The Birds of Bloomsbury

Bored at home? Consider feeding the wide variety of birds in Bloomsbury.

The blandness and strange predictability of days spent indoors has come as something of a culture-shock to many of us accustomed to the unpredictable and dynamic life of Central London.

But there is a way in which you can bring something of the outdoors back into your life, while learning about one of the lesser known but delightful aspects of London, by taking up bird-feeding. Starting from scratch, you can set up an effective bird-feeding station for a price of £20, all ordered and delivered from the comfort of your armchair.

The Birds of Bloomsbury

Which birds are there in Bloomsbury, aside from the perpetual pigeons and occasional crows or starlings? There are a surprising number of birds in Bloomsbury whose populations vary from year to year. I have included a rough estimate of the number of times I have sighted each bird over the past year, to give an indication of their prevalence. Of course I have omitted pigeons, starlings, and crows.


Common

Birds which you are certain to attract with the right food.

1. Goldfinch

Goldfinches are fairly common in Bloomsbury. They roam London in small and large groups called ‘charms’, sometimes up to fifty in size during the early summer, although they disperse into smaller groups during the winter. They are attracted only by seeds.

Song

Sightings: Thousands


2. Great Tit

Great tits are typically seen in groups of two, although during the winter they are often seen teaming up with other tits in large groups to scour the area for food, a natural behaviour in the wild. They are attracted by all types of food, but are particularly partial to suet.

Sightings: Thousands


Blue Tit

Blue tits, the smaller cousins of the great tit, are rated as one of Britain’s most loved birds. They are full of strange but delightful oddities in their behaviour which over time you may come to observe. They are attracted by all types of food mentioned in this article.

Sightings: Thousands.


Rare

Birds which you should eventually attract with some luck and persistence.

4. Coal Tit

There are perhaps only two or three breeding pairs of coal tits in Bloomsbury. Nonetheless they are attracted to sunflower hearts and exhibit ‘hoarding’ behaviour, so that if you provide a consistent and fairly large supply of seeds, you will have daily visits of coal tits coming to stock up on your food, hiding it for the winter.

Sightings: About 100.


5. Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed tits, aptly named due to their extraordinarily long tails, occasionally roam Bloomsbury exclusively in groups of about a dozen. There do not appear to be long-tailed tits currently living in Bloomsbury but they do live in places nearby, with a colony on the Regent’s Canal. They will sometimes go on wide searches for food in the Bloomsbury area, and are only but strongly attracted to suet.

Sightings: About 50.


6. Greenfinch

Greenfinches are rather aggressive and large birds, often doing battle with smaller birds to gain access to food. There do not appear to be any living in Bloomsbury and they have not been sighted since late last year. There were a pair or two living on the Regent’s Canal until late. They are attracted only by seeds.

Sightings: About 50.


Extremely Rare

These are birds which have been sighted only a handful of times.

7. Chaffinch

Chaffinches are fairly numerous in Regent’s Park. Towards the end of juvenility in late autumn, chaffinches go off on wide searches for new places to live. It is only under these circumstances that they appear to visit Bloomsbury

Sightings: 2


8. Great Spotted Woodpecker

The great spotted woodpecker is a remarkable bird whose sighting is bound to leave an impression. They appear to do well in Bloomsbury’s large plane trees, and are attracted by suet balls. It is typically only the juveniles during the spring and summer which are confident enough to visit bird feeders.

Sightings: 5


9. Jay

The Jay is rather large and often considered a pest in the countryside as they are corvids and will search for and plunder the nests of smaller birds. However I include them here as they are a rare sight in Bloomsbury, and evoke the most extraordinary responses from the smaller birds who will band together in large groups to harass and dive-bomb the Jay until it leaves the area. Perhaps due to this harassment they are rather rare.

Sightings: 10.


Other Birds

There are other species which abound in Bloomsbury but which by their nature are not generally attracted to bird feeding stations.

10. Robin

Robins, unlike the other birds so far mentioned, do not ‘forage’ for food. They typically live in some territory which they defend, which must have a large amount of grass and soil to provide worms. For this reason, they are not typically observed at bird-feeders unless visible or within their territory, which in Bloomsbury is almost exclusively its squares.

Sightings: About 50.


10. Wren

The Wren is never found at bird-feeders, but they do live in the gardens and squares of Bloomsbury.

Sightings: About 10


11. Goldcrest

The goldcrest is Europe’s smallest bird. For that reason it is difficult to sight one, although they have a distinctive song heard during the spring and summer. They are remarkably confident given their size, but do not visit bird-feeding stations, instead eating small insects and typically nesting in Bloomsbury’s squares.

Sightings: 5


12. Dunnock

The dunnock can often be sighted hopping along the ground in Bloomsbury’s gardens, often mistaken for sparrows. They are reluctant to eat from feeders, but happily eat from the ground.

Sightings: About 20


Now that you have been introduced to the wide variety of birds in Bloomsbury, I will describe how to set up a bird-feeding station while avoiding the numerous mistakes which can be made, and most importantly how to avoid attracting the menace of pigeons.

Setting Up

1. Prerequisites

Now to take up bird-feeding one thing must be made clear – you need to have a window which is close to a tree. If you have no trees within a few feet of a window, the chances are that the only bird you will successfully attract is a pigeon.

2. Apparatus

There is only one type of bird-feeder which I have found is appropriate to London, one of which can be found on Amazon here. They are typically about £10 to purchase.

It attaches to the window by means of suckers which does seem to be rather a precarious way to do things, but it works surprisingly well. I have had one on the window for almost a year without any problem.

The important reason to use this type is to prevent a large scale overspill of food onto the ground or window-ledge below. Conventional bird-feeders do not catch any waste but all crumbs created by birds will drop below and prove an irresistible feast for the hordes of pigeons which are far more numerous than we should like to imagine. Once pigeons come, it is almost impossible to deter them except by violent means, so it is best to entirely avoid the problem and use this feeder.

This type of bird-feeder also appears to be designed specifically to prevent pigeons from accessing the food directly, by means of its overhang which indeed successfully deters all but the most determined pigeon.

3. Food

There is a large market for bird food, but strangely the vast majority of what appears in a Google or Amazon search is entirely inedible to anything but a pigeon or rat. Buying the wrong food is the main reason why bird feeding operations fail. There are only really five types of food which birds will eat, and only four which are appropriate to London.

DON’T Buy Food Mixes!

It is rather strange that in perusing the bird food market, there are a plethora of different ‘mixes’. The reality of these ‘mixes’ is that they contain a very small amount of food edible to birds, with a large amount of nonsense which only pigeons will eat. Birds will simply pass on the whole mix rather than risk accidentally eating some old piece of dried sweetcorn.

