China’s plans for new London embassy rejected by local officials


China’s plans to build a giant new embassy opposite the Tower of London have been unanimously rejected by local councilors on the grounds that they pose a safety risk to local residents, in a surprise move amid growing concerns about Beijing’s diplomatic activities in the UK.

The London borough of Tower Hamlets said it was preparing to consider proposals by embassy architect David Chipperfield as early as Wednesday, then told CNN that the proposed initiative was “substantially consistent” with the area’s development plan and that “On this basis, officers have recommended planning permission and listed building permission .

But in a marathon meeting that lasted late into the night on Thursday, the council was persuaded to block the proposals because they posed a safety risk to local residents and would disrupt 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 reject 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 be referred to the Mayor of London before a final decision is made.

The Council’s decision puts the British government in a difficult position. It could use its powers to “call out” plans and overturn a decision by a local council that could be politically controversial; or refrain from intervening and risk antagonizing Beijing.

China acquired a historic plot of land called the Royal Mint Court in 2018. purchased from a real estate company for approximately 312 million cultural exchange. The Court of the Royal Mint formerly belonged to the British Monarchy and was once home to the British Mint.

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Among those who spoke at the council meeting was David Lake, chairman of the Royal Mint Estate Residents Association, which represents 100 families whose flats now sit on Chinese-owned land adjacent to what would have been the embassy’s rear perimeter wall.

Thursday’s decision comes a day after CNN revealed that Lake had written to King Charles to highlight residents’ concerns and ask the Crown to buy back the rights to their freehold land after a series of fruitless appeals to local and national lawmakers.

When it still owned the land around 30 years ago, the Crown Estate, which manages the British monarchy’s non-private property interests, built a set of low-rise flats on part of the site as part of a government plan to provide housing. key workers’ such as police officers and nurses. Queen Elizabeth II was pictured opening the estate in 1989.

Owners of the new flats were given a 126-year ground lease, a common practice in British property law where residents own the bricks and mortar of their property while another entity, the freeholder – now China – owns the land on which it sits. built

One of the residential buildings on the Royal Mint Court site

The local rejection of the plans – although the national government appeared reluctant to get involved – is likely to embarrass Beijing at a time when the behavior of Chinese diplomats is under investigation after a protester was dragged to the country’s consulate in Manchester and beaten.

Manchester Police are currently investigating the incident. Consul General Zheng Xiyuan said he acted because he believed the protester’s posters were insulting to his homeland.

China has also recently been accused of using its diplomatic posts and loosely affiliated community associations as overseas police stations to surveil Chinese citizens abroad and force them to return home. British lawmakers have expressed concern over reports of three such facilities in the UK.

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A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry told CNN that the purchase of new premises in London “is in line with international practice and has been approved by the British side”.

“The planning and approval of the new premises of the Chinese Embassy in the UK has been carried out in accordance with local laws and regulations relating to building planning,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“It should be noted that the host country’s international obligation is to facilitate and support the construction of diplomatic facilities, and China urges the British side to fulfill the relevant obligations.”

CNN has also reached out to the Chinese Embassy in London for comment.

The Chinese embassy’s proposals have met with fierce opposition from local residents in this part of London, who are concerned about possible protests outside the compound and insufficient security against a possible terrorist attack. Many have consistently complained that they were not properly briefed by the Chinese advisers when they drew up the site plans.

During the debate, Tower Hamlets councilors heard from people living nearby who expressed their fears and concerns about spying, hacking or surveillance.

Residents have repeatedly questioned the council’s procurement of the contractor, calling for an independent assessment of the embassy’s impact on the security of nearby residents, who they say are already working for the Chinese project and were therefore conflicted.

Simon Cheng, a prominent Tower Hamlets activist from Hong Kong, gave an impassioned speech denouncing the lack of local consultation on the project and the scant attention paid to Beijing’s spying on Chinese who have fled to countries such as Britain.

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“A lot of people from communities like mine don’t even know who’s coming into the area. The planning program does not provide a high level of cyber security assurance rating and may put people’s lives at risk,” Cheng said.

After the Tower Hamlets decision, Lake Hamlets, the chairman of the residents’ association, told CNN: “It shows that you have to stand your ground, even if it goes against a superpower like China.”

“We know this is just the first round,” said Lake, who launched a crowd-funding page Thursday to raise money for what he expects could turn into a legal battle over the terms of his property’s leases and their ownership.

China’s planning representatives can appeal the decision or submit alternative plans for review.

Beijing can also more discreetly seek support from Britain’s central government in Westminster, where China has often reminded decision-makers of the economic ties that underpin the UK-China relationship.

Last month, the UK Minister for Equal Opportunities, Housing and Communities indicated that the government could use its powers to take the application further at national level. It is unclear whether Thursday night’s local council decision will change the government’s position.

But the UK’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, recently signaled the end of the “golden trade” between the two countries and said China would be approached in a “firmly pragmatic” way.

Rejecting the Chinese embassy’s grand plans, local officials in one London borough this week put that “robust pragmatism” to the test so far.


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