Medical research v social housing: UKCMRI

Last night the proposers of a major new medical research centre at Brill Place (King’s Cross St Pancras) showed their scheme at a meeting called by Camden Council in Somers Town, the adjoining district.  There is huge conflict about this project because the site has long been earmarked for a mix of activty including social housing and community facilities, none of which could be built if the research centre goes ahead.  It was a fraught, tense, meeting at times with objectors expressng variously frustration, impotence and rage while the proponents were very civilised and rather peeved to be seen as anything other than battling for the public interest.  It tells us a lot about the balance of power in urban decision making, the weakness of the planning system and the transformation of democratic local govenment into a neutered facilitator of the city’s transformation.  This is a quick short note to capture some reactions and I may expand it later.

The research centre is awkwardly named UKCMRI (UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation) and is a joint project of UCL, The Wellcome Foundation, the Medical Research Coucil (MRC) and Cancer Research UK:  all the great and the good. It’s designed to concentrate on a single site the MRC activity currently at Mill Hill in the north western suburbs and other research already in Central London.  There is a very powerful case—it seems to me—for it to be in or near Bloomsbury and close to the Eurostar and national railway hub.  (I had previously thought that it was just the kind of thing whch should remain in the suburbs as part of efforts to make London more polycentric, but I was probably wrong.) More details at http://www.ukcmri.ac.uk/.  The promoters already bought the site (from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport DCMS) for an undisclosed sum and have sunk some more money into design work, despite the fact that Camden Council’s local plans and brief for the site had the plot designated for a mx of uses including ‘community’ spaces and housing, including social rented housing.

Housing needs in the area (as elsewhere) are acute: there is serious overcrowding, very severe ill-health associated with poverty and bad housing.  Feeling in the area is very strong because these housing and social needs are not being met.  The settlement reached in 2006 for the development of the adjoining railway lands (the King’s Cross Central development by Argent) was disappointing in the amount of social rented housing it would yield and, to cap it all, the other substantial nearby site—the National Temperance Hospital in Hampsead Road—which had been acquired by the MRC when it first planned to move from Mill Hill now looks as though it will be sold to the highest bidder (and thus probably not used for social rented housing).

Camden’s head of development control chaired the meeting (very well) but Camden’s position came over in a way which—reading between the lines—made it very clear that they were moving along in unison with the promoters of the scheme and were preparing the ground for giving permission. The case offcer explained that the local plans were only one component of ‘the Development Plan’ and that the decision by Camden’s Development Control Committee would—as the law requires—be made in the light of ‘all material considerations’ including London and national Policy….. and so on.  As a former councillor said at the meeting, if Camden did not give permission the Mayor of London probably would.  And of he did not, then the Secretary of State surely would.  It is David v Goliath with a very weak David.  As usual.

Just 100 metres away, on the other side of St Pancras staton, Camden had given permission in 2006 to Argent for a massive mixed-use development and I asked what efforts had been made by Camden or by the applicants to acommodate the UKCMRI within the very flexible scheme of Argent.  In that way the research centre could have met all its location requirements while Camden could have retained the Brill Place site for meeting urgent social needs.  There was no response from Camden at all.  But the UCMRI speaker (John Cooper I think) responded that Argent had been approached some time ago (before he had joined the project) and had said that their scheme could not really acommodate more than one public institution and they had already ageed to house the Univesity of the Arts. [I was later told that UKCMRI’s insistence on a freehold had also been a problem in relation to the KXC site.]  To my comment that the crisis had deepened in the last few years so that Argent was now rather short of occupiers and might be glad of them, he responded that he thought Argent remained optimistic about their scheme attracting commercial occupiers and that, anyway, UKCMRI now had a lot of sunk costs in the Brill Place site implying that they could not now re-locate.

