There’s no place like home

THE guy who brought the jumbo TV to Russell Square and saw part of it broken by a tossed bottle may not agree, but council leader Georgia Gould’s park screenings of the World Cup were more or less a success. This was particularly so in Talacre, which had more of a family feel and less flying glassware at full-time. I namecheck Cllr Gould here and in the last post on this, because when I was thinking about the organisation of these mini-soccer festivals it was hard to think of anybody else in her cabinet – if the choice was theirs – running around arranging big screens in parks during the short time that passed between England’s quarter final win against Sweden and the semi-final against Croatia. To some extent it plays into her theme of opening up Camden since taking the leadership of the council last year.

Some of her colleagues are said  unsure of the wisdom behind the football fever and she herself apparently joked that it could mark the end of her political career had things turned too rowdy, but it turned out that fans are more, let’s say, exuberant after a victory than a loss. On the whole people were well-behaved in defeat. There were a few beer boys in Russell Square, but behind the excited front line stood a real mix of ages and backgrounds, fulfilling the core aim of bringing our diverse community together behind a special event.

With everybody glued on the game, I spent some of the Croatia match cycling around Bloomsbury, King’s Cross and Camden Town to see what was going on. There was a strange stillness to busy roads, and the only people who seemed to be out and about were tourists. The frankly eery atmosphere was most obvious in Granary Square. Two large screens are erected there this summer but rather than showing the football, the tennis from Wimbledon and then at 8pm (with England 1-0 and almost in the FINAL OF THE WORLD CUP) a showing The Wizard of Oz.

This may sound warming to anybody who has been sick to death of football in the last few weeks, a haven even. If it was, it wasn’t being used as such. A handful of people seemed to be half watching Rafa Nadal on one screen, and you might have been able to count the numbers on your fingers watching Dorothy and Toto. If you look at how many people accepted the invitation to watch it in Camden’s parks, Granary Square would have been buzzing with people if the football was on. You got the impression that organisers did not want to make the same late-in-the-day gamble that Cllr Gould had.

This has caught some stick in Islington; the railways lands regeneration site splits both boroughs. Labour councillor Paul Convery said the King’s Cross regeneration area had failed a ‘culture test’. Was it that the now pristine look of King’s Cross could not be risked by the arrival of lads and ladies who like watching football? ‘It’s Coming Home’ is not what people who pay £1 million and more for a flat expect to hear on their balcony, perhaps, runs the most sceptical view.

Among some Labour old hands (and some new ones too), it’s an almost blasphemous view that the regeneration lacks a little soul. Just a little. Every now and then the Guardian will write a two page spread on how brilliant it all is, presumably from their office right on the fringe of the site. But if you start even hinting at the possibility that it lacks a bit of rustic charm, then one of its cheerleaders will say: Well, did you prefer it the way it was? Shall we bring back a red light district and a drug market? Of course not. That’s the easiest way of laying claim to the great legacy of being the ones that finally sorted out the big brown hole in the ground that King’s Cross was before the work began.

In a less bolshie debate, it is possible to understand that dancing fountains, a Waitrose with a wine bar and exciting headquarters for creative technology industry are better than the rot it replaced, while at the same time wonder what also could have been. Be warned, there will be social media telling offs, if you say this too conspicuously.

A former cabinet councillor who is worth listening to is Phil Jones, who was always considered with his choice of words and generous with his time in my experience. Last month, in a tweet, he gave a delightfully Churchillian (and slightly uncharacteristic) draft of the King’s Cross story, presenting us with an against-the-odds tale of the councillors who stood tall against opposition to the redevelopment. It is “worth remembering” the nay-sayers, he told us, and the “more visionary councillors” who got the job done.

He went on to say that the local media was among those who had been opposed – I don’t mind him saying that, although I prefer the word scrutinised, you’ll miss us when we are gone etc etc – but more interesting is his view that the opposition about the “level of family sized affordable units” had to some extent been “political in nature”.

The question of how many family-sized affordable homes – the ones which can really make a dent in the waiting list and overcrowding crisis, more than student studios – were achieved on Europe’s biggest opportunity site often goes unanswered. As far as I can see Mr Jones, who left the council in May, has yet to respond to the question on Twitter. I’ve asked a few times over the years without too much success.

On those 65 acres, 750 affordable homes were planned, although these are split between social rent, shared ownership and housing association. A recent report said 325, again we don’t know the size of the units, had so far been delivered. Camden approved a reduction on the affordable homes quota a couple of years ago, and more ‘luxury’ flats were added to the scheme.

Mr Jones is right when he says some of the opposition was political in nature.  Take the now retired politician Frank Dobson, the Labour MP covering King’s Cross at the time. He seemed very political about it.  “What I wanted was the best for people in Camden and Islington,” he said as planning approval was granted. “People who come to see me in my advice surgery often want somewhere to live, they often want somewhere for their children to play, somewhere for teenagers to go. I don’t remember anybody saying they needed a new office block.”

Or there was Roger Robinson, also Labour, and still a Camden councillor. “We need large family accommodation as well,” he said back then. “There is not enough of it in Camden. I can tell you that from the housing cases I have dealt with in the last few years. If we do not do this properly then we will have it on our conscience for the rest of our lives. I don’t want to be a part of that.” It will sound very defensive to state the obvious… that this is not a CNJ leader column, but one of Mr Jones’ recent colleagues.

It’s worth remembering that the worlds of politics and media has moved on since a slightly ugly planning meeting in 2006 when the masterplan was approved in the Town Hall chamber. Back then, like air quality and mental health, housing was almost a niche subject. Now it can make the front page of newspapers. People demand to know where affordable homes in London could be built; for an example up the road, you can see Islington Council publicly fighting for a minimum of 50 percent of affordable homes on the Holloway Prison site right now. It’d be interesting if a mayor like Sadiq Khan would approve 750 for a site the size of King’s Cross in today’s climate.

Again, the black and white response to all this, is to be told that King’s Cross could never have been be a wall to wall council housing, you’d be building a tenement and so on. I don’t think anybody expected it to be one giant housing estate.

Obviously, there is a lot to be said for the swimming pool, library, new school and open spaces, and no, nobody wanted a return to the drug-infested red light district. It used to be horrible to walk through. Thousands of jobs were created on site and in new creative technology HQs, it’s been worth £600 million at least to the economy so far, and Camden Council found a way to get a new office block. It is held up regularly as an example of how to do large scale regeneration and there is a legacy for those ended the gridlock over what to do on the railwaylands to be proud of.

But it doesn’t matter how many times you write all of those things above, it’s the next bit which is considered sacrilege and risks an acidic response. It’s just… it’s just one or two more affordable homes, family-sized, might’ve been nice. Who knows?, one or two more may have helped match up the new N1C streets to the mixed communities which thrive through the rest of Camden, a special quality which shone through at the park screenings last week, with the wealthy and less wealthy watching – and living – together.





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