This website is run by Owen Ward, a committee member of BRAG and the BCAAC, two amenity societies intimately involved with public affairs in Camden south of Euston Road. I am also involved with a few personal causes in the area, most notably with street cleanliness.
The area concerned roughly comprises WC1 and WC2, including King’s Cross, Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia, Holborn, and Covent Garden. These areas are some of the most interesting and unique places in the world to live and work, and come with their own unique and often extraordinary challenges.
The aim of this website is to open a window into the way that those who live and work in this area think and feel about the things that are happening here. These ‘things’ relate to planning, traffic, litter, local democracy, and anything else that affects Bloomsbury’s built environment and the people who live within it.
The website particularly focusses on unusual problems arising from the extraordinary place that is Central London; problems that would never occur elsewhere nor perhaps even cross the minds of those living in other areas of London.
And while there are numerous groups and individuals striving to both protect and enhance this area, not many of those can spare the time to speak openly and regularly about the things that are happening here. That is the point of this website: to give a voice to the minds and lives of both the activists and the ordinary people living here – to write about what is obvious to us, but far from obvious to the outsider.
That being said, the views expressed on this website are only ever that of the author, and are only indicative of the wider feeling in this area.
Where is Bloomsbury?
Unlike most areas of London, Bloomsbury has very well defined historical boundaries, shown on the map below in green, accepted by about 1830. A very common source of confusion is that the Bloomsbury Ward has very different boundaries to those shown below, due to changes over time. The wider area of Camden south of Euston Road is shown in yellow. You can open in full screen to search an address.
Why ‘Save Bloomsbury’?
Bloomsbury, to an outsider, seems like a very well protected and cared for place. It is steeped in history, packed full of historic buildings, punctuated by beautiful garden squares, and welcomes some millions of tourists every year.
Passing through the area, one can only wonder at the millionaires and billionaires that can afford to live in this prestigious neighbourhood. One could only wish for such a high quality historic environment in which to live, and for the level of protection afforded to its conservation. And surely also, the local authority here must take great care over the preservation and enhancement of the historic environment: the famous buildings and streets of Bloomsbury. Surely, Bloomsbury is just about the last thing that would need ‘saving’?
But the reality of the story is much different.
The conception of Bloomsbury as affluent is about two hundred years out of date. North-east Bloomsbury, in the King’s Cross Ward, is statistically the most deprived area in Camden. Bloomsbury is home to some of the country’s first social housing, and a very large proportion of Bloomsbury still remains as what was originally social and affordable housing. While Bloomsbury was originally conceived as an upper middle class district of London in the Georgian Era (1714-1830), Charles Booth’s famous Poverty Maps (c1900) showed much of Bloomsbury as being the most deprived in London, and today the vast majority of residential property in Bloomsbury is still flats housing the working classes. It is only relatively recently, in the past 30 years or so, that the middle classes have begun to return to Bloomsbury. The people who live here are by no means ‘posh’, but are entirely normal people.
Indeed, property prices in this area have skyrocketed to quite unbelievable figures, giving people reason to believe that only the élite can afford to live here. And indeed it is true, one must be very well off to be able to purchase property here today. But the vast majority of individuals who actually do live here permanently did not buy property here today, but many decades ago, when property was very cheap indeed. Either that, or they live in Camden-owned social housing, or remarkably in flats whose rents have not changed in decades.
For example, I live in a flat in Queen Alexandra Mansions, these days a very well-to-do mansion block on Judd Street, with prices ranging from about £400,000 for a single bedroom flat to about £700,000 for a two bedroom flat. The only reason I can afford to live here is because my father-in-law purchased this flat in 1983 from Stanley Baxter, for about £15,000 (£65,000 with inflation). The price of this flat has increased so much that he cannot afford to pass it onto the next generation, because the capital gains tax that he would have to pay exceeds his savings. Queen Alexandra Mansions, and Bloomsbury as a whole, are filled with extraordinary stories like these.
