Londoners living on planned new Chinese embassy site in Tower Hamlets share fears ahead of planning meeting

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Leaseholders living at the site of China’s new embassy fear Chinese officials will be able to enter their homes at will if the plans are approved this week.

They are urgently calling for the Government to clarify what their rights would be if the controversial development is given the go-ahead despite strong opposition.

In an unprecedented situation, some 200 residents live on land next to the Tower of London on which China is proposing to build Britain’s biggest embassy.

China bought the 700,000 sq ft former Royal Mint complex for £255 million in 2018.

The purchase meant that the People’s Republic of China became the freeholder of St Mary Graces Court on the estate, something residents of the 100 flats only discovered last year.

A decision on what would be one of the world’s largest diplomatic bases in the world is due to be made by Tower Hamlets Council’s planning committee on Thursday.

But residents have called for the Government to step in and scrutinise the proposals over security concerns.

David Lake chairman of the Grace’s Court Residents’ Association said: "We are against the plans as they stand. We want to know our legal status.

"The land is owned by the Chinese government and technically they would be able to enter our homes.

"What if someone had a flag or poster supporting a political cause they don’t like, could they get it taken down? It’s a bizarre situation, we have not been told our legal status.

"What if we call the Met Police to one of our homes, but the zone is under Chinese jurisdiction and they are not allowed in? It’s ludicrous. We need clarity."

Countries must seek the Foreign Secretary’s consent for land to be regarded as diplomatic or consular premises.

The Housing Secretary Michael Gove can “call in” any planning application for further scrutiny, an option which the Government says is under review.

Residents have also expressed concerns about the large number of protests the embassy is likely to see and it being a potential terror target.

China has been condemned by Human Rights organisations for the arbitrary mass detention of Muslims living in Xinjiang province, as well as crackdowns on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

This week Downing Street slammed the “shocking and unacceptable” after BBC journalist Ed Lawrence was “arrested, handcuffed, beaten and kicked” by police in Shanghai, while covering a protest against the country’s strict Covid-19 restrictions.

Mr Lake added: "We want assurances that measures will be taken to protect us. We have not been given those assurances. We have had meetings with Chinese officials and we have made concessions. As yet they have not."

The planning application details fears from residents that the complex could become “a secret police station” and concerns that they will see a repeat of the “violent assault of protesters at the Manchester Chinese Consulate”.

Gary Wood said the "secrecy" of the plans had angered residents.

"We only found out a year ago the Chinese government owned the land," he said.

"This development is worrying for us. We want to know what protections we will have."

Another resident, who did not want to be named, said: "We are effectively living on Chinese soil, which is strange in the middle of London.

"The embassy could be a good thing because it will redevelop the Royal Mint which is becoming an eyesore. But there’s been no transparency. We want details of what powers the Chinese will have over us."

In an outline of the project, Tower Hamlets Council planners said the architects had proposed a “package of additional privacy measures” for St Mary Grace’s Court.

The town hall said the flats "adjoin the site of the proposed embassy but are physically separated from it".

A spokesman added: "The freehold was transferred to the Chinese government at the time they acquired Royal Mint Court.  However St Mary Graces Court is not included in the planning application for the embassy."

Residents in flats just outside the Royal Mint boundary have also expressed concerns about the project bringing daily demonstrations to their door.

Naz Islam, chair of the Royal Mint Court Residents Association, said: "We are worried about safety. There have been news of multiple human rights abuses in China. From the Uyghur Muslims, to Hong Kong and in Taiwan and now the protests in Shanghai. I can’t see how there won’t be constant demonstrations outside. And how will that impact us?  The Government should step in and delay this application until it can be properly scrutinised."

Another resident, who did not want to be named, said: "Tower Hamlets has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. With what the Chinese are reportedly doing to the Uyghur Muslims it feels like a slap in the face for the community here."

Tower Hamlets Council said the residents of St Mary Grace Court are in a "unique" situation.

"Unlike any other Embassy in the UK, the land at Royal Mint Court also includes 100 leasehold homes," the borough’s planning officials said.

"We are aware that residents of St Mary Grace Court have significant security concerns given their unique position and they have commissioned a specialist risk assessment to assist their members, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets Strategic Planning Committee, the applicant to understand the risks to life and property. The risk assessment recommends a series of measures to mitigate risk to life, property and the local environment."