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.