China’s plans for a giant new embassy opposite the Tower of London were unanimously rejected by local councilors on the grounds that they posed a security risk to local residents, in a surprise decision that comes amid growing concerns about Beijing’s diplomatic activities in the UK.
The London borough of Tower Hamlets indicated it was preparing to float proposals drawn up by embassy architect David Chipperfield as early as Wednesday, telling CNN at the time that the proposed initiative was “broadly consistent” with the area’s development plan and that ” On this basis, officers recommended that planning permission and building approval be granted.’
Yet in a marathon meeting that lasted late into the night on Thursday, the council was persuaded to block the proposals on the grounds that they posed a safety risk to local residents and would impede traffic in this densely populated part of east London, close to the capital’s financial district and a block from Tower Bridge.
A spokesman for Tower Hamlets Council told CNN: “The committee decided to refuse the application due to concerns about the impact on the safety of residents and tourists, heritage, police resources and the congested nature of the area. The application will now be referred to the Mayor of London before a final decision is issued.”
The council’s decision puts the British government in a difficult position. It can use its powers to ‘call in’ plans and overturn a local council’s decision, which may be politically controversial; or refrain from intervening and risk antagonizing Beijing.
China bought the historic plot of land, called Royal Mint Court, in 2018 for about $312 million from a real estate company and intended to transform most of the 5.4-acre plot into a super-sized diplomatic mission, with room for hundreds of staff and cultural exchange. The Royal Mint was previously owned by the British monarchy and was once the home of the facility that produced British coins.
Among those who spoke at the council meeting was David Lake, chairman of the Royal Mint Residents Association, representing 100 families whose flats are now on Chinese-owned land adjacent to what would have been the rear perimeter embassy wall.
Thursday’s decision came the next day CNN revealed that Lake had written to King Charles to highlight the residents’ concerns and ask the Crown to buy back the land rights to their estates after numerous fruitless appeals to local and national legislatures.
When it still owned the land around 30 years ago, the Crown Estate, which manages the non-private property interests of the British monarchy, built a range of low-rise flats on part of the site as part of a government scheme to provide homes for ‘key workers’ such as police and nurses. Queen Elizabeth II was pictured opening the estate in 1989.
The owners of the new flats were given a 126-year lease on the land, a common practice in British property law where residents own the bricks and mortar of their property, but another entity, a freeholder – now China – owns the land on which it is built .
Rejecting the plans locally – while the national government appeared reluctant to intervene – is likely to prove embarrassing for Beijing at a time when the behavior of Chinese diplomats is under scrutiny after a protester was dragged into the country’s consulate in Manchester and beaten.
Manchester Police are currently investigating the episode. Consul General Zheng Siyuan said he acted because he found the protesters’ posters offensive to his homeland.
Recently, China has also been accused of using its diplomatic posts and loosely affiliated public associations, effectively as overseas police stations, to monitor Chinese citizens abroad and force them to return home. British lawmakers have expressed concern over reports of three such premises in the UK.
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry told CNN that the purchase of the new premises in London was “in line with international practice and approved by the British side”.
“The planning and approval of the new premises of the Chinese Embassy in the UK was carried out based on compliance with local building planning laws and regulations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“It should be noted that the international obligation of the host country is to facilitate and support the construction of diplomatic buildings, and China calls on the British side to fulfill its respective obligations.”
CNN also reached out to the Chinese Embassy in London for comment.
The Chinese embassy’s proposals have been strongly opposed by local residents in this part of London, concerned about the impact of possible protests outside the complex and inadequate protection against a possible terrorist attack. Many have complained repeatedly that they were not adequately briefed by Chinese advisers while drawing up the blueprints for the site.
During the debate, councilors in Tower Hamlets heard people living nearby express their fears and concerns about being spied on, hacked or monitored.
Residents have repeatedly questioned the council’s procurement of a contractor to independently assess the embassy’s impact on the safety of nearby residents, which they say is already working for the Chinese project and is therefore in conflict.
Simon Cheng, a prominent activist from Hong Kong’s Tower Hamlets, gave an impassioned speech condemning the lack of local consultation on the project and insufficient attention to Beijing’s record of spying on Chinese who have fled to countries such as Britain.
“A lot of people from communities like mine aren’t even aware of what’s coming in the area. The planning application fails to provide a high level of security assessment in cyber security and may put people’s lives at risk,” Cheng said.
After the decision on Tower Hamlets Lake, the chairman of the residents’ association told CNN: “It really shows that you have to stand your ground, even if it’s against a superpower like China.”
“However, we know this is just the first round,” said Lake, who on Thursday launched a crowdfunding page to raise money for what he expects could become a legal battle over the terms of the leases his properties and who owns them.
China’s planning representatives can appeal the decision or submit alternative plans for review.
Beijing may also seek support in a more discreet way from central British government in Westminster, where China often reminds decision-makers of the economic ties that underpin the UK-China relationship.
Last month, a minister in the UK’s Department for Upgrading, Housing and Communities indicated the government could use its powers to call for the application to be considered further at national level. It is unclear whether Thursday night’s decision by the local council will change the government’s position.
However, the UK’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently indicated that the “golden era” of trade between the two countries was over and said that China would instead be viewed with “strong pragmatism”.
By rejecting the Chinese embassy’s grand designs, local officials in one London borough this week put that “sound pragmatism” to its first test.