The approval of plans for a £450m building complex that will house the London Fire Brigade Museum in Lambeth, south London, has sparked dismay and anger locally.
The plans were passed by Lambeth Council earlier this month after a tied vote was overruled by the council’s chairman. One attendee who was at the planning committee meeting accused the council of showing “ruthless bias” in favour of the building developer U+I.
Lambeth Village residents, who have had support from the borough's newly elected Labour MP, are planning to write to the London mayor and the incoming secretary of state for housing asking them to call in the decision for review. They are hoping to follow in the footsteps of residents in nearby Tower Hamlets, who recently succeeded in petitioning the government to review a contentious plan to turn the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel.
The 8 Albert Embankment development comprises two towers – 24 and 26 storeys in height – that will house a new fire station, a 200-room hotel, residential apartments and a gym and restaurant, in addition to the museum.
It faced fierce opposition from members of the local community, who submitted a petition of more than 3,000 signatures against it. A lighting survey commissioned by residents found that the tower blocks would reduce sun and daylight by up to 40% in nearby social housing.
Residents say their objections were ignored by the council. A statement on the Lambeth Village website following the planning vote said: “Major issues of daylight loss, damage to local heritage, reduced levels of affordable housing and over-density were cast aside, for a museum that could have been built through other means, a high-end hotel and hundreds of luxury investment flats that may well sit empty.”
The neighbouring Garden Museum was among those to object to the development, saying the building complex would overshadow its community garden and education centre.
The Garden Museum’s director Christopher Woodward also raised concern that the London Fire Brigade Museum had been used as a “promotional tool” for the development, after visitors to the museum’s pop-up exhibition space were encouraged to sign leaflets featuring a pre-ticked box that said they approved of the plans.
Woodward told Museums Journal: “It’s sad that the name of a museum has been dragged into this in order to manipulate public opinion.”
He said he had submitted a complaint to the Museums Association (MA) ethics committee for the London Fire Brigade's alleged breach of the MA Code of Ethics on commercial relationships.
Responding to this point, a spokeswoman for the London Fire Brigade said the leaflets were only handed out during consultation events that gave visitors full information and context on the plans, and were not distributed to general museum visitors.
The spokeswoman added that extensive consultation had been carried out on the plans over three years showing a majority of people in the borough supported the development, which will include 172 units of affordable and social housing.
Further concern has arisen among local residents over the relationships between various stakeholders involved in the project. The National Lottery Heritage Fund recently awarded the London Fire Brigade Museum £200,000 in development funding towards a £1.7m grant for the museum project; its chief executive, Ros Kerslake, also works as a non-executive director for U+I.
A Heritage Fund spokesman said: “Ros Kerslake had no involvement in this application or decision, either as a board member of U+I or as CEO of the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The decision to award funding to the London Fire Brigade Museum was taken by our London and South Committee which Ros did not attend. She has not provided any input or advice to the Committee, the National Lottery Heritage Fund board, U+I or any other parties on either the application or the scheme.
“She has declared her non-executive director role at U+I in the normal way - on our register of interests which is published on our website.”
The spokesman added: “We take no view on planning decisions which are entirely a matter for local democracy and due process.”
The Heritage Fund has no involvement in the wider building development.
The museum is expected to open in 2023. A spokeswoman for London Fire Brigade said: “These proposals will ensure we can continue to keep Lambeth residents safe long into the future with a refurbishment of Lambeth Fire Station, one of the busiest in London, and a long-awaited permanent home for our museum.
“Based at our listed former headquarters, the museum will deliver its fire safety education work and a wealth of exciting, educational family activities to more than 100,000 visitors a year.
“We look forward to welcoming visitors to the fire station and museum in the near future.”
Lambeth Council has been contacted for comment.