Last Thursday Camden Council’s planning committee gave consent for the redevelopment by Land Securities (LandSec) of a long bit of land covering 5.7 hectares (14 acres) between Finchley Road and West End Road. It currently contains the O2 shopping and entertainment centre, a Homebase, a builders’ merchant’s yard and a 520-space car park. Under the LandSec masterplan, all of them are to be knocked down.
Councillors voted seven-three in favour of the mostly residential mixed-use scheme which promises 1,800 new homes, of which 35 per cent will be affordable, plus a public square, shops, restaurants and a gym and a cinema to replace the ones there at the moment. Cries of “shame” came from the public gallery when the decision was announced. These annoyed committee chair Heather Johnson and a local On London supporter, who described objectors present as “lots of old white men in bad jumpers”.
What was it about the scheme that some objected to? Were their arguments worthless? Were all of them old white men? Were their jumpers so very bad? I cannot comment on the jumpers – you had to be there, didn’t you? – but the summary of consultation responses in the council planning officer’s report provides good insights into objections and concerns about demolition and redevelopment found in many parts of London, some of them very old and others much newer.
City Hall, which has powers to block large schemes, is happy. So is the London Wildlife Trust, which is pleased the car park is going and that more trees and biodiversity will come. What’s more, better ground permeability will reduce the flood risk, they believe.
Historic England was a bit unhappy but offered “no objection in principle” and although described as having “concerns on heritage grounds” concluded that the harm to surrounding conservation areas will be “less than substantial”.
Local residents’ groups were, however, less sanguine. The Belsize Conservation Area Advisory Committee said the new LandSec buildings will be similar to new buildings elsewhere and “not respond to context”. In its view the area is already overcrowded and no buildings there should be higher than eight storeys – some of nearly 30 new ones planned will be much taller. The Combined Residents’ Associations of South Hampstead (CRASH) complained of “grotesque Soviet-era towers” (one view of buildings envisaged taken from the officer’s report is shown below).
The Redington Frognal Association and Redington Frognal Neighbourhood Forum said the nearly 30 towers of various sizes in the plans betray a failure to understand the context, history and character of the area. The St John’s Wood Society thought the towers “excessively high and close together”. The West Hampstead Gardens and Residents’ Association was similarly unimpressed.
There were other criticisms too, such as the quantity and affordability of the affordable homes and the claimed penalisation of elderly and disabled people through the loss of the car park. But height and density were the most prominent themes: the council officers’ report says complaints about them featured in 86 per cent of responses opposing the scheme.
And not all objections were made by white men accused of offending against good jumper taste. Along with reporting such displeasure among her constituents, the London Assembly member for Barnet & Camden, Labour’s Anne Clarke, welcomed LandSec’s £10 million towards upgrading the Tube stations, the family-sized affordable homes in the plans and around half of the site being green. But she felt retrofitting the O2 Centre, which would obviate the need to replace the the cinema and gym, would be preferable to levelling it and that doing so “would still allow the car park and Homebase to be developed into housing”.
That suggestion is, however, addressed elsewhere in the officer’s report. At paragraph 25.17 it describes the O2 as “a relatively new building” – it opened in 1998 – and its coming demolition as “regrettable in sustainability terms”. But it adds that, as with the Homebase and two car showrooms on the site, it “could not suitably be repurposed for residential use, which is the main land use coming forward on the site”. The report also says the building is “considered low quality in design terms”.
There is much, much more to read in the report, which runs to 381 pages, but you’ll have picked up some of its defining themes. From Camden Council’s point of view, the LandSec scheme passes the tests and the aspirations of its planning policies, notably the provision of more housing, just as it does City Hall’s, whose final approval, required because the scheme is big, looks a formality. LandSec, celebrating its success after four years of preparation, describes the O2 site as it is as “a car dominated shopping centre at risk of decline,” and its ambitions for it, which include a new health centre, as much superior.
The decision, then, is a victory for development over conservation, for more housing over dislike for “Soviet” character and scale, and for green and pedestrian space over private motor vehicles. It is an example of a type of planning policy contest taking place in many parts of the city between equivalent protagonists with a variety of results, with sustainability and Net Zero priorities increasingly part of the development equation.