It seems obvious from statements made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in advance of the report HS2 Plus being published that the proposals therein for the redevelopment of Euston station and its environs have been guided by the heavy hand of HM Treasury. The idea is simple: allow a property developer or two to plant trotters and snout firmly in the HS2 trough by granting access to prime development land around Euston station, backed up by virtually unlimited compulsory purchase powers (see footnote 1), and, in exchange, extract a generous contribution to the cost of building a new station for HS2.
It is clear, from his written statement to the House of Commons on the Higgins Review, that the Transport Secretary is, as you would expect, broadly in favour of the idea. Mr McLoughlin describes it as “a significant opportunity to maximise the economic potential of the line and regenerate a site that has been neglected”. He also, unsurprisingly, remarks that it is “a significant opportunity to generate private sector investment that can reduce the overall burden on the taxpayer”. He therefore announced that he would set this ball rolling by requesting “HS2 Ltd and Network Rail to develop more comprehensive proposals for the redevelopment of Euston, working with the rail industry and the local community”.
Whilst I can understand why the Transport Secretary would nominate HS2 Ltd and Network Rail for this task, I fear that he has doomed the project to failure before it starts. After all HS2 Ltd doesn’t exactly have a good track record of “working with … the local community” and always appears to aspire to mediocrity rather than excellence.
I am also concerned that Sir David Higgins has rather pre-empted due process by proposing in HS2 Plus that the new station should be a “level deck design”. It has always been clear that HS2 Ltd is not concerned about the impacts upon the local community that expanding the footprint of the station would have, and wants to avoid the added construction complexity of more intricate designs that fit within the existing footprint. However, surely this rethink of Euston station merits a proper review of all the options, including the multi-level and below ground designs that have been proposed to an unreceptive HS2 Ltd.
I am definitely not a fan of the design for Euston station in the current version of the Phase 1 hybrid Bill. In my blog An exercise in creative writing (posted 8 May 2013) I called it “a shoddy, make do and mend substitute for a badly needed rebuild at Euston”. In my blog On second thoughts … (posted 30 Apr 2013) I opined that any new Euston station should be the “landmark architectural statement that such a project demands”. The current Euston Station is, by fairly common consent, an eyesore that was largely the well-meaning creation of some talentless and faceless servants of British Rail. Little more than fifty years after being built it is, in Sir David Higgins’ words, “getting close to its sell by date – except nobody would want to buy it” (see footnote 2). I am fearful that any replacement will be the product of equally talentless and visionless architects, and will leave something equally hideous and short-term as a legacy to future generations. The conceptual drawings that have been released by HS2 Ltd for various buildings along the HS2 route do nothing to assuage my fears.
In HS2 Plus Sir David Higgins is keen to compare what he thinks could be achieved at Euston with the successful regeneration projects at St Pancras and King’s Cross. It is important to recognise that Euston is lacking an essential feature of the other two projects, which is an iconic Victorian building at the core. Though the frontages of King’s Cross and St Pancras are very different, the one functional and the other fancy, they are both generally recognised as icons of their type. What architectural and historical merit Euston station had was swept away in the 1960s. All that is being offered as a historical centre of gravity for the new station is a reconstructed Euston Arch. Whilst this structure was an important focus for the unsuccessful campaign by Sir John Betjeman and others against the destruction at Euston, my view is that it lacks relevance, and more importantly architectural merit, in the context of today’s London. In all truth it is a pretty ugly pile of stone, and is likely to look totally incongruous plonked in front of the hideous Paxtonesque creation that I fear might serve as the new Euston station.
It seems essential to me that the design of any replacement for Euston station should only be entrusted to a top architectural practice and should be a nonpareil with the reasonable expectation of, in the phrase used by Sir David in his report, “standing the test of time”. What is needed is a structure that will become recognised as a major London landmark. In times gone by, prestigious architectural commissions of this type were subject to a competition to select the best concept on offer. It was such a competition that resulted in Sir George Gilbert Scott being entrusted with the design of the station frontage and hotel at St. Pancras, and the success of that decision is, thankfully, there for all to see today, one hundred and fifty years later. Surely a project to build a new Euston station should be treated similarly.
- Clause 47 of the HS2 Phase 1 hybrid Bill as deposited in Parliament allows for compulsory purchase orders if the Government “considers that the construction or operation of phase one of High Speed 2 gives rise to the opportunity for regeneration or development of any land”.
- An opinion expressed by Sir David during his Manchester launch speech.