My neighbour moved to her flat in the 1970s, when it cost even less. Back then it was only a very modest upgrade from the council estate in Pimlico. The man living in the flat above me is 92 years of age, moved here before the war and remembers Bloomsbury before the Blitz. To him, Queen Alexandra Mansions, an Edwardian building, is a ‘modern monstrosity’, and being able to call 999 and have a paramedic arrive within minutes is quite an extraordinary public service. Down the stairs lives a doctor who has rented her flat since the 80s, the rent only having been increased since then to adjust for inflation. Nobody that I know should be able to afford to live here, and yet somehow they do. The population of Bloomsbury consists of people, or descendants of people, who lived here before it became ‘posh’.
Only a relatively small proportion of Bloomsbury still remains as its hallmark Georgian terraces – and of these, only a tiny proportion are still in use as residential properties – most are offices, hotels, or of some similar use. And of the small number of terraces that are in residential use, there are perhaps only a few dozen that are single occupancy – in other words, most have been split up into flats. The vast majority of these flats are not ‘posh’ at all, but can be rather squalid and most haven’t been renovated or redecorated in decades. A large number – for example the entirety of Burton Street – are actually Camden-owned and in social occupation.
All in all, Bloomsbury, despite its famous reputation as an affluent area of London, is densely populated with exceedingly normal people. The millionaires and billionaires of London live much further north – in Hampstead, Highgate, Belsize Park, and the like. Bloomsbury, strangely enough, is actually a fairly stolid working class district of London.
This is important. The problem with the false conception of Bloomsbury as affluent means that in our increasingly class-conscious and polarised society there is a perception that the people who live here can afford hardship of any kind – perhaps even among the very left-leaning schools of thought, that we deserve hardship. A normal working class individual living in Bloomsbury who complains about litter on their street is very quickly labelled as privileged or perhaps even a posh wanker. ‘If you don’t like litter on your street piss off to a little village in the countryside’, I was once told, because apparently, living in Central London means I can afford to just remove myself to a country home when my street gets littered. When Camden closed Judd Street to traffic on Euston Road, to the relief of many, a resident of Queen Alexandra Mansions said: ‘after forty years of living here I can finally open my window.‘ Again came the cries of: ‘if you want to open your bloody window get up and move off to the country, posh wanker’.
All this results in an atmosphere of paranoia in which it is very difficult for very normal people to speak out about very real problems in Bloomsbury. Almost anything that is done or said is quickly twisted into élitism or privilege, with the latest slur on the streets being NIMBYISM. Opposition to anything is almost ubiquitously interpreted as millionaires trying to maintain their property value at the expense of normal people, while proposals to improve the environment are painted as millionaires trying to increase their property value. None of it could be further from the truth, but its ubiquity inhibits the normal kind of activism that keeps a community strong and healthy.
A related problem is that positive attempts by residents to take more ownership of their neighbourhoods to improve the environment and better their communities are met with ferocious opposition, always interpreted as élites trying to capture London public property. Some time ago I posted an article on here explaining how Bloomsbury garden squares are not very well kept, abused by tourists, and not very well used by the residents who pay for their upkeep through their council tax. I suggested that perhaps once a month or so, the gardens could be closed off so that only residents of Bloomsbury could enjoy them. I had someone from Edinburgh send me an enraged message telling me that the garden squares of Bloomsbury were a ‘national resource’, while many others told me the proposition was élitist and that I was an élite and a NIMBY for even thinking that the garden square on my doorstep belongs more to me than to someone in Edinburgh. I argued that it is not the residents of Bloomsbury who are élite, but the individuals who can afford to fly here and tour London who are élite, so that restricting access to residents was actually quite the opposite of élitism. But it doesn’t matter – I am a member of the élite, and that means being part of a conspiracy to gobble up Bloomsbury’s squares with my money-laundered millions, and I deserve to be pelted with outrageous insults in response.