1st Choice: Sunflower Hearts

Every bird loves sunflower hearts (except long-tailed tits). Take care when purchasing them however to purchase sunflower hearts and not sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds contain the heart within a tough shell which only finches can break. The shells are also inedible and cause a great mess.

2nd Choice: Suet – but ONLY the ‘Quality’ Type

Suet balls are popular with tits and robins, although not finches, and are the only way to attract long-tailed tits. However there are two types of suet balls, only one of which is edible. The only type which I have found to be reliable is ‘Gardman Supreme Suet Balls’. Essentially everything else on the market is good for nothing except throwing at pigeons. They can be purchased in a 6 pack (or if you’re feeling ambitious) a 50 pack.

Edible
Completely Useless

Gardman Supreme 50 Pack

Gardman Supreme 6 Pack

3rd Choice: Peanuts

Peanuts are popular among most birds, but appear not to be as appealing as sunflower hearts.

4th Choice: Mealworms

Mealworms are popular among tits especially during the spring when they will be feeding their young. Whereas finches mainly eat seeds, tits mainly survive on insects. However they are rather disgusting to deal with and in the summertime can attract wasps and other insects.

4. Possible Problems

The only problem you are likely to encounter is pigeons.

Seemingly harmless out on the streets of London, like those greedy individuals who have hoarded the stocks of shops, pigeons will descend in huge numbers from the most unsocial hours to gobble up all food available and happily sit on a window-ledge and cover it in unsanitary mess, while engaging in unseemly behaviour and making the most uncouth and disturbing of noises. They are the most disgusting of creatures, and once they are attracted it is extremely difficult to get rid of them. They also engage in violent behaviour towards smaller birds getting in their way with a famous manoeuvre known in the trade as the ‘wing-slap’.

Once upon a time it was legal to simply shoot them and throw them in the bin, but unfortunately that is no longer the case.

Pigeons will largely be deterred simply by using the feeder which I have described, but inevitably some food will fall and if allowed to build up, you will get a pigeon or two coming to gobble it up for you. One or two is all it takes! They will then start telling their friends in the neighbourhood about your special ledge, and you will very quickly have fifty or so pigeons vying for your food. It is a nightmarish situation, one which is best to avoid.

For that reason you must make sure to clean your window-ledge of any food every once in a while. Once every month or so suffices, and all it takes is a quick sweep up with a dustpan and brush.

5. Happy Birdwatching!

A Forgotten Part of London’s Heritage

We value the walls of our city – the vertical aspects of its historic architecture, the facades of the buildings which give London its distinctive special character. And yet the floor of our city, the streets between our buildings, are curiously valued to a much lesser extent, despite being equally rich in heritage.

London is a city rich in heritage. When people come to visit London, they don’t typically come to see its modern features which indeed are often derided. It is the historic elements which give London its real special character and charm. St Paul’s Cathedral, Georgian terraces, the clunky trains on the Bakerloo line or grand old Buckingham Palace. All these things form part of London’s urban environment, which make it so distinctive and ‘London’. And yet in the midst of all these things is a common thread which goes totally unnoticed by most.

What about the streets between London’s buildings? The ground upon which we walk every day? What about its history and heritage?

It is rather strange upon reflection that London’s roads and pavements receive such little attention when they form the backbone of historic London. Certainly the nature of the streets contributes just as much to a sense of place as the buildings on either side of them, and yet we as a society strangely seem to value the vertical aspects of the built environment far more than the horizontal. When buildings go up, come down, and new ones go up in their place, and even when changes in fashion have seen street surfaces come up and down, the boundaries of the streets, highways and pavements have remained essentially unchanged since they were marked out centuries ago.

But it’s not just the plan of the streets which makes them historically interesting. The use of materials and methods for constructing the streets themselves gives us just as much insight into the world of the Georgians, for example, as the familiar sight of a Georgian terrace façade does. And yet although we Londoners are outraged to see the demolition of a Georgian building, the erasing of the heritage of a Georgian street seems somehow to be less important. The walls of our city are more valuable to us than our floors, and an unfortunate result of this is that the historic floor of our city has been steadily eroded and today is perhaps under greater threat than ever.

So when does the history of our streets begin?

London began to become what we today call London in the Georgian Era. Right up until the start of the 18th century, London’s expansion was prohibited by Royal Proclamation, which was a declaration by the monarch that they would not permit London to grow any further. The royal hostility to a large metropolis stifled its growth, with the London of 1700 really being two cities – the City of Westminster, and the City of London. However after the execution of Charles I in 1649, the House of Commons became the new supreme power, so that by the start of the Georgian Era in 1714 there were no longer any reins on London’s growth. This proved to be important, and by the end of the Georgian Era in 1827 London had expanded to include all of what we might call Central London today – the area covered by the congestion zone. It makes sense to begin to examine the history of our streets at this point.

London 1706 – A small town by today’s standards
London 1827 – A burgeoning metropolis

Up until the Georgian Era the typical method for surfacing the streets (if they were surfaced at all) was by cobblestone. Rounded pebbles would be set into the ground and the gaps filled with mortar. While the cars of today find little difficulty on such roads, we must remember that in Georgian London everything was driven by horse, and wheels were made from wood, perhaps with an iron rim at best. The result was a hazardous environment, a terrible din, and great difficulty in maintaining both the roads and the vehicles.

It is unclear how many roads had proper ‘pavements’. Illustrations of the time sometimes show pavements separated from roads by bollards, other times there are kerbstones, and sometimes there were no pavements at all. What we do know for certain is that by the 1760s Londoners were making a fuss about the poor state of the streets – both the surfacing and their cleanliness. The Cities of Westminster and London began to implement proper roads and pavements for their citizens.

Leadenhall Street, 1766. The pavement is simply separated from the road by bollards.

But the question of what exactly should be used to surface the roads and pavements was not agreed upon and even today there is no consensus. Much was trial and error. Streets were often paved with ‘granite setts’, what some people might naively call cobbles but which are distinct. These were small rectangular blocks of granite set into the road and grouted. These pieces of granite were set perpendicular to the length of the road and were of a common size engineered to help horses’ hooves find traction. Although this was more effective than the use of cobblestones by providing a smoother surface, there were still problems. Certain types of granite would get smoother with wear until the surface almost became polished and impossibly smooth. Granite from Aberdeen seemed to be the preferred choice. But the daily hard wearing of horses’ hooves and rickety but heavy carts wore down the granite at an alarming rate which beyond making the surface essentially temporary, caused great amounts of dust to accumulate on the streets. Contemporary experiments in the City of London during the Victorian period put the wear on these granite setts at about 1.5mm/year, and the accumulation of dust was so profound that just as today we have daily street sweepers, Georgian and Victorian London had daily street ‘wetters’, who would go around and spray water onto the streets to attempt to stop the dust getting thrown up into the air and causing a particulate smog. Experiments on this strange dust found granite to be a large component of it.

