By Peter Baver
Derwent London is heading the push (or is it a shove?) for an application to create a new business improvement district (BID) in Fitzrovia. BIDs are designed to increase the business prospects within a demarcated area by extracting a levy from businesses meeting a given rateable threshold. Those levies are then pooled to be invested into the BID area to increase its commercial attraction.
Private finance being used to improve an area without recourse to precious and pressed upon public funds: that all would seem, especially against an economic headwind, to be perfectly reasonable, wouldn’t it?
Except that watching Derwent London’s previous approaches do not inspire confidence: watching Derwent conduct itself locally has been to observe the cogs in a public relations spin machine.
First of all there was the public consultation for the redevelopment of 80 Charlotte St, which is where Saatchi & Saatchi currently, but not for much longer, base their HQ. Derwent claimed to have held extensive consultations in the area inviting community input. Many of the 5000 consultation letters which were supposed to have been issued would have been distributed in northern Fitzrovia where Cleveland St neighbourhood watch operates. After investigations of our own, we could only find one recipient, who owns a small business on Charlotte St directly opposite the Saatchi redevelopment, of their consultation letter. Further enquiries found a hand full of recipients outside of the Watch area but far, far fewer than the 5000 distribution number that was claimed.
At the planning application stage, sound objections were raised. What was the main objection to the Saatchi redevelopment? Camden policy acknowledges that there is insufficient amenity infrastructure for the current residential and worker population in central and southern Fitzrovia. This especially applies to Public Open Nature Space (PONS). Fitzrovia is experiencing a series of significant re-development projects which are increasing pressures upon available amenity.
Derwent London itself is redeveloping not only Saatchi but the Margaret Pyke clinic, One Oxford St and Tottenham Ct Rd Central Cross but instead of calculating an appropriate Open Space contribution commensurate with all of those developments the Saatchi block contribution was calculated in isolation. That calculation fell short of the open space to floor space equation for that one block, and the Public Open Space remit of offering quality rest and recreational amenity and nature diversity was subverted into providing a window view for their re-development showing off “corporate responsibility” rather than the real requirements of the area as a whole: just as the piazza in front of One Oxford St becomes a funnel for customers while the Central Cross colonnade is removed and the pavement width reduced. – A good example of corporate serving space dressed-up as social responsibility is British Land’s wind-swept chasm Triton Square, just north of Euston Rd, or the overlooked Renzo Piano, St Giles.
In September 2011, against significant local objection, London Mayor Boris Johnson passed the 80 Charlotte Street planning application; but it was subsequently discovered that the Deputy Mayor for Planning Sir Edward Lister has a son who works for Bell Pottinger, the public affairs consultants who act for Derwent London.
Scrutiny from democratically elected representatives has been inadequate: why is the London Assembly not questioning Sir Edward Lister’s connection through his son to Derwent’s acting agent? Did inside knowledge improving his son’s career affect Sir Edward Lister’s advice to the London Mayor? We do not live in a one-party corporate supporting state like China, for goodness sake!
After the Mayoral decision, Saatchi announced that it would be relocating at the expiration of its current lease and would not be returning to the site after the redevelopment conclusion because of the projected rent increase.
Derwent have also been at the forefront of the creation of the Fitzrovia Partnership which also includes Arup, Make and the City of London Corporation and have been keen to promote a local loyalty card. Engagement with locals is positively encouraged… as consumers.
As a neighbourhood watch the introduction of the Fitzrovia Partnership’s private security was cautiously welcomed; but not as a prelude to pre-empting local dissatisfaction from increased nuisance and crime levels caused by the commercialisation and greater footfall from Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road into the quieter corners and back streets of inner Fitzrovia.
This brings us to the BID application.
The BID proposal was revealed on a Camden Council web page in early June stating that the Camden Election Office would be conducting the election by 20th July, and referred enquiries to the Fitzrovia Partnership. Nobody thought to notify Camden residents directly – or thought about it and decided against. The full implications for the area have not been widely debated.
The Articles of Association state that the BID board consists of 3-8 representative members with qualifying contributions of £10, 000 or over per annum. The BID proposal claims that there will be 12 members on the BID board but does not make clear that businesses contributing under £10, 000 are not eligible to be board members except by invitation. Why the deception? Derwent is making a voluntary contribution to ensure its control.
Belatedly, Derwent have commissioned Soundings and the London Communications Agency (LCA) to survey residents and Fitzrovia workers but the results will not be collated until after the BID vote and will have no bearing upon the decision or the organisational structure.
The decision to introduce a BID depends on the majority decision of the votes of middle to large businesses with a rateable vale of over £100, 000 per annum. Most of them will not be eligible to be on the board which is at a higher threshold for which about 20 of the largest businesses qualify.
