King's Cross – what next?

Article sent to CNJ

The Camden New Journal asked me to write a piece on what should happen now if the current proposals fall victim to the crisis. Here it is. [Later: it did appear, and led to an exchange of correspondence with Robert Evans at Argent.]

On 23 Nov 2008, at 17:49, Rob Evans wrote:


I am commenting on your CNJ article in a personal capacity. It will not come as a great surprise to hear that I disagree with it. I had hoped to submit a reply via your blog – but for some reason my response was rejected (clever filter that).

First, I say the article was simply wrong. The site is no longer “Government owned railway land” (part of it has not been for a very long time) and no loan deals have “collapsed”. And I’m not sure where you are getting your information about the BT Pension Scheme (BTPS) either? The fact is BTPS is investing in King’s Cross, alongside Argent, LCR and Exel and that has been the plan since 2001.

Second, the scheme is going ahead. Construction works on the training centre, the shared service yard, great northern hotel arcading and the Eastern Goods Yard are all well underway and the University of the Arts London (UAL) will move in in/before September 2011. Our first two announced occupiers – UAL and Sainsbury’s – somewhat contradict your assertion that the scheme is predicated only on finance and business services. We are also working on 3 buildings which include accommodation for One Housing Group – our affordable housing partner – and we hope to be submitting the first of these early in the new year. Many of the early buildings also include small business space. In my view, you will start to see a “new bit of London where everyone feels at home”.

Third, Your central point appears to be: Argent cannot borrow, so lets transfer the land to a community development trust. If, as you say, Argent cannot borrow, I do not see how you propose to fund your alternative, incremental scheme. Certainly, you do not explain that in your article. How does a community development trust, with no scheme and no track record, borrow if Argent (with 25 years experience of mixed use development) cannot?

I do agree that our scheme faced “strong objections”, from yourself and others within the Railway Lands Group/Cally Rail Group. but I do not accept that those two organisations represent or speak for “the community” or even the majority within it. You speak of a more democratic London, but what you really mean is, a London where your view prevails. The fact is that Camden councillors and the Secretary of State, both democratically elected (unlike you or I) have consented the scheme. And along the way an independent Inspector and a High Court judge have both found against your “strong objections”.

In my experience, the vast majority of people want the Argent/LCR/Exel scheme to happen; and be a success. Isnt it time to recognise that? Yes, it is a difficult time to be developing (this scheme or any other) and there will be setbacks along the way. Do you really believe that King’s Cross is best served by celebrating those setbacks; or by working to achieve the best regeneration outcome from the scheme that is now underway?

Regards, Robert

I then replied as follows (03/12); Inserted in between my points are Robert Evans’s subsequent (10/12) replies in blue. Then I’m adding some further comments of mine (Jan 09) in red.
ME As I said in my holding reply a week ago, there was a breakdown in the blog, not a clever filter to exclude you! The bug is fixed now and we could have this exchange there if you approve. Let me know. I would like it to be public.

RE Thank you for the explanation. I did not believe that it was a filter in operation; but I found the idea amusing.

ME Let me take your comments one by one. (And I’m writing in a personal capacity, as you are. Not on behalf of KXRLG, except where I say “we”.)

Ownership. At the Islington Triangle Public Inquiry a few months ago Argent clearly said that land had not been transferred by the government, and I have made the asumption that what would be transferred (to Argent and LCR) would be development rights of some sort, but anyway a title short of full ownership. Whatever the arrangement is, it presumably provides some default or fallback arrangements for the rights to revert to government if the development cannot go ahead. (As you know the commercial confidentiality surrounding all such contracts makes it near-impossible for citizens to get accurate information.) The editor of the CNJ asked me to write a ‘blue skies’ piece about what might happen, and I don’t believe that my hypothetical statements were unreasonable.
RE Well the assumptions you have made are wrong.

First, just under 40% of the site has been owned by a private owner, now called DHL-Exel, for many many years. You do insist on referring to (all) the railway lands as government owned or public land, but for that land at least, it has not been true for certainly more than a decade.

Second, what we told the Inquiry, and what is documented in the S106 Agreements, is that Argent/LCR/DHL-Exel either are, or would become, the freehold owners of the land for King’s Cross Central. That is now the position. I do not know how you arrived at the notion that we would only get to borrow/use the land, with some mechanism for the land to go back. Nor do I understand how you would expect any development entity to finance very expensive up-front and site-wide infrastructure (and that would be true even if you covered the site in predominantly social housing) on that basis.

