In an horrific act of urban vandalism, the former Royal Free Hospital on Gray’s Inn Road has been almost entirely demolished, as part of an application granted by Camden Council last year.
The approval for the demolition of the hospital was granted in the face of huge opposition from local groups and Historic England, who usually reserve objections for the most severe of cases.
It allowed developers to argue that the beautiful Victorian courtyard had ‘no historic significance’, which gives it the equivalent protection of one of Camden’s plastic bins.
The building, which was arranged around a beautiful courtyard and listed monument, is being reduced to a mere facade to face the front of a new major research centre.
Earlier plans had proposed retaining the courtyard and installing a glass rooftop in order to make it into a viable research space. These plans were supported by the BCAAC and Historic England.
But very typically the developer argued that they needed a ‘critical mass’ of floorspace to make the project ‘viable’, resulting in an enormous monolith of a building completely alien to this historic area.
It shows how little Camden are willing to attach to heritage concerns, and the enormity of the task in bringing errant planners and councillors back into line.
How Did This Happen?
One of the key considerations for planners in when to allow ‘heritage harm’ is in whether that ‘harm’ is ‘outweighed’ by ‘public benefit’.
This is a national policy as part of the NPPF set up by the government about ten years ago, which overarches all planning decisions and must be afforded the greatest importance.
‘Public benefit’ is not comprehensively defined, but broadly encompasses anything that brings something beneficial to the local or wider public, including nationally and globally.
The more ‘public benefit’ that there is attached to an application, the more ‘harm’ that can be justified to historic buildings and places. For planners, it’s all about balancing things up, and seeing whether the public benefit is greater than any harm caused.
One of the greatest sources of public benefit is medical and research uses. As such, proposals for hospitals, laboratories, and research centres pose the most immense risk to historic places, being given almost a ‘blank cheque’ to cause harm to historic areas. This is why the developers of Belgrove House went to such an effort to advertise their building as a laboratory despite it containing no labs.
The demolition of the Royal Free Hospital was permitted due to the new building being a research centre into neurological diseases, therefore bringing major public benefit.
But how exactly to attach ‘weight’ to heritage harm and public benefit is up to planners, with the balancing process being largely subjective and a grey area in policy and law. Camden is particularly liberal in how much harm it allows developers to permit in return for only small amounts of public benefit.
And the fact that Camden refuses to update its appraisals and local list further compounds the situation.
The Bloomsbury CAAC will be liaising with local groups to lodge a formal complaint about planning decisions being based upon incorrect and outdated heritage documents. The Bloomsbury CA appraisal has now almost gone the longest time in history without being updated, despite the past decade arguably seeing the most change to its historic fabric. Much of the appraisal is now entirely outdated.