Griff Rhys Jones rails against plans to ‘smother’ Liverpool Street station

<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Griff Rhys Jones is leading a coalition of conservationists against what he describes as plans to “smother” Liverpool Street station under 109 metres (350ft) of new offices, shops and a hotel.

The comedian, writer and broadcaster has been appointed president of the revived Liverpool Street Station Campaign (Lissca), a post held in the 1970s by the then poet laureate Sir John Betjeman when he led a successful crusade against plans to demolish the station.

The developers, including Network Rail and Sellar – which were both behind London’s Shard, say the scheme will protect and showcase the Grade II-listed station and Grade II*-listed former Great Eastern hotel next door.

Rhys Jones, however, said this was “nonsense”. Speaking from the hotel, he said: “They can’t enhance this environment by sticking a giant hat straight on top of it. It’s like putting a giant clown’s hat on top of St Paul’s Cathedral.”

The scheme involves 16-storey office blocks flanking the station, and retail space and a hotel above it.

Rhys Jones said: “What they’re planning to do is radical and unprecedented – taking a world-class monument and instead of destroying it, they’re simply burying it. They’re putting 16-storey buildings right on top of it. This is going to completely alter the character of Liverpool Street station. It’s just smothering it.”

Rhys Jones questioned the rationale for the scheme, which the developers say is needed to improve access to the station. “It’s an exploitative, opportunistic scheme for making a huge amount of money. They’re trying it on all levels. People need to look very carefully at the supposed need for this because the real need, like the Shard, is Network Rail making money.”

The Lissca campaign has been rekindled after a rare show of unity from disparate conservation groups in opposition to what they consider to be insensitive and harmful plans.

Rhys Jones said: “I am only adding a voice to an extraordinary unity of concern. All the major heritage sector bodies are appalled by what is proposed. They all want to preserve a superb London landmark. I have seldom seen such uniformity.”

The campaign unites eight conservation groups led by the Victorian Society, and includes the Georgian Group, the Twentieth Century Society and Save Britain’s Heritage.

The plans, by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects behind the Tate Modern and the National Stadium in Beijing, involve converting some of the former Great Eastern hotel, now the Andaz hotel, into offices. As part of the scheme a recently listed 1990s train shed linking a Victorian part of the station with the listed hotel would be partially demolished.

Rhys Jones describes Liverpool Street as “my London station” as he frequently uses it to travel from his home in Suffolk to the capital. He is hoping other celebrities will join the reformed Lissca. “In the 1970s the committee members included Betjeman, [the historian] Sir Nikolaus Pevsner and [the comedian] Spike Milligan. They preserved these spaces for us back then. We hope that similar giants will join us 50 years on. It seems unbelievable to me that we need to renew their fight.”

In a statement, Lissca said it feared that if the scheme was given planning permission “it would set a terrible precedent which would mean no listed building is safe from harm”.

The Georgian Group said the scheme would compromise the prominent part St Paul’s Cathedral has played in London’s skyline. Historic Buildings & Places said it would “destroy one of the last cohesive Victorian streetscapes in this part of the city of London”. And the Twentieth Century Society said it would “permanently disfigure this iconic gateway to London”.

Rhys Jones said he was not against modern buildings and that he liked many of London’s newest skyscrapers. But he added: “They cannot be done by destroying the story of London. I’m doing it for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. And we need to preserve what we know to be the real exemplars of our history – there’s nothing more significant than the railway age, which tells the story of Britain.”

The campaigners have also launched a petition saying “developers’ greed cannot trump commuter need”.

A spokesperson for the developers, including Sellar and Network Rail, said: “The station that the Victorian Society campaigned to save in the 1970s no longer exists as much of it was demolished in the 1980s. Our approach prioritises protecting and enhancing the remaining heritage elements, both within the Andaz hotel and the station itself.

“The Victorian elements of the station are not being demolished. We are working closely with key stakeholders to try and sensitively integrate the commercial elements of the project, which ultimately unlock the much needed £450m of infrastructure improvements which will alleviate significant access and overcrowding issues, whilst delivering essential passenger capacity and customer facilities, at no cost to the taxpayer or train passengers.

“Our proposals will ensure Liverpool Street station’s future as a major transport hub and create a new seven-days-a-week destination for the City.”