Granite setts, Seven Dials

Today when we think of an historic London street we are really thinking of a road surfaced in granite setts. Today they are unfortunately rare thanks to the advent of tarmac but perhaps what people don’t generally know is that in many cases the tarmac simply went over the top of a road surfaced in granite setts. In the same way that Pompeii was preserved beneath volcanic fallout, so in London sleeping beneath the unremarkable and typically modern roads of our city are miles of perfectly preserved historic streets. While tarmac was an important innovation to make travel by vehicles and bicycles easier, with the ‘detrafficisation’ of Central London and the routing of cyclists into Cycle Superhighways, we may see an opportunity to lift the tarmac and restore many of London’s streets to their historic splendour.

Roadworks on Tonbridge Street. The granite setts are revealed.

But far more curious and varied is the heritage of London’s pavements.

Much of the curiosity arises from questions which can be easily asked but not so easily answered, or to which answers are seemingly not yet known, perhaps a reflection of our lack of interest in the history of the floor of our city. A search into Google of London’s architecture will yield hundreds of websites of high quality, and weighty tomes such as the Survey of London. And yet the horizontal cousin of the very same architecture – the streets of London – yields not a single webpage of more than passing interest.

So let us begin exploring such questions.

First, who owns the pavements?

It seems like an easy question to answer but nested in this question is much history of interest. We might assume that essentially all of the pavement is publicly owned – or in other words, owned by the local council. But a curious aspect of London’s history means that actually our pavements are a patchwork of tens if not hundreds of thousands of tiny plots of land each belonging to different individuals. How can this be?

The answer begins, as usual, in the Georgian period.

It was almost ubiquitous in the Georgian Era to build terraces set back from the street, with a basement level visible from the street, with railings around it. If there is any particular reason why this was done I am not aware of it, although something perhaps relevant is that all architecture of the time was stringently adherent to a school of architecture called ‘Classical Architecture’. If we were Georgian, we would all understand exactly what this meant – a set of rules, an ancient tradition used to build anything. Indeed it was so ubiquitous that every architect was classically trained, and to build anything un-classical was highly unusual at the time. This is why ‘old’ buildings have so many similar features, and why Georgian terraces often look more or less identical with only minor variations.

Basement levels, Frederick Street

The school of Classical Architecture was directly descended from ancient Roman and Greek practice, and as a result architects often looked to surviving examples in Roman and Greek cities, along with Italian examples during the Renaissance, which at the time was a fairly recent phenomenon in England. It became common in Italian cities to have a ‘fortified’ ground floor to protect nobles from the vicious vendettas which plagued the Italian peninsula. While this is only conjecture, it is entirely possible that architects in Georgian London wanted to evoke this idea of fortification by setting back their terraces from the street and protecting the ground floor by means of these railings and the open basement level, which made things much more difficult if one wanted to break in to the house. Originally there weren’t usually staircases to the basements on the exterior, so to break in one would have to get through the front door. This sole point of entry (as can be seen from many surviving examples) was itself often heavily fortified – front doors were often fashioned from seasoned oak with metal worked into the surface. Typically, even if one somehow found their way through this door, there would be a lengthy porch and a further fortified door to break through.

While it may seem slightly contrived to go to such effort to simply ‘evoke’ some ancient practice, the Georgians were all about that sort of thing, and the surviving architecture of that time speaks in a forgotten language rich in such allusions. Whatever happened, somebody saw the sense in taking such an approach as London was a fairly dangerous place to be and people wanted to feel protected in their homes anyway. The precedent set by whoever did this first would then have encouraged other architects to do the same, and the result was a city where almost every street was full of these terraces with open basements and railings.

Have you ever wondered what those strange grids of small glass squares are that are so often seen on London’s pavements? They mark the graves of London’s Georgian basements.

Over time there have been varying pressures which have led to what’s known in the trade as a ‘basement infill’. For example, Georgian terraces which have had their ground floors converted into shops (as almost every London ‘high street’ has) found it inconvenient to have an open basement – after all it meant customers couldn’t get up close to the shopfront to inspect the wares. In the post-war period it became extremely common (in part due to the lack of regulation) to cover over basement levels with concrete, and the glass squares helped to light the space below. It meant that the basement level could be used for storage but also the shops acquired a small space in front of their store on the street where they could place advertisements and stalls, along with tables and chairs.

Note again how the border of these blocks coincides exactly with basement levels in the background.

Most Londoners wouldn’t take a second look at these concrete grids – often with the brand name ‘Luxcrete’ – thinking they were perhaps some silly choice of pavement surfacing. But in fact whenever you see one of these, it’s not actually public property – it is part of the property of the building behind it. Understanding this opens up explanations for various strange phenomena in the city. Take advertisement boards for example. It’s technically illegal to place these on public property, so placing it on the pavement is not permitted. But because these Luxcrete blocks aren’t public property, individuals can place their advertisement boards on there, just as an individual can place an advertisement board in their bedroom, if they wish to do so. Next time you are out in London, observe closely and you will find that essentially every single advertisement board is on one of these blocks – known in the trade as a ‘private forecourt area’– and if they’re not then it’s illegal.

Shop-owners new to London often get caught out by this. They perhaps see all the shops in the area putting out their own A-boards but don’t understand the unwritten code only allowing these boards on private land. They then decide to put one out themselves, even if they don’t have such a ‘private forecourt area’. Trying to explain to these people that it is not permitted on public property when they’re threatened with enforcement can evoke real disbelief and quite often leads to persistent breaches.

Before
After

Now it wasn’t just direct ‘basement infills’ which have caused these strange street patterns. When Georgian buildings were demolished or lost in the war, the buildings that went up in their place were usually built ‘flush’ to the facade of their Georgian neighbours. This would also leave the land previously used as a Georgian basement surrounding the new building undeveloped, and this land was either converted into a new open basement for security (as was typical pre-war), but also would be covered over to provide a ‘private forecourt’.

Note how the border between the concrete blocks and the strange surfacing exactly coincides with the line of surviving Georgian basements. This means that beneath this land is a covered basement. Judd Street.
Here the previous Georgian basements were converted into a ‘moat’ to provide security for the new building. This was more usual in the pre-war period. Hastings Street

The long and the short of this is that what we would typically call the pavement is in fact a huge patchwork of public and private land, a strange relic of the Georgian methods of building houses in the capital. The streets below our feet tell us just as much about the Georgians as do the buildings that survive, and in many cases these ‘private forecourts’ are the only thing left which tell us that once there was a Georgian house on that land.