ME January: I knew about the Exel/DHL block but I’m surprised by what you say on the main area. I still think my hypothetical assumption about what might happen was a reasonable one.  But I am sorry to be wrong. On how I think alternative schemes could be financed, see below.

ME Collapse of Loan Deals. Here I relied on the FT of October 22 [link] and a shorter article in Property Week (which I wrongly wrote was the Estates Gazette) [link].  It was hardly a surprise that financing arrangements were unravelling in that period. If you are saying that the FT and PW were simply wrong in their reporting then I’ll have to re-think my ideas about reliable sources.

About the problems at BT Pension fund. I was relying on a Guardian report on November 3rd [link] and I think I recall similar reports the same day.?

My deduction from all this (though I didn’t go into it in the article because there was an 800 word limit) was this: It would have been normal for there to be a substantial slab of loan finance in the early phases (and that was what had been under discussion with Euro Hypo and Deutsche Postbank) and then for the development partners each to make equity inputs, either in cash or in kind (land). When the loans failed to come through, the partners were landed with the need to proceed on an all-equity basis or to put the project on hold. A decision was made to proceed, and with the University of the Arts and Sainsbury’s signed up as occupiers, that decision seemed quite understandable.
RE I have not been able to read the Guardian article on the BT Pension Fund, as my computer doesnt like the file type. I have read the FT article; and I know the EG reasonably well but don’t recall that particular story.

Michael, I very much doubt you relied too often on unattributed EG “reports” as the bedrock for your academic papers. Does that rigour and training go out of the window when it comes to King’s Cross, because it does not suit the campaigning style? Why are you treating gossip in a property magazine as fact? Is it not the equivalent of “some bloke in the pub told me”? EG also published a story the other week saying that we are going to do a 400,000 letting to BNP Paribas. Sadly not true. Sorry to break this to you, but some of what you read in the EG, and other publications, is poppycock.

The FT story is more credible but wrong to paint the black and white picture of “it was going to be debt; now they cant get it and so they are spending equity.” The reality is that we/BTPS have, for as long as I have been at Argent, been preparing to invest a substantial sum at the beginning of the development phase, for land and infrastructure. That is still the position and in that sense nothing has changed. No loan deals collapsed because there were no deals in place to collapse. Of course, the availability of debt finance has changed significantly, for the market generally, and we will have to see how that plays out at King’s Cross and elsewhere.

ME January.  I certainly would not rely on Estates Gazette gossip alone, no – not for any purpose, scholarly or campaigning. But I DID rely on the FT and the Guardian (and noted that the EG story could well have been a precis (shall we say) of the FT one.

ME Mix of occupiers: I don’t think I have ever said that the scheme was predicated ONLY on finance and business services, but rather that it envisaged too high a proportion of that – and a corporate HQ like Sainsbury’s counts as part of that to me. The UoA is an excellent use to have in such a key spot and at such an early date – and I have never done anything other than praise that. And I know housing projects are in the design pipeline: I have seen presentations on the western one and was impressed; the one on York Way less so. It was to be expected that housing and offices would come along in parallel – and the outline permission provides for that and requires it. As so often my quarrel is with the planning authorities for what they sought and permitted in terms of the mix.
RE I think you have used a form of words, in your KXRLG writings, that has conveyed the impression that the scheme is utterly dominated by finance and business services. Personally, I do not see that Sainsbury’s national support centre, with its food centres, demonstration kitchens and so on would be “finance or business services”. There is I suggest a looseness with classification to make the facts fit your argument.

I agree that in some emails and some attachments that you have been good enough to send, you have made some positive statements about UAL and interesting architecture.

I’m not sure I have ever seen anything similar from KXRLG. I would characterise the output from KXRLG as pretty much 100% knocking copy to date. You comment below on your latest representations on the R2 building. I agree you have not launched a vociferous attack on the proposal, but nor could you bring yourselves to say anything positive, for example that this or that aspect is welcome/good. The closest you get is stating that the building has nothing much to commend it! Then we get the (I agree, limited) objections. Perhaps your representations would be more credible if you were prepared to be more even-handed?

Your comments about housing are interesting and follow the pattern I have referred to. You make strong criticisms of our planning permission, but when it delivers something good, i.e. mixed use straight away with housing alongside offices, you say well of course, its to be expected, its part of the outline planning permission. You do not see an irony there? A double standard per chance?

The western project you refer to is plot T1. It is being submitted soon, probably just after Christmas, so I look forward to your letter of support!

The one along York Way is plot J. I think it is a very fine scheme, but I would accept that the images you might have seen could be better.

