London is such a vast and complex city that even if you’ve lived or worked there for years you can still discover hidden corners and unfamiliar neighbourhoods. For instance, it was only a few months ago that I first heard about Mount Pleasant – which is off the Farringdon Road, on the edge of Clerkenwell.
It sounds lovely, but according to Simon Jenkins in the Evening Standard, it was “named ironically after an old rubbish tip.” These days it is dominated by a Royal Mail sorting office, now due for redevelopment. The site is on a scale that isn’t often available in London – and therefore offers a rare opportunity for a scheme of true architectural vision.
With rival plans jostling for approval, Nicholas Boys Smith – in a piece for ConservativeHome earlier this month – described Mount Pleasant as an important test for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson:
“Come on, Mr Mayor. You are one of the most impressive politicians of your generation, not the prisoner of a 1940s command and control planning system. You are big enough and wise enough to make the right decision.”
As Simon Jenkins tells us, Mr Mayor has now made his decision – and it’s the wrong one:
“Last week the Mayor defied every consultative body and waved through Royal Mail’s plan for 10 slabs of luxury flats up to 15 storeys high. The form of the development is essentially 1980s, with no street frontages or façades. It rejects the Jane Jacobs concept of the democratic space in favour of multi-storey ‘gated communities’. No respect is shown for contour or urban context.”
It’s a decision made against the wishes of local people and their democratically elected representatives – a precedent that will be thrown back in the Mayor’s face when he complains about central government plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.
Note that this wasn’t a battle about whether to redevelop the site, but about what kind of redevelopment:
“There is an alternative. It has been prepared by an organisation called Create Streets for the Legatum Institute and is seriously visionary. It proposes a tight-packed circus with radiating streets giving onto a linear garden along the route of the Fleet. At seven storeys, it achieves a higher density than the Mayor’s plan — 730 homes against Johnson’s 681. The pattern cleverly links the contrasting personalities of the area, the graceful Lloyd Baker estate to the north and the hurly-burly of Clerkenwell to the south.
“The scheme has won over 90 per cent approval from people in the area, against just 10 per cent for the Mayor’s plan.”
Note that neither Create Streets nor the Legatum Institute can be described as enemies of capitalism – or of the need to build more homes. Again, what we have here is a battle between what kind of capitalism and what kind of homes:
“Create Streets is unusual in going into intense detail on costs. It examines the waste that has gone into multi-storey buildings in London over the decades, with high running costs and depreciation and falling long-term profitability. Dozens of these blocks are now being demolished, while Victorian terraces with similar densities sail on into the future. Above all it champions the concept of the street itself, loved by Londoners but hated by architects.”
At some point in the not too distant future, there will be a contest to choose the next leader of the Conservative Party. All of those who stand will be in favour of things like free enterprise, economic growth, devolving power from Westminster and the need to build more houses for a growing population.
Yet within these parameters, there are vast differences in vision and values – some which are authentically conservative and some which are anything but.