But it is still an unanswered question as to why exactly these Luxcrete blocks became just so popular and became ubiquitous in such a short space of time. In some areas such as Seven Dials in Covent Garden, every frontage would have had an open basement of some type, with Victorian illustrations of the 1860s showing quite clearly that the basements at the time were perfectly preserved almost 200 years after they were built. This is significant because at the time, Seven Dials was already highly commercialised, and so the pressure to fill in these basements would have already arisen. And yet over the last century, there are only a handful of basements that haven’t been covered by these blocks. What happened to make these blocks just so popular, just so quickly? It is not a question which has yet seen thorough investigation.


Now let us consider the history of the surfacing of London’s pavements. Walking around London it is apparent that the truly public areas of the pavements have been surfaced in a very diverse number of ways. There is perhaps most commonly now square concrete blocks, but also tarmac and just plain concrete. Sometimes we see historic ‘York Stone’ flagstones, and it is quite easy to conjecture that once London must have been paved with these flagstones in its entirety, as they appear to be the only surviving historic pavement surfacing remaining. This evokes some irritation at the deduction that over the past century these glorious streets of York Stone must have been torn up to be replaced with concrete, in a similar fashion to how many of the glorious historic buildings of our city were torn down to be replaced with vertical concrete blocks. But is this myth true? What were London’s pavements originally surfaced with?

Strangely the utopia of universal York Stone pavements is an illusion, and that in fact in many instances pavements were simply surfaced with small wooden blocks.

Now there is hardly a single example remaining of this wooden surfacing which makes it such a surprise, but we do have tiny windows into the past which afford us a glimpse of this wooden-floored London. There is still a manhole cover on Farringdon Street for example which retains its wooden inlay although the road itself was long ago covered in tarmac. Not only were the pavements sometimes wooden but the road itself could be also. There were large variations between different districts, but the Parish of St George (in the Marylebone area) for example had 70% of its streets paved in wood during the 1890s. It was apparent that wooden surfaces were preferable for the long-term health of horses and also were less noisy than the only realistic alternative of granite.

Manhole cover, Farringdon Street. Taken from this site.

But the question of how many of London’s pavements were wooden doesn’t seem to have been thoroughly investigated, although contemporary accounts of Central London in the early twentieth century do attest to widespread use of wood, in which case the introduction of concrete blocks and tarmac is not too terrible a crime. The conversion of our floors into concrete perhaps does represent genuine progress upon wooden floors, which unfortunately cannot be said of many of the concrete buildings being built simultaneously. It is yet another parallel story between the history of the architecture of the floor of London and its walls, but not one to which we have paid serious attention towards, in stark contrast to the controversy of concrete ‘monstrosities’.

In those days most roads were either paved with wooden or granite blocks. The word going round that a certain road or street was about to be resurfaced was the only signal needed for us to gather with our sacks and wait our chance to raid the old stacks of [wooden] blocks and bring home as many as possible. They were much cheaper than coal, but, after a week’s burning, the chimney became completely blocked by glutinous, foul-smelling tar, causing the rooms to fill up with smoke and fumes. The local chimney sweeps earned a bomb thanks to those blocks.

Victor Gregg – ‘King’s Cross Kid – A London Childhood between the Wars’

Thanks to contemporary accounts, we need not conjecture about what became of these strange wooden pavements – traces of them still remain within our chimneys and in the sooty tar which pervades the nooks and crannies of London.


Between the pavements and the roads lie the kerbstones, which themselves were ubiquitously granite, and in most cases still remain to this day, in more or less exactly the same positions as they were originally lain. What can be said of them? When did they appear, what is their history?

Although kerbstones at first glance appear to be possibly the most mundane topic of discussion possible, the history of London’s kerbstones is in fact far more remarkable than anything yet discussed.

It is rather curious that while the architecture of the floor of our capital has transformed immensely over time – through basement infills, and widespread change in the surfacing of pavements and roads – the kerbstones delineating the boundaries of the roads have seemingly remained untouched for centuries. While everything else was subject to change and improvement, there’s not much that can be wrong with a kerbstone, especially a granite one. The architects of the capital chose a hard-wearing material, and its inherent quality has seen it survive through to the current day – although the philistinism and stupidity of our local authorities is now proving to be too great a foe for the continued survival of these important relics.

So when you are next out walking in London, cast down your gaze at the kerbstones beside you and you will eventually notice something rather odd.

Every so often there will appear a symbol or a letter carefully inscribed into the kerbstone. These symbols are quite evidently as ancient as the kerbs themselves, and vary quite significantly. What do they mean?

Judd Street

Stonemasons in times past were often illiterate but there was a strong ancient tradition of stonemasons marking their work. Each stonemason had their own symbol, and marking stones served two purposes – it would allow stonemasons to leave their identity upon works of architecture for posterity, but it also allowed people to single out masons who had done poor work, or good work as the case may be. This association with symbols is what spawned the Freemasons’ association (some might say obsession) with symbolism, as the Freemasons initially constituted a guild for stonemasons, and to this day involve themselves with large works of stonemasonry (for example with current large scale restoration work at Canterbury Cathedral), although quite typically it is not exactly clear what this involvement actually is.

This tradition of stonemasons marking their work manifests in strange ways. For example it has been found that stonemasons would often intentionally leave their marks in places which would never be seen, for example on the side of a stone which would end up entirely hidden. This only became apparent after the blitz destroyed Coventry Cathedral, and many marks of masons were found on stones in the rubble which had not been recognised before.

Extensive and interesting research suggests that many of the marks found on kerbstones in London (and the country) are in fact the marks of Georgian and Victorian masons, and in some cases even older. Due to the way in which they are distributed (with the same symbol appearing at regular intervals on a stretch of road, usually 11 to 14 kerbstones) it is thought that masons would lay the stones and then at the end of a day’s work mark where they had finished off. The distribution of these symbols throughout the capital has been described as a ‘hidden database’ revealing which masons worked where in the building of the capital – although we of course cannot tell exactly who the mason was, just that they were employed in different areas.

Another masonic symbol, Judd Street

But these symbols are not solely the marks of masons – there are also a number of other symbols associated with different meanings, and it’s fair to say that nobody has satisfactorily answered the question of what they all mean. It seems that the builders of the city somehow guessed right that kerbstones would be long-lasting and chose to use them to communicate messages through the centuries.

There are also signs of ownership – for example there is a kerbstone with the seal of the admiralty inscribed upon it, due to an Elizabethan law which stipulated the Royal Navy must mark its seal upon all its property. There are also ‘benchmarks’ which are used by Ordnance Survey to indicate that the height above sea level of the mark is known to within a hundredth of a foot, and also ancient parish boundary markers which are rather more obvious.