One would hope that this wouldn’t have much of an effect upon public affairs. But far from it – many of the local authority’s councillors actually weaponise this paranoia to get what they want. The BCAAC is a conservationist group formed of residents of Bloomsbury, simply to advocate the protection of historic buildings, indeed set up by Camden in 1968 – nothing could be more innocent and well-intentioned, one would think. Yet one of Camden’s (Labour) councillors went so far as to call us a ‘group of white middle class busybodies’ in response to our opposition to a harmful development. BRAG was described as a ‘group of well-heeled retirees’. It is against this weaponised, classist and indeed racist background that we have to toe the line, being very careful not to fan the flames of the sort of conspiratorial thinking that pervades Camden’s political scene – paradoxically a scene dominated by those white middle class busybodies that are apparently so dangerous to public affairs.
And to add insult to injury, many of the (Labour) councillors who regularly paint ordinary working class folk in Bloomsbury as white middle class élites to score political points do not even live in Bloomsbury, sometimes not even in Camden, and live in far more affluent areas than Bloomsbury, owning property throughout London and earning hundreds of thousands in side-jobs as directors and executives of planning consultancies and the like.
These are just some of the problems for the residents of Bloomsbury.
I remember walking through Bloomsbury for the first time, at the age of 15. I was quite astonished at the variety and splendour of the historic buildings lining the streets, and the world-famous squares and gardens of Bloomsbury. Walking down a narrow cobbled street one would suddenly come out upon a huge square, with plane trees soaring into the sky, with Georgian terraces or grander imperial buildings surrounding it. One would walk down a perfectly uniform Georgian street, like Montague Street, then suddenly arrive at the magnificent British Museum – and the museum itself was not just glorious to behold, but the railings and gates surrounding it (Grade II listed) and its own courtyard were quite impressive.
Bloomsbury is one of the most compelling urban environments in the country, and certainly in London. Indeed, it is regarded as an internationally significant example of town planning. Simply scroll through the following photos, and reflect that all are taken within the square mile that is Bloomsbury. How is it that such a small area can be so beautiful, and so varied?
With so much historic fabric and an international reputation to back it, it seems as though any local authority would pay great attention to the preservation and enhancement of Bloomsbury, with innumerable safeguards and protections in place to prevent inappropriate development, to promote contextual and responsible development, and to encourage and fund restoration works to buildings and the street environment. After all, the huge tourist economy in Bloomsbury relies upon the historic environment.
But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Living in Bloomsbury, one slowly becomes aware of the irresistible tide of overdevelopment – buildings that are too big, far too ugly, and completely out of character with the area. Rooftop extensions that block world-famous views, or conversions of historic shopfronts into glittering neon-lit abominations. Perfectly preserved Georgian streets that are cluttered by one shop-owner’s determination to place their tacky wares all over the street, historic hospitals being demolished, historic street furniture being damaged and removed. Planning applications coming in almost every month for absolutely absurd new developments.
Planning is all about money, one of Camden’s most senior planners said to me in a meeting. The problem is that in 1990, the new Town and Country Planning Act introduced a piece of legislation which strangely enough, allows developers to pay for planning applications to be approved. Known as Section 106, it is without doubt the driving force behind the rising tide of overdevelopment in Bloomsbury. But to understand its effect upon this area, we must first take a detour into why Section 106 was introduced, how it should be used, and why and how Camden abuse it.
Section 106 was introduced with good intentions, no doubt. It is only that over time, the very ability for local authorities to earn an income through granting planning permission has changed planning from something designed to protect and enhance the built environment to a word synonymous with multi-million pound payouts, corruption, and horrendous acts of vandalism. ‘It’s like a Class A drug… corrupting and insidious.’ , a former planner for the Cities of London and Westminster said to me.
But why would the law allow for developers to pay for planning applications to be approved?