Normally it is assumed that anyone who buys a site designated in the development plan for a particular use, but with the intention of using it for something quite different, runs a strong risk of being refused.  The facts that an applicant has paid for the land and sunk a lot of money in making plans for it are emphatically not material planning considerations. But it is clear in this case that, if you are powerful enough, and have a strong moral/ethical case for your alternative use, your risk is negligible.  So there.

What is so shocking to me about this is that it further shows how wrong Camden were to give such a huge, long-term, permission to Argent.  As we said at the time, they were giving away their responsibility to control the evolution of the railway lands development in the light of changing circumstances, and Argent’s performance and changing policy priorities.  Already we see the price being paid for that.

This research centre seems like a great project to me:  just the sort of global/national and socially-useful facility which ought to be in King’s Cross. But we need a form of local democracy which ensures that the exceedingly deprived and vulnerable surrounding locality has its needs met as well.

There are lots of other issues here, and I’ll return to them when I get time:

1. The de-politicised role of planning commitees;

2. To reduce the bulkof the building, UKCMRI plan to have ‘a third of it’ below ground level.  That’s a lot of mud to shift and a lot of tonne-km of trucking.  Are they going to use the canal for it?

3. There is also the thorny issue of east-west access through the site so that there is a good pedestrian/cycle route parallel to the Euston Road and joining all the stations. We received some assurances from UKCMRI yesterday that this is being considered, but it was well short of an undertaking.  Camden said nothing.

4.  The local residents are far from united in style of action: while the discontent seems universal, it is expressed in a wide spectrum of ways: panicky and shrill at times, bitter at others, calmly argued sometimes.  There does not seem to be much effective leadership from local politicians.

That’s all for the moment.

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Author: Ed

staff in the Bartlett School of Planning and cooperating with others in UCL and with the Just Space Network to support London citizens' inpu

12 thoughts on “Medical research v social housing: UKCMRI”

  1. You raise some important issues from the meeting Michael. I wonder if the failure of the political system push people back into the courts to try to establish priorities?

    Will the ‘great and good’ public and charity sector find an ethical way to address the needs of the local population whose health is badly impacted by a lack of public health considerations or will they hide behind maximising the financial benefits on specific projects and the fact that they are not the only body doing this despite being aware that their behaviour will contribute to the ill health for the low income communities in the area?

    I agree that the proposal that the UKCMRI be accommodated in the Argent development on the railway lands should be further explored by Camden Council in its community leadership role with a responsibility for creating sustainable communities.

    The problem for Argent’s development is being ‘creatively’ addressed by Camden in that it is proposing to vacate the Town Hall Extension and build something new- on the argent site at the corner of Goods Way and St Pancras Way. There is a lot of controversy about what might be built on the site of the Town Hall extension. So far, not a lot of talk about the suitability of the proposed new site. At a glance, it seems badly located for the public with no buses stopping outside, with a narrow footpath and tall buildings.

    It this is going to be another case of the public sector bailing out a private sector failure with Camden Council helping Argent out [with our money], why don’t they at least lets do the thing rationally.

    Given the cynical way that Camden Council has allowed the planning application for KIng’s Cross Station to be approved without securing the resources for an east/west pedestrian, wheelchair and cycling route behind the station to at least partially compensate for the loss of several routes through the station, I am not hopeful. On the other hand, if Camden Council is learning from its mistakes, it might take more time to listen to the wisdom of local people rather that trying to think about ways to lower the volume of their opposition.

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  2. Michael,

    Sad to read your note as it seems a very difficult issue for all those involved, especially the residents.

    In light of Camden’s lack of responses on some of the excellent alternatives/points you raised I wonder could this be used against them? It does seem they are preparing to grant permissions and looking to minimise the backlash. However, could they be pressed to answer any of these questions in the local/national press? They may choose to do this to placate and it may provide some useful information for people to use against them!

    Secondly, considering the major players involved in the project the project is surely to have national significance. Would the residents be able to bring to the table (if one ever exists) a compromise policy for the inclusion of at least some social housing? If this was done in a creative way then the residents may at least get something out of the project.

