This drawing shows the difference in height and mass between the proposed new Forum Hotel on Cromwell Road, Trellick Tower in Kensal Town (which currently is the highest building in the borough), and the much debated Newcombe House replacement at the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Kensington Church Street. (Click to enlarge)

Update: Developer withdraws Forum Hotel application just weeks before third public hearing

On 11 May, the application for the massive Kensington Forum Hotel scheme was to have its third public hearing, this time as a more formal inquiry, initiated by housing secretary Robert Jenrick. However, on Friday 19 March at 6pm, the developer Queensgate’s lawyers sent an email to the Planning Inspectorate (which was arranging the inquiry on behalf ot Jenrick), containing a very short letter which stated that “Queensgate has decided to withdraw the application. Please therefore treat the application as withdrawn.” No explanations were given. This means that there will be no inquiry and that planned development has been stopped.

The Kensington Society and the residents’ associations on either side of Cromwell Road, who have campaigned relentlessly against the plans since they were first presented, obviously feel relieved – while realising that the developer will surely come back with a new application eventually, either a revision of the current one or something totally new.

The big and yet unanswered question is why they have decided to withdraw at the last minute. Was it because they feared that the application would be rejected – with no possibility of appeal, as the housing secretary is the highest authority? Or was it because the hotel and housing markets have changed so much since 2018 (when the plans were first presented), that they felt that the current plan for the site wouldn’t be viable? We may find out more in due course.

When the Forum Hotel – then called The Penta – was erected at 97-109 Cromwell Road in 1971-1972, people were so shocked by the 93 metres high hotel tower that the another public backlash meant that no more large hotels or other tall buildings were allowed for over 45 years. The building, because of its height and bulk, was dubbed an “eyesore” and people were looking forward to the building coming down and being replaced by something less damaging.

First fight in September 2018

However, when the plan to replace it with two tall and bulky towers resting on a large seven storey plinth was presented in 2018, most local residents felt that it was better to keep the “eyesore” until a better scheme was presented, than to get an even higher and more dominant two tower monstrosity looming over a neighbourhood of 5-6 storey white-stuccoed Victorian terraces. One of the two towers would be 102 metres high, making it the tallest building in the borough, whilst the second would be 72 metres. The RBKC planning committee – eager to show that the council leadership was in listening mood after the horrible Grenfell Tower fire a year earlier – agreed with the residents and rejected the scheme in September 2018.

Second fight in early 2019

However, in November 2018 the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, decided to call in the application, as his office felt that it had many advantages for London, and that discussions with the developer could make it even more palatable. A month later, RBKC asked the High Court for a judicial review of Khan’s call-in, as he had claimed, as one of his reasons for the call-in, that RBKC had only managed to achieve 153 new homes in 2016-2017, but the true figure was 319 homes. In April 2919, the issue was settled in the High Court, with Khan’s office accepting the mistake.

Third fight in June 2019

One week after the High Court settlement, the mayor’s office issued a revised call-in and then began to negotiate with the developers. They made them agree to increase the number of affordable flats from 40 to 62, adding two floors to the podium, and this revised application was then taken to a public hearing in June 2019, after which it was immediately approved by Khan.

Fourth fight in early 2020

Shortly after Khan’s approval, RBKC once again requested a judicial review, as Khan had made his decision without first notifying the housing secretary (who then was James Brokenshire) of his intention, in order to give the housing secretary a chance to review and possibly call-in the application himself. RBKC considered this to be an abuse of power, intended to prevent the housing secretary from exercising his legal right to intervene. In March 2020, the High Court looked at the case and agreed that the mayor had acted wrongly, meaning that a new decision must be made by City Hall.

Fifth fight in October 2020

Because of City Hall’s defeat in the High Court, a second mayoral hearing was held on 22 October 2020, led by deputy mayor Jules Pipe. In spite of all the arguments from those opposed to the scheme, everybody knew that the decision would be the same, as there had been no material changes since the previous hearing. However, this time the housing secretary (now Robert Jenrick) was given time to consider whether he should intervene – and on 14 January 2021 he decided to do so.

Sixth fight due in May 2021 – until the developer withdrew

Following the approval at the second mayoral hearing, housing secretary Robert Jenrick decided on 14 January to call-in the application and announced that he would hold a virtual public inquiry on 11 May, just five days after the mayoral election. All parties – the developer and the London mayor’s office on one side, and RBKC and a large group of residents’ associations on the other – geared up for a sixth and probably final fight.

But on Friday that surprising email stopped everybody in their tracks and the Kensington Society and the local residents’ associations obviously feel relieved. It has been a long hard slog and the group has been totally committed to defeating this scheme. The group has been working closely with the council to form a determined opposition against the resources of the developer and the mayor. However, everybody understands that proposals for another development will eventually come forward. 

Who knows, next time it could perhaps be something better and lower than the current “eyesore” – but don’t count on it…

With a hight of 102 metres, the new Forum Hotel would have become the tallest building in the borough, dwarfing the Victorian terraces around it. Picture from the application documents. (Click to enlarge)

The proposed complex (in red) would have been both much taller and more massive than the current Forum Hotel. Picture based on drawings in the revised application from 2019. (Click to enlarge)

The view of the current Forum Hotel from Cromwell Road, looking east, compared to the planned replacement. Pictures from the application documents. (Click to enlarge)

The view of the current Forum Hotel from Courtfield Road, looking east, compared to the proposed complex. Pictures from the application documents. (Click to enlarge)

First published 18/03/2021, revised 21/03/2021