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Design & Development

Ministers intervene after rejection of London Sphere project

Featured image credit: Sphere Entertainment

The UK Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has sought to intervene in an effort to prevent the collapse of the project to deliver a Sphere arena in London.

The move by the Department, led by Michael Gove, comes after the plans were last month rejected by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan on the grounds that the proposals would have an “unacceptable negative impact” on local residents.

Sphere Entertainment, formerly known as Madison Square Garden Entertainment, had been seeking to build a venue with 17,500 seats in the heart of Stratford, East London. The company recently opened a Sphere venue in the US city of Las Vegas, with the arena featuring the world’s largest LED screen.

In March 2022, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) approved plans for a Sphere venue in the English capital. At the time, Paul Westbury, executive vice-president of development and construction at Sphere Entertainment, said the application had passed through a “thorough assessment”, adding that the venue would help make Stratford “a global destination for music and technology”.

Gove’s department has now intervened as he considers whether to call in the application. A letter to the LLDC, reported by the Evening Standard, read: “The Secretary of State (Gove) hereby prohibits Your Local Planning Authority from implementing the Mayor’s direction of November 20 to refuse permission.

“The direction is issued to enable him to consider whether he should direct under section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act that the application should be referred to him for determination.”

Gove has the power to overrule Khan if he considers the plans appropriate, but Sphere Entertainment has already seemingly decided to end its interest in London as a destination for one of its venues.

Following Khan’s announcement, Sphere Entertainment said it would look to sell the 4.7-acre site in Stratford, which has been left empty after last being used as a temporary coach park during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Sphere Entertainment executive chairman and CEO, James Dolan, told the Evening Standard that the Stratford application had been “subject to a completely politically motivated move by the mayor’s office”.

Asked whether he was prepared to wait for Gove’s decision, Dolan added: “We have expended quite a lot of capital. To be very honest, there is no process that makes us want to continue the effort. We can’t keep banging our heads against the wall in London while there are other cities that want us.

“We are going to sell the land. We are exiting the market. It hurts me to say that. We wanted London to be the second place where we opened up a Sphere. Chasing this in London is not the right thing for the company.”