The French appear to have scored an own goal in their battle to stop the billionaire founder of Foxtons estate agents digging a cavernous basement below his house next to their ambassador’s Kensington home.
Having tried and failed to block tycoon Jon Hunt’s original proposal to dig a four-storey, 16,800sq ft basement beneath his Grade II-listed property at Kensington Palace Gardens, the French embassy has now successfully prevented him going ahead with a substantially scaled-down project — leaving the original planning permission for the “iceberg” basement still in place.
Mr Hunt, who remains free to build his earlier scheme, says he is “surprised” by turn of events.
The planning battle has been raging since 2008 when he and his wife Lois were given permission to excavate by Kensington and Chelsea council, despite objections from neighbours including the French and Japanese embassies and the Indian High Commission. Work began but wasn’t completed.
At the start of this year Mr Hunt applied to amend his planning permission, slicing 5,000sq ft off the size of the basement and reducing it to two storeys. By law home owners may make “minor material amendments” to consented projects without the need to go through the full planning process again. This might happen if somebody changed their mind about the style of new windows or doors, for example, or wanted to slightly increase the size of a rear extension.
Despite the fact that the amendments would reduce the scale of the project the French Government still wasn’t happy. A letter from law firm Edwin Coe, instructed by France to fight the new plans, pointed out that allowing the changes could breach the Vienna Convention, which was agreed in 1961 to protect diplomats from “coercion or harassment” in their host country.
The French ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, lives next door to Mr Hunt and would inevitably be disturbed during the basement build.
Moreover, pointed out the law firm, the property was regularly used for “receiving heads of state and hosting important meetings” which might be disrupted by building noise and dust.
Meanwhile, a representative from Stride Treglown, a leading firm of London architects appointed as expert advisers to the French embassy, argued that the changes the Hunts were requesting could not be considered “minor”. Apparently convinced, Kensington and Chelsea council has decided to refuse the Hunts’ request.
A report by Graham Stallwood, the council’s planning chief, pointed out that since planning permission was granted the council’s policies on basements have changed. The report concluded that it was inappropriate to build a huge multi-level basement beneath a listed building.
However, the council’s new policy cannot be applied retrospectively. Mr and Mrs Hunt remain free to go ahead with their original plans, which would create one of the most valuable private homes in London.
“We are surprised by the decision not to grant consent for this carefully considered application, which would have resulted in a smaller basement,” said Mr Hunt’s statement on the matter.
Nobody at the French embassy was available to comment. A spokesman for Kensington and Chelsea council said: “The planning application for a basement at Kensington Palace Gardens was rejected… as it did not comply with our new rules on basements, which are the toughest in the country.”
Paul Salvaire, head of the ambassador’s private office, pledged that the battle against the basement would continue. “The French embassy disputes the scale of the works planned by Mr Hunt,” he said. “Any project must take into consideration the particular environment of the site… [the Kensington Palace Gardens property] … is a working tool fundamental to the French diplomatic mission in London. Countless seminars, press conferences and ministerial meetings are organised there.
“In this respect, the integrity and the dignity of our diplomatic buildings must be ensured by the host state.”
Mr Salvaire said the embassy will now dispute the validity of Mr Hunt’s 2008 planning permission on the grounds that it is outdated, and was “very pleased” his latest application had been refused.