Richard Brown: Are students the Square Mile’s post-Covid future?

Richard Brown: Are students the Square Mile’s post-Covid future?

It is an unlikely proposition on the face of it – a new block to house 644 students nestled among the polished steel and plate glass of corporate lawyers’ and consultants’ offices on High Holborn, just opposite City Thameslink Station. But this is the planning application the City of London Corporation’s Planning Committee will consider on Tuesday, with officers recommending approval.

Student housing in the heart of the City? Is this a harbinger of changing times – even of decline – as London comes to terms with “life after Covid”?

City of London planning policies, backed by the London Plan, have always been stalwart in defending the Square Mile’s unique mix of “world city” commercial functions. Loss of office floor space, the corporation’s policy says, should be considered only in exceptional circumstances. And the recent boom in privately-developed student housing has been controversial. As this project indicates, it has generated good returns for investors but is often seen as disruptive to neighbourhood life and implicated in gentrification – but, then again, what isn’t? – and has spawned some of London’s ugliest new buildings.

The High Holborn block, designed by Stiff + Trevillion on a site previously occupied by solicitors Hogan Lovells, looks far from ugly in the artist’s impressions (see image). Developers Dominvs Group originally proposed a hotel on the site, but switched to student accommodation as the pandemic laid waste to international tourism. Dominvs are negotiating a deal with the London School of Economics to house their students, and their proposal includes community and cultural spaces on the ground floor and a public roof terrace alongside the student rooms (35 per cent of which will be “affordable”).

Still, the idea of student living in London’s financial district is a far cry from how the Square Mile felt when I first came to the capital almost 30 years ago. Back then the City was a closed-off place – literally so, as the police erected roadblocks (“the ring of steel”) as totemic protection against IRA bombers – showing a rather sombre face to the outside world, however dramatic and lucrative the global trading carried out behind closed doors. By 8.00 pm the pubs had closed and at weekends the narrow empty streets felt post-apocalyptic: beautiful, calm, but also rather eerie.

But the City has been changing. Their Covid recovery plan, which triggered quickly-quashed rumours of widespread conversions of offices to homes, talked of boosting the Square Mile’s visitor economy, of opening up more on evenings and weekends, of being a “City of culture and commerce”.

But this diversification predates the pandemic. Its roots go all the way back to the 1990s, when the construction of Canary Wharf offered an alternative business district (“Manhattan on Thames”) and gave financial institutions a choice. Having survived for more than a millennium the City can tend towards the conservative, but this new challenge forced the ancient institution’s aldermen and common councillors to think again about allowing the skyscrapers that global businesses wanted, but also about what goes on at ground level – what the area offers outside office hours.

The transformation has been gradual but profound, even if it has been accelerated by Covid and the changing dynamics of London’s property markets. You can see it in the expansion of restaurants and bars – hospitality jobs have almost doubled in the past 20 years – in the new shopping centre at One New Change, in plans for the Culture Mile that will stretch from the new Museum of London at Smithfield to the Barbican and in the rapid growth of new sectors such as fintech.

Seen from this perspective, building student housing on High Holborn is a logical progression not a departure. It is the next chapter in a story of reinvention as the City seeks to bring in different types of people, who will bring life to its streets and use its amenities when they might otherwise be quiet.

The planning officers’ report points to the benefits of an “influx of a new demographic of young people” and the proximity to Smithfield, where they will find clubs and bars as well as the new Museum of London. Officers also argue that the loss of office space is marginal (around 8,000 square metres, while 800,000 square metres is in the pipeline) and observes that the engineering complexity of working above and around Thameslink tunnels makes building and pre-letting high quality offices on the site difficult.

London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ), its retail and hospitality sectors in particular, has had a tough couple of years, as commuters and international tourists stayed away. Cities with more people living in or around the centre have fared better, and GLA-commissioned reports have suggested that a bigger residential population could be part of central London’s future too.

My former colleagues at Centre for London are working on a project to explore where and how this might be realised. This will be a complex process, which will play out differently in different parts of the CAZ. But bringing a few hundred students in to add life, and maybe a bit of mess, to the capital’s ancient heart seems like a good place to start.


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