It is rather unfortunate that today we are seeing much of this heritage simply chucked in the bin without much ado by local authorities that don’t know any better or simply couldn’t care less. This is a strange manifestation of the effects that today’s London property market and planning system is having upon our local councils.

Brunswick Square – These stones, untouched for two centuries, are now being thrown away.

Councils today derive quite a substantial income from granting planning permission. Upon granting planning permission, they can demand a payment from the developer which can be quite sizeable. For a large development it is not unusual for a council to receive millions of pounds.

The problem is that these payments are partitioned up and ring-fenced for certain things. Councils use this to fund any works that they want to do to London’s streets, but the problem is that they actually end up having too much money to spend on their streets. Any payments made by a developer should be spent within five years, or councils face having to give the money back. What then happens is councils instead dream up fairly useless projects so that they can spend all the money before needing to give it back, a typical project being something along the lines of ‘let us take up all the street surfacing in some area and replace it with brand new materials’. The West End Project is perhaps the perfect example of this, which has consumed almost £15M of planning permission funds.

One of the effects of this is that councils are taking up these centuries old kerbstones and replacing them with brand new ones as a way simply to get the money spent. This unfortunate situation means that we are not only seeing the ancient boundaries of London’s roads altered for the first time in centuries, but the marks left by our forefathers which have so far survived the centuries are being wiped clean from our streets. For the first time in history, we are seeing streets in London saying farewell to the last remnants of their heritage.

Brunswick Square. This masonic stone is due to be replaced this year.

It is yet another way in which even now, the interrelation between London’s buildings and its streets is forming new history, although in this case the history we are making is in fact the destruction of the history which we have been so fortunate to inherit, before we have even yet fully understood its meaning.

Epilogue

You can help in the protection of our street heritage by sending this article to your local councillors. With a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of the heritage of our streets, perhaps we will be less likely to see pointless projects erasing our history.

Camden: The Epitome of Stupid

Camden meets QAM in a battle between common sense and absolute stupidity.

All that is wrong with Camden has been highlighted in a short incident in the past week which has been afflicting residents of Queen Alexandra Mansions, Judd Street.

Last week residents woke to find a key-box had been attached to the wall of QAM’s back entrance. This usually signifies that an owner of a flat has begun to rent it out on AirBnb, which is not permitted in QAM.

Usually AirBnb hosts would make some effort to ‘hide’ their key-box but this individual had placed it in plain sight of everyone. Furthermore they had drilled into the brick to attach this key-box causing permanent damage to QAM’s historic entrance. Drilling into our wall like this is also criminal damage.

However it was later discovered that in fact Camden had taken it upon themselves to attach this key-box without any permission and without informing the building’s directors or caretaker.

The reason for this was that a resident of QAM was under their social care services and so for some reason, they found it necessary to drill into the wall to attach a key-box and store the key there.

Outraged by this the caretaker and Managing Agent called Camden to demand its removal. One of the particularly irritating things about Camden’s actions is that they had drilled into the brick entrance causing permanent damage to the building. At least AirBnb hosts usually attached their keys to the railings by means of chains or some other method which didn’t cause criminal damage.

Camden’s subsequent response exemplified the extreme stupidity which we are all so accustomed to in Bloomsbury.

We woke to find that indeed Camden had removed the key-box but they had simply attached it to another part of the entrance.

Where it used to be.
Where it is now.

Job done! You see we had indeed asked Camden to move the key-box, but we hadn’t said that we didn’t want it attached somewhere else in the entrance. So why not? Camden simply attached it to the wooden frame of the same entrance causing even further permanent damage.

The contractors didn’t even contact the caretaker whist undertaking the works.

I simply cannot conceive of a more ridiculous and idiotic action, and yet I expect nothing less from Camden – the Epitome of Stupid.

Historic Hospital Demolition Approved

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.

Demolition Plan, Gray’s Inn Road

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.

‘How it Might Look’. These images are usually manipulated to significantly underplay how large the building will be.

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.

The applicant’s false ‘assessment’. Everything in blue is as treated as unimportant as one of Camden’s litter bins, despite being hundreds of years old.

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.’

This important view will be lost forever.

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.

Camden’s Filth is Symptomatic of Wider Dysfunction

Filthiness in Camden stems not from budget cuts or litter louts but from a widespread culture of laziness, apathy, and a willingness to accept anything as ‘inevitable’.

When living in Camden one becomes accustomed to a certain level of filth on the streets. After a while it becomes so usual that seeing a road with only a dozen pieces of litter on it comes almost as a miracle. Not to mention the piles of bin-bags and abandoned roadworks equipment – local landmarks that really ought to be listed.

However once in a while one gets the opportunity to leave the confines of Camden and venture into the outside world. Upon returning, it is obvious exactly when one crosses the border from say Islington, or Westminster, and back into the cesspit of filth known as Camden.

Camden’s streets are paved with litter. And it’s always quite clear that this filth has been building up over several days, if not weeks or even months.

I have been observing and learning about Camden and Veolia’s street cleansing operation in Bloomsbury for almost half a year now. I have met with officers and managers, almost weekly, touring the area, picking up on problems. Observing how problems are approached and solved, or not as the case may be. Listening to officers talk about Veolia and Camden, about litter and waste, the streets, and how to keep them clean. Identifying problems myself, and attempting to get them resolved.

I have branched out and talked to other officers from other departments about different problems. I have listened to them talk about Camden and their work and observed how they go about solving problems. As it stands, I have now interacted with dozens of officers from several departments.

I haven’t done this because I am particularly interested in say, litter. Of course, it is interesting to see how these operations go about keeping (or attempting to keep) Camden clean, and I really would appreciate it if Camden could keep my neighbourhood in a respectable state. But principally I am interested in answering one fundamental question, one which has been bothering me and many others for some while:

Why is Camden just so shit?

In more sophisticated language, why is it that Camden appear to fail at essentially everything? Why is it that people are so angry at Camden? And why is it just so difficult to get anything done?

Why is Camden just so shit?

Of course when we ask these questions we usually receive a barrage of the same old mumbo-jumbo – everything, they say, is down to budget-cuts. And I think that in a way when people say this they are touching on an element of truth of which they are not entirely aware.

Take the street cleansing operation for example.

Compared to ten years ago, less money is spent on keeping the streets clean. But so what? Sure we have fewer street cleaners, fewer cleaning vehicles and less money to run them. But how does this explain the fact that the street cleaners that we do have are so often seen sitting around picking their noses? How does this explain one road getting swept daily, when the next road is only swept once a month? How does this explain the widespread abandonment of roadworks equipment throughout the Borough?