    The ex-councillors point of it being called in by the Mayor could be the catalyst for some of the above to happen. Boris has clearly stated he doesn’t want to call in projects so if he did it would attract media interest. I would wonder how long they are willing to stall a project like this against the inclusion of some social housing?

    Regarding the design (and I haven’t looked closely yet) a couple of points spring to mind. The location of the site and the tonnage of earth to shift could have potential congestion problems and also has a site been allocated where the spoil will be sent? The embodied energies in the construction of a building of this sort would be massive, could this be used to challenge UCL on their interest (on sustainability grounds) in a project of this sort?

    It is very worrying though that this process is happening in parallel to local democracy. This is a strong move in the global medical research market but does little to alleviate the localised problems that exist already or the extra pressure that a development like this will cause. The greatest irony of it all – an international medical research centre that is adding to the health and social equality problems that already exist.

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  3. 1) IS THIS “A ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH”?

    Don’t be quite so sure about that, despite the Nobel prize winning rhetoric we were exposed to at the Development Control Forum. The first version of the plan at the National Temperance Hospital led to such serious opposition from the scientists at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill that it led to an investigation by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee. The Select Committee report’s range of criticisms of the plan could scarcely have been wider. It was only when the Wellcome Institute came on board that enough money was put on offer to silence any of the academic opposition to the move.

    Another question must be whether the money being invested by UCL is the best use of scarce resources when huge cuts are being proposed at the college.

    The most telling reason for why this development should be in central London was given at the Forum – it is important for medical research in Britain to “compete” internationally. That is why scientists can’t travel 30 minutes on the tube to the already existing site where the development could be provided more cheaply, safely and on a larger less cramped site. The location is as much dictated by the “vanity” nature of the project with its entrance facing St Pancras Eurostar as any research needs.

    2) ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY LOST FOR LOCAL PEOPLE

    The arguments for housing and community facilities, especially for young people, are obvious to most people who are asked.

    It is particularly galling to be lectured by medical researchers about how their work might solve the health problems of the local population. They must be aware that it is inequality, unemployment, overcrowding and pollution that are the main causes of the nearly 10 year gap in life expectance between Somers Town and Hampstead. This development will make these worse not better.

    3) SHOULD WE OPPOSE THE WHOLE DEVELOPMENT OR TRY AND GET A SECTION 106 AGREEMENT?

    This is perhaps a false distinction. One of the ironies is that local people would be better served if this was a commercial development where housing and community facilities would have to be provided either on site or elsewhere in order to get planning permission. UKCMRI are arguing that they do not need to do any of this, even on the National Temperance site, because they are funded by “charity” and act in the public good.

    This has gone unchallenged by Camden’s planners who have been pursuing the ” it will happen anyway so lets see what we can get” in about the most spineless way possible.

    So far this strategy has only succeeded in gaining the most token of concessions. UKCMRI has agreed to:
    a) Put a six metre strip of space on the Ossulston St side of the site.
    b) This may disappear and become a “Healthy living centre” at the suggestion of Camden planners, but even UKCMRI agree this may be just a token gesture – such as the “juice bar” a council officer was proposing.
    c) Work with local schools which they do already and have a lecture theatre available for public use.
    d) There has been no movement on public access through the site, or the fact that the design means that the incredibly dense buildings tower over the residential blocks beneath.
    e) Some contribution to housing has “been raised”.

    4) WE WILL GET WHAT WE FIGHT FOR

    To stop this development would be a tall order. But unless we threaten the developers and force the council to have some back bone we will have no influence at all on the development except in the most token way.

    Somers Town has seen large public meetings and a demonstration over this issue.

    Even after the land was sold, deputations to Camden Council at full council meetings, an Executive Committee and at their Housing Scrutiny committee have all secured agreement on paper that the Council should stick to their planning brief and secure housing on the site. An election is coming where none of the national or local politicians can take their positions for granted.