The general idea was that if a proposed development caused some sort of harm to an area, local authorities could accept a payment from the developer to offset that harm. It is in essence a financial compensation scheme. If a new housing development increased a village’s population by 30%, then a local authority owned gym would have its demand increased by 30%. This is an example of harm caused by a development: the local gym would become oversubscribed, causing a negative impact upon the preexisting population. Before 1990 there was nothing that local authorities could do about this, except to simply reject the planning application, or accept it and shoulder the costs of oversubscription some other way. Section 106 was seen as a way to remedy this problem: it allows the local authority to demand a payment equal to the cost of increasing the gym’s capacity by 30%, which they are then legally obliged to spend on exactly that: increasing the gym’s capacity by 30%.
Part of the planning process is identifying all the different types of harm that a development causes, the extent of that harm, and getting an idea of how much money would be required to successfully offset that harm. Here in Camden there are targets around affordable housing provision, and if a development cannot provide the targeted amount of affordable housing, a financial contribution can be made to fund affordable housing elsewhere, again enabled by Section 106.
It sounds all well and good, and indeed in the right hands, Section 106 can be used to good effect. The problem is that here in Camden, a number of unfortunate events and people have aligned to turn Section 106 into a monster, the very focus of the planning process itself. Rather than planning being about encouraging responsible development, it has turned into a numbers game – how can we maximise the income generated through Section 106?
In fact the situation has become so absurd that Section 106 payments are no longer earmarked for particular projects, or to remedy particular instances of harm caused by a development. Payments are simply made for different pots – an affordable housing pot, a highways pot, etc, with payments regularly exceeding £1M and going up to £7M for a single development. Actual instances of harm caused by a development are often overlooked, with Section 106 not being used to address them.
And while Camden has specific policies geared towards forcing developers to provide on site affordable housing, with proportions of up to 50%, it is very rare that they actually force developers into doing this – instead the high percentage is used to justify extraordinarily large Section 106 payments in lieu of affordable housing provision. The money is then kept gathering interest, and eventually spent on a number of affordable housing ventures around Camden.
The strategy, despite its dubious legality, does make sense. After all, it may cost a very large amount of money to provide affordable housing in a luxury apartment block in Central London. Instead of forcing a developer to provide that housing on site, taking that money and spending it on housing in a less desirable part of London will afford more homes, while savings made by reducing the quality of design and construction will yield yet more homes, and the numbers keep adding up.
But this is exactly why despite the strategy arguably being beneficial for Camden as a whole, it is overwhelmingly negative for Bloomsbury and Camden’s wider Central London area.
You see Bloomsbury’s land has extremely high value, and redevelopment schemes in Bloomsbury can see eye-watering profit margins. Even the tiniest square of land can yield millions or even billions in investment opportunities. Developers are constantly eyeing up land in Bloomsbury, and dreaming up schemes to maximise these profits, often regardless of the local historical context and its importance.
The bigger the scheme, the wider the profit margin. It means that Bloomsbury is constantly under threat of schemes grossly oversized. But the fact that Section 106 can be used to divert some of these funds to the local authority means that Camden both permit and even encourage this overdevelopment, in order that larger Section 106 payments can be justified. The bigger the development, the bigger the payout. This is why such absurd development schemes are being permitted all throughout Bloomsbury – because Camden earn a healthy fee through granting planning permission, and the bigger the development, the more money that can be earned.
‘Legalised bribery’, it has been called, and so it is. But here in Camden, it has been taken to the extreme, and it is safe to say that the planning system is weighted in favour of those with money. But this spectre of overdevelopment and Section 106 has wider-ranging, more polluting effects upon all aspects of life in Bloomsbury and the wider Central London area. The comparison between Section 106 and a Class A drug is a good one – because like a Class A drug, it is not only the physical dependence upon the drug which is harmful, but every aspect of an addict’s life and wellbeing are slowly corrupted and destroyed by the dependence upon the drug and the lifestyle of an addict. And so it is for Camden and Bloomsbury.
People here care deeply about their homes, their communities, and the preservation of the historic environment – far more so than in other areas of London. 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 these accidental activists.