‘Budget cuts’ – it isn’t that Camden can’t afford to solve these problems, but ‘budget cuts’ is a widespread and acceptable excuse for simply doing nothing in any given situation. More than an excuse, it has become a mindset – a ‘budget cut mentality’ that pervades essentially every aspect of Camden’s dealings. Officers simply don’t believe that they can make any sort of difference, because to do so would contradict the fact that their department has received X reduction in their budget over the past ten years. How could a single individual turn the tide against years of central governmental ‘oppression’?

In other words, officers simply believe that every problem encountered is an inevitable result of ‘budget cuts’. In this worldview, there’s simply no point in trying to resolve anything using common sense. Because the problem arose from ‘budget cuts’, and it will only go away by reversing ‘budget cuts’.

Take the example of Veolia not doing what they’re paid to do. There is quite evidently a widespread problem throughout Camden with this. However let’s just ignore that and try to fix the situation in Bloomsbury.

I notice that a sweeper isn’t sweeping the roads – a problem. I follow him to see what he’s doing, and he’s doing nothing. I take photos of this behaviour. For the following three days, I take photos of this sweeper walking the same route through Bloomsbury, doing absolutely nothing. I send it off to Camden.

In a rational world, the recipient in Camden would respond to this: a sweeper not doing his work. What a waste of taxpayer money! And thank you for bringing this to our attention!

But in Camden? No. Common sense stands for nothing. After a long wait, I get back the response: ‘but you didn’t consider that he might be on his daily break’.

Not only am I rebuffed for identifying and trying to solve a problem, but I actually get criticised by a councillor for ‘inappropriately following’ the sweeper and making ‘inappropriate assumptions’ about his break time. Pretty astounding stuff, but entirely natural to Camden.

One day an officer and I spot this sweeper on a road which we were reporting for being below acceptable standard. Camden’s standards of cleanliness are by no means high, so to be officially ‘below standard’ is quite an achievement. Beyond just litter and leaves, it has broken glass on it, and looks as though it hasn’t been swept for weeks – this despite this particular sweeper supposedly sweeping it daily. The report which we are about to make will be sent directly to him through a reporting system. But the fact that we are making the report in the first place means this sweeper hasn’t done the work assigned to him, apparently for a number of weeks.

So common sense says – why not approach this sweeper, who is only a few footsteps away? Why not confront him about his crimes? Why not try to directly solve this problem?

But this simply isn’t the way that things are done in Camden.

‘Well – he might be coming back later’ says the officer.

‘Yes but it’s pretty obvious that he isn’t.’

‘Well, if I try to raise it with the manager that’s what they’ll say. That he might have been going to come back later.’

‘Yes but this has evidently been building up for days.’

‘Well, you don’t know that. It might have all happened since this morning.’

‘Yes but that’s obviously not true.’

‘But if I raise it with the managers, that’s what they’ll say. That it might have become this way since this morning.’

This is exactly the sort of logic that pervades Camden and totally paralyses any sort of rational action. Despite it being obvious to us both that the sweeper is dossing around, because we cannot absolutely prove that, it’s apparently impossible to pursue. If there is any sort of ‘Yes but this might be the case’ it’s time to shrug your shoulders and move on.

This sort of absurd problem arises time and time again and causes real and substantial problems for individuals.

During construction work a resident reports construction noise outside permitted hours. They take a video which clearly shows a breach of regulations. ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘but the wind might have made it sound louder than it is.’ The case is thrown out.

An individual notes that a shop beneath their flat is being converted into an eating establishment which is not permitted under local regulations. ‘Ah’, but they say, ‘the owners might be making it look like an eating establishment, when actually it won’t be an eating establishment.’ The case is thrown out.

The examples are endless and increasingly absurd.

But what if we can absolutely prove that the sweeper isn’t doing the work set? What would happen?

I recognise this sweeper’s routine and over a number of days visit a spot where he sits down to smoke a cigarette at the same time every day – a bench in front of Holy Cross Church on Cromer Street. This area has a number of bits of litter around it. So each day I take a photo of him sitting on the bench with the litter around him, and report it on Clean Camden. Each day the litter is getting a little worse. Each day the sweeper does absolutely nothing to sweep it up.

The reports are such that the sweeper should be tasked to clean the area up immediately, and certainly within twenty four hours. Each report clearly shows the sweeper sitting on a bench smoking surrounded by litter. The evidence could not be more damning.

But what I find is that instead, the sweeper simply marks the report as complete without doing anything.

Shocked by this I try to raise it with Camden, but it comes to nothing.

Week after week I try to push the same point. ‘Obviously’, I say, ‘there’s something wrong with the sweeper. He just isn’t doing the work set. Doesn’t it make sense to tackle this?’

But for some reason officers aren’t at all keen on this suggestion, showing a profound aversion to confronting the problem directly, but I never get a straight answer about why – just bits and pieces of information, and seemingly endless technical reasons as to why they can’t do anything.

‘Well, our job is to monitor the streets, not how Veolia keep them clean.’

‘Well, they do have contractual obligations but they aren’t paid as much anymore.’

‘You should try to help the sweepers, not criticise them.’

Although the problem is quite obvious to everyone – including residents – there seems to be some sort of a culture which prevents officers from tackling the problem in a straightforward way. It makes perfect sense – we see a sweeper dossing around, so why not confront him? Why not attempt to solve the problem directly? But instead there is an endless web of technicalities and reasons as to why apparently nothing can be done.

There has to be something causing this. One could quite easily say that ‘well, that officer is just incompetent.’ But speaking honestly, this simply isn’t the case. Camden’s officers generally don’t suffer from incompetence and are quite often enthusiastic and motivated – but they do find themselves in a system which constricts their ability to actually solve problems in a reasonable and direct way. If a problem arises, officers generally do want to fix it. But they always seem to have to resort to contrived and indirect methods which in fact consume so much energy that it eventually comes to nothing.

With the sweeper, I was told that the best way to solve the problem would be to use Clean Camden daily to document the streets. That way, evidence would build up and then eventually a manager in Veolia might start to get annoyed and ask questions about why so many reports were being made in an area. Then they might investigate individual sweepers and then conclude that one particular sweeper was causing problems and then that sweeper might be spoken to.

It’s evidently absurd. And all the while, Camden’s streets are piling up with litter and the root cause of the problem is quite obviously that Veolia’s sweepers are simply dossing around and not doing the work that they’ve been set. Sweepers dossing around and skipping out roads is something which is widely observed by residents and indeed known to Camden’s own officers. It is a problem, so why won’t Camden just do something about it?

Budget cuts.

The problem is that although it’s obvious to us that sweepers are dossing and getting away with it, to Camden this is simply another manifestation of ‘budget cuts’.

