London council rejects new Chinese embassy amid residents’ safety fears

People living near Tower of London site said largest diplomatic base in UK would put lives at risk

London councillors have rejected plans for a new Chinese embassy, which would have been the largest diplomatic base in the UK, after residents and advocacy groups raised safety concerns.

In a tense meeting, the Tower Hamlets council voted unanimously against the proposed development to move the current embassy to a 2-hectare (5-acre) site opposite the Tower of London. Local residents and advocacy groups, who feared being swept into protests, called the plans into question, saying they would endanger people’s lives.

Simon Cheng, the founder of Hongkongers in Britain and a Tower Hamlets resident, said he was happy with the outcome. He raised concerns about surveillance and said at Thursday’s meeting that the plans put the lives of those who fled Beijing’s crackdown at risk.

“I think the Hongkonger community, and many others – Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and even our Chinese community – will be happy about this,” said Cheng after the vote. “We definitely don’t want to see the authoritarian state with upgraded facilities and to impose a greater national security reach to the community who should be with the democracy and freedom.”

Diplomatic tensions between the UK and China have already flared after a pro-democracy protester was beaten on the grounds of a Chinese consulate in Manchester in October. This week the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said the “golden era” of relations between the two countries was over. Meanwhile, anti-lockdown protests have spread across China and the BBC said police assaulted and detained one of its reporters who was covering them.

Earlier this week, the UK government confirmed that the levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, had received a request for the embassy planning application to be “called in” and it was under consideration. The secretary of state has a six-week period to act, after which an inquiry could follow.

Speaking in the House of Lords before the council vote, Lord Alton said that after what took place in Manchester, and what happens in China, families were scared and angry and had been ignored.

“The deal led to 200 British citizens having the freehold of their homes sold to the Chinese state, over their heads,” said Alton who raised the questions to the secretary of state, including who brokered the deal.

The site, which falls within the Tower of London conservation area, has four office buildings and one residential block. It was vacated by the Royal Mint in 1976 and was later sold by the crown estate in the late 1980s. In 2010, it was acquired by Delancey until its purchase by the Chinese government in 2018.

The proposed plans included the partial demolition and restoration of Grade II-listed buildings, a cultural exchange building, and an additional £223,853 for CCTV coverage around the site.

The Tower Hamlets local council received 51 objection letters from residents, according to the planning application. Councillors raised additional concerns about tourist safety, policing measures and the site’s historical significance, as it is home to a Black Death burial grounds and archaeology from the Royal Navy’s first yard in the late 16th century.

Objecting to the application on Thursday, residents expressed concerns about being swept up in potential protests, security concerns, and not being adequately consulted.

Sue Hughes, a resident and the chair of Friends of St Katharine Docks, was present at the previous consultation for the site 10 years ago. Hughes, citing security issues, called on councillors to reject the application so that it could be called in by the secretary of state and independently investigated.

“That person we believe would be better suited to deal with the very complex security, heritage and political issues that the application raises,” said Hughes. “This site is just not suitable for the use as an embassy.”

The Chinese embassy has been approached for comment.


Geneva Abdul

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Residents warned council landlord about overcrowded flat before fatal fire
Tower Hamlets council’s failure to stop overcrowding prompts allegation by residents’ association of ‘negligence’

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

12, Mar, 2023 @5:30 PM

Article image
London tower blocks residents ordered out over gas safety fears
Four 13-storey blocks in Ledbury estate in Peckham, south-east London, at risk of collapse in the event of a gas explosion

Peter Walker Political correspondent

10, Aug, 2017 @6:48 PM

Article image
Homebuilders' lobbyist pushed council leader to 'sort' and speed planning
Peter Bingle used his friendship with Ravi Govindia to circumvent officials in London borough of Wandsworth

Robert Booth and Andy Jones

13, Sep, 2018 @2:08 PM

Article image
Council rejects plans to turn London car park into 800 artists' studios
Southwark opts for rival proposal from Mayfair-based property developer that includes only 50 artists’ spaces in Peckham multistorey

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

10, Nov, 2015 @7:01 AM

Article image
London mayor sets 35% affordable homes target in deal with developers
Sadiq Khan’s decision appears to cast doubt on election vow that 50% of new housing in capital would be ‘genuinely affordable’

Robert Booth

29, Nov, 2016 @12:01 AM

Article image
London council ignites safety row as it rejects cycle lane plans
Calls for government intervention after Kensington and Chelsea leadership team’s decision

Peter Walker

18, Mar, 2021 @11:15 AM

Article image
Barking council boss given nearly £10k in West Ham tickets after studio deal
Darren Rodwell denies conflict of interest and has invited disabled people and looked-after children to box at stadium

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

26, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Haringey residents not consulted over redevelopment | Letters
Letters: Almost all the information given to residents has come from the group protesting against the redevelopment rather than the council, writes Susan Smith. Plus Mick Larkin says he had bad experiences with developer Lendlease in south London


26, Jul, 2017 @6:32 PM

Article image
Planning applications in England fall to record low in housing blow
Experts say developers deterred by changes to planning system brought in by successive Tory governments

Kiran Stacey Political correspondent

01, Apr, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
Joiners Arms redevelopment must include LGBT nightclub, council rules
Decision by Tower Hamlets council thought to be first time the sexual orientation of a venue’s target market has been condition of planning approval

Rupert Neate

12, Oct, 2017 @2:56 PM