Plans to cram more rooms into a windowless hotel which is undergoing construction four and five storeys below the streets of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia have been rejected by Camden Council’s planning committee.
Applicant Criterion Capital has nearly completed the underground hotel in a former car park in Great Russell Street underneath the St Giles Hotel and Central YMCA.
They received planning permission on appeal in 2016 for a 166 bedroom hotel after Camden’s planning committee had originally rejected the plans.
Criterion then wanted to increase the number of rooms in the hotel and submitted a section 73 application to amend the description of the development to state 208 bedrooms instead of 166, and make a number of other changes.
The application is partly retrospective as the internal works for 208 bedrooms are complete stated planning officer Neil McDonald, at the meeting held on 17 March.
Roger Wilson, speaking on behalf of the Bloomsbury Association, argued that the applicant was showing contempt for the planning system by going ahead and building more rooms than they have permission for, and then applying for an amendment and passing it off as a minor alteration to the approved scheme.
Wilson argued that the application should be refused because the s73 mechanism is inappropriate for this type of application, the conditions and obligations would not protect public and residential amenity, and public safety and protection from fire would be compromised.
“Imagine a fire at 3 O’clock in the morning with up to 300 people from around the world trying to get out,” he said.
“Would they understand the escape plan? Would the escape route be clear?
“Disorientated, half-asleep, long corridors all looking the same, smoke rapidly filling the air, firefighters trying to find their way around. All four and five storeys below ground.
“The memories and lessons of Grenfell should be recognised,” he said.
Luke Rastrick, speaking on behalf of Criterion Capital, argued that the proposed increase in rooms — “achieved by a more regular floor plan and efficiencies in the back-of-house facilities” — had been done to the satisfaction of Camden’s planning officers, who were recommending approval, and should therefore be passed by the committee.
Several members of the planning committee asked questions and raised concerns about the how the increase in hotel rooms had been achieved.
Councillor Adam Harrison asked about the loss of back-of-house facility space, including the “loss of all staff areas”. He also expressed concern that the hotel would “externalise” some of the operations by using outside space on the street.
Rastrick was not able to answer the questions specifically asked but instead said that the applicant was experienced in running densely-packed hotels in central London.
Bethany Cullen, head of development management at Camden, commented that the servicing operations of the hotel were controlled by conditions and would be subject to enforcement.
Cllr Sian Berry questioned why lifts had been removed from the new plans. “It looks like they have taken away four lifts. That seems to be a really big change that has not been highlighted anywhere [in the officers report].
“I’m not content we would be approving a safe and accessible building,” she said.
Rastrick explained that the previously approved plans did not accurately reflect the lift cores that were available for the use of the underground hotel.
The planning officer confirmed that there would only be one customer lift serving all 208 rooms four and five levels below ground. A second lift would only be available for fire safety. He said the number of lifts serving the hotel are constrained by its previous use as a car park.
Members of the planning committee voted by four to three to refuse the application because it failed to meet standards for quality of accommodation and accessibility, and because it would have a negative impact on the amenity of local residents due to the intensification of hotel use and noise from plant equipment.