Introduction

There are a number of threats to the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas. All the threats listed here we are working to combat, although understandably some are more significant than others. This page gives a good indication as to the priority we assign to each threat, and consequently the amount of work which we are investing in finding solutions to these problems.

While our primary function is to comment on planning applications as and when they arise, we must take account of the long-term threats which our conservation areas face. To this end, much of our work is in researching, discussing, and pursuing solutions to these problems.


Major Threats

There are a number of major threats to the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas, and hence these threats are at the forefront of our minds as committee members. All of these relate to the spectre of overdevelopment, and the substantial harm that this could do to the conservation areas over many years.

Public Benefit, and Section 106

Begun: c.2012 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Irreversible

It may sound bizarre but one of the greatest threats to our conservation areas is public benefit.

Public benefit is a term used in the planning realm to describe the benefits that a new development would bring to the general public as a result of its approval. These can be as wide-ranging as offering to pay for new benches in the local area as to providing research institutes or a new green space, or providing new jobs or apprenticeships to ‘boost’ the local economy. Public benefit need not mean benefit brought just to the local community, but often instead means benefit brought to the national or even international community.

In planning terms, the only thing which can outdo heritage in terms of importance is public benefit. If a new development causes harm of any type to heritage, either by demolishing historic buildings or building new inappropriate buildings, it must be demonstrated by the applicant that the public benefit brought by a development outweighs the harm caused to heritage. This is why we often see developments which unashamedly cause harm to heritage, such as the demolition of the Eastman Dental Hospital courtyard or the Town Hall Annexe rooftop extension. In certain scenarios, developers aim to simply ‘outweigh’ the harm caused to heritage by playing up public benefit.

Due to further technical details of the planning system, our conservation areas are at particular risk from public benefit.

Another aspect to public benefit is something called Section 106, or planning obligations.

In 1990 planning laws changed to allow for greater flexibility in the planning process. Section 106 was introduced as a way to let planners make active alterations to a planning application by means of obligations. These obligations can be fairly simple things, such as obliging the developer to build their walls in red brick, for example.

A crucial error in the system is that Section 106 allows planners to demand sums of money from the developer in exchange for things which cannot be gained through more conventional obligations.

Camden’s long-term strategy for raising funds involves using Section 106 to gain enormous sums of money from developers. Part of a wider scheme termed the Community Investment Program, Camden actively encourages overdevelopment because larger development will carry larger Section 106 payments. In recent years, Camden’s planners have become specialised in extracting extraordinary sums of money from developers through Section 106.

To put a figure on the numbers, a recent Freedom of Information request revealed around £60M has been raised in Section 106 payments from our conservation areas over the past decade, and at one time held about £95M in Section 106 savings, although they have recently begun to spend some of that money, notably on the West End Project.

Section 106, while it cannot technically be termed a public benefit for reasons of legality, is in reality one of the largest de facto public benefits which outweighs considerations of heritage when it comes to large development.

Public benefit, Section 106, and Camden’s long-term investment strategy combine to place our conservation areas under immense risk of harm through overdevelopment.

The University of London

Begun: c.2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Irreversible

The University of London is keen to expand its premises, and Bloomsbury is a sensible place for it to do so. Our conservation areas are at particular risk because as explained above, the University of London can very easily employ the spectre of public benefit to convince planners that harm to heritage should be permitted. Research institutes and student halls all bring international public benefit which is very effectively played up by consultants employed by the University of London. As a result, the University poses a particularly grave threat to our heritage.

We saw the entire eastern range of Cartwright Gardens demolished in 2013 to make way for a large student hall development, substantially harming the setting of Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury’s only Georgian crescent. The demolition also saw the total loss of a positive contributor to the conservation area, Canterbury Hall. This was vigorously opposed by ourselves and the local community, but it was felt that the public benefit brought by increasing the University’s capacity and also opening Cartwright Gardens to the general public outweighed the harm caused to heritage, thus its approval. We were not helped by certain community members who were effectively duped by the University into supporting the reopening of Cartwright Gardens, therefore proving the weight of its public benefit.

The former Royal Free Hospital quadrangle was approved for demolition in 2020 to make way for a vast research institute. This was vigorously opposed by ourselves, Historic England, and the local community. However the development was very effectively advertised as being a live-in world-class Dementia research institute, which would evidently bring substantial public benefit to the international public. The weight of this public benefit was felt to be so great that the harm caused by the demolition of much of the courtyard was considered acceptable.