ME January.  Documents coming from the KXRLG are, of course, of multiple / collective / committee authorship so it is hardly surpising that their tone varies and is often in a more campaigning style. But I really think you are wrong to say that the KXRLG stuff is all “knocking copy”.  I’ll send you some copies of the most recent newsletter (‘Network’) and I hope you’ll agree.

ME On your final paragraphs I think there are 2 points: how representative the KXRLG views are; and whether my arguments have substance – separately from the representativeness issue.

On representativeness I do not believe that anyone can be very sure. But I do know that for years we have had – and we continue to have – support and encouragement from tenants associations, a number of resident groups of quite diverse class and ethnic character and from conservation buffs. Some of the councillors in the former and in the present Camden council supported us and the voting for the permissions was quite close. Neither the JR nor the Triangle Inquiry found against us on grounds of being un-representative.

My view remains that neither Camden nor the Mayor ever did enough to protect the low- and middle-income and other weaker residents of the surrounding area from the gentrification pressures which have been building up for decades and are accelerating now, or to secure enough for them from the Railway Lands development. I would continue to say that even if there were no-one supporting me.
RE And you are entitled to state your case of course. But your point about the JR and Triangle is a complete red herring. No-one took that point against you. First, because the JR was about due process not how many supporters you might or might not have. In terms of the Triangle Inquiry, you are entitled to make the points you made as a local campaigning group and the Inspector reported you as such. You’re the one who started a debate about what is “democratic”!

ME Jan.  I only made this point about the grounds on which the JR and the Inspector/SoS found against us because in the penultimate para of your original November reply, above, you were stressing that we had been over-ruled by more democratically legitimate forces.

ME On where we go now, I agree completely that we have to make the best of what can be done. We are very glad that the Construction impact group is looking like being a good tri-partite collaboration (like its predecessor on CTRL); we are equally glad that progress is being made on training and jobs. We have also supported the continuation of the KXDF under Geoffrey Roper’s chairing (despite Camden’s – or at least Bob West’s – suggestion that it might be put into hibernation). The Forum decided to keep going in an information-spreading role, and NOT to claim any longer to be a representative (or THE representative) of community views. It’s first task in its new form has been to look closely at the Sainsbury’s building and, although it raised lots of criticisms, the KXRLG in its comments focussed only one issue – the conditions for pedestrians on the surrounding pavements. So we were being as un-combative as we could be. In short I hope we can cooperate more and more.
RE Noted. See my comments above re: R2/Sainsburys. If you’re serious about the last point I will meet you for a coffee in the new year to hear more

ME January:  well now it is the new year so let’s have that coffee.

ME To go back to the CNJ article. It was intriguing to be asked to imagine how the development could be different. The fact is that we don’t know how bad this crisis in the world is going to get and it could be that your scheme ceases to be feasible. Equally the kind of alternative I was outlining could also be un-feasible – and for it to be feasible at all would require a different sort of London Plan and lots of other changes in society. 800 words was not much space to elaborate all that, but there’s a longer exposition of a parallel argument (about Thames Gateway, not King’s Cross) on the blog if you have time or interest to pursue it.

RE I agree we do not know how bad things are going to get; and of course, there could be implications for King’s Cross. But you still haven’t explained how a community development trust model is a solution to that, or somehow immune to the bad/even worse conditions you envisage. That was the leap you made in your article.

ME January: agreed that I did not explain how a community development trust could be viable or immune to a deep crisis.  Briefly, the answer would have to start with getting the land free, quite a lot of up-front state as well as pension-fund investment – but probably not as much public money as the French put into Seine Rive Gauche….

ME.  LASTLY: You may remember that we asked you to speak at a UCL seminar last July (on the ‘urban renaissance’). You agreed, but were unable to come because the date was the same as your company’s away-day. Peter Bishop did a strong presentation on behalf of KXC/LBC. But I am sorry you missed it. Anyhow the talk that I gave on King’s Cross for the same event is now written up and going into a forthcoming book on the British Urban Renaissance. I attach a copy and I hope that – if you have time to look at it – you’ll find it more to your liking than the 800 words of the CNJ. [ see Publications page for that chapter. ]

RE Thank you. I will read it. In return, I will send you the paper I was asked to give at this year’s Bar Association/RTPI/Law Society/RICS Oxford Planning Law Conference. It has just appeared in JPEL alongside some much better papers. I don’t write many papers and it was quite a struggle. There will be much in my paper you don’t agree with; but perhaps some points we can agree on.

ME Jan. I can probably find the JPEL paper in the library or online, and I shall.   Michael

Author: Editors


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