Saturday, June 25, 2011


18 months ago, I wrote about two developments in London which appeared to have been nipped in the bud by the financial crisis. The first was Noho Square in Fitzrovia, the second the King’s Cross development. Looking back, my analysis was pretty wide of the mark. The King’s Cross site – now a warren of cranes and luminous yellow jackets – was always too big to fail. And my hopes for what might replace the upper class playground of Noho (“what becomes of these sites depends largely on people providing better alternatives”) were hopelessly naive.

For a while, there was a plan by locals to build a huge allotment on the site, but this never materialised. Next week, as reported by Tom Foot in the CNJ, a consortium of Kaupthing (the Icelandic bank which was nationalised in 2009, and which is the majority landowner), Aviva Investments and Exemplar (an asset management company) will unveil a new masterplan for the site. Those of us who thought that the first plan couldn’t get much worse may be in for a shock. The new proposals – a mixed-use site of retail, health and education facilities and residential – contain even less affordable housing than the original.

There is an interesting quote in Foot’s report which may explain why these proposals are being presented to the public now. A representative of Charlotte Street Association says:

“[The consortium] are in quite a hurry ... one of the problems is that government policy has changed and they no longer give housing grants. It means the gap that has to be funded by the developer is bigger ... But the economics have changed dramatically in their favour. They are paying £50 million less for the site. The property market has gone up significantly and construction costs are lower. There’s a lot of fat in that scheme.”

Hence the CNJ’s f’nar-f’nar headline: “Will hole make someone a mint?”

As an aside, there is a wonderful aerial photo of the site, with the listed chapel standing alone in the middle of the rubble.

It is reminiscent of the no-go areas on the East-West border in 1980s Berlin. Old buildings like this seem quite heroic in their cockroach-like resistance to market forces, and the fact they are often dwarfed by bigger, more grandiose buildings only adds to their quiet resilience. Walking through Victoria today, I was struck by a view of a typical old Westminster pub set against the towering black glass of office buildings.

It's a strange kink in the fabric of neoliberal economies: that, however economically unviable they may be, and however much it might be pragmatic to tear them down, these sort of buildings are not subject to the usual planning rules. Their continued existence is a small sign, perhaps, that deep down we know that speculative ventures are petty, dissolute and doomed to impermanence.


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