The draft Gospel Oak and Haverstock Community Vision shows little care for the economic life of West Kentish Town. The word ‘Vision’ is a misnomer for a scrappily, poorly written document which doesn’t contain a plan for developing the local economy.
It is very likely that the Vision area’s economic life will suffer further diminishment as a result of Camden’s activity which is completely unguided by research. The print shop on the corner of Grafton Road and Athlone Street, for example, is to be turfed out of space it has used for years to make way for a block of flats
A few garages on the West Kentish Town estate and other estates in the area are used as workshops. This spontaneous, grass-roots phenomenon has been given no thought. Although it’s a tiny part of the economic story of the neighbourhood, it is typical of the mess we’re in that Camden disregards its teachings. Camden seems indifferent to economic research at the neighbourhood scale. It thinks by endlessly drawing attention to Queen’s Crescent in a mindless way, it can wrap economic issues up safely in a dead-end discussion about shopfronts and one-off initiatives like painting the street. The real story is so obviously far more complicated – it relates after all to how we all make our way in the world – and spread out across the neighbourhood. But no research has been done to prepare the ground for positive and realistic economic development planning. It could have provided useful learning about a range of topics e.g
- How is business activity absorbed by local society and what does that say about the new housing Camden is spending nearly £1bn building in our area?
- what are the key interfaces between the larger economy and the local one (Queen’s Crescent as setting for market traders from outside the area, Malden Road as a major transport route, SMEs business dealing with global market, role as CAZ support, local centres of excellence like the Royal Free, immigrant diasporas spanning London and the UK)
- what does the recent history of local economic activity tell us and how much employment floorspace has been lost from the area in the last 25 years?
LACK OF AN ECONOMIC PLAN FOR THE AREA
Camden Council’s approach to market and economic development in Gospel Oak is hard to understand. Freedom of Information CAM 2057 from September 2021 states Camden’s position in the baldest terms:
“Camden Council does not hold an economic plan for the Gospel Oak area. The Council does not typically produce economic plans for individual neighbourhoods or high street areas.”
The GLA ‘s Design Review Panel politely noted last year that Camden does not have a “strong business case” for the pedestrianisation of the Crescent:
“A street market project is often led by a strong business case whilst these proposals focus on physical interventions. Both are important to the success of the scheme and need to go hand in hand to ensure quality spaces that support and are supported by a vibrant local economy.“
There is no business plan for Queen’s Crescent and no commitment to economic planning at the neighbourhood scale.
Two excerpts taken from the draft Community Vision for Gospel Oak and Haverstock add a little flesh to these bare bones:
…local businesses and enterprise can flourish within an improved Queen’s Crescent neighbourhood centre or in converted low cost workspaces
Developments involving the creation of significant new commercial, employment or community spaces should generally be focused around Queen’s Crescent
Urban history shows workspace was scattered in neighbourhoods like ours rather than being focused in one place. What are the town-planning and economic reasons for confining it to the Crescent or making it mostly by converting basement garages on housing estates free from the threat of demolition? No explanation is given except public opinion gleaned from consultation.
Camden sold off more or less all its own purpose-made workspace scattered around our neighbourhood as sites for residential development to fund the CIP over the last 10 years. Those liquidated assets were much better quality than the converted, low-grade workspace now mooted in old garages and underground car-parks.
CONSTRAINED BY THE CRESCENT
The majority of commercial spaces on Queen’s Crescent are small 19th Century shops hemmed in by residential buildings at the back. It’s well nigh impossible to increase their commercial floor area. The trend is in the opposite direction: see the shop reductions at 74, 100, 139 and 157 plus the loss of the pub on the corner of the Crescent and Grafton Road. Camden planners have continually granted permission to schemes which damage commercial space in the Crescent. The example at no. 74 was particularly egregious: a generous shop unit reduced to a tiny foot print with no level access.
Redevelopment of the Weedington Road play-centre building, the Crescent edge of the West Kentish Town Estate and Cheriton do offer opportunities to create new employment space on the Crescent although there are no concrete plans.
It is important to grasp the scale of losses of neighbourhood workspace over recent years so what’s possible on Queen’s Crescent is seen in proper perspective and recognised as insufficient.
Permitted development between 2013 and 2015 gave rise to a loss of over 12,000sqm of workspace in Kentish Town alone (NW5). The situation has got worse since.
A snapshot taken around 2017 of the whole borough notes losses of about 55,000 sqm of light industrial and storage, sectors usually offering local employment. In the six years up to 2010, around 9000 sqm of the same kind of space was lost.
Camden’s Economic Development team summed up the situation in 2019 as follows:
“Whilst a significant amount of commercial floorspace growth is in the development pipeline in Camden, the majority comprises large floorplate, corporate office space at King’s Cross and Euston, designed and priced for large occupiers. Premises suitable and affordable for SMEs are under pressure from rising land values and housing demand/targets, limited land availability, and permitted development rights.”
Our neighbourhood is actually a great location for small business well adapted to absorb it socially. Synergy between the area’s unrestrained and theatrical form of life and commercial vitality is easy to imagine (and used to exist in the past).
FIG LEAF FOR EXECUTIVE PREFERENCE
The Community Vision’s angle on economic development justifies what Camden plans already i.e primarily avoiding brand new workspaces coming up as a possibility for its huge new-build schemes in the area.
As part of the redevelopment of Bacton estate about 10 years ago, Camden got away with granting itself planning consent for replacing just 290sqm of 4000sqm of workspace it demolished. That ludicrous swap benefits nobody.
Yet, at Liddell Road in West Hampstead, Camden gave itself planning consent for about 3800sqm of workspace which it wants to hang onto whilst selling off an 11-storey residential tower. See the following from their recent CIP report to the CIP Review Panel:
In addition to this the forecast receipts from the sale of the land for housing at Liddell Road are £4.5m less than the cost of the project because the council took the decision to retain ownership of the flexible working space on the basis that the value of the revenue stream it will generate is greater than the foregone capital receipt.
It suggests there are good reasons to include a lot of brand new workspace in the new housing developments in our neighbourhood. Camden’s Economic Development team shares a similar view.
A recent project that utilised Camden’s commercial assets to deliver both strong rental income and social value offers direction. The example of Phoenix Court, a 323 sq. m council-owned office space below a residential block in Purchese Street in Somers Town, demonstrates the possibility of capitalising on demand for space within the borough.
Inconsistencies between approaches to workspace in different parts of Camden might be thought to demonstrate how Camden tailors its CIP interventions to different local conditions.
And Camden would like to convince us it takes a holistic, neighbourhood view but in truth it is focused on its narrow landlord interest and managing the very tricky and professionally absorbing real-estate programme.
“all of this change is considered together in a holistic way to ensure that the future community has all that it needs to thrive and prosper“
The Community Vision is PR for Camden’s Executive. Over £11m has been budgeted by Cllr Beales to pay for outsourcing estate agency to sell new flats that Camden is building on the cleared sites of Gospel Oak estates, a sum which vastly exceeds combined expenditure on neighbourhood planning (there are been none for 10 years), consultation, so-called Queen’s Crescent street improvements, the Citizens Assembly and conversion of disused estate car-parks into subpar workspace.
The Community Vision is roughly speaking propaganda for the way Camden wants to manage the short and medium term in our neighbourhood. Their main concern is not to come unstuck as the plan to treble density on the sites of the big three estates is executed. It is a highly risky venture reliant on gross densification, loss of green open space and selling well over 1000 flats. They will not allow anything to get in the way, least of all a “holistic..community vision” or economic development.