Culture wars and Neighbourhood Plans: a crisis of identity in Knightsbridge

Culture wars and Neighbourhood Plans: a crisis of identity in Knightsbridge

Density brings tensions with it and there are few places as dense, and few groups as capable of articulating tension, as Knightsbridge and its well organised residents.

It’s a rare Londoner who doesn’t have a certain sense of familiarity with Knightsbridge. We all know its great landmarks, stretching from Knightsbridge station and Harrods to the Brompton Oratory, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Natural History Museum, with its dowdy neighbour the Science Museum tucked behind. Except that not one of these great landmarks is in fact in Knightsbridge as defined by the City of Westminster, because none of them is actually in the City of Westminster: they are all in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

It has to be admitted that the part of Knightsbridge that falls into Westminster is the rather boring bit running along Kensington Road, made up largely of a few indifferent squares and mews, the soulless, semi-gated communities of Rutland Gate and Ennsimore Gardens and sundry street-sets of McMafia, until it reaches its one crowning glory: the Royal Albert Hall and its adjacent amenities, which include the historic heart of Imperial College. Five minutes on the top of a Number 9 bus and you’ve seen it all, really. You probably didn’t even notice most of it.

There is an urban myth that the peculiarity of borough boundaries in Knightsbridge is due to Queen Victoria’s not being able to contemplate without sal volatile the prospect that the Albert Memorial should be built in rural, down-at-heel Kensington. So the boundary of the City of Westminster had to be extended to capture the designated location of that gilded ciborium. But this is a priori unlikely to be true of a queen who was born in Kensington Palace (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is in Kensington) and indeed the true explanation can be found in ancient maps of parish boundaries, which continue to form the border between the two great west London bastions of Toryism, despite the much later imposition on the area of new street and building patterns in blithe defiance of mediaeval ecclesial governance.

Really the time has long since passed since a visitation of the Local Government Boundary Commissioners should have removed this angular shard of Westminster, practically an exclave, from it and incorporated it into the Royal Borough. But, whenever they have come visiting in the past, Kensington and Chelsea has been too polite to point out this obvious improvement for fear of upsetting their eastern neighbours and the opportunity has always been lost.

But that politeness is now demanding a price. For, when the City of Westminster decided to establish a Neighbourhood Forum in its western exclave, using powers granted it by the Localism Act 2011, it did not name it the Knightsbridge (Boring Bits) Neighbourhood Forum, as it should have done, but gave it an unqualified moniker. This seems to have led the members of the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Forum into thinking that their remit extended far and wide: or at least as far and as wide as the interesting parts of Knightsbridge, which, as we have noted, are not in the City of Westminster at all.

The purpose of a designated Neighbourhood Forum in the Localism Act is to produce a Neighbourhood Plan. The Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Forum has laboured mightily to do so and their submitted Neighbourhood Plan has now been published for a public consultation that closes at the end of this month.

It is a remarkable document. First is its length: all-up, with its Management Plan and its evidence base and sundry other annexes, it rivals that of the draft London Plan of Sadiq Khan. Knightsbridge is of course a very important place, but does it really merit as much regulatory ink spilt on it as the entire metropolis?

Next it should be noted that the Neighbourhood Forum that composed it is self-selected: a body of representative worthies designated by Westminster for the purpose under the Act. Like all unelected bodies given power, its deepest instinct is to extend its own life. And indeed practically the first proposal in the document is that the Neighbourhood Forum should continue to administer and manage the Plan for as long as it endures (which is proposed to be 2037).

Now, we all know that one of the great social benefits of planning law in this country is that it gives a small number of people the pleasure of being able to tell the mass of their neighbours what to do with their property. But this joy is normally confined to those who have been publicly elected for the purpose. This trifling qualification is to be dispensed with, it seems, for the denizens of Knightsbridge, who will be managed for two decades by a self-appointed committee without recourse to the normal means of ejecting noisome busybodies expected in a functioning democracy.

The truth is that the Localism Act was designed for parts of the country that have elected town and parish councils and, outside London, these have normally been the vehicle for taking Neighbourhood Plans forward. But, to make this legislation fit London, where we do not have micro-councils, the lazy draughtsmen came up with the botch of unelected “Neighbourhood Forums” (and yes, I’m afraid that is the plural they use).

But most intriguing is the community politics of the document. For decades the great museums took no notice at all of the people living round them – indeed they hardly spoke to the other museums. For the people of the area – some of them living in houses that predate the Great Exhibition – that was just fine. But the re-creation of Exhibition Road as a great public space (for which I accept some responsibility) has brought the cultural institutions together. And the eyes of museum directors no longer rest with ruminative contentment on fossilised venericardia and minutely detailed replicas of 14th century altar-pieces, but instead range hungrily across the large vistas now open to those who manage great visitor attractions and feel able to insist on a public realm that accommodates and flatters their ambition.

In the foreground of their vision has been for some time now the annexation for their own use of Exhibition Road, the banishment of vehicles and the management of the space in their own interests. They call this “democratisation”. It would be wrong to blame Tristram Hunt for originating this idea, but he certainly super-charged it on his arrival as Director of the V&A last year by announcing it as his top priority. Unfortunately, it was not greeted by his residential neighbours with the downtrodden submission he might have learnt to expect.

Some would be trapped in cul-de-sacs, others would find their normal passage greatly hindered, none could see why their Council Tax should maintain a public highway to be turned into a playground for the private benefit of the museums and their institutional neighbours. And they viewed with understandable horror the tacky pop-up eateries and colonies of floating Yodas that were likely to characterise such a space. The two sides are now deadlocked. At a recent meeting, the residents refused further engagement if pedestrianisation were not explicitly taken off the table and the museums refused to continue on any other basis.

Which brings us back to the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Plan. The Forum has clearly been captured by the members representing the cultural institutions. Although strictly the Plan only covers the boring bits of Knightsbridge, many of its policies for the improvement of the area are really only applicable to the parts of Knightsbridge within Kensington (which the Plan quite explicitly embraces as its “wider area”). Yet – and here’s the rub – when it goes to a referendum – as it must prior to being adopted – the affected residents of Kensington will have no vote because they do not live in Westminster. War has broken out: no Yodas without representation.

At the centre of this maelstrom is Simon Birkett, who chairs the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Forum. A charming and persuasive resident of Knightsbridge (Westminster), he is also the energetic lead campaigner of Clean Air in London, the lobbying group. That brings him close to the London Cycling Campaign, another group lobbying for Exhibition Road to be made free of vehicles (though not of bicycles). But his efforts to persuade the Kensington residents to join in and support his Plan have cut no ice with the formidable women of Kensington (because the leading players are largely women), who have experience of seeing off unwelcome developments and have long since realised that obduracy is usually more effective than being drawn into the oozy mire of compromise.

What will be the fate of the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Plan? It claims levels of support in prior consultations that would have made Saddam Hussein blush. But has it over-stepped its statutory remit? Will the City of Westminster heed the demands of its neighbouring council and strike out those parts of it of an imperialistic character? Or will the courts? And will the part of the Knightsbridge population allowed to vote in the referendum be content with it when the question is on the ballot-paper and they are invited to impose upon themselves a fourth layer of planning regulation, having heard the arguments in what is likely to be a vigorous and possibly vitriolic debate. (Copyright © Daniel Moylan 2018).

Daniel Moylan is senior London Conservative and former adviser to Boris Johnson when he was London Mayor. Previous pieces by Daniel for On London are here, here, here and here. Photo from Visit London.

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Categories: Culture

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