Sunday, May 18, 2008

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 4


It is difficult to understand why North London needs any more bars, cafes and restaurants. Nevertheless, anxiety about King’s Cross’s future should not make us nostalgic about its past. The current redevelopment of the area and its population echoes upheavals 150 years ago, when the stations were first built as monuments to industrial trade and power. They brought jobs to the area, and led to the demolition of notorious slum housing west of York Way and north of Euston Road.

The houses around King's Cross were also demolished, and so in 1865, in the spirit of Victorian paternalism, the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company (chaired by the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby) built five ultra-modern blocks, each five storeys high, of flats for local workers. The long stretch of Culross Buildings, with its communal staircases and wrought iron balustrades, was built on the other side of Cheney Street in the late 1800s to accommodate GNR workers. These buildings became the godfathers of social housing in London, and were for a century home to a stable population within the non-stop frenzy of King’s Cross.



Camden's dwindling supply and gigantic demand for public housing has saved neither. Nor have their popularity as film and music video locations. Three of the Stanley Buildings were destroyed in wars or demolished to make way for wider roads. A fourth, Stanley Buildings North, was controversially sold by Camden Council to Argent, the developers of the King’s Cross Central project, for £3m, though surveyors estimated their value to be nearer £7m. The fifth building still stands, but there is no pleasure to be had from looking at it. Developers were so embarrassed by its scowling presence at the entrance of St Pancras International, they covered it with an enormous Quentin Blake mural. Angela Inglis writes that “there are plans for Stanley Buildings South to be entombed in an eight-storey glass block, trapping the chimney pots, cast iron balconies and distinctive shape of the buildings in a sterile time capsule.”

Culross Buildings lays derelict and waits for a future. Its last residents left more than five years ago, but it gives the impression of having been evacuated in an emergency. There is still a noticeboard outside a bricked-up entrance to Culross Hall. Wires trail like washing lines, weeds grow from the gutters and the lampposts are bowed as if uprooted from the ground by an earthquake. There are still baskets of powdery earth teetering on the edges of window-sills.

Standing beside a building so dead to the world is eerie, especially when the huge sheets of plastic which cover the stairwells rattle in the wind. It’s not a happy experience, for in the abandonment of these buildings we see the contradictions of regeneration. After being decanted from their homes, it was unlikely these residents would remain Camden Council tenants because of the Borough’s double whammy of huge waiting lists and lack of stock. Yet the arrival of financial sector business and high-end retail is sure to push private rents up. Writing in 1964, the sociologist Ruth Glass wrote:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences [...]. Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

This is precisely what is happening to King’s Cross. The London Borough of Camden has huge social housing needs. Its waiting list for Council housing is around 16,000, yet it can only provide 1,600 new lets per year. 2,000 families live in temporary accommodation, and 5,000 live in properties which are considered over-crowded. Camden’s Unitary Development Plan states that 50% of new housing in Camden should be affordable, with 70% of that in the social rented market. Yet, Camden has agreed to Argent’s much more modest proposal that just 500 public housing units are built for the 20-year period of the contract.

The majority of housing planned for the site will be aimed at professionals who will work in the five million square feet of office space and shop in the 500,000 square feet of retail space planned by Argent. King’s Cross will not remain an affordable area to live in for much longer. The working class will have to move elsewhere.


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