Sunday, May 18, 2008

THE END OF THE LINE: King's Cross out of joint 5

Never mind. At least those displaced from their local area by poverty will be able to quaff prestige cuvee at Europe’s longest champagne bar, or sample continental themed patisseries from Crepeaffaire. For, aside from being Europe’s largest passenger interchange with 50m travellers passing through each year, St Pancras International is now a gigantic shopping mall.

It was originally built in 1868, and followed quickly on Euston and King’s Cross's heels. It became the London terminus for the Midland Railway, replacing a network of notorious slums (decades later, the area became the focus of Basil Jellicoe’s efforts to create decent public housing out of the obscene squalor of Somers Town). The train shed was laid out by the engineer William Barlow, and its 245 foot clear span roof remains its biggest attraction (bigger even than Yo! Sushi or Starbucks).

George Gilbert Scott’s ornate Gothic facade saved the station from closure in the 1960s, and it has become a London landmark – a sumptuous red-brick pile on the eastern end of a Euston Road whose architecture is otherwise rather ho-hum. Anywhere else it might be reasonably be considered a rather histrionic building, but if one forgets momentarily about its interior – a sterile, slimy, sticky and oddly transient orgy of shops, and arcticly cold to boot – it turns into a rather quaint old haunted house. Most of its Midland Road side is still derelict, and its dusty turrets, high windows, crooked crenelations, grey slate roofs, and faded roadsigns almost make one forget about the squeaky clean void on the other side.

St Pancras’s fortunes began to wane when the economy began to stagflate in the 1970s. It fell into disrepair, and by the late 1980s only a couple of trains left for the midlands each hour.


Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal shift brought stark changes to Camden: its Council housing (always in short supply) dwindled, market prices rose and the invasion of financial capital caused industrial areas like King’s Cross to decline further. Thatcher’s monetarist policies – economic liberalism mixed with centralist government – inevitably meant changes to planning. When the idea of a cross-channel rail link was first touted, the then nationalised British Rail was told that it would not be given a subsidy for building the rail-link or the terminal station. To raise the necessary cash, they would have to maximise income from the land around the site – in other words, sell it off.

Although the property slump of the early 1990s delayed its sign-off, plans for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link were finally rubber-stamped in 1996. The bid to design, construct, operate and finance the CTRL was won by London and Continental Railways, whose property subsidiary was given 67 acres of brownfield land at the back of King’s Cross, the station at Waterloo, 120 acres of land in Stratford and 635 properties along the CTRL route by the State to subsidise the cost of construction.

This is a truly extraordinary example of what David Harvey has called “accumulation by dispossession”. Quite simply, the State took public land of almost unimaginable value, expelled its tenants from that land, and sold it to a private company. The railways, shops, bars and restaurants, and most of the housing which will be built on that land will also be privately owned. It is unlikely that the people of Camden will ever get a glimpse of the vast profits which are bound to be realised there.


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