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Even MI6 have issues with the planning system: the story behind the former spy school being converted into flats

One Bessborough Gardens was bought by Firethorn Trust in an off-market deal and will be converted into apartments
One Bessborough Gardens was bought by Firethorn Trust in an off-market deal and will be converted into apartments

At four stories tall and a whole block wide, One Bessborough Gardens should be one of Pimlico’s most distinctive buildings.

Its white stucco design, vast scale and prime Thamesside location mean it stands out even among its salubrious prime central London surroundings.

And yet for decades, the sprawling cream building’s lights always looked to be off, many of them were blocked by curtains, and few people seemed ever to walk in or out.

All that is set to change now after Firethorn Trust, a property investment and redevelopment firm, snapped it up in an off-market deal for an undisclosed sum. The firm is promising to repurpose the building, located on Vauxhall Bridge Road, into 60 high-end flats as part of its move to set up a residential property arm.

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But before the developers get the interior design team in, they might want to scan for bugs and secret cameras. For two decades, it had long been suspected to be the location of one of the Secret Service’s spy schools until a council’s clerical error rumbled it.

Application to uproot a spy school

The City of Westminster council made the seemingly innocuous disclosure that the building was owned by a firm called “GCB” in a planning permission request in 2004.

Body Found In Flat of MI6 Worker In London
The official MI6 building in Vauxhall (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

But the acronym, which stands for Government Communications Bureau, is widely regarded to be a front for the secret service.

GCB is also listed as the owner of the service’s green and beige HQ, situated on the other side of the river in Vauxhall (pictured).

The application, which is still available on the City of Westminster website, outlines GCB’s request, through a representative, to install satellites on the roof, additional CCTV cameras around the building’s perimeter, and “luminaires to the rear vehicle yard.”

As part of the disclosure, the council also let slip the building’s entire floor plans, including entrances, exits, and key features, meaning malign foreign actors could have potentially obtained the dimensions of one of the UK’s top spying hubs.

The roof plan was revealed as part of the planning request (Credit: City of Westminster Council).
The roof plan was revealed as part of the planning request (Credit: City of Westminster Council).

The page, which has been up on the council’s website since 2004, also reveals that the government agency drew the ire of councillors for proceeding with “unauthorised work” without their permission.

This included installing a “rear security gate” that wasn’t even included in the original application.

One wrote in an email exchange that “the applicant knows they proceeded at risk – probably safe in the knowledge that government departments are immune from enforcement action”.

Elsewhere in the documents, it was revealed that neighbours had been complaining of their TVs and radios not working properly due to “electromagnetic interference”. The council made rectifying this a condition of the planning request being granted.

More of the floor plans from City of Westminster’s website
More of the floor plans from City of Westminster’s website

Building fit for a King

The building has links to spying royalty and is also closely associated with the royal family.

Its construction in the late eighties was the result of a joint venture between Wimpy Homes and the Crown Estate. King Charles III (then Prince of Wales) opened it, and a commemorative plaque marking the ribbon cutting remains in place.

Now, as the building looks set to undergo hefty repurposing work due to finish in 2026, the City of Westminster Council may find itself needing to get involved once more.

City A.M. understands the new developer doesn’t have planning permission for the refit, instead hoping to convert it under a permitted development plan, which allows improvements to be made to homes without the need to apply for planning.