Opinion: Camden needs the motivation and activism of Bloomsbury’s residents to perform public duties properly. But dependence upon overdevelopment is destroying the trust of Bloomsbury’s communities.
People here care deeply about their homes, their communities, and the preservation of the historic environment. The importance of Bloomsbury is not something that can simply be read about – one has to live here, walk its streets and squares, and meet and learn the stories of its residents, in order to truly know its importance. There is so much happening here, so many competing interests, and so many billions of pounds flying around that it is very hard not to become involved in public affairs in some way. One of the great surprises of becoming an activist in Bloomsbury is that everyone involved in activism here in some way did so by accident – not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to. Entire committees and societies, like BRAG, are formed by such ‘accidental activists’. I see it as a testament to the importance of Bloomsbury and its protection.
The problem is that the commonplace abuse of Bloomsbury through Section 106: the destruction of historic buildings and the erection of monoliths in their place has slowly but surely destroyed the natural motivation of Bloomsbury’s communities to care for their neighbourhoods, and has left a toxic culture of distrust and anger in its place. Even Bloomsbury’s kerbstones require proper protection and care – but if Bloomsbury’s historic hospitals are being demolished, how or why should we spend time protecting the kerbstones delineating the demolition site?
With Save Bloomsbury celebrating its first birthday earlier this month, it is time to review its involvement with local affairs, and find lessons to be learned between the lines of its articles. And of most concern to me is the very fact that the short-sighted actions of Camden’s planners are draining the natural motivation of Bloomsbury’s residents and activists. I believe that the natural motivation of Bloomsbury’s residents to ‘save Bloomsbury’ is the most precious resource in this land, and the draining of this motivation heralds a looming crisis in the conduct of public affairs in Bloomsbury.
Being almost every day involved with matters involving Camden’s officers, councillors, Bloomsbury’s residents, members of the BCAAC, BRAG, and other societies throughout the area, it is my view that the crisis of today is principally one of motivation. I believe the cause of the toxic social environment in Bloomsbury has its roots in Section 106 and disastrous planning decisions – development after development being granted with no regard to local interests has sent out a clear and resounding message: we will ask you whether you agree with our proposed changes, but whatever you say, we will do what we want. This is the case most certainly for planning applications, but spills over into traffic planning, litter picking, and almost every activity Camden undertakes in Bloomsbury. Camden’s officers work in a culture where the interests of the residents of an area are entirely secondary to the political will of Camden’s cabinet.
The problem with this is that over time, I have learned that the residents of Bloomsbury are the ones who provide the motivation for Camden’s officers to undertake their duties properly. One would assume, seeing Camden from the outside, that Camden’s councillors are the ones who motivate officers to work well, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen first hand how my own personal motivation to get my neighbourhood cleaned up has positively affected the work ethic of Camden’s officers and given them a reason to go the extra mile – it has even brought in extra cleaning resources, and new officers to an area. ‘Places like Hampstead are cleaner than King’s Cross because people in Hampstead take offence at a single banana skin on their street’, a litter officer once told me. When Camden officers and Veolia contractors know that the residents of an area want their place spotless, they will work to make that happen – even if they don’t always succeed. If they know that the residents don’t care, then they will become lax in their work.
This problem of motivation is one peculiarly exacerbated in Bloomsbury and Camden’s Central London area. In most boroughs in the country, the officers and councillors will be drawn from the resident population. A traffic officer will from day to day be living among the roads and traffic systems that they have designed. Litter officers will be living on streets that become littered if they don’t do their jobs properly. Planning officers will be living in the shadow of a tower block if they cave in to pressures from above to approve an inappropriate application. In most places in the country, the failure of an officer or councillor to perform their duties properly has a personal effect upon their livelihood and wellbeing.
But here in Camden, of the roughly 4,200 officers employed in civic duties, only a single one lives in Bloomsbury. And of the 9 councillors serving different areas of Bloomsbury, only 4 live here, and 1 lives as far as Morden. There are no concrete repercussions upon the life of an officer or councillor if they do a shoddy job. What is there to lose designing traffic circulation in Bloomsbury when you live in Walthamstow? The only motivation to do anything is provided by the cabinet’s political agenda. Camden in Bloomsbury is a Cowboy Council, run by Cowboy Councillors. Regardless of the job they do or don’t do, they will be paid, and can run away and ignore the consequences of bad work.
