By Angela Lovely
A decision on whether to list the former Georgian and Victorian workhouse in Cleveland Street as a building of special architectural or historic interest could be taken in a matter of weeks. Listing decisions are made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is required by the Planning Act 1990 to approve a list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. English Heritage administers the listing system.
English Heritage told Fitzrovia News that it was in the process of preparing its advice to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. English Heritage considers that the Charles Dickens connection with the former Strand Union Workhouse in Cleveland Street as put forward by the historian Dr Ruth Richardson as “fresh evidence” of historical importance. English Heritage are putting their advice to the government together as a matter of priority because a planning application to demolish the workhouse has been submitted to Camden Council. They hope to give their opinion to the government within a few weeks.
In 2007 English Heritage had recommended that the workhouse be given listed status. That listing request was turned down by the then minister Margaret Hodge.
If listing is approved the decision will scupper the plans by UCLH NHS Trust to get approval for its current planning application to demolish the building and build a high-rise block of flats with a basement car park, and retail units on the ground floor.
UCLH claims its plans to demolish and develop on the site of the workhouse have the support of the majority of local people. However, UCLH are kidding themselves as very few people support their plans for a high-density tower block on the site.
Opponents to UCLH’s plans fall roughly into two camps: those who want to see the workhouse listed because of its architectural and historical significance; and those who argue that the proposed social housing falls well short of what should be delivered under an outstanding section 106 agreement and normal planning policy. Both camps are also critical of Camden Council’s planning department for being too much of a soft touch with UCLH and failing to preserve a conservation area. It’s fair to say that south of the Euston Road Camden’s planners are either not welcome or are universally hated.
Back in 2007 local opinion on the former workhouse building was very much divided. The Fitzroy Square based Georgian Group led the campaign to have the building listed. English Heritage then recommended that the government give the building listed status. Others led by Holborn and St Pancras MP Frank Dobson and the Charlotte Street Association argued that the site should be used for much-needed social housing and that UCLH’s outstanding 106 agreement to provide 44 socially rented units should be discharged on this site. Listed status could have prevented these plans going ahead. The matter was settled by Margaret Hodge the then minister for culture who decided against listing the building.
However, when development plans were presented showing an ugly tower block and less social housing than originally proposed, local opinion hardened against UCLH’s plans and the campaign to oppose the plans and list the building gathered momentum.
While the campaign for more social housing accused UCLH of double-counting social housing units, a team of lawyers and planning consultants working for UCLH put forward an argument that double-counting of the social housing units was perfectly legal and didn’t breach either the 106 agreement or normal planning policy. Camden Council accidentally published a viability study containing this spurious argument on its planning website, before hastily removing it and refusing to let anyone else read it. (It’s here by the way.) The social housing campaigners feared that Camden’s Development Control committee would take one look at the mountain of papers provide by UCLH’s planning lawyers and cave in under the shear quantity of argument and wave the plans through.
Eventually historian Dr Ruth Richardson stepped in and linked the workhouse to Charles Dickens who twice lived in Cleveland Street less than 100m from the workhouse. In December 2010 on Robert Elms’ Radio show Dr Richardson suggested that Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist was inspired by this very workhouse. Dr Richardson had previously published a paper on the social reformer Dr Joseph Rogers who also served at the workhouse. Whilst Dickens’ living in Cleveland Street was quite well-known locally and several publications had noted it, Richardson argued that no-one had actually said that the workhouse in Cleveland Street was the model for Dickens’ most famous character, Oliver Twist.
However, Dr Richardson presented no evidence that it actually was this workhouse that inspired Dickens but she eloquently argued it was highly likely since he lived just along the road. So it must have been. Whether it would stand up to peer review was another matter. Nobody wanted to stand in the way of a good winter’s tale on a cold day. Besides, there’s good money in the American tourist market over here.
So it’s back to the current incumbent of the Department of Media, Culture and Sport to decide what to do with it. Knowing the present government they’ll have it sold, taken down brick-by-brick and have it shipped off to somewhere like Lake Havasu City, Arizona to sit alongside London Bridge as a giant museum piece. We’ll just have to wait and see.