A(nother) MSG sphere update

This week, on the 24th January, a planning decisions committee took place at the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) to consider two planning applications related to the MSG sphere. I wanted to write a short blog post about these, because some of the planning issues might be complex and / or misunderstood.

The second decision I’ll deal with first because it’s simpler: it was an application to change a number of the spaces in Stratford International Car Park from their current use into blue badge parking for disabled people travelling to the Sphere. This application was deferred after some discussion about whether the parking at this location meets accessibility standards (which of course it must in order to ensure that disabled people can access the venue).

The first application was to provide detail about the rather opaque ‘five year review’ that was agreed at the meeting in March 2022 when the sphere was given planning permission, and was granted 25 year advertising consent.

I voted against the application last year for the sphere, and voted against granting 25 years advertising consent. I was concerned about a number of different issues, including the visual impact of the sphere, how small the site is, the impact on Stratford station, the impact on nearby residents, impacts on drivers of cars and trains nearby and safety, and concerned about the nature of such an enormous advertising space and the impact on the whole city. Specifically about the advertising, based on the information we were given last year, I was deeply concerned and perturbed at the idea of granting 25 year consent rather than the usual 5 years.

The idea of adding in a 5 year review was not in the papers prepared for last year, but was suggested verbally during the meeting. I can’t speak for other committee members, but it seemed to me that the idea of a ‘5 year review’ might have been rather gladly seized upon by committee members who were minded to vote ‘yes’ but wanted a safeguard of some kind, a way to express some of the questions that were raised about the sphere’s impact. But it was clarified on the night that any 5 year review process could not contain within it the ability to curtail the permission. In effect, whatever the 5 year review looks like, it can’t remove the advertising permission and ‘turn the sphere off’, or remove the sphere, regardless of what happens in the interim.

What is also important to note is that the sphere gained planning consent and advertising consent last year, and these things have been determined by the LLDC and so however much I and others might have wanted to reopen debate about the principle of building it, this wasn’t part of the decision making process.

So the first application aimed to put some meat on the bones, as it were, of the 5 year review process. I don’t think it’s surprising that it has taken nearly a year for these details to come back, and I don’t envy at all the officers who were tasked with squaring that circle: trying to provide some safeguards within planning consent which goes on regardless. But they gave it their best shot, and came back to the committee with a set of proposals which in my opinion ineffectively attempt to mitigate the impacts of the sphere on local residents. ‘Ineffectively’, in the end, because the sphere is being built, the impacts are not known, and it’s not clear to me that it is possible to design 5 year review process that could give us any level of certainty that people’s health and wellbeing, for example, won’t be harmed by living next to a development that is unlike any other.

The question then before the committee was to make a decision on a set of systems that provide at least some, deeply imperfect, mitigation against the sphere’s impact, including reducing the brightness, reducing the hours, and changing the nature of what is displayed. It sets up a system, albeit flawed and bureaucratic, where there is at least some independent and expert input into a monitoring group which has at least some (limited) power. Do you, in effect, approve some small protection for residents?

As a committee member, this is not an easy decision (in fairness, planning decisions are often not easy). Approving the application and the small amount of protection suggested appears to be condoning the sphere and its impacts, which based on the planning papers and discussion from last year, is unconscionable. On the other hand, not approving the mitigations could be in effect voting for the sphere to operate unfettered with no protection for residents.

Another question, always top of mind in planning, is what happens if an application is rejected. If there is a chance for debate and a better application, then rejection can be positive and productive. If rejection might result in a legal appeal which in the end determines a much weaker, or indeed no, 5 year review, then that is clearly also a real risk to residents, residents who are already at risk from the development.

Weighing up all the options, as well as the papers, and contributions in the meeting itself, I decided to abstain from the vote. I’m not generally a fan of abstaining, but there was a use for it here: neither supporting the sphere, nor voting to stop the mitigations that had been detailed. I couldn’t put my name down ‘for’ the proposals any more than I could be in favour of no monitoring and no mitigations.

I explained this at the meeting as well, to ensure that anyone watching would be aware of why I was choosing to vote this way. But I wanted to set it down here as well for clarity, and for anyone who is interested in the process but wasn’t able to attend. I hope it’s helpful.

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