    If we are to put our energies into a campaign then some clear demands would help focus and moilise support. These could be something like:

    * No planning permission unless housing and community facilities are provided on site or elsewhere. Significant funding should be made available for facilities for local young people.

    * Alternative sites to be investigated and evaluated including the Kings Cross development

    * Government and council to intervene to ensure National Temperance Hospital land is acquired and used to build council housing.

    * No planning permission unless the criticisms of the design’s bulk, height and lack of ” permeability” are addressed.

    A meeting has been organised to discuss how we progress the campaign on WEDNESDAY 17 FEBRUARY 7.30pm at Camden Town Hall (committee room in the name of Roger Robinson)

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  4. Most residents feel that there has been what amounts to a cover up by the UKCMRI around this project and this includes people working within the pharmaceutical sector and civil services.

    Residents have not has an adequate chance to obtain information about what the lab will mean for us and those who are most vulnerable such as those in the Monica Shaw estate are not really being properly informed or consulted about the plans.

    We feel that these “consultations” are window dressing rather than genuine consultations. The decision seems already to have been made.

    The distribution of “600 letters” when there are thousands of people living in Camden [if indeed this was even done] is woefully inadequate.

    Most of us felt patronised at the meeting and feel deceived by the UKCMRI consortium and some sections of Camden Council.

    I fear greatly that there are those in Camden who will be driven into the arms of real and dangerous extremists as a result of this lab and as a direct result of not being properly consulted.

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  5. As a local resident, I completely agreed with the young woman in the audience who said we were being patronized by the panel at the meeting with UKCMRI.

    I think it’s not indubitable that the proposed research centre is all for the common good. There seems a certain amount of ego involved from the all male panel of consortium partners, and repeated references to the need to ‘compete’ in science these days and leave a ‘legacy’. How about some co-operation, instead of exporting the competitive ethos of the market which has been seen to fail so spectacularly elsewhere? It seemed a lot about boys wanting to build bigger toys. And about Wellcome – who’ll own the land – building an empire…?

    (Another argument that failed to convince was that the site needs to be within walking distance of other large medical centres. Don’t researchers use web, phone and email to communicate – do they really only walk to talk to colleagues?)

    As other commentators say here, it’s a real irony that this grandiose project claiming to be about better health will actually take away opportunities to improve local health, by refusing to meet the local planning guidance which requires this site in a deprived area to provide housing and community facilities. The project will also increase traffic in an area where pollution levels are above the legal limit and affect local people’s health badly.

    And is more research into ‘cures’ the only way? Most of the illnesses affecting people are related to poverty, lifestyle and pollution. Industries have created and profited from these problems, and now again they want to commodify finding a ‘cure’. Get paid while you make the people ill, then get paid to deal with those illnesses. The solution is not just a big sexy legacy project but many small, slow, unglamorous changes in society’s priorities and behavior. Improving housing, reducing pollution, healthier diets, more exercise ( just not along our toxic Euston Road) would all help reduce ill health – so would dealing with the reasons we smoke and drink too much. Should we follow Bhutan, one country which measures Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product…

    Locally many of us have spent literally hundreds of hours at planning and consultation events. It can take up a huge amount of our time, unpaid, and our views are largely ignored. This is not a rich area, and being involved in campaigns is very wearing – no wonder we are shrill and bitter at times. That’s how people without power end up sounding.

    We don’t have budgets and conference rooms and secretaries and expenses accounts and cars to help us in our campaigning, unlike the developers, who urge us to get involved and give our time for free – while they get paid for attending meetings. Many of us are council tenants and people on low wages and on benefit and carers and retired people and people in poor health and we are tired of being treated like this. But will the men in expensive suits will take any notice of us?

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  6. This lab will draw extremists into Camden and these people will never go away. They will co exist with the lab and will destroy Camden.

