Customs house, London
Artillery Row

Killing the London Custom House

It’s every bland, soulless, “luxury” hotel development that has been proposed for the past thirty years

It is a well-worn cliché that property development attracts ruthless, shady dealings to a degree that few other industries can boast. There is a brute-groundedness to the soil which imbues a certain rough, earthy quality to even the most refined of fraudulent construction operations, and the half-formed, abortive off-spring of these crimes are always laid lurid for all to see, like a bloated corpse in a noose, or a defaced head on a spike. The City of London, too, seems to attract (alongside the beauty and the grandeur) a depth of ugliness and inhumanity that nowhere else in the country can compete with. Then, of course, there’s the absolute corruption of Central Government; no matter who leads it or which side’s steering, somehow the scum always seems to rise, and the masks of power eat away at the flesh. Where all three meet, expect scandal.

The early eighteenth century London Custom House is a unique architectural masterpiece of unparalleled historic significance on the Thames riverfront. You will likely have seen it many times, in pictures or in person, and perhaps idly wondered what the distinctive structure was, to hold so prominent a position and enjoy such luxuriant aesthetic. The site has held a Custom House consistently for over 700 years, and it was here that Geoffrey Chaucer worked as Comptroller of the Customs of Wools, Skins and Tanned Hides in the 1300s. The current building is a gradually developed, multi-generational collaboration between Christopher Wren, Thomas Ripley, David Laing and, most dominantly and recently, by Robert Smirke in 1825. In recent decades it’s been kept inaccessible to the curious passer-by, and thus faded to the sort of unfair obscurity which has developers licking their knives.

Government after Government seems to have been obsessed with helping this company profit from public property

The Custom House is vital to the City of London’s architectural and experiential historic narrative. It is the one building which can boast the longest continuous office use in the City, retaining the earliest surviving purpose built office-rooms in the architectural record, and was the first riverfront property in London to allow democratised public access, from 1817. Alongside this it contains astonishing rooms of artistic accomplishment and scale, such as the Robing Room, which remain unique in London. The breathtaking Long Room was said to be the largest in all of Europe when it was built, uniformly renowned for its splendour and accomplishment. This extraordinary building and its interiors have survived intact with the same continuous purpose for centuries, and are of the highest value not just to London, not just to Britain, but to the entire continent of Europe. The fact that this Thames-side jewel is still publicly owned is a miracle.

Well, technically. Technically still publicly owned.

Back at the turn of the millennium, in those bright-eyed, early days of New Labour and undimmed hope, a 175 year lease on the property was quietly and inexplicably sold to the Mapeley property group, an offshore tax-haven property developer then based in Guernsey, for a peppercorn £370 million on the murky proviso that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs would retain serviced possession for another twenty years. Almost immediately after the sale had gone through, Mapeley transferred the lease ownership to Bermuda. Since then, as part of the ludicrous intricacies of the arrangement, HMRC has paid them a further £3.5 billion simply for providing their own offices back to them. Because the sale was backdoor, the owner overseas, no public scrutiny was possible. Because HMRC stayed discreetly put for a couple more decades all those responsible have long since scuttled off to fat and lazy retirements, untroubled by consequence when the proverbial finally hit the fan. That twenty years is up. HMRC have vacated. The fan is a mess, and the tax-shy leaseholders have submitted a planning application to convert this publicly-owned masterpiece into a private hotel for the ultra-rich. 

The planning application is everything you would imagine.

It is every bland, soulless, empty-chested “luxury” hotel development that has been proposed for the past thirty years. It is nowhere, it is nothing. They have form for this; Mapeley subsidiary Cannon Capital Developments has a string of other genericised former governmental scalps in bland projects across the country, from Edinburgh to Milton Keynes, Manchester to Swansea. Custom House in Belfast was sold on to an investment firm just last year. Government after Government seems to have been obsessed with helping this company profit from public property, taking as little in recompense for the nation as they could.

The Government could and should take down the railings and give the space back to the public

Back in London, under the Public Finance Initiative agreement that the Government committed to on selling the lease (on such abominably bad terms that it could only be the result of incompetence or worse), the leaseholder (now Mapeley STEPS) has been able to spend the last twenty years leeching public money and running the building down, poorly maintaining it, and letting the redundant security infrastructure seize up like some brutal, Soviet remnant. This developer is now, in essence, saying it will only remove the archaic, prison-style perimeter and maintain the heritage to a reasonable, vaguely accessible degree if they’re granted planning permission for their abhorrence of a hotel. If they’re given permission to carve up and obliterate those unique surviving Georgian office suites. Permission to lid over the original courtyard, blotting out all natural light. Permission to distort the classical roof with two large glass, light-up extensions to sunder the skyline and permanently disfigure the building and the view from the Thames. To block over the ground floor exterior with a two metre high plane flood wall. To close the Quay for the bulk of the year for exclusive, lucrative, private events, no riff-raff allowed.

But it is still Government freehold land.

The Government could and should, regardless of what happens with the hotel development, take down the railings and give the space back to the public. Now the HMRC have vacated the building there’s no national security interest and no justification for the bristling and decrepit heavy duty fencing. Post-Covid the need for public space has never felt more acute, and were this heritage land opened up it would be the third largest public space in the City, and the largest on the City’s riverfront by a country mile.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage have developed a desperately exciting alternative planning scheme for achieving this. Every City development today seems to spin itself as something important, fresh and revolutionary, but this one actually could be. Returning the awe-inspiring Long Room to the public, opening up the south-facing quayside for permanent access, with bars, restaurants, cafes and pleasure spaces like a Venetian piazza. In the London Custom House we have an astonishing, world-class heritage site which can either be killed off by gangster-capitalist vandalism and a dirty, sordid bit of Governmental dodginess from two decades ago, or rescued as a second Somerset House, a cultural and recreational touchstone for an entirely new phase in London’s future; the sort of project that just doesn’t happen any more. Something that could permanently and meaningfully improve the City for us all.

You have until October 26th to object to the current, destructive hotel proposals. You can do so by following the instructions at the bottom the Gentle Author’s excellent blog post on it all. There is still time to save the London Custom House. I sincerely hope you do.

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