After hiding their intentions for more than eight years, the owners of Belgrove House have begun the application process during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal is to entirely demolish Belgrove House and to replace it with a ten-storey office block. The development would occupy an entire street block and be of a similar scale to the Standard Hotel, completely dwarfing the surrounding Georgian terraces and competing for height with St Pancras.
Despite attempts at engagement with the developer, it is clear that they currently intend to ignore heritage concerns and to play up the public benefit of the development.
Our immediate demand is simple: that the scale of the development should be reduced to accord with the predominantly three to six storey context to the south of Euston Road.
This would accord with Camden’s original draft policy for the site.
In order to achieve this the BCAAC are working in a coalition with Friends of Argyle Square, the King’s Cross CAAC, Bloomsbury Residents’ Action Group, and the Bloomsbury Association.
We will continue coordinating resistance until this demand is met.
The site occupies an entire street block, facing onto King’s Cross St Pancras and backing onto Argyle Square.
It is entirely surrounded by listed buildings. To the east and west are Grade II listed Georgian terraces, and to the south lies the designated Argyle Square with entirely intact Georgian terraces on all sides, all listed Grade II. To the north lies one of the most architecturally significant places in the country, and certainly in Camden: King’s Cross Square, with the Grade I listed King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations.
The site is surrounded to the south by the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, and lies within the King’s Cross St Pancras Conservation Area, both conservation areas of national significance.
A particularly important feature of the historic environment in this location is the dramatic step up in scale from the south of Euston Road to the north. Historically the south of Euston Road has been of a small scale, predominantly three to four storeys, reflecting the Georgian origins of the area. The stations to the north were designed to be deliberately grandiose and dominant, reflecting Victorian confidence and enthusiasm for the steam age and steam travel.
The BCAAC explored this theme and warned against development which harmed this character in an article in 2013.
The way in which St Pancras towers over the landscape provides important historical views for miles around, and a world-class historic environment for King’s Cross Square and for travellers from around the country and the continent. This domination of the skyline is not unlike the way in which St Paul’s once dominated the skyline in the City, and like St Paul’s views towards St Pancras should ideally have some level of protection.
The main negative contributor towards this historic landscape is the Standard Hotel. While this building has arguably become an established part of the landscape in recent years, it certainly cannot be said to contribute towards the historic environment, and by means of its inappropriate scale diminishes its special character. It blocks numerous important views towards St Pancras and King’s Cross, and is overly dominant in the predominantly small-scale landscape of development to the south of Euston Road.
The current Belgrove House itself is of a small scale, sitting comfortably within its surroundings. It is a 1930s coach house, built in a restrained classical style with Art Deco influences. Constructed of appropriate materials, it has a somewhat notable facade facing onto King’s Cross Square which reflects the facade of King’s Cross Station. Admittedly its side and rear elevations are bleak due to modifications in the 1950s, but do not detract from the historic environment.
The proposal is to demolish Belgrove House and to construct a ten-storey office-building, of a similar scale to the Standard Hotel.
The design is an entirely inappropriate monolithic block, predominantly of steel and glass. Its appearance fails to take any cues whatsoever from any aspect of the environment, even less that of the historic environment. In our view, it entirely lacks any sort of architectural quality, and is simply a fairly ugly mish-mash of horizontal and vertical lines interspersed with an unhealthy quantity of glass.
It is apparent that the developer wishes to take precedent from the monolithic Standard Hotel to the west and to ignore all other precedent in the area. As the Standard Hotel detracts from the historic environment by means of its inappropriate scale, to take precedent from such a building would quite obviously lead to a building which itself detracts from the historic environment. In particular, the departure from the accepted scale of buildings to the south of Euston Road would further diminish the intended architectural effect of the stations to the north, by reducing the step-up in scale from the south to the north and blocking important views. The scale of this building alone would therefore cause a diminishment of the area’s special character and would impact negatively upon the setting of the numerous surrounding heritage assets.
The proposed scale would dwarf all immediate neighbours, block views of the stations from Argyle Square, and impact negatively upon the significance of the stations to the north and King’s Cross Square.
While the building steps down in scale to the south, its solid-to-void ratio, horizontal emphasis, and odious use of glass would provide an unwelcome addition to Argyle Square and would significantly disrupt the Georgian uniformity of this highly significant area, something which is specifically mentioned in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area Appraisal as being of importance.
Despite Camden’s planning brief stating that the frontage onto Argyle Square should provide affordable housing, the developer has branded this as ‘inappropriate‘ and instead deems it appropriate to face an office block onto the square.
The square is entirely occupied by Georgian houses in hospitality and residential uses. The proposal therefore again fails to take any cues from the context of the site.
The proposed use is that of an office block.
The developer is attempting to market the block as being ‘laboratory-enabled‘ and likely to attract a ‘world-leader in the discovery, development, and delivery of life-saving vaccines‘. It is clear however that ultimately, this is simply another office block, and there being no tenant yet secured this is essentially a speculative statement to match a speculative development, which any kind of tenant may eventually occupy.