HS2

Begun: 2012 | Status: Improving | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Irreversible

The redevelopment of Euston Station in line with HS2 poses a great threat to Euston Square, a Georgian square within our conservation areas. Its future is currently uncertain, especially after we uncovered plans to wipe out the square entirely by building on top of it. Plans have not yet been published for the development.

We have been active in the drafting of the Euston Area Planning Brief which has seen greater protection placed on Euston Square and its future. With the recent legal success of one of our members against HS2 Ltd and the recent report condemning the plans that HS2 have for Euston, we have seen an improvement in the prospects of the square.

It should be noted that again the power of HS2 to harm heritage is bestowed through the public benefit that the railway is expected to bring to the national economy, although the means through which this occurs is substantially different as the building of railways does not follow usual planning procedures.

Crossrail

Begun: 2007 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Denmark Street | Damage Type: Irreversible

The redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road station in line with Crossrail has already caused harm to heritage in the Denmark Street Conservation Area. Similarly, it is the public benefit that is expected to be brought by ‘boosting’ London’s economy which empowers Crossrail to cause harm to heritage.


Moderate Threats

There are a number of threats which are far less severe in nature but which still require our intervention.

Student Flats, AirBnb, and other short-lets

Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Improving | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible

The special character of Central London varies from place to place, but historically it has been a fine balance of industrial, residential, commercial, and institutional. With the boom in the tourist industry and the millions of tourists visiting our conservation areas every year, coupled with the sky-high rents in Central London, a greater number of residential properties are being bought and converted into short-lets and student flats. Whilst students reside in a property for at least a number of months and the educational nature of Bloomsbury has been present since the early 1800s, AirBnb and competitors cause great harm to our communities by converting residential properties illegally into holiday properties. This is a harmful change to the character of our conservation areas which we are working with Camden to fight.

Illegal Alterations

Begun: c.2010 | Status: Improving | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible

Illegal alterations frequently occur in our conservation areas, and we and the community are the only ones tasked with picking up on them and reporting them to Camden. Whilst many alterations do not cause significant harm – such as shopfronts being modified to carry LED lights – some can be significant, such as the replacement of windows and doors with cheap PVC equivalents. While each individual alteration does not pose a great threat, the accumulation of many alterations over time can cause irreparable damage to the appearance and character of a conservation area. Coupled with the frequency with which properties now change hands, this threat is classed as moderate.

As a result of a potential greater cohesion between the community, ourselves, and Camden’s enforcement team, we believe that we can improve the situation throughout our conservation areas.


Minor Threats

There are a number of minor threats which we consider to be irritating but do not pose any real harm to our heritage.

Dockless Bicycles

Begun: 2019 | Status: Improving | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible

Dockless bicycles clutter the street environment and therefore cause harm to the setting of the conservation areas.

Camden are currently working with London Councils to draft a bylaw to control these bicycles. We have submitted our recommendation that they be totally banned from Central London, and are working on building a coalition in Central London to support our recommendation.

Abandoned Highways Equipment

Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Worsening | CAs affected: All | Damage Type: Reversible

Highways contractors without fail leave behind some of their equipment after finishing roadworks, and it can take years to get it removed due to extraordinary inefficiencies and behaviour which cannot be described as anything but lazy from Camden’s Highways Department. Their presence causes harm to the setting and enjoyment of our conservation areas.

The Highways Department expect the public to report on these and follow up on whether they have been removed, but do not subsequently order their removal but simply ‘ask’ the contractors to pick them up at their convenience. The contractors rarely honour these requests, and complaints that the Highways Department should do more have been met with protests that it is ‘not their responsibility’ but the ‘contractor’s responsibility’.

Out-of-Control Street Vendors

Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Ongoing | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Reversible

Newspaper vending stalls have gradually been taken over by those attempting to run a full tech repair businesses and/or tourist shop within them. These individuals go on to make extensions to their premises without permission and plaster inappropriate advertisements and LED signs to the exterior, whilst cluttering the street with tables, A-boards, and even astro-turf. Camden have powers to enforce against these alterations, which we are encouraging.

Conversion of Red Telephone Boxes

Begun: c. 2010 | Status: Improving | CAs affected: Bloomsbury | Damage Type: Reversible

Red Telephone Boxes are a world-famous icon of British design, but unfortunately some have been converted to be used as mini tourist, coffee, and tech repair shops. This absolutely absurd turn of events then encourages vendors to set up whole stalls outside their boxes, which similar to the street vendors mentioned above, go on to clutter the area to a ridiculous extent. This impacts negatively on heritage assets and their setting.

We have heard encouraging news that the situation is likely to improve due to new approaches from Camden.

Facade of the former Royal Free Hospital, Gray's Inn Road