The logic goes something like this – ‘if we didn’t get budget cuts, Veolia would get paid more. Then the sweepers would get paid more, they’d work properly. But because we have budget cuts the sweepers don’t get paid enough, so they don’t work properly. Therefore without more money we won’t solve anything.’

So from Camden’s point of view, identifying problems with Veolia and attempting to fix them is completely missing the point. To them, it all comes down to Veolia not being paid enough. And nothing that you do will make any difference.

I don’t think though that officers really think in this way consciously – it is simply a mentality which has become so widespread throughout Camden that it is now second nature – a part of the culture of working for Camden. The budget cut mentality.

Whilst no doubt ‘a decade of austerity’ has caused a genuine shortfall in funding, the real problem is that it has caused a surplus of excuses. The issue is that councillors also don’t really want to do anything, and their position as ‘leading’ the council has led Camden into a black hole of apathy. After all, when problems are brought to their attention they can either respond, or sit back, do nothing, and parrot back the party punchline: ‘a decade of austerity has drained the public purse’.

Whilst no doubt ‘a decade of austerity’ has caused a genuine shortfall in funding, the real problem is that it has caused a surplus of excuses.

In other words, councillors have found a cheap way to gain political points from every problem that arises in Camden. Solving a problem would run entirely counter to the narrative of crisis brought about by austerity – it’s far easier and more effective to allow a problem to run its course and continue to blame austerity for everything.

Now I’m not entirely sure if councillors are as conniving as this to actually strategise in such a logical and effective way. Honestly, I don’t think that the Cabinet could muster enough IQ points between them to bake a cake. But it doesn’t matter – many of our Labour councillors respond to every problem by automatically blaming something external rather than accepting the burden of real responsibility – and this appears to have trickled down to every level of Camden. There simply is no notion of responsibility and accountability in Camden, at any level, at all. Anything that goes wrong is ultimately caused by the spectre of ‘austerity’. After all, wouldn’t all of our problems be solved if we just had a few extra million, or if that thing in the past didn’t go wrong, or this, or that?

There simply is no notion of responsibility and accountability in Camden, at any level, at all. Anything that goes wrong is ultimately caused by the spectre of ‘austerity’.

‘Austerity’ has become an invincible shield behind which Labour Party politicians can deflect and dodge responsibility for any sort of poor decision, and make poor decisions with no real consideration of the consequences of their actions knowing that if it goes wrong, they can just blame austerity.

It can become infuriating when we band together and kick up a huge fuss about some failing or other in Camden, but Camden doesn’t seem to really acknowledge the problem, even less address it. The problem is that by kicking up a fuss about a problem we aren’t really doing much to solve the problem but actually further ‘prove’ just how much damage austerity has done to public services and ‘public trust’. In some sense, by kicking up a fuss we are simply scoring further political points for exactly those individuals which we are protesting against. We are all stuck in a political Catch-22.

Is there anything that can be done to break out of this?

In my view, Camden is in some sense a sinking ship, and it’s hard to see how anyone or any group could break Camden out of its stupor – at least not in the short term. It seems that years of this austerity parroting has caused a widespread proliferation of laziness, apathy, and evasion of responsibility. In trying to combat problems where an individual officer has been negligent the whole body of Camden closes ranks to protect this officer behind layers and layers of bureaucratic nonsense. It’s just too easy for this to go on – after all, why would officers want to break out of a system in which it’s impossible to put a foot wrong?

Why would officers want to break out of a system in which it’s impossible to put a foot wrong?

Perhaps the monumental defeat of the Labour Party at the latest national elections will put an end to the credibility of this austerity narrative – if the narrative had any local credibility at all in a borough which has earned hundreds of millions in the property market alone.

But do people even care?

Whilst people may not care about political strategy or give a toss about whether austerity really did do this or that, there does appear to be a widespread contempt of Camden and its endless portfolio of spectacular failures. And more and more, contempt appears to be directed directly towards Camden and particularly the Cabinet and even individual politicians. We are hopefully seeing the end of the ever weakening and pathetic narrative of ‘austerity made us do it’.

What is clear though is that the only way anything will really change in Camden is by taking political action. It only remains to locals to take up the gauntlet and try to hold our local politicians accountable for the shocking decisions they have made over the past decade, by getting them thrown out of office in 2022.

Success Story: Ormonde Mansions

Collective action to protect residents of Ormonde Mansions shows how working together can benefit the residents of Bloomsbury.

We were recently contacted by residents of Ormonde Mansions who had been hit with a planning application in their ‘back garden’. Through the swift collective action of BRAG and the BCAAC we helped to prevent years of construction and loss of light in a shared lightwell.

Ormonde Mansions is a Victorian mansion block on Southampton Row. It shares an historic lightwell with surrounding properties, one of which is a hotel run by Hilton.

These residents had experienced years of disruption as the hotel had carried out works within the shared lightwell. As is so often the case, we were told that contractors worked outside usual hours but Camden had taken no enforcement action. After completing the work, the hotel had decided to put in an application to build higher within the lightwell.

As is also so often the case, we were told that residents were not directly notified of this application but found out by chance. This was despite the construction work being proposed a couple of feet from the windows of some residents.

Our Response

After being contacted we examined the planning application to discover exactly what was being proposed.

We also visited properties and talked to residents to get a better idea of the situation.

There were two aspects to their concerns. One was the detrimental effect that the construction would have on residents through disruption and eventual loss of light, and one was the detrimental effect the proposals would have on the historic environment.

Residents even expressed that faced with more construction, it had reached the point where they were considering simply selling up and moving away permanently.

The lightwell was of architectural and historic interest, with interesting features and white glazed ceramic to help reflect light into properties.

Within a few weeks BRAG had formulated a response raising concerns about residents whilst the BCAAC submitted a response based on heritage concerns.

The BCAAC used their knowledge about national planning policy and argued on those grounds that the application could not be accepted due to a technical oversight where the applicant had failed to properly assess the historic environment and explain how it would be preserved and enhanced.

The Application is Refused

Within a week of the consultation response deadline the application was rejected.

It is highly unusual for an application of this type to be rejected within such short timescales.

The refusal notice simply simply summarised the viewpoints of the responses from BRAG and the BCAAC, that residential amenity would be negatively affected and the historic environment would also be diminished.

This is an encouraging success of collective action in response to resident concerns. We effectively used our influence, knowledge, and experience to represent a small group of residents and effectively saved them from years of construction work and loss of light within a matter of weeks.


BRAG

Bloomsbury Residents’ Action Group

Visit their website

BCAAC

Bloomsbury Conservation Areas Advisory Committee

Visit their website


Dockless Bicycles: Consultation Upcoming

Correspondence has revealed a London-wide consultation on dockless bicycles is upcoming. Authorities want to keep dockless bicycles… but only allow them to be docked in certain places.

