People before profit

In my blog Has anybody asked the locals? (posted 21 Apr 2014) I quoted from the open letter written by the Member of Camden Council, Nash Ali, to the Chairman of HS2 Ltd, Sir David Higgins. Cllr Ali is concerned at what Sir David’s proposals for a major regeneration project are likely to mean to his local community. This is a concern that I share; if, as seems likely, the regeneration is skewed towards keeping the property developers happy in order that the maximum contribution towards the costs of rebuilding Euston station can be extracted, then the whole nature of the neighbourhood is at risk.

In his letter, which is reproduced in full in an article in the Camden New Journal, Cllr Ali says:

“I will fight to ensure that Camden Council retains its planning responsibility for the above station development. We will ensure that we have a mixed development with an appropriate number of council homes and low cost workplaces. We will also expect a significant element of community benefit to provide reparation for the years of disruption which your master plan will now extend from 2026 to 2034.”

Whilst I agree with him, I fear that he will have to fight very hard to ensure that the Council retains planning control, and to get the social and low-cost properties that he is seeking amongst the prestige offices, shops and trendy apartments that are the cash cows that make property developers rich. I also fear that he needs to concern himself with controlling inappropriate development outside of the station footprint, not just the above station development.

I suggest that the first thing that local community representatives should battle for is to wrest control of the proposals out of the hands of HS2 Ltd and Network Rail. Whilst these two organisations are, of course, major stakeholders in the station redevelopment, they appear totally unsuited to managing a sympathetic redevelopment of the wider area. In particular, HS2 Ltd has demonstrated over the past two years that it is totally incapable of listening to local concerns, as Cllr Ali reminds us in his letter:

“The general view after two years of engagement with HS2, is that our community has been treated with complete disdain. Neither HS2 Ltd nor the Department for Transport has any understanding of our needs and aspirations.”

Surely, what any redevelopment of the area around Euston needs is a light touch, not the architectural equivalent of “slash and burn” farming. It is possible to regenerate an area without bulldozing everything away. In my researching I have come across a report of a project carried out by undergraduates at the Bartlett School of Planning of University College London that considers how the Regent’s Park Estate might be improved. The proposals by the Bartlett students largely retain the existing blocks, but improve them. The report demonstrates what a light touch can achieve; regeneration whilst retaining the social cohesion of the community. The problem is that such projects are generally not profitable for the property developers.

The regeneration plans will also need to provide for the needs of those who will be displaced from their homes when buildings are required to be demolished to make way for the enlarged station buildings and throat. The problem is that the demolition is likely to take place early in the construction programme, whereas any replacement housing above the station development will not be available until the end of construction. As far as I can make out, no real solution has yet been advanced to this conundrum. It is essential, in my view, that a way is found to provide, before demolition starts, long-term replacement social housing for all those displaced, and that this must be within the immediate area.

It is also necessary to realise that there is a particular problem associated with residents who have bought their properties by exercising Right to Buy. This is something that Cllr Ali is personally affected by; he says in his letter that his parents were “foolish enough to buy their home”. He fears that the “compensation offered by HS2 will leave them unable to secure alternative accommodation in the locality”. Those in this position deserve to be treated as a special case, and a solution must be found that enables them to remain in their community.

It is a matter of considerable regret that our parliamentarians yet again demonstrated their reluctance, or inability, to tackle problems with the HS2 proposal head on, when the Transport Secretary made his statement to the House of Commons on Monday 24th March that included the new proposals for Euston. To her credit, the Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh MP, did express the view that “a significant proportion of any new housing [at Euston] must be social housing” and that “the community and council must be fully involved”. Also the Member for Euston and St Pancras, the Rt Hon Frank Dobson MP, did moan about the impacts that construction work at Euston would have on the lives of his constituents, but that was it as far as any concerns being expressed about the affect that Sir David’s proposal might have on the local community (see footnote 1).

If I had my way I would make everyone involved with the proposed Euston regeneration, including all MPs and employees of HS2 Ltd, watch the film that I commented on in my blog Grabbed by the throat (posted 26 Jul 2012). These people need to be made aware of the human dimension to their master plans.

Before I close this posting, I really must say something about the level of disruption to rail services that the rebuilding of Euston station could cause. The HS2 Plus report is silent on this aspect, and Sir David’s published launch speech contains no reference. The only acknowledgement that this may be an issue by Sir David is a statement on one of his presentation slides (see footnote 2) that the new plans for Euston “will require relocation of certain existing rail from Euston during construction”. Perhaps that should have been “will create pandemonium”.

The Transport Secretary was similarly tight-lipped; both his written statement and his opening Commons speech made no mention of the possibility of disruption. It was only when a Scottish MP asked him about impacts on the West Coast Main Line, and in particular the Caledonian Sleeper service, that he conceded (see footnote 3):

“I fully accept that while huge works are going on at a station, there is disruption, so one of the questions that must be asked in the planning phase that HS2 is currently going through is how we minimise that.”

Of course, we have become used to the wholly unbalanced attitude that disruption to services due to the construction of HS2 may played down and shrugged off as a minor inconvenience whereas, as evidenced in the 2013 Network Rail and Atkins  report HS2 Strategic Alternatives, the disruption caused by upgrading the existing network is considered much too severe to be sanctioned.

One further matter that appears to have been forgotten in the new enthusiasm to rebuild Euston station is that one of the principal reasons for adopting the now out of favour lean-to design was, as I reported in my blog On second thoughts … (posted 30 Apr 2013), that HS2 Ltd had estimated that the full rebuild would take “more than a decade”, putting the completion date well past the planned opening in 2026. A slide shown by Sir David at his Manchester launch (see footnote 4) shows the opening date still in 2026 (December), but the rebuild of Euston has somehow been compressed to eight and a half years.

I wonder how Superman is planning to pull off that little trick.

Footnotes:

  1. Refer to column 35 of the House of Commons Official Report for Monday 24th March 2014.
  2. See slide no 6 in the presentation.
  3. For Mr McLoughlin’s opening speech refer to column 29 to column 31 of the House of Commons Official Report for Monday 24th March 2014. The exchange about the Caledonian Sleeper service is in column 39.
  4. See slide no 10 in the presentation.
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