There are a number of significant threats to the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas which have already destroyed heritage, and continue to threaten it. There are also a number of less severe threats which continue to destroy our heritage in a gradual process of decay.
Of the 10 threats listed, 5 arise directly from Camden policy, 2 from Central Government projects, and 3 from Camden’s inaction. All arise from some sort of financial incentive.
There are a number of major threats affecting the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas. These threats are at the forefront of our minds as committee members.
Camden Council, Public Benefit, and Section 106
Begun: c.2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Irreversible
It may sound bizarre but one of the greatest threats to our conservation areas is public benefit.
Public benefit is a term used in the planning realm to describe the benefits that a new development would bring to the general public as a result of its approval. These can be as wide-ranging as offering to pay for new benches in the local area as to providing research institutes or a new green space, or providing new jobs or apprenticeships to ‘boost’ the local economy. Public benefit need not mean benefit brought just to the local community, but often instead means benefit brought to the national or even international community.
In planning terms, the only thing which can outdo heritage in terms of importance is public benefit. If a new development causes harm of any type to heritage, either by demolishing historic buildings or building new inappropriate buildings, it must be demonstrated by the applicant that the public benefit brought by a development outweighs the harm caused to heritage. This is why we often see developments which unashamedly cause harm to heritage, such as the demolition of the Eastman Dental Hospital courtyard or the Town Hall Annexe rooftop extension. In certain scenarios, developers aim to simply ‘outweigh’ the harm caused to heritage by playing up public benefit.
Due to further technical details of the planning system, our conservation areas are at particular risk from public benefit.
Another aspect to public benefit is something called Section 106, or planning obligations.
In 1990 planning laws changed to allow for greater flexibility in the planning process. Section 106 was introduced as a way to let planners make active alterations to a planning application by means of obligations. These obligations can be fairly simple things, such as obliging the developer to build their walls in red brick, for example.
A crucial error in the system is that Section 106 allows planners to demand sums of money from the developer in exchange for things which cannot be gained through more conventional obligations.
Camden’s long-term strategy for raising funds involves using Section 106 to gain enormous sums of money from developers. Part of a wider scheme termed the Community Investment Program, Camden actively encourages overdevelopment because larger development will carry larger Section 106 payments. In recent years, Camden’s planners have become specialised in extracting extraordinary sums of money from developers through Section 106.
To put a figure on the numbers, a recent Freedom of Information request revealed around £60M has been raised in Section 106 payments from our conservation areas over the past decade, and at one time held about £95M in Section 106 savings, although they have recently begun to spend some of that money, notably on the West End Project.
Section 106, while it cannot technically be termed a public benefit for reasons of legality, is in reality one of the largest de facto public benefits which outweighs considerations of heritage when it comes to large development.
Public benefit, Section 106, and Camden’s long-term investment strategy combine to place our conservation areas under immense risk of harm through overdevelopment.
Begun: c.2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Irreversible
UCL are keen to expand their premises, and Bloomsbury is a sensible place for them to do so. We have already seen heritage destroyed for UCL’s developments. One of the problems is that for research institutes and the like, they can quite easily wave the public benefit card, which Camden all too greedily swallow in excitement for the Section 106 that will come attached to any large development.
We saw the entire eastern range of Cartwright Gardens demolished in 2013 to make way for a large student halls development, substantially harming the setting of Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury’s only Georgian crescent. This was vigorously opposed by the community and heritage groups, to no avail.
The former Royal Free Hospital quadrangle was recommended for demolition by Camden in 2019 to make way for a vast research institute. This was vigorously opposed by ourselves and Historic England, along with the community, to no avail. We are yet to see the associated legalised bribe justifying this destruction.
It is worth stating that UCL’s ambitions to expand would not be classed as a significant threat if it were not for the Community Investment Program. The CIP incentivises institutions like UCL to go above and beyond what they even require, in return for funds.
Begun: 2012 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Irreversible
The redevelopment of Euston Station in line with HS2 poses a great threat to Euston Square, a Georgian square within our conservation areas. Its future is currently uncertain but we already uncovered plans to wipe out the square by building on top of it. Plans have not yet been published for the development.
Begun: 2007 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Denmark Street | Damage Type: Irreversible
The redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road station in line with Crossrail has already caused destruction to buildings and heritage in the Denmark Street Conservation Area.
There are a number of threats which would pose a great threat to most conservation areas, but in the face of the Community Investment Program, they pale in comparison. These are classed as moderate threats.
Student Flats, AirBnb, and other short-lets
Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible
The special character of Central London varies from place to place, but historically it would have been a mixture of industrial, residential, commercial, and institutional. With the boom in the tourist industry, with millions of tourists visiting our conservation areas every year, coupled with the sky-high rents in Central London, a greater number of residential properties are being bought and converted into short-lets and student flats. Whilst students reside in a property for at least a number of months, AirBnb and competitors causes great harm to our communities by converting residential properties illegally into holiday properties. This is a harmful change to the character of our conservation areas, and there appears to be little standing in the way of further harm occurring.
Begun: c.2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible
Illegal alterations frequently occur in the conservation areas, and we and the community are the only ones tasked with picking up on them and reporting them to Camden. Whilst many alterations do not cause significant harm – such as shopfronts being modified to carry LED lights, etc – some can be significant, such as the replacement of windows and doors with cheap PVC equivalents. While each individual alteration does not pose a great threat, the accumulation of many alterations over time can cause irreparable damage to the appearance of a conservation area. Coupled with the frequency with which properties now change hands, this threat is classed as moderate.
There are a number of minor threats which we consider to be irritating but do not pose any real harm to our heritage.
Begun: 2019 | Status: Declining | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible
Dockless bicycles clutter the street environment and therefore cause harm to the setting of the conservation areas. Whilst Camden claim to be unable to do anything, the real answer is that they lack sufficient motivation to get on top of this problem. By-laws are in the making to further control them. After reaching a peak in 2019, levels appear to be dropping off.
Abandoned Highways Equipment
Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Worsening | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible
Highways contractors often leave behind their equipment after finishing their work, and it can take years to get them removed. Their presence causes harm to the setting of our conservation areas. The highways team expect the public to report on these, but they do not remove them but simply ‘ask’ the contractors to pick them up. The highways team are expected to pay a fine if they are removed. A Camden officer has quite rightly described this as ‘the tail wagging the dog’.
Out-of-Control Street Vendors
Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Reversible
Newspaper vending stalls have gradually been taken over by those attempting to run a full tech repair businesses and/or tourist shop within them. These individuals go on to make extensions to their premises without permission and plaster inappropriate advertisements and LED signs to the exterior, whilst cluttering the street with tables, A-boards, and even astro-turf. Camden currently claim to be unable to do anything about this.
Conversion of Telephone Boxes
Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Worsening | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Reversible
Camden are approving the reuse of telephone boxes, an internationally significant example of British design, to be used as mini tourist, coffee, and tech repair shops. This absolutely absurd policy then allows vendors to set up whole stalls outside their boxes, which similar to the street vendors mentioned above, go on to clutter the area to a ridiculous extent. This impacts negatively on heritage assets and their setting.