By Griff Rhys Jones
There are several considerations involved in this business improvement district (BID) — some big issues, some are local and specific.
First off I am totally in favour of private enterprise and business getting involved with and looking after their parish. But I am wary of this initiative because of what may become unintended consequences (or indeed intended consequences) that help one sort of business (the property letting business) but will cause problems to smaller businesses and the large and wholly integrated residential population of the district.
To begin with, one is bemused to find, looking at the BID map, (a proposed business improvement), that so great an area of Fitzrovia is included. The map includes residential areas. It seems to take no account of diversity of the district. I was startled to see my own house and neighbours included. Er… I don’t want to be part of your business area, thanks. Our interests are not for greater footfall and improved business facilities thank you.
And why don’t I get a say if I am so blatantly included. Surely this is undemocratic.
We are confronting policy. This is part of a wider issue. It represents a misreading of the future needs of inner cities and central urban areas, which is enshrined in the latest planning proposals from Government. This is the wider context. The big issue.
New outline planning proposals were put forward earlier this year (These were the ones that the National Trust and the CPRE made a successful fuss about). Most of the noise was about green belt and the countryside. In truth, for urban areas, these documents focussed on “neighbourhood planning”.
Basically it goes like this. First proposition – “Every area will need to absorb its share of the growth that we all need to see happen.” (This is because the current government are obsessed with the notion that the best way out of recession is through construction. It has far more to do with economic regeneration than providing houses for first time buyers, I am afraid.)
The second proposition is – “This will be achieved by having a neighbourhood action plan.”
Thus “the locals” will decide where they put this required new building, and all this new exciting construction stuff which will bring back the boom years again. This is what they mean by “localism”.
The trouble is it doesn’t really include the actual locals very much; that is you and I, or the people who live in an area. If you look at the small print in the new legislation you will see that the emphasis throughout the document, when it talks about cities, is on “retail” and the “business community”. Commercial development is seen as the only way to save city centres. Everything must be done to encourage “retail”. And the interests of the “business community” are seen as paramount and must have an effect on that local plan.
The BID is an overblown expression of this philosophy. Overblown, because, as we have all discovered, in order to have a say at all on this “regeneration” of the area you have to be a business with a rateable value of £100,000 and in order to feature on the board you have to pay £10,000 or over. This is a very old fashioned view of political power. It is represents a return to eighteenth century property rights oligarchy.
Now we have a local plan put together for the Council. It is called “The Fitzrovia Area Action Plan”. That “action” is the key word. It implies that something must be done. Must it? It is a generally sound document. It recognises, albeit in a slightly perverse way, that Fitzrovia is rather special. It points out that the district is full of small shops and businesses. It points to the limited residential population, the huge influx of commuter workers and the high proportion of temporary and migrant residents. It seemingly fails to understand the context however. This is not because of bad planning. And its real concentration is on “opportunities”. It has scoured this place, which it already recognises as being densely populated and crowded for potential areas and sites where they could fulfil the demands for more building, more density, more “commerciality”.
Fitzrovia is pure inner-city London. Jonathan Meades is not the first to point out that there is a European feel to this part of town. We have still a mixture of work places and living places, institutional places, art places, entertainment places, and some mad people who live in the middle of all of this in house and flat places. But they are all mostly small places. Small houses and flats too.
Fitzrovia is already incredibly densely used. But, you know, it has been so since 1800. It is the centre of London and we are hugger-mugger in an old fashioned unplanned way. Some of the pious observations of the Action Plan seem to ignore the fact that we are where we are because we were once cheap and because we are so central. I bought my admittedly huge house for a bargain price fifteen years ago. My friends thought I was mad. I worried for the sake of my children. This is not an inner suburb like St John’s Wood. This is the inner city. That makes its demands and achievements even more remarkable. And its requirements more specific.
I never made a better decision than to live here. I feel safer here than I did when I lived in Islington or Clerkenwell. The streets and squares can be very quiet. There is the lament that there is not enough open space, but when I first arrived here I found I could cross the Euston Road without overmuch difficulty and I availed myself of one of the largest urban natural spaces in the world, in Regent’s Park. And I felt blessed. Above all, the shops, except on the main thoroughfares, are quirky small, lively and unobtrusive. They do not dominate. Retail is not king here. It is part of the court, the balance is right.
But, note please, this is not a run down or deprived area. This is crucial. BIDs, an American invention, were designed to help depressed city-centres.
I know what a depressed city-centre looks like. I am president of Civic Voice. I go around cities ruined by Seventies zoning, the urge to bring in major shopping centres and their attendant traffic and car parks, the drive to increase footfall and stick up rents, so that small shops are banished. Huge faceless buildings are thrown up that ignore the street, and often the street patterns, but house giant corporations (we have a few in Fitzrovia, but relatively small ones so far) needing gigantic access roads. Nobody loves these planned future cities of yesterday. The place becomes a howling, alienating desert at six o’clock, patrolled by security guards and feckless gangs.
In fact, I regularly point to London as a place that avoided these disasters, and Fitzrovia as a place that essentially qualifies as almost perfect inner city. We are between Oxford Street and the Euston Road, yet we have a human scale. We have variety and diversity. There is ever-greater pressure to share this with more people trying to move in. Even pop stars and movie stars now. So we need to be saved? Says who?
