – the Last Viceroy, A Perfect Spy, Poirot and The Red Monarch.
  • 1. The Times, 3 April 1986, p. 2; 21 Oct. 1987, p. 2: The Guardian, 14 Dec. 1987, p. 5; 8 April 1988, p. 5.
  • 2. Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords, vol.495, 11 April 1988, col. 915.
  • 3. Ibid., vol. 482, 11 Dec. 1986, col. 1246: The Guardian, 9 April 1988, p. 18.
  • 4. Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, vol. 121, 26 Oct. 1987, col. 18.
  • 5. The Local Government Chronicle, 10 June 1986, p. 26: The Evening Standard, 5 Aug. 1986, p. 14.
  • 6. The Financial Times, 6 May 1988, p. 8.
  • 7. The Evening Standard, 12 Dec. 1984, p. 20.
  • 8. London Borough of Lambeth, Town Planning Committee (17 Nov. 1986), report submitted by DTPED and others (TP 101/86–87).
  • 9. The Times, 4 Feb. 1987, p. 2.
  • 10. Department of Environment, Circular 8/87, p. 6, para. 20.
  • 11. English Heritage, London Division, Lambeth file LAM 13 (B), Proof of evidence, Dr Philip Whitbourn, May 1987.
  • 12. London Borough of Lambeth, Town Planning Committee (16 Nov. 1987), report submitted by DTPED and others (TP 53/87–88).
  • 13. The Times, 18 Aug. 1989, p. 27, Law Report: The Independent, 30 Aug. 1989, p. 24, Law Report: London Borough of Lambeth reports (TP 101/86–87, TP 53/87–88).
  • 14. Department of the Environment to Linklater & Paines, 20 Oct. 1987, announcing Secretary of State's decision, p. 5: Secretary of State for the Environment, decision notice, 20 Oct. 1987.
  • 15. Voluntary Voice, June 1989, p. 5: The Independent, 30 Aug. 1989, p. 24, Law Report: The Times, 11 May 1990, p. 38: Local Government Review, 14 July 1990, pp. 548–50.
  • 16. The Financial Times, 6 April 1988, p. 8; 8 May 1988, p. 8.
  • 17. London Residuary Body Press Release, June 1988: The Evening Standard, 30 June 1988.
  • 18. Building Design, 15 July 1988, p. 7; 23 Sept. 1988, pp. 19– 20.
  • 19. Ibid., 23 Sept. 1988, p. 19; 14 Oct. 1988, p. 13 (letter from Nicholas Terry, Managing Director of Heery International).
  • 20. Ibid., 23 Sept. 1988, p. 20: The Evening Standard, 12 Aug. 1987, p. 18.
  • 21. The Times, 1 Feb. 1989, p. 20.
  • 22. County Hall Development Group: The Proposals, 1988: The Daily Telegraph, 10 Feb. 1989, p. 8.
  • 23. The Independent, 8 Nov. 1989, p. 23.
  • 24. Parliamentary Debates, House of Lords, vol.504, 2 March 1989, cols. 1142–4: The Daily Telegraph, 3 March 1989, p. 15.
  • 25. The Sunday Telegraph, 26 March 1989, p. 19.
  • 26. Department of the Environment News Release (347), 20 June 1989.
  • 27. The Times, 25 July 1990, p. 2.
  • 28. Ibid., 2 Oct. 1990, p. 21; 9 Oct. 1990, p. 20: The Evening Standard, 3 Oct. 1990, p. 21; 4 Oct. 1990, p. 18: The Financial Times, 9 Oct. 1990, p. 12; 10 Oct. 1990, p. 10: The Independent, 9 Oct. 1990, p. 8.
  • 29. Information kindly supplied by John Howes of the London Residuary Body.
  • 30. Information kindly supplied by Keith Breathwick and other members of the London Residuary Body Establishments and Accommodation staff.
  • 31. Anonymous, The Doom of the County Council of London, 1892.