Charles Mynors MRTPI ARICS Barrister
looks back over the dispute over No 1 Poultry,
now finally resolved in the House of Lords

Save Britain’sHeri rage vNo 1 PoultrvLtd and the Secretary of State [1991] 1 WLR 153; The Times 1 March; The Independent 1 March; CSW 28 March; EGCS 24, House of Lords.

I have concentrated this time on just one case. This is not because it is, in relation to listed buildings, particularly important, since the facts arc unusual; rather, because it may appear to be more important than in fact it is. The ease is, of course, 19305 Wireless Set v ‘Valuable Part of Our Heritage or, depending on your point of view, A Potential Masterpiece
Some Relatively Unimportant Old Buildings.
The appellants, No 1 Poultry Ltd, were owners of the important triangular site in the City of London including the Mappin and Webb building and seven other listed buildings. Notwithstanding the general policy of the Secretary of State (in para 89 of Circ 8/87) that every possible effort” should be made to find suitable alternative uses for redundant listed buildings, it was no part of the appellants’ case that the listed buildings in this case were incapable of reconstruction and refurbishment in a way which would both prolong their useful economic life and preserve their existing facades. They simply wished to demolish all of them, and replace them with a modern building designed by James Stirling.
They failed to obtain permission from the City Corporation; and accordingly appealed to the Secretary of State. He appointed as the inspector to hold the inquiry a Mr Bagot described variously as “a dim minion” (by Private Eye) or “a distinguished architect’ (per Lord Bridge in the House of Lords). He heard much contradictory evidence as to the merits and demerits of this proposal; his final conclusion was as follows:

It is my assessment that the appeal proposals, by their dignified order, their imaginative ingenuity and pervading overall consistency, would contribute more both to the immediate environment and to the architectural heritage than the retention of the existing buildings. The new building would to my mind be of substantial importance for the present age, whereas the most that I believe can be said of even the best of the existing buildings is
that they are undoubtedly of special architectural and historic interest but in the final analysis only of relative importance.

Since he considered that the existing buildings on the site were of less value than others in the area, and that the proposed replacement “might just be a masterpiece”, he concluded that this was sufficient to over-ride the undoubted presumption (acknowledged by all the parties to the dispute) in favour of retaining listed buildings.
His conclusions were largely adopted by the Secretary of State (at the time Nicholas Ridley), who accordingly granted planning permission, listed building consent and conservation area consent.
Save Britain’s Heritage, the national amenity group, applied to have the decision quashed. Simon BrownJ upheld it in the first instance, but his judgement was overturned by the Court of Appeal
([1990] 3 PLR 50, (1990) 60 P&CR 539).
Woolf U considered that the decision letter of the Secretary of State was defective, in that he adopted much of the reasoning of the Inspector, but did not fully explain why he failed to adopt the remainder. It was thus impossible to understand his reasoning fully, or to challenge it. The Court accordingly quashed the decision. The owners appealed to the House of Lords.
The House of Lords held unanimously that the appeal should be allowed, and that the decision of the Court of Appeal should be reversed. Lord Bridge considered that the Secretary of State’s general policy in favour of retaining listed buildings (in para 89 of Circ 8/87) was not absolute, and could in very special circumstances be over-ridden. This case was one of those special circumstances, Lord Bridge thus disagreed with Woolf U (albeit “with the utmost diffidence”), finding that the Secretary of State had specifically considered his general policy, and had explicitly stated his reasons for departing from it.
This case, albeit widely reported, does not in fact decide a great deal. Lord Ackner went out of his way to stress that this was not a question of whether the Court agreed with the Secretary of State on the merits or otherwise of the proposal, but rather whether he had given adequate reasons for his decision.
It is possible that it would not have reached the House of Lords had it not concerned such a prominent site, or a design by such a notorious architect, or a commission by such a rich client; and the Secretary of State’s decision letter made it clear that the outcome was not to be regarded as a general precedent leading to the loss of listed buildings. On this Lord Bridge noted:
It suggested in argument that the decision letter will be read by local planning authorities and prayed in aid by developers as a precedent establishing a new policy that a listed building in Grade II may be demolished whenever the developer can show that he intends to replace it by a new building of greater architectural merit. If there were any substance in this argument, it would amply establish Save’s case of substantial prejudice. But I regard the argument as entirely fanciful. Even in accepting the now undisputed proposition that “replacement buildings may be a relevant consideration when considering whether or not to grant listed building consent” the Secretary of State does so in the guarded terms of para 9 of the decision letter. .. It is only in the “special circumstances of this ease” that the Secretary of State has decided that the presumption in favour of preservation of listed buildings should be overridden. ... It is so improbable that the special circumstances which affect this appeal site could ever be repeated that Save’s apprehension with respect to the impact of the decision letter on future planning policy seems to me quite without foundation.”

Woolf U in the Court of Appeal noted that counsel for the appellants had been forced to accept that the “special circumstances” were limited to the quality of the replacement building. But Lord Bridge also included as a special circumstance “the unique location of the appeal site in a unique urban conservation area characterised by other listed buildings of the greatest architectural distinction.” If the latter view is correct, it will indeed be difficult for developers to argue successfully in future that their proposal is sufficiently “special” to justify consequential demolition. Difficult, may be but possibly not impossible. Time will tell.