Turnmills is a very interesting building. It was originally built as stables for horses that pulled the then horse-drawn underground railway. It had a ramp in the middle of the building to walk horses up to the upper floors. It was subsequently owned by a gin distribution company, and more recently achieved fame, or notoriety, depending on your view, as a one of the first 24hr licensed nightclubs in the capital.
Turnmills also sits right across the road from the 'Former Middlesex Sessions House' which is a very fine grade 2* listed building. It is in the Clerkenwell conservation area, although the building is not listed, and English Heritage not only declined to list it, but gave it a ‘certificate of immunity from listing’. So it is very clear that English heritage consider it’s architectural merit as fairly limited.
By 2007 the nightclub was starting to flag a bit, and the building was bought by one of the better known property developers in the Islington area. The possible demise of the building was first signalled when, under Lib Dem George Alan's dubious chairing, planning permission was granted for a bizarre two-storey wavy glass extension on the roof of the existing building. This effectively 'booked the space' above the building, in planning terms, for either an extension or a replacement building. I opposed the extension in committee, as it was ugly and completely inappropriate for the building. Nothing much was heard of this permission, but I did discover buried in the documentation, that the application also permitted the change of use of the nightclub to office space. This didn't mean it had to happen, but meant that the owners could if they wished, convert to office space.
In 2008 Turnmills the night club closed down, I think of their own choosing. Then in 2010, the Council received an application from the property developer to demolish the building and replace it with a building that was monstrously too large, too dark, and a completely inappropriate design for the area. I sat on the committee that refused the application, during which we spent much time discussing the fact that the developer had not made any real efforts to market the existing building, in order to demonstrate whether or not is was genuinely beyond use.
The developer appealed against our refusal, but the planning inspector turned down the appeal. However, he made a number of comments about the building and the possibility of replacing it in his report. He stated he thought that the building was of more historic than architectural merit, that the loss of the building would cause appreciable harm to the conservation area, but not “significant harm” – this is an important statement, as the term “significant harm” would require a much greater level of scrutiny of the building’s merits, if demolition were to be proposed. He also said that he could “envisage” the replacement of the Turnmills building if a building of sufficient quality of design were to be proposed as it’s replacement. Although he did not think the building that was the subject of the appeal the right building for the site.
All of these comments are included in the inspector’s report, and they effectively constrain the planning committee’s judgement of any subsequent application in the areas that he has commented on, since any further appeal would consider the previous judgment as part of the evidence.
Islington’s chief Design and Conservation Officer did a lot of work with the architects to redesign the building, and the scheme that was put in front of the committee on Thursday 1st September reflected this. Everyone who saw the scheme, including our own Design Officer and English heritage acknowledged, even though they did not support it, that it was a huge improvement on the previous design, and I share that view.
It is just possible, if the will had been there, that the existing building could have been retained, or at least the external shell – as nothing remains of the interior. It was also suggested, and I agree, that a better building could have been designed for the site, again, if the will had been there from the developer. As it is they stuck to redesigning the scheme they had previously submitted. A bit of professional pride on the part of the Architects perhaps?
Faced with the combination of a much improved design, and the background of the inspectors comments about the existing building, and the circumstances under which he considered it would be acceptable to lose it, I felt myself marginally persuaded in favour of approving the scheme, which we did. It was a difficult decision, and we spent a long time prior to the meeting researching and debating the various issues. Difficult as it was, I stand by our decision to approve, even though I know a lot of people will I know be very critical of us. I hope this helps to explain how we came to that decision. I would also add that it is necessary to read the inspector's report dismissing the appeal against refusal of the previous scheme (P091493), in order to understand the limitations to the context in which we were able to consider the application.