This is exactly why the input and motivation of residents in Bloomsbury is such an invaluable resource. It is the only thing that can foster responsible decision-making and a sense of reward for officers doing the right thing. And proper motivation to do things right is exactly the thing missing in Camden – it is a hole that we as residents have to fill if we want to see change.
One of the most important lessons to learn from Save Bloomsbury is that once you build a relationship with Camden’s officers, they will prefer to listen to your views than to the views of a fellow officer or even a councillor. If a resident goes to the effort of making some request, then officers know it must only be motivated by a wish to better a community – and that is a cause worth working for. A request from a fellow officer or a councillor does not have a clear motivation – did their manager tell them to do this? Is it a political thing? Is this just because a councillor rents out a flat nearby? Are they chasing some numbers, or deflecting responsibility? This sort of mentality is so prevalent that Camden officers have even advised me to make requests on their behalf to their managers and fellow officers, because the requests of a resident carry much more weight than those of an officer. In many ways, the report which I wrote on improving street cleanliness in Bloomsbury was simply a structured essay on all the things that Camden’s officers had already been saying to me and their managers – but it had an impact simply because a resident had said it, rather than they.
Indeed, a consensus reached between officers and residents can even trump the will of Camden’s cabinet. A plan that I and some officers had came up against the protest of cabinet member Adam Harrison. It was a nail in the coffin, I thought, but a Camden officer simply said: ‘f**k Adam Harrison, he doesn’t even live here’.
This is why Camden’s reliance upon overdevelopment and the associated Section 106 income in Bloomsbury has such a polluting effect upon every aspect of community life in this area. With each new planning decision going the wrong way, the natural motivation of Bloomsbury’s residents to look after their neighbourhoods is slowly draining away. What is the point in keeping a street clean when next year, it could become a building site for the next decade, and after that overshadowed by a modernist monstrosity?
I believe this draining of motivation heralds a looming disaster in the quality of everything done by Camden in Bloomsbury. Ideally, members of Bloomsbury’s active societies should be out on the streets, meeting with Camden’s officers, walking the area, talking about problems, and trying to find solutions to them. It is only through this sort of work that the interests of residents can influence Camden’s departments: that the pure motivation of Bloomsbury’s communities can infect Camden and bring about positive change.
Part of the problem is that most people don’t see or appreciate the effects of this kind of work, and activism is often chastised by Camden’s cabinet – listening to the views of residents and backing down on some plan is never celebrated, but seen perhaps as a sign of weakness. BRAG for years have been protesting about lack of proper consultation on traffic planning matters. And while the Gray’s Inn Road cycle lane plans were interpreted as another instance of token consultation, businesses reported that just as BRAG had advocated, traffic officers were out on the ground, going from shop to shop, and actually talking to people about their plans, trying to find solutions to possible problems. Notices were put up on just about every single lamppost within a mile’s radius. It was an imperfect exercise – again certain residential blocks were forgotten about, some people living nearby were not consulted while others a mile away were, and officers forgot to take down the notices once the consultation was over. But considering that just a few years earlier changes to Tavistock Place had been made without a single notice being put up, it proves that BRAG have had no small political impact. It was the motivation of the members of BRAG to put up a fight that caused Camden officers to try doing things better on Gray’s Inn Road, nothing else.
If residents and groups like BRAG become weary of protest and forget to commend steps in the right direction and advocate further progress, there is no reason why officers would continue to try and perform their duties properly or improve. The residents of an area are the ones to provide the motivation for officers to work properly.
I think the only way we can see real change in our neighbourhoods is if we all try to act as mini-councillors for our own streets and communities – a sort of grassroots democratic revolution. Community groups should be doing the sort of things that councillors should – casework and advocation. Residents should be out on the streets meeting with officers, making a fuss about things, and coordinating efforts with other residents to have the greatest impact. Planning-oriented groups should be making policy propositions, writing to the Camden New Journal every week, and scrutinising every single application. It seems like a lot – after all, don’t we already have councillors for this sort of thing? But a great deal more happens in Bloomsbury than in other places, and accordingly a great many more people should be involved. And there is the small point, of course, that most of our councillors don’t actually live here.
Camden needs your help in order to perform its public duties properly in Bloomsbury. No matter how bureaucratic, opaque, or corrupt the organisation seems, it is at its heart a very large group of people not really knowing what they are doing or why they are doing it. Only the motivation that you have to ‘save Bloomsbury’ can give those poor sods a proper sense of direction and a reason to do a good job.
And for my part, I will continue writing on Camden’s successes, failures, and controversies, playing a small part in motivating Camden officers to do things right by the communities of Bloomsbury.