You may have noticed that London is being slowly flattened. Brick by brick, walls are falling down and foundations are being exhumed by bulldozers, so that familiar landmarks (the Swiss clock in Leicester Square, the Astoria, my beloved Culross flats) are making way for grey, wintry skies. The diggers originally rushed in to knock down these buildings so that great structures, gifts to the gods of speculation, could be erected in their place. But now we know those gods are fakes.
In 2006, a consortium of banks, developers and magnates bought the Middlesex Hospital at the back of Tottenham Court Road, and demolished it to make way for 273 luxury apartments, known as Noho Square (ugh). Alas, the consortium’s majority shareholder, Kaupthing hf, was one of the Icelandic banks nationalised last month. Nick and Christian Candy, the multi-millionaire developers who owned a third of the stake, got cold feet and pulled out shortly afterwards. The value of the land has almost halved in the last two years, the Noho Square project is dead in the water, and the three-acre site has become an unloved wasteland.
Meanwhile, just down the Euston Road, another set of creditor banks – German, this time – have abandoned the good ship King’s Cross, leaving the developers to stump up the money themselves. (You can only imagine how my heart bleeds) The King’s Cross scheme, as it currently stands, is the very embodiment of a dogma that has been spectacularly disproved: that London’s future lies in the hands of finance and business services. Cheap housing, local job creation and facilities for the community have been discarded in favour of masses and masses of office-space.
It is reminiscent of the 1970s, when buildings like Centrepoint were left empty. What becomes of these sites depends largely on people providing better alternatives – and these, if successful, may realign the priorities of the city itself. Campaigners in Fitzrovia are arguing that the Middlesex Hospital should be turned into a park, and a local councillor has suggested that it might be used as allotments. Meanwhile, the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group, whose thoroughly sensible proposals for the site have previously been thrown out by the local authority, should now be listened to. They put forward a shift away from offices and towards social and affordable housing, both of which Camden has a chronic shortage of, and better access for cyclists.
These are modest plans, but if they are currently seen as radical because they don’t generate massive profits (neoliberalism ain’t dead yet), they may shortly become the only alternatives to these sites turning into lifeless deserts. As Michael Edwards, co-chair of the KXRLG writes,
Development at King’s Cross has twice come a cropper as the economy goes into crisis. This time we should use the opportunity to launch a more robust and more democratic London, or face another 15 years in which these wonderful 30 hectares remain unused.