And the importance of Bloomsbury, once understood in all its dimensions, should not be underestimated. It is a priceless resource – of truly international importance, something worthy of the very highest level of protection. Every building and every street is home to layer upon layer of stories and heritage, as yet only partially understood. Every detail of every building has some story to tell – even the apparently most mundane things, like railings, road surfaces, and kerbstones are home to the most incredible stories. While this area has seen so much change, some places provide almost picture-perfect windows into how London was in the twentieth, nineteenth, eighteenth, or even seventeenth century. The most marvellous thing about Bloomsbury is that despite its international reputation as a uniform district of Central London, it is in fact one of the most historically and architecturally diverse places in the country, with layer upon layer of heritage coexisting and overlapping. And among this most incredible of urban environments, there are the lives of millions playing out between and within its buildings, and upon its streets and squares.
Every street that you walk upon has been walked by the lives of some of the most famed people in history – going out on a walk around Bloomsbury, you will step upon the very paving stones and kerbstones tread by the likes of Dickens and Churchill – or even Johnson and Boswell. The buildings that we become accustomed to are some of the most famous in the country and even the world. Everything about Bloomsbury is important – and even those who do not know the history of its squares and streets can sense its importance, and understand why it needs 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 assuredly destroyed the natural motivation of Bloomsbury’s communities to give it protection, and has created a toxic culture of distrust and anger. 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?
The widespread destruction and defacement of Bloomsbury’s heritage by the local authority has caused those who would protect and enhance its historic environment to withdraw into an angered silence of distrust and apathy. I personally know dozens of people who would work for free on committees to protect Bloomsbury, to vet proposals for its enhancement and come up with their own schemes, and to put in the hard work themselves to garden its squares and green its streets. There is a huge untapped potential of free expertise and labour living all throughout Bloomsbury. But almost all of these individuals have been crushed by a decade of incredible planning decisions, shocking ignorance and inflammatory comments from Camden officers and councillors, and a gradual but perceptible, sometimes sudden decline in Bloomsbury’s historic environment. The life of Bloomsbury and Central London is being slowly drained away – and for what?
The trust of Bloomsbury has been betrayed by Camden. Only a matter of years ago hundreds or even thousands of people would mobilise to respond to public consultations on the smallest proposals to change Bloomsbury – traffic, planning, or otherwise – but now, even the greatest changes are largely ignored. Every time a new redevelopment proposal comes in it is taken as a fait accompli, that being especially so with the larger proposals. The planning system in Camden, even among those intimately involved with public affairs, is seen as hopelessly corrupt and beyond repair – it seems rather as though Camden’s planners actually work to promote development schemes contrary to local interests. Most think there are dodgy deals going on – brown envelopes passed around the Town Hall. But there are no need for envelopes when Section 106 legalises the kind of bribery assumed to be corrupting Camden’s planners.
This is the great tragedy of Bloomsbury. That there is so much potential – so many people willing to guard and protect its heritage, so much heritage to be enjoyed, so much opportunity to restore the public realm, enhance the world-famous squares, and to build an international reputation as one of the most beautiful, interesting, varied, and cared-for places in the world. But instead, those who could engender this sort of curation prefer to chase numbers, and push the boundaries of legality by raising millions through urban vandalism of Bloomsbury’s heritage.
And once it’s gone, it’s gone. As has been seen all around the capital and the country, once a certain level of urban vandalism is permitted, it is impossible to turn the tide. Word on the street recently is that new planning reforms are a developer’s charter – but in reality, Camden granted a developer’s charter in Central London long ago.
How do we save 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 assuredly 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 the residents of an area should be the ones to 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 pressure to do anything is provided by the cabinet, none of whom live in Bloomsbury either.
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.
Believe it or not, 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? This sort of mentality is so prevalent that Camden officers have 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*ck Adam Harrison’.
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?
This is why I believe there is 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 their 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 with 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.
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. The residents of an area are the ones to provide the motivation for officers to work properly.