We wonder whether the developer is using the Coronavirus pandemic as a further vehicle for marketing this block as delivering on ‘life-saving vaccines’ when it is clear that any such work will be conducted in a research institute rather than an office block on Euston Road.
In our view, a new office block of this scale is not required in the area and fails to take any cues from the historic context of uses. To the north lie national termini, and on all sides there lies a mixture of predominantly commercial, hospitality, and residential uses, as has historically been the case since the mid Victorian era. The hospitality industry is particularly important serving a recognised need for the travellers using the stations to the north and visiting our conservation areas and London as a whole. There is no such recognised need for a new office block in the area, and on the contrary the recent economic downturn suggests that there will be a surplus of office space.
To contrast, the current warehouse use represents a fairly unique use in the area and serves a genuinely useful function for the local community and economy, supporting small independent businesses who would otherwise struggle to secure adequate storage space.
A variety of uses is something which the local authority has pledged to protect in the area.
It is clear to us that this development would do a great deal of harm to one of the most significant historic environments in London, and certainly in Camden. In all aspects it fails to take into account any context, and fails every test which should usually be applied to any development in a conservation area. The fact that the site lies within two of the most significant conservation areas in the country and is surrounded by some of the country’s most significant listed buildings makes the failure of this development even more spectacular.
Rather than take any considerations of heritage into account, the developer wishes to instead play up the public benefit of the proposal. Under the NPPF, if a development is to do harm to the historic environment it must be demonstrated by the applicant that the development brings significant public benefit which outweighs that harm to heritage.
The harm which this development does to the historic environment cannot be overstated, and nor can the high significance of this particular context.
It therefore falls to the developer to prove that this development brings substantial public benefit which outweighs that harm.
Yet ultimately, the development in itself does little to bring any real public benefit, and in our view certainly not enough to outweigh the harm caused to our heritage.
The developer’s website has a whole section devoted to the public benefits that the development is purported to bring, but it is rather naive and childlike, at one point claiming that the glass which the building uses is ‘innovative’ because it can be seen through.
While there are certainly real public benefits that would be brought by the proposal, one should not be blinded by the superfluous and excessive lists of supposed public benefits peppered with obscure acronyms and terms that the website is littered with. The proposal is simply a large office block, and this intensification of use may provide more jobs and therefore a boost to the local economy. Yet during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and associated social distancing measures, office spaces have been made all but redundant, and it is difficult to see when that will change.
Perhaps this could also be described as a failure to take context into account.
And while an office block may eventually provide more jobs boosting the local economy, it will also do harm to the small independent businesses which currently use the storage space afforded by Belgrove House. These small businesses form the backbone of the special commercial character of Bloomsbury, King’s Cross, and Central London, but will have been hit hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic. To remove this invaluable resource is therefore inevitably to do further harm to the special character of the area.
One of the public benefits is the provision of step-free access to the underground station to aid accessibility, but this must surely be judged to be marginal considering the station has been step-free for almost a decade already.
And while the provision of affordable housing nearby is certainly a public benefit, this site is in no way linked to Belgrove House except through ownership, and should not be used to grant a blank canvas for harmful development at Belgrove House, or else an unwelcome and dangerous precedent for harmful development will be set.
One part of the website even resorts to stating that a significant financial contribution through Section 106 will be made, despite the consideration of such a contribution as being a ‘public benefit’ being entirely inappropriate and verging on the illegal.
But this is perhaps what Camden’s consideration of the development will really hinge on.
Camden are keen to bring in as much income as possible through Section 106 obligations, with one Freedom of Information request revealing that more than £60M in such funds had been raised from our conservation areas alone. It is no secret that the rules of the game change for large development, and we can only wonder if Section 106 income is one of the aspects which tilts the balancing process in favour of large and inappropriate developments such as this.
Whether or not this is the case, we will oppose this development until our demands are met. We are already working with local associations, including Bloomsbury Residents’ Action Group, Friends of Argyle Square, the Bloomsbury Association, and the King’s Cross CAAC to effectively resist this development.
While Camden have not yet revealed their stance on the proposals, we have proven that effective campaigning and resistance can overrule the recommendation of even Camden’s own planning officers, as was shown during the British Museum northwest extension saga.
That case was not too dissimilar to this one, except the public benefit brought by the development was significantly greater and the weight of the British Museum much more substantial. Yet we still managed to have their application defeated.
The British Museum intended to build an extension whose scale was entirely inappropriate, impacting upon views from Bedford Square and the surrounding area. We led a campaign and deputation against that development, and despite officer recommendation for approval, it was refused at committee stage. The British Museum was forced to come back with a redesigned proposal which reduced the height to our recommended levels, but if they had heeded our advice in the first place it would have saved a great deal of time, money, and effort on all sides.
Perhaps there is a lesson to learn in this for the developers of Belgrove House.