    Animal Rights activists have links to Far Right extremist groups. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty [SHAC] is funded by the parent of a man, Robin Steele, pictured in a swastika t-shirt at a neo nazi British Peoples Party meeting. SHAC will very much be part of the campaign against the Camden lab. Charlotte Lewis of the British National Party is a SHAC activist. Dave Gardner an animal rights activist is a member of the BNP. Sadie Graham animal rights activist is the BNP member arrested for leaking BNP emails. Roberto Fiore an Italian racist terrorist is an animal rights activist with links to Nick Griffin. Troy southgate an AR activist is a National Front associate. Jon Procer a young AR activist has been pictured on a National Front demonstartion. Matthew Gibbons an AR acitivist is an open and photographed member of the hooligan English Defence League responsible for rampages involving thousands of thugs across the UK.

    The violent Animal Protection Party and associated groups the Camden Sanity Brigade and Charity Watch have openly joined a cult that believes “aliens have taken over Camden”. Keith Mann a convicted terrorist has links to alien websites on his myspace page. These groups have targeted Cancer Research UK and only Cancer Research UK via websites and blogs.

    These extremists must be kept out of Camden at all costs and by any means necessary.

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  7. There are peaceful and decent campaign, political and pressure groups who are against animal cruelty such as Animals Count and BUAV.

    They are not extreme and are not part of the extremism described. Animals Count are peaceful.

    Animals Count should and will be supported locally and will be standing in South Islington and Finsbury ward.

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  8. The plans for this lab have taken a toll on the local community. It has caused physical and mental ill health for worried campaigners before building has even started. How can they say that this lab is for our health’s sake?
    It will cause dirt, noise, pollution, worry, extremism, victimisation of communities who will be accused of terrorism [most of us], worry for parents of teenagers who might become led astray by extremists, worry for teachers and lecturers, pressure on councillors, posible violence against people involved in the science professions which will turn Camden into a mini war zone and pressure on all residents living nearby to the lab. the consortium have taken over land that could have been used for housing..housing will contribute to better health rather than this lab.

    The lab people keep on saying that they need to build the lab “because of the high incidence of TB” in the area and Camden’s communites are being accused of “spreading disease” with the effect that people are becoming angry. The problems with TB [if they exist at all] should be dealt with by community nurses who can offer vaccination in community centres, NOT by white men in suits on a stage scaring the community by stating that they “need to build a lab becuase of TB in Camden” causing friction within the community here. TB is caused by overcrowding and poor housing conditions it is NOT caused by the Somali, Bengali or Gambian communities living here.

    What about the threat of virus leaks caused by lab staff negligence? Labs have cause disease outbreaks such as Foot and Mouth disease and Swine Flu. Labs in built up areas are bad for our health.

    The plans have to be turned down for the sake of Camden’s health.

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  9. Well what can i say to add to the statements above , only that their all correct, i cannot belive i have friends living with their children in hostels which are damp causing ill health to children and parents in one (yes u heard right) one room !!! grow some backbone camden councill or have u all been paid off, housing is in crisis !!!! theres enough of these labs in the uk already , lets face it what great things will come of this lab?? Thousands of tortured animals dead from diseases the men in white coats create burning into the local residents atmoshere( cheers cant wait to breath that lot in/my 4 year old too) new more deadly viruses that may well be used in population control programs ( a weak joke surely the government loves us really) yet history has shown millions of deaths from man made disease, and after 4 years of hell, noise, dust ,pollution ( traffic in nearby areas means i dust 3 times a day already so tripple that ) no one really can really say this is for the good of camden!! someone tell me im dreaming !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! no just pinched myself im deffinatly awake , NO ONE HERE WANTS THIS TOXIC PILE OF FILTH!! HOUSING WOULD MAKE MORE SENCE, THIS LAB SPELLS TROUBLE.

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  10. People still banging on about extremists!!! The only extremism here is the claok and dagger activity of a colluding labour government pulling off a land deal for Lord Sainsbury’s mates.
    As for extremists the only evidence I cane see of them are the state and big business paid activity of informants and agent provacteurs attempting to disable citizen activism.

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