Now that High Speed 2’s journey to Euston station has been “paused”, the spotlight has turned to the fate of another major London terminus, Liverpool Street, and celebrity campaigners, including Tracey Emin and Stephen Fry urging the government to veto plans to redevelop it.
The application for a £450 million makeover paid for by way of the construction of office and hotel towers above the Victorian station and its adjoining Grade II* listed railway hotel is now with the City of London Corporation, accompanied by an immediate plea from objectors for communities secretary Michael Gove to take over its determination and throw it out.
What is it that makes the proposal so egregious in the eyes of some that they believe a democratic process should be over-ridden by ministerial fiat? And what might Gove take into account as he ponders butting in on yet another London planning issue, with Oxford Street Marks & Spencer and the former ITV South Bank studios already on his desk?
For the revived Liverpool Street Station Campaign (LISSCA), which successfully saw off demolition plans in the 1970s, it’s about, almost literally, “trampling” on heritage. The plan raises other issues too, from how to balance old and new in the Square Mile to how to fund much-needed transport improvements and, ultimately, to what a post-pandemic future for the capital might look like.
Writing in the Times, LISSCA warns that a “magnificent part of the history of London and Britain” is threatened by a “grossly opportunistic” commercial venture that would “swamp and destroy the charm of a monument to the railway age”.
The matter is personal for campaign spearhead and Victorian Society president Griff Rhys Jones, comedian turned conservation activist. “I use Liverpool Street Station a lot. I know it very well,” he told the BBC in a statement encapsulating the particular feelings London’s 19th Century termini can evoke. “It’s my London station. I love it…this great station and hotel are not only important listed buildings, they are part of the living story of London,” he said, arguing that the development vision “traduces a famous gateway to London, a listed working part of our history.”
But Network Rail and its partners, Shard developers Sellar and rail operator MTR, say working buildings, however monumental, need to move with the times. Today’s Liverpool Street, last updated in the 1990s, serves the Underground and Overground, mainline destinations including Stansted airport and now the Elizabeth line. With some 135 million users a year, it is “creaking”, according to Sellar chief James Sellar. Perhaps for many it is already swamped and charmless.
The case for the scheme was put succinctly in a reply to LISSCA from Network Rail chair and former Transport for London chief Lord Peter Hendy. It would address “significant overcrowding and lack of disability access at one of Britain’s busiest stations to improve the journey of millions of passengers” while protecting and celebrating its Victorian elements as well, he said.
“A rational consideration,” Hendy went on, “should balance the impact of building over, and removing less than half of, a 1980s concourse roof against £450 million of public benefits provided at no cost to the taxpayer. There is no likelihood of such a significant improvement in the station without this injection of private sector capital.”
The redevelopment would bring a bigger concourse, more ticket barriers and extra lifts and escalators, plus new retail, restaurants and “public realm” including pedestrianised outside space, a public rooftop garden and a swimming pool, along with a “sensitive” restoration of the hotel to create what Sellar calls a “landmark seven-day-a week destination”.
For Network Rail, and no doubt its government paymasters too, a major selling point of the scheme that it would require no public money. Network Rail property boss Robin Dobson bluntly told the Times that without the commercial part of the scheme the station upgrade won’t happen. “This is not going to get delivered through public sector funding,” he said. “That’s just a fact.”
As Hendy points out, the station has already been remodelled once, after the mid-1970s demolition plan was seen off. Sellar development director Barry Ostle argues that the new plan offers “a very attractive juxtaposition of old and new,” describing this as something “that’s always been a part of London’s DNA.”
Views about the appropriate interplay of the modern and the historic could form a core part of the debate. That earlier modernisation, involving Victorian-style reconstruction, was essentially high-quality conservation work, objectors say. For them, by contrast, the new proposal is more than a step too far. “To cantilever a tower above the hotel and station”, says LISSCA, “would set a terrible precedent which would mean that no listed building is safe from harm.”
But planning decisions are always about striking a balance, and striking one between possible harm to heritage and the benefits of development is a regular challenge in the Square Mile – one reason why the Guildhall’s planning team is perhaps well-placed to make the first assessment of what the developer has in mind.
For the City Corporation, keen to retain its commercial credentials post-Covid and expand its offer beyond the nine to five, the Sellar company pitching the plan as an “essential part” of helping the Square Mile maintain its position as a “highly attractive place to invest, work, live, learn and visit” with “London is at a pivotal moment post-Brexit and post-pandemic and we need to show a willingness to commit to infrastructure improvements” could carry weight.
Some, though, lacking faith in the City’s future, maintain that the plan is anachronistic even before it’s off the drawing board. Will Gove be tempted to adopt that view and side with the conservationists, or will he take a bet on London’s future? Either way, with the Guildhall estimating it will take well into next year to assess the application, and any Gove intervention also entailing a lengthy public inquiry process, the future of Liverpool Street will be uncertain for some time to come.
Updated 16 May 2023 to include Peter Hendy’s contribution to the debate.
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