Walk out into Tottenham Court Road. Yes, that could do with tidying up, but why? Basically, because of a previous cack-handed attempt to “improve” London. The idea was to drive a six lane highway down to the centre of London – hence Centre Point. Half the street was cleared back. Where it has been cleared at the bottom it has provided some of the blank super office ghastliness which I have already mentioned.
To the north, around the junction of the Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road, there is a more recent and gigantic area of “improvement” – fantastic modern sleek buildings, built to respond to the “transport hub”, seen by Sixties futurists as the Corbusian solution to the great Wren’s woes, and resulting in our bitty and silly capital development of scattered high rise creeping up over noisy traffic intersections on increasingly redundant ring roads.
And where do the workers in these improved areas seek solace. In Fitzrovia itself. Nobody goes for a walk on the North of the Euston Road, in the environs of those carefully improved and meticulously planned “open areas”. They come for a stroll down Charlotte Street instead.
So I fear the BID. I don’t want to see the place made “better for business”. There is the right amount of business here. The coming and going is based on market forces. There are not huge great monolithic buildings – yet. But those “opportunities” detailed in the Action Plan lurk.
I don’t want to see rents raised and the small businesses driven out. Many of these, like French’s Bookshop, have fled the increased rates in Covent Garden or Soho. There is no more eclectic selection of small shops in London. Yes, you have to seek them out, but a flute shop, a sculpture supply shop, a play bookshop, a toy museum, a framing shop, a disco supply shop and many, many more. You want Whistles and Kooples and Prada and Paul Smith to come here and “improve” this area like they have improved Westbourne Grove or “improved” Covent Garden? Er, no. You can be soulless clone upmarket as well as soulless clone downmarket, you know.
At a time when retail is beginning to falter, (when we may be entering a new age of either Westfield superstores or further internet shopping), we don’t require Fitzrovia, where people inhabit a place twenty-four-seven, to give way to un-lettable and out of date monster outlets. Some complain they can’t run shops in the spaces that Fitzrovia supplies. OK. Let them go elsewhere and “regenerate” other less appealing areas. Those small shops are being used.
Remember, across this country, Tesco wants to be Boots, Boots want to be Sainsbury’s and WH Smith want to be Walmart. All of these stores want bigger and bigger premises in their fight to be all things to all people. Across Britain, they have torn out the heart of cities, allowed the backs of their premises to become festering “service entrances” (Good God, even the Royal Opera ruined Bow Street with one of these) driven in access roads, built car parks, and killed off habitation to allow this to happen.
The worst sin, and we see it happening here, is facade-ism. Taking a series of old buildings, keeping the frontage and building massive units in the back of it. This way huger shops can be introduced by stealth. The huger shops kick up the rents. The high rents are used as an excuse to put pressure on the smaller shops. In Highgate, for example, the landlords say that they can’t drop rents to accommodate local shops. Why not? Because the landlords have borrowed vast sums of money to buy into a successful area. Their loans are predicated on “business improvement” or simple inflation. They have bought their way in on borrowed money and now have to see a return, even if it potentially only exists on paper – so betting shops, pound savers and charity shops take over.
In conclusion, business is one answer here. It is not the only answer. This process is undemocratic. We have evolved into this wonderful mix. Nobody willed it. It was not achieved by planning and will not be moved on by holistic one-sided “vision”. This is a crowded and specific place. One size does not fit all. What the government thinks will suit Leeds does not suit Fitzrovia, manifestly does not. And what a big property firm thinks will suit its letting programme will not suit the other residents. Retail is in decline and residential occupation ought to be encouraged – to be green, close to work, using public transport, self-contained and fighting the donut effect. Fitzrovia is not in any sense in decay. It doesn’t need urgent regeneration. In fact, Fitzrovia has been on a successful upward curve for some time. It is just more gritty and less up market ghetto-ised than say parts of Notting Hill Gate. Good.
I am afraid that some of the people involved in this BID give the impression that they have arrived here precisely to exploit that upward curve, but seem to be saying its not going fast enough for them. Well maybe not for them. But it is moving fast enough for those of us who are not spending our time looking only at our balance sheets.
We need to fight this undemocratic attempt to manipulate Fitzrovia into something it is not. And most of all we need to point out that the reason that there is so little open green space in Fitzrovia is because it is a proper “quartier” – a city district, like you find in New York or Paris or Genoa – already very crowded, already very pressurised, already lively, mixed, full and functioning.
It does not and should not be scheduled, planned or visioned to take yet more. It is dense and active enough. If it needs improvement, let them be gradual. The worst things in this area are those brought about by big organisations. The worst architecture (the University), the worst polluters (traffic brought by delivery and “footfall’), the worst despoilers of space (the ex Odeon hole in the ground), the worst street awareness (The Post Office Tower), the worst intrusive advertising hoardings (the ex Odeon hole and the underground shelter, and indeed the council on every bloody lamp-post or bin or bus stop), the least sensitive to the heritage and the space around them (developers demanding that they knock down serviceable Sixties buildings and put up new high rise.)
What on earth would we be doing letting these people call the shots?