Owen Ward: In speaking to people about local affairs, the one theme that crops up time and time again is that Camden simply do not listen to the needs or wants of residents and businesses, pandering instead to institutions, investors, and flimsy ideologies.
In my role as a committee member of BRAG and the BCAAC, and administrator of Save Bloomsbury, I have come into contact with hundreds of individuals living or working in Bloomsbury, to discuss a wide variety of topics. Whether it be about litter, traffic circulation, development, or green spaces, people all say the same thing – Camden simply do not care about what we think.
Whereas once councillors and civil servants would come and talk to us on the streets about our needs, wants, and opinions, councillors now mostly seem to act almost as petty tyrants, totally contemptuous of what we think or know, especially if it is seen to oppose what they want for our area. Indeed, it seems that most councillors are even detached from their own civil servants, or even subservient to them, with councillors recently being overruled by one of their own executives. Whilst councillors – or at least the cabinet – dream up absurd policies to apparently tackle climate change or inequality, which fly in the face of reason – the civil servants are handed the dirty work, forced into trying to impose schemes which they themselves must see as ridiculous, but nonetheless must try their best to convince us of their merit.
Whilst the cabinet push ahead in formulating their nonsensical policies, and the civil service trudge on in trying to impose their hugely unpopular schemes, the common people – the people that actually live and work in Bloomsbury – are suffering further and further, and things are only likely to get worse. With just so many schemes being forced through the system by the cabinet against huge opposition, and even independent condemnation, locals are tiring of fighting this endless, pointless fight, simply to earn a living or live in peace and quiet. Camden, to most people, is simply a monster to be resisted, fought, and even feared. There is absolutely no sense that Camden is something that works for us, paid for by us, to maintain and improve our neighbourhoods and communities. And when Camden do succeed in implementing their schemes, the results can be disastrous.
BRAG was formed in 2016 after residents woke one morning to find their usually quiet roads gridlocked with traffic. It was later found that Camden had implemented a change of traffic circulation on Tavistock Place, but even residents on the road had no idea that this was in the pipeline. This was unprecedented because local authorities have a legal duty to consult with locals about changes such as these, but it was discovered that Camden had failed to even put up notices in the area, the bare minimum as a legal requirement for consultation. Camden had broken the law in trying to quietly impose a scheme without the knowledge of locals, and as a result a public inquiry was held, costing around half a million and lasting three years, provoking outrage from the local community. Camden wanted traffic to flow eastwards, but the inspector found that westwards would be preferable, and that Camden’s preference of eastwards would in the long run cause more deaths through danger to cyclists and pedestrians, along with causing more congestion. Despite this, Camden’s officers in November 2019 recommended their original preference, and the cabinet approved.
This situation, whilst on the face of it absolutely absurd, is now just what is expected of Camden. The people and businesses of Bloomsbury opposed their scheme, an inspector at the cost of half a million opposed their scheme, and after four years of this saga the cabinet simply approve their original plan. I was at the cabinet meeting, and it was not even as though councillors had any interest in the situation – most were slouching, yawning, inspecting their nails. Imposing their scheme had become a matter of stubbornness rather than sensibility – they simply know what’s best for us, regardless of what we think or know. Not a single councillor attended a meeting of the public inquiry.
The Tavistock controversy, and the associated press coverage that it received, has seriously undermined public confidence in Camden. They have quite effectively proven that they will try and force through any of their schemes, regardless of public opinion, or even the shocking waste of public money that comes with it. Nevertheless the cabinet will merrily parrot on about austerity, budget cuts, and how they can’t afford to employ another street cleaner or two. All of this appears to simply be a political game, the consequences of which are largely irrelevant to them.
Although the Tavistock controversy is perhaps the most well known throughout Bloomsbury, there are even more shocking examples of ignorance and neglect that have caused untold amount of harm to communities.
Perhaps the most shocking of all is the development occurring at Derby Lodge, just off King’s Cross Road. I thought that I understood quite well the incompetency and harm that Camden causes, but I was told at my first BRAG meeting that Camden had approved the building of an office block within the courtyard of a Grade II listed building. I was taken aback and assumed it must be some sort of an exaggeration, trying to fathom how such a thing could be allowed. However there was no exaggeration, the development was exactly that – an office block is currently being built within the courtyard of a listed building.
There had been huge public opposition and even press coverage of the proposals, and during the consultation, all of the near to a hundred responses were objections. But of course, Camden did not listen. In fact they did not even issue a formal response to the consultation, in breach of governmental guidelines – not that they ever deign to do such a thing. Many of the responses were extremely detailed, running into many pages, but they all said more or less the same thing, stating simply the truth of the matter – ‘looks like an office block being dropped in a residential courtyard’. Responses frequently detail concerns that the proposals will impact negatively on the mental health of residents, many of whom were vulnerable individuals, some prone to violence. One response warns that if the proposals go ahead, some residents will become violent towards contractors. This was of course ignored, but was of course true – with an incident of one resident throwing objects out their window at contractors once work began. As usual, residents were right, but arbitrary policies dictated that the application would be approved anyhow. Camden conveniently overlooked the fact that they had a duty of care towards their social housing tenants.
Going through the application documents for this development is quite frankly embarrassing, and as everyone repeats, the whole thing should never have been approved. In many areas, paragraphs simply end mid-sentence, the writer forgetting to complete their work. The application is littered with spelling and grammar mistakes. The impact assessment simply states that there will be no impact whatsoever upon local residents. The heritage statement states that the new building will enhance the conservation area and listed Derby Lodge, despite the local CAAC (Heritage Advisory) stating the opposite. It is absolutely nonsensical, incomplete, and embarrassing. But the planning officer approved it anyhow. It brings shame upon the way that our government runs.
It does raise the question of exactly why officers approve these sorts of applications without second thought in the face of unprecedented opposition and even incomplete applications. The answer is of course: money. Every large application comes with it a Section 106, described by some as ‘legal bribery’. Introduced to try and offset the harm that development causes to communities, by making developers pay for local improvements, it achieves exactly the opposite by incentivising local authorities to approve large development regardless of any harm that it may cause in return for funds. Indeed, I was told quite openly by a senior planning officer that since Section 106s were introduced in the 90s, planning has become all about money.
This policy of playing the property market to raise funds came to a head in 2019 when Camden approved a scheme to build a 22-storey luxury tower block in the middle of Somers Town, an area of run-down social housing between Euston and St Pancras stations. Camden’s own scrutiny panel decided to launch an investigation into this scheme, called the ‘Community Investment Program’. The development was supposed to, of course, raise funds for the benefit of the local community, but the fact that the local community were heavily opposed to the scheme seemed to be entirely irrelevant. In response planning chief Danny Beales cited how 350 new council homes had been built over a decade, supposedly an unprecedented achievement (Camden’s total population being about 250,000), and of course made the usual reference to austerity and budget-cuts. The fact that the essential character and community of an area was being destroyed exactly at the cost of those currently living in council homes did not seem to matter – of course the cabinet knows best.
The latest in this series of absurd schemes is the imposition of cycle lanes down Gray’s Inn Road. This time, Camden remembered to put up notices, and even delivered a hefty document detailing all the plans to many residents in the area – I received it a five minute walk away, although many residents actually living on Gray’s Inn Road failed to receive anything. The whole length of the road is proposed to have no stopping and loading, and pedestrian islands are being removed to ‘improve safety’. Businesses are despairing at how they are going to manage deliveries or waste collections. Going from business to business, many have leaflets and posters stuck up urging people to object to the proposals. ‘It doesn’t make any sense’, they all say, ‘but they never listen to us’. Camden are reported to have suggested that all businesses organise deliveries together and cart them along the entire length of the road by foot. How on earth deliveries of food, pianos, parcels, and shower cubicles could all be delivered by one courier is beyond anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t matter – Camden will impose their scheme, and the businesses will have to make do. Perhaps we will be in for another half-decade of protests and half-million of wasted public money. Maybe then, after a decade of gridlock in Bloomsbury, councillors will realise that after all, the opinion of 20,000 residents of Bloomsbury outweighs that of a few politicians.