On 18th February 2020 the BCAAC wrote to Camden Council to argue that dockless bicycles should be banned from Bloomsbury and the surrounding conservation areas, to ensure that the enjoyment of Bloomsbury’s heritage would no longer be impeded.

It was argued that dockless bicycles were unnecessary in Central London due to the high density of ‘Boris Bikes’. Dockless bicycles were introduced to combat the so-called ‘last mile problem‘, where there may be a mile or more between an individual’s home or workplace and the nearest Boris Bike dock.

Evidently this is not a problem in Bloomsbury, as one is never more than a five minute walk from a Boris Bike dock.

A senior Met official also expressed his concern regarding the dockless bicycles as they were being used to facilitate crime in London.

They are also viewed with widespread contempt due to the way in which the public realm is cluttered and degraded by their presence, the way that providers ‘dump’ their bicycles in high traffic areas, and the way in which they can topple over on the pavement and cause difficult mobility problems.

This is particularly pertinent in Bloomsbury which is home to the RNIB on Judd Street.

It was understood that Camden Council were working with London Councils to draft a bylaw to control dockless bicycles, with the possibility of exclusion from certain areas.

Camden Council sent a comprehensive response to our request and concerns on 25th February 2020.

Despite all the concerns raised, it is clear that the bylaw will allow dockless bicycle usage throughout all of London, but ‘virtual docking locations’ will be introduced to prohibit the current practice of ‘dumping’ bicycles in inappropriate places.

The siting of these ‘virtual docks’ is apparently undergoing ‘careful consideration’, and yet it appears not a single Bloomsbury resident has yet been involved with these considerations.

The fact that the raison d’être of dockless bicycles being that they are dock-less seems to have escaped the rational faculty of our superiors. Dockless bicycles will therefore become a way to essentially ‘privatise’ an extension of the Boris Bike system, by setting up shared docking space for dockless bicycles.

However unlike Boris Bike docking stations, there will evidently be problems with these new areas becoming unsightly and cluttered. Camden are considering introducing these ‘virtual docking stations’ onto the public carriageway as well.

The bylaw is due to come to consultation this summer. The locations for these ‘virtual docks’ will also come to consultation before being adopted.

However as is so often the case, this consultation is likely to be token. We have known that Camden have been working on a bylaw since last summer yet this is the first news that we have heard of it. Certain communities are likely to be hit with a ‘virtual docking station’ on their doorstep which will become a hotspot for the dumping of these bicycles, and no doubt other waste.

The bylaw has evidently surpassed the ‘formative stage’ without any public consultation.

We will post an update when the consultation is due to go live.

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‘Can’t Do Camden’

At what point does it become easier just to move to Timbuktu?

How much effort does it take to get Camden to do something?

It’s a trick question – doing nothing is what Camden do best.

I am far more proactive than most in trying to get things resolved. But sometimes it becomes apparent that no amount of effort will succeed in getting something done. Because for every ounce of effort put into trying to get something resolved, Camden pride themselves in returning two ounces of reasoning as to why technically, no we cannot do that, because this and that, so try again next week.

The absurdity of this is that I often see officers going to such contortions to justify doing nothing that it actually appears to be far easier just to do what’s asked. But that isn’t what they’re there to do! After all – the level of professionalism demanded by the Civil Service requires every officer should be able to justify doing nothing in any situation. ‘Can’t Do Camden’ – it should be the name of an app where you report things that need doing. You get a report back saying ‘done’, check what you reported and it isn’t done. You flag it up with Camden. ‘Don’t you get it’, they say ‘that’s the whole point! Doing nothing is what we do!’

Now not every officer and department in Camden behaves in this way. There are pockets of goodness in Camden, where officers rebel against ‘Can’t Do Camden’ and actually manage to do something – but be careful, don’t let on to anyone that I actually did something. I might lose my job, after all!

But let’s face it, Camden is a huge black hole of human resource and money, into which gigatons of energy go in but the will to do nothing is so enormous that not even a glimmer of useful work can escape from its event horizon. Some theoretical councillors have predicted that Can’t Do Camden will one day consume the will to live of all human beings in Camden.

The destructive analogy does not go amiss considering Camden’s ‘ambitious’ plan to flatten the whole Borough and convert it into the world’s largest luxury apartment block. It’s a good question what Camden will actually do when the whole Borough is full of empty property and empty of people. After all, how will Camden be able to justify doing nothing when there’s nobody asking them to do something?

‘Dear Diary,

Today I considered doing something but due to unforeseen circumstances I will endeavour to respond to your enquiry within twenty working days. Your rights of appeal are contained somewhere on the internet. Your reference is 348F0001P. We are completely committed to doing whatever you ask of us.

Senior Diary Entry Manager

And when they’ve successfully raised £100T from selling land to property developers, becoming the single most profitable company in recorded history, how exactly will they spend the money?

Well – there’s always the cyclists. We can turn the Borough into the world’s largest velodrome.

I personally simply cannot wait for this future ‘Super-Camden’ full of skyscrapers, the world’s largest supply of dockless bicycles and nobody to ride them. Councillors fly in from Qatar and land at Camden City Airport to take selfies atop the Burj Camden, the world’s new tallest tower. Councillor Bin Salman Al Saud boasts about how he’s managed to create the world’s most profitable company simply by selling off all the land, repeatedly stating that he’s committed to a zero person Camden, and all the while ensuring that their officers do absolutely nothing. Genius! They reminisce about how the current site of the Burj Camden used to be a quaint little square on that old imperialist board game ‘Monopoly’ – Bustle Square? Something like that. It’s so much better now we don’t have any of those pesky people to worry about.

But between today and the advent of Super-Camden, how can I get rid of a pile of highways equipment on Calthorpe Street? Hm.

It’s been reported many times since it got dumped there over two years ago by Camden’s contractors.

Lately I met with an officer to discuss how to get it removed, along with about twenty other pieces of equipment scattered throughout the area. He said it would all be gone before Christmas – I just had to supply a map. Great! But then he later told me that I’d misquoted (or ‘miscoated’) him.

Cant’ Do!

So I took photos and sent a map of all the locations to his manager. He confirmed it would all get removed.

But then it wasn’t.

I asked him what could be done about this. He said it had been removed. I checked and it hadn’t. I should now apparently go out and take photos of them all again and send it on a map… again. It’ll be investigated… if the evidence supports my claims….

Wait… I’m asking Camden to do something? Well of course it won’t be done! That’s the whole point isn’t it… I’m just asking for emails explaining why it can’t be done?

A great way to spend a rainy day, trying to get something done!

Can’t Do!