Shambolic. A disaster. The worst ten minutes of my life. A catastrophic waste of taxpayers’ money. Oxford Street is an open sewer. These paraphrases are just a sample of the dozens of media and social media outbursts that have surrounded the recent opening of the Marble Arch Mound.
National newspapers – from the broadsheets to the red tops – and across the political spectrum have panned it. Leaders, op-eds and other opinion pieces have fulminated about how awful it is. The New York Times, no less, has written it off. Petitions demanding not much short of a public inquiry have been launched. Within hours of opening, the Mound was world famous for all the wrong reasons. Within hours it was closed for further bookings, at least for now.
Having visited the attraction, I too was underwhelmed. The views are, to put it mildly, not that great, largely because they are blocked by explosions of green growth that make Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens look more like tropical rainforest than royal parks.
Then there are the ubiquitous plastic barriers and wheelie bins, the empty fountain and the grotty-looking subway connecting to the Tube. Though not quite visible from the Mound, we could add Central London’s abandoned phone boxes, unending road works, dumped domestic and commercial waste, crumbling roads and drains to the list of public space failures that pervade much of the city.
Despite the efforts of boroughs and business improvement districts (including my own), such features of the London streetscape stubbornly persist. The grot and squalor in some parts of town – ironically, far less so in Westminster than in some other boroughs – is a complex product of years of revenue expenditure constraints, chaotic management of the utilities and a free-for-all in rubbish services. Often, the public doesn’t help – think of the post-Euro 2020 Final “celebrations” that damaged much of the West End and which councils were left to clear up. For whatever reason, other world cities (with exceptions) seem to manage their public spaces far better than London does.
But in fact the view from the Mound is fascinating, for what it reveals about how we are governed, what we are prepared to put up with and media inconsistency about the use of public money.
By international standards London’s boroughs and, indeed, City Hall are fettered in their ability to control some of the things that produce everyday blight for residents, workers and visitors. Arguably, they try pretty hard with the often poor hands they have been dealt. By any stretch, the £2 million the Marble Arch Mound has cost real money, but the strength of feeling directed against what is, after all, an attempt by a local authority, with the support of business, to help get people back into the West End has been breathtaking.
If I was disappointed by this unfinished project, my reaction was one of sadness rather than visceral disdain. In contrast, for many commentators it seems the more visible and the closer to the centre of London a public body’s troubles are, the greater the temptation to over-react and join a strained chorus of moral outrage.
Some of the reported criticism is part of the rough and tumble of local politics. In the run-up to next year’s borough elections, any opposition worth its salt would seek political advantage, as Labour has in Conservative-run Westminster. But much media reaction has been shrill, disproportionate and just smacks of double standards.
Being up close to Marble Arch station is a reminder that, not long ago, central government oversaw the disastrous part-privatisation of the Tube that was imposed on Londoners against the wishes of their Mayor. That ended up costing us hundreds of millions of pounds, not two.
Much more recently, we’ve learned that most of the Royal Navy’s destroyers are unavailable for deployment due to problems with their propulsion systems. Yet I wager that stories about those billion-pound-a-piece vessels haven’t attracted half the column inches devoted to disparaging the Mound. Westminster Council is being held to account in a way national government has (so far) largely escaped over its multi-billion PPE procurement scandal at the start of the pandemic, nuclear power station over-runs, failed NHS computer systems, Border Force initiatives and the rest.
Public money should always be spent with public accountability and best value in mind. And though the Mound may have failed those tests so far – improvements are planned – commentators have leapt to subjecting it and its borough to vitriolic attacks.
These risk undermining local authorities’ relatively modest efforts to kick start their local economies across London and elsewhere while deterring good people from going into city government – an outcome that helps no-one. And by focussing so much attention on the Mound, the media are, remarkably, providing cover for waste-at-scale Whitehall mega-projects that go largely unnoticed.
If the same outrage and demand for scrutiny the Mound has inspired was directed at the current government’s ocean-going failings, this little project will have already served a useful purpose. If it also focuses attention on the need to tackle mediocrity of too many parts of Central London’s public-realm and makes a case for better local funding and an increase in council powers, it might prove to be rather good value for money after all.
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