Fitzrovia is a high density urban area which does not only consist of middle to large businesses. There are many small, independent businesses and thousands of residents. What would be the effect of the creation of a district tailored for the super-largest business in an area which has a significant residential and small business make-up?
The attraction to Derwent is clear: The financial contributors to the BID are business rate payers not the free holders. Money is contributed from business tenants increasing the value of the property for the free holder. Derwent London increases the value of their properties by getting their tenants to pay!
But Fitzrovia big business is already doing well. It is the independent small businesses which are struggling. Fitzrovia is not solely a middle to large corporate business district but a high density urban area. There are many small and independent businesses and thousands of residents. If the area consists of three main constituencies: residents, Independent traders and corporate businesses/organisations why is that not reflected in the BID structure and why is Camden Council colluding in the creation of a structure which favours corporate interests?
While the BID structure is presented as benefitting the three basic constituent groups, Derwent and the other corporate players will be in a strong position to steer the improvements to their own direct profitability.
The corporate approach is the conflation of profit with wealth: the philosophical presentation that the pursuit of immediate returns and relatively quick profit, excluding the legally permitted and convenient corporate culture of tax avoidance, will ultimately benefit the wider society via the taxes that are generated even as in the meantime the seeking of that profit has direct socially detrimental repercussions.
Wealth on the other hand is not quantifiable solely in numerical terms and encompasses such things as creativity, imagination, viability, knowledge, well-being, health, appeal, aesthetics, culture, heritage, infrastructure, long-term investment without immediate return and so on, and is built upon the contributions of previous generations.
Derwent London’s activities fundamentally exploit the character and location of Fitzrovia for its own profitability. If these efforts were sincere, Derwent would have taken its custodianship seriously and got to know the area before embarking on its overhauling project. Their history and the example of their collusion in the destruction of the Turnmills building in Farringdon is indication that profit over investment using the wider definition is what is being sought.
Representation on the BID is not one of aptitude, ability, understanding, relevance or inventiveness and applicability, but the reduction of recognition to the clout of money where value is accorded to the sums involved: relationships deconstructed to commercial transaction, set-up with rules to benefit the biggest player.
Fitzrovia’s success is: its contrasts which contribute to creative friction; its historical development, being at the margins of the major estates; its small holdings and development diversity integrating the rich and not so rich cheek by jowel; its nooks and crannies; the successful resistance of chain stores allowing start-up businesses to, just about, manage; the fact that people damn well care – all contributing to that bohemian reputation.
The BID would swamp start-up energy, entrepreneurship and creative industries, replacing them with property speculation and area marketing as the new predominant industries, altering the ways that Fitzrovia has found its niche.
The financial system and corporate culture are intertwined. We know about the failures of financial regulation over the past decade. Are we really expected to believe that culture of unchecked excess, where questions are not asked and rules are there to be got round for the pursuit of self-interest against wider social interests with detrimental social repercussions deferred is restricted to the city banks? Corporate industry has honed the privatising of profit and the socialising of future liability.
The significance of all of this is that Derwent continues to run rings around representative institutions and now wishes to set-up a structure which, once established, largely by-passes local democratic accountability, or is once removed. Privatised consultations with shortcomings have been conducted with results which reflect their paymasters’ interests which are then used to affect the actions of political mechanisms. A new private consultation is started on a time scale which cannot affect the current major long-term BID issue facing Fitzrovia. The BID process is being conducted at such speed that most Fitzrovians do not have opportunity to study and debate the implications.
Camden’s elected representatives, with some honourable exceptions, need to start asking sharper questions and need to apply their own existing policies and support citizens against rapacious over-development and not associate a quick buck with long-term viability.
That opportunistic culture is widespread: every week in the Camden New Journal there are articles about the corners of Camden Borough where residents are organising to protect and preserve what they love about their communities against the property developers’ game: of the gamble of conflated property valuations without end. Properties are to provide amenity for the function of providing homes, of places of industriousness and of facilities. If they become an end in itself, that will spell trouble.
There is room for investment in Fitzrovia with a stable, long-term perspective respecting the character and special qualities of what is already here and taking advantage of as yet untapped potential. New initiatives are welcome, even those that involve the power and finance of corporate muscle but along with the energy and drive of the best small businesses, the depth and care of committed long-term residents and the expertise and public service of the better council officials – provided that discernment is applied to not just go through the motions. We have been wanting to have that dialogue. Derwent and their partners’ grand corporate take-over and carving-up of a district is not it.
Peter Baver is coordinator for Howard House & Cleveland St (north) Neighbourhood Watch.