The demolition of much of the historic quadrangle of the former Royal Free Hospital on Gray’s Inn Road has today been approved by Camden Council, in conjunction with the GLA.
Despite vociferous opposition from ourselves and Historic England, along with letters sent directly to the Mayor and the Secretary of State, neither Camden nor the GLA had any ‘heritage concerns’ to raise about the proposal.
This is despite the application entirely demolishing three of four sides of the historic quadrangle, which Historic England judged to make a ‘strong positive contribution’ to the ‘institutional and civic character of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area’. In its place we will see a building of entirely inappropriate scale and design.
It is a dark day for the conservation of heritage in Bloomsbury and Camden. If a building of this importance cannot be preserved, then what can?
Perhaps even more unfortunate is that the approval of this application was inevitable from the beginning. ‘Heritage concerns’ are too often simply a minor irritation to developers and planners alike when it comes to getting large applications such as this one approved. Despite the obvious historic value of the building, as it had not been listed and due to an error on Camden’s part which saw part of the quadrangle left off the ‘local list’, it allowed the applicant to claim that the historic quadrangle had little to no historic value at all – on a par with a semi-detached in Birmingham, in other words. Thanks to this the applicant only had to wave their hands about the ‘public benefit’ that would be brought by a research centre and Camden all too eagerly played along.
The other driving force behind approval of this application is the payments that Camden and the GLA will receive in Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy. These both work similarly to ‘taxes’ on the size of a building. The building which has been approved is of an inappropriately large size which will ensure that both Camden and the GLA receive a very sizeable payment. Camden is likely to receive a payment in the scale of £1M.
The damage that this application will do to heritage cannot be overstated. Beyond the immediate damage caused by demolition of the quadrangle and the negative effect the new building will have on the area, the precedent set by this demolition and the scale and size of the new building will have wider implications for the area. Future applicants will find it easier to demolish and build upon sites of historic importance and will no doubt push for even greater size and height.
Historic England have already indicated that the boundary of the Bloomsbury Conservation Area will have to be revised to ‘cut out’ the new building from the area. It is beyond anyone’s guess how Camden can argue that they are ‘preserving and enhancing’ the Bloomsbury Conservation Area when their actions will possibly cause the conservation area to shrink in size for the first time since its designation in 1968.