A closed Hammersmith Bridge (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Gety Images)
Artillery Row

London’s councils are destroying their communities

In the run-up to London’s mayoral and local elections on 6 May, who will deliver on the promise to save the capital’s landmarks?

London’s always changing; more so than any other part of Britain. But since the mass peppering of the Blitz, generations of grey, money-minded developers have twisted truth, greased palms, and ruthlessly hacked away at skylines, heritage survivals and thriving communities alike, in the name of progress and profit. That is their prerogative. It isn’t their job to care or to protect, and there’s no earthly reason we should ever expect it to be.

The same should not be true of councils.

Demolishing these beautiful, important streets is cultural vandalism

Fleet Street is a Conservation Area. According to planning law, that means that built history and its impact on culture must be respected and preserved; that the priority is one of long-term conservation, not short-term interests or passing political trends. Alongside the listed buildings (those of undisputed national and international importance), there are many others classed as non-designated heritage assets, specified as “Unlisted Buildings of Merit which contribute positively to the character and appearance of the conservation area” by the council’s own legislation. On 22 April the Corporation of London granted itself planning permission to demolish six of them. Most are more than 100 years old.

Their replacements will undoubtedly be the usual bland, merciless smear of concrete, metal, plastic and glass. A petition to “save” Fleet Street has only 1500 or so signatures to date. The loss of these buildings will decimate the character and culture of the area, undermine the setting of the listed buildings, and irreparably damage one of London’s most important historic thoroughfares: the centuries-old processional route from St Paul’s Cathedral to Buckingham Palace. Demolishing beautiful, important streets so they never get the chance to be properly listed is cultural vandalism.

The council’s job is to protect and maintain these buildings. Quite aside from asking how they can bring themselves to do this, why are they so desperate to do it in the first place?

Hammersmith Bridge has become a political football for the bland array of Mayoral candidates to play with

It is hardly the only London council neglecting its duty. Last October Tower Hamlets gave permission to uproot a 500-year-old Mulberry tree in the Victoria Park Conservation Area, knowing that it will almost certainly die, and happily accepting the property developer’s unjustified opinion that it’s “probably only a couple of hundred years or so old anyway”. After surviving the Second World War local nurses would dance around it annually to celebrate Easter. There is a woodcut depicting it from the time of Henry VIII. It will be killed so that a private developer can profit from luxury flats, and the council is yet again prioritising that private company’s profits over local heritage. Judi Dench is leading a campaign to save it, with a Judicial Review scheduled at the High Court on 5 May.

Over in Hammersmith the stunning 134-year-old bridge, a work of art and a much-loved local landmark, has been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that it has been closed for two years, and could collapse at any moment. Instead of allocating funds and getting the thing fixed, it has (like the catastrophic loss at Hurst Castle in February) been caught in a quagmire of petty institutional wrangling and bureaucratic delays, and is now just another political football for the current bland array of Mayoral candidates to posture and play with, while more and more committees invent reasons to do nothing.

In self-harming Soho, Westminster council had developer’s withdraw their application to demolish the historic “20th Century House” (erstwhile home of 20th Century Fox) in the Soho Square Conservation Area back in June, just so that in January they could actively change their planning policies in order to make it easier to demolish. The application has now been resubmitted with an inevitable approval, whilst the council gleefully sharpens the developer’s knives for them. Do object, if you can, by 4 May.

Back in Tower Hamlets, the Old Truman Brewery is proposing to tear apart the Brick Lane Conservation Area, and agents working for the developers have been accused of harassing and intimidating members of the local Bangladeshi community into giving their support to the abhorrent proposals, in what has been branded as London’s latest case of “gangster capitalism”. Back in January the developer illegally destroyed the heritage courtyard of the old brewery without planning permission, so that when they ask for permission to build on it there wouldn’t be any good reason to say that it needs to be preserved. The council refused to issue a stop order, despite being begged, and only once the illegal works were completed did they U-turn and condemn them. It was, of course, too late. Jaded as I am, I cannot see how this level of local governmental corruption and incompetence can continue unchecked.

This is a London-wide failing in local government which needs a full-scale investigation

Been to Brixton lately? Back in November, Lambeth council gave permission to an international billionaire amateur DJ to dwarf Electric Avenue with a psychopathic, Bond-villain style tower of ridiculous proportions, in spite of the fact it flies in the face of all relevant planning law and has drawn universal condemnation from community groups and heritage consultees alike. The only argument in its favour is that it will make a very rich man a little bit richer. Why the rest of Brixton should suffer to achieve this end, and why the Labour council is so desperate to help him achieve it, I cannot fathom. Sadiq Kahn quietly approved the plans in December, and after the inevitable uproar he realised that he didn’t mean to and needs to think about it a bit longer. Perhaps he’ll make up his mind once he’s safely re-elected.

I could go on, and on, and on. There are countless examples; some tiny, some abominably large, but all irreversible (can you imagine the cost of safely demolishing the Shard?). None of these developments offer any public good, only private profit, and all will hurt the communities they’re in for generations to come.

In every instance the council is not just failing in its role to protect the area but has become actively complicit (whether through corruption or incompetence — or both) in bending and breaking planning law. We must stop treating each instance as an exception by relying on grassroots and local campaigners to fight them. This is a London-wide failing in local government which needs a full-scale investigation.

Land is limited. Once a centuries-old building is lost it is lost forever. Once every inch is squeezed for private profit there will be nothing left to save, and the only people better off will be the ones who were already rich to begin with — the ones who never cared. The rest of us, the ones who live here, will have nothing left for the councils to give away. We will realise that we gained nothing in exchange for our city but a handful of beads. We will realise that there is nowhere left to go. And that will be London lost.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover