Camden and the GLA prove their total obliviousness to the importance of heritage in today’s decision to approve the demolition of much of the historic Royal Free Hospital on Gray’s Inn Road.
Today is truly a dark day for the conservation of heritage in Bloomsbury and Camden. After months of vociferous opposition to the demolition of the historic quadrangle of the former Royal Free Hospital on Gray’s Inn Road, Camden have approved the application in conjunction with the GLA.
It is fair to say that our own and Historic England’s objections were all but ignored.
The application will see all but one side of the historic courtyard levelled to make way for a new research centre which itself is of a completely inappropriate scale and design.
Historic England have already indicated that the boundary of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area will need to be redrawn to ‘cut out’ the new development.
Both the BCAAC and Historic England raised numerous objections and concerns throughout the application process, but both Camden and the GLA declared there to be ‘no heritage concerns’.
Historic England is the governmental body responsible for listings and the protection of heritage throughout England, whilst the BCAAC is responsible for the protection of heritage in the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas. In other words, together we are the bodies who decide whether there are ‘heritage concerns’ or not. Despite that both us and Historic England were effectively ignored by both the applicant and Camden throughout the application and consultation process.
Together we are the bodies who decide whether there are ‘heritage concerns’ or not.
An error on Camden’s part allowed the applicant to frame the courtyard as having ‘limited significance’ or ‘no significance’ in parts which meant that the applicant needed only to wave their hands about public benefit for Camden to permit its demolition. Despite assurances on Camden’s behalf that they would ignore this error they effectively worked with the applicant to ensure that they could exploit the error which without doubt contributed significantly towards the travesty of this decision.
The approval of this application will have widespread ramifications for the area of Bloomsbury. Now that an applicant has successfully ‘tested the waters’ by having this application approved, it will set a precedent for any developer to propose the demolition of historic buildings and to replace them with inappropriately large developments.
One of the driving forces behind the approval of this application is the large payment that the developer will make to both Camden and the GLA through Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy. These are two ‘taxes’ which roughly increase with the size of a development. Given the enormity of the new development Camden and the GLA will both receive an accordingly enormous payment and this is certainly one of the reasons why the application was hurried across the line in the face of opposition. The application is likely to bring Camden at least a £1M payment.
Payments through development in this way now make up a sizeable proportion of Camden’s income. In Bloomsbury alone Camden have successfully earned about £60M over five years through these ‘taxes’. It is one of the main reasons why Camden encourages and approves stupendous overdevelopment such as seen in this application.
Camden’s Error and its Exploitation
Assessment of whether an application is causing ‘harm’ to heritage can be subtle. Sometimes simple and seemingly innocuous changes such as the replacement of a kerbstone can do immense damage to heritage. Only an expert in the field might recognise such harm.
That was not the case with this application. It is quite clear to even the simplest of characters that knocking a Georgian/Victorian hospital courtyard to the ground is causing significant harm to heritage.
However each planning application carries with it a ‘technical’ heritage assessment. These are usually undertaken by ‘consultancies’ which far from working to protect heritage, actually work to undermine and find loopholes to exploit technicalities and in short, make heritage seem as unimportant as possible.
That is in part why Historic England and the BCAAC exist. We are the only ones who can be trusted to make a proper assessment of ‘harm’ caused to heritage.
The consultancy employed by the applicant found an error in Camden’s records. Part of the courtyard had not been ‘officially’ listed as historically ‘important’. Camden openly admitted that this was an error and that despite the error they assured us that they would treat the building as though it had been officially recorded as important – or technically ‘significant’.
However the applicant fully exploited the error and treated the courtyard as though it had little to no importance whatsoever – treating it on a par with a semi-detached in Birmingham, or worse.
Despite this whole misleading assessment being based on a technical error and despite our own and Historic England’s multiple points of concern, Camden effectively ‘played along’ and treated the building as though it had little or no historical importance.
Due to the technical way in which the planning system treats ‘harm’ to heritage, this allowed the applicant to effectively get away with murder and treat the whole courtyard as being more or less as historically important as a Camden litter bin.
The entire heritage assessment and subsequent argument for the demolition of the courtyard was based on this technical error and both Camden and the GLA decided to turn a blind eye to all protest and simply claim ‘no heritage concerns.’
The whole process highlights just how irresponsible and bureaucratic the planning system in Camden has become. There is no sense of responsibility to protect this building which beyond being protected by policy and law, is a genuinely beautiful and important structure which simply should not be demolished to make way for another monolith.
Wider Questions about the Protection of Heritage should be Asked
During the application process an application to have the building listed was made to protect it from being demolished.
However Historic England decided that the building should not be listed. There is no doubt that had the building been listed, it would have been saved from demolition.
There were no doubt plenty of technical reasons given as to why it shouldn’t be listed but in truth, the process for listing has become twisted and no longer values heritage in a rational and reasonable way. Officers of Historic England have acquired a taste for listing ‘novelties’ and in particular modern buildings which face no threat of demolition such as the Brunswick Centre which is now Grade II listed. The buildings which are genuinely valued and ought to be listed such as the Royal Free are passed over in favour of such ‘novelties’.
The picture above shows the former Royal Free Hospital which was refused for listing. And yet the trough in the foreground which is now an improvised flowerbed is in fact Grade II listed. How can the system be so irrational so as to lend protection to a trough but not an historic hospital? To put this into perspective, due to this protection alterations to the hospital facade should take account of the setting of the trough, yet need take little account of the alterations to the hospital itself. This is evidently absolutely absurd.
It is yet another example of how a system set up to ‘do right’ and protect important buildings can easily be manipulated and end up losing itself in bureaucratic nonsense.
Given the way in which Camden effectively worked with the applicant to exploit what is essentially a loophole in protection on this important piece of our heritage, it is admittedly hard to see how any historic building is safe from demolition and overdevelopment in Camden.
Beyond policy, law, technicalities, and funding, the fate of an important historic building has been sealed today. It is now certain that at some point in the next few years, the bulldozers will come down Gray’s Inn Road and set to work on demolishing a building which has watched over the people of Bloomsbury and King’s Cross and their health for almost two centuries. For a structure such as this to be erased from existence is a tragedy. It is not a state of affairs of which any individual could say they are proud.