The imminent sell-off of the Royal Mail Group (RMG), vaguely valued between £2.6-3.3 billion ($4.2-5.3 bn), is the latest high-profile case in a process of privatisation that has fundamentally transformed British society since the 1980s. The relative merits of privatisation have been debated for years, but one consequence that receives comparatively little attention is the privatisation of the public realm, increasingly large chunks of which are being acquired, developed, managed and even policed in perpetuity by private companies.
The nation’s disposal of the RMG will mean that its substantial property portfolio – public land – will fall into private hands. This transferral is part of a wider process that is not only seeing Britain's towns and cities increasingly become exclusive playgrounds for private capital, but also destabilising established communities whose neighbourhoods are no longer maintained and governed by publicly elected borough councils, but have become instead financial assets bartered by large anonymous companies.
A missed opportunity
In London the privatisation of the public realm is well underway. Broadgate, Paternoster Square, Kings Cross, Paddington Basin, and the Westfields at White City and Stratford are just a handful of the higher profile developments founded on the expropriation of public land by the private sector. There are countless other examples across the country. When our 500-year old postal service is sold in the coming days, 8.7 acres of prime real estate that is presently goods yards and car parks surrounding the lavishly revamped mega sorting office at Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell, central London, will join this members-only banquet – another juicy portion of our capital’s heart devoured by the private sector. The RMG’s massive sorting offices at Nine Elms (Battersea) and Rathbone Place (Fitzrovia) are also part of this exclusive feast. Both have been closed, the land ripened for development and their operations consolidated at the Mount Pleasant sorting office.
History has been unkind to Mount Pleasant, but its present development could have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to heal the deep scars caused by centuries of neglect. Standing on what was once the eastern bank of the River Fleet that separated the historic districts of Bloomsbury and Finsbury, Mount Pleasant has long been a dump. In the 18th century it literally became one, when the City of London’s growing industrial suburbs used it as a rubbish tip. In the 19th century it was turned over to a prison and by the 20th century it had become a central depot for the rapidly expanding postal service. In the 21st century, the internet’s rise precipitated the letter’s demise and fuelled a boom in packets and parcels – the fruits of internet shopping.
If Islington and Camden councils approve the pending planning applications in October 2013, this cross-border brownfield site will be one of the largest private developments in the country with an estimated value of £400m – a sum that would significantly alter the RMG’s publicised stock-market valuation. While individuals and small communities around Britain try to engage in a vastly unequal encounter with developers, if only to mitigate the inevitable tidal wave of architectural mediocrity, the RMG’s conduct in preparing the planning application for Mount Pleasant has left a familiarly depressing scene in its wake.
A flawed proposal
The proposal comprises ten buildings, mostly between six and fifteen storeys, designed in the unremarkable style that has come to typify the new-build housing that blights our city centres. Behind these unexceptional facades are 681 residential units containing one to four bedrooms, 4,260 sqm of office space and 2,250 sqm of retail and "community" space. If the architecture is insipid, the planning is insane. The central spine of the plan is a monumental pedestrian street that is supposed to respond to the numerous Georgian squares in the area as it spills out onto the busy Farringdon Road. The planners have attempted to conceal the illogicality of this bleak space behind its absurd title, "The Garden", a misnomer surpassed only by the adjacent "Meadow" that is the unutilised roof over the service ramp used by an anticipated 3,000 RMG vehicles a day. The ethnically and economically diverse local community surrounding the site is united in anger and frustration at the speed, handling and incongruity of the proposal. It feels marginalised by the lack of accountability and public consultation – ignored not only by the RMG, but also by their legions of consultants, planners, architects, landscape designers and PR gurus.
The RMG will claim to have consulted the local public extensively, hosting three public exhibitions at the Holy Redeemer church on Exmouth Market and one public meeting in the Holiday Inn on Farringdon Road. If Sherry Arnstein’s "ladder of citizen participation" is any measure, then the exhibitions were slipping off the lower rung of "tokenism"; the Holiday Inn event, which descended into farce but should have clearly demonstrated to the RMG the public’s deep-seated resentment at the proposal being foisted on them, never got close to stepping on the ladder.
Comments posted by the public at these events or to council planners subsequently have been routinely ignored and no acknowledgment or little practical feedback offered. Instead, the performance, whose cast include four architectural practices (Allies & Morrison, Wilkinson Eyre, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, and Fielden Clegg Bradley), the "public realm consultancy" Publica, and planning consultants DP9, has been carefully orchestrated by Indigo Public Affairs. Indigo claim to achieve success "simply by consulting with local communities and their elected representatives and listening to what they want." An investigation by the Telegraph reveals that this apparently "win-win" approach for the community and developer involved paying councillors on planning committees across the country for information and favours in obtaining planning approval (see "Councillors for hire who give firms planning advice", Telegraph, 10 March 2013).
The local community has consistently expressed concern at the inappropriateness of the proposal and the inevitable and irreversible impact it will have on their rich patchwork neighbourhood shaped over centuries by the congenial intermingling of Georgian terraces, Victorian tenements, fine inter-war housing estates, and decent post-war residential towers. With four conservation areas and countless listed buildings surrounding the site, the black sheep in the neighbourhood is the nine-storey Holiday Inn. This hulking post-modern horror is rightly (albeit somewhat kindly) acknowledged in the councils’ design brief as being "incongruously scaled"’ and regarded by the internationally-acclaimed locally-based architect, Robert Sakula, as the worst building he had ever seen "for its sheer ugly cynicism" (see Robert Sakula, "Q&A - Robert Sakula Ash Sakula Architects", Architectural Journal, 14 October 2004).
As an example of the insensitivity of the architectural response at Mount Pleasant, the architects, Allies & Morrison, have employed Orwellian logic in concocting their design for a block adjacent to the Holiday Inn. Rather than engaging with the more challenging process of integrating high-density contemporary architecture into a historic low-rise neighbourhood, they have used the Holiday Inn as their raison d’etre for an even higher eight-storey (28.5m) block that obliterates visually and physically the only connection between Finsbury and Bloomsbury along Calthorpe Street, which will cast a shadow over the already hostile Farringdon Road, one of London’s primary north-south road arteries and a magnet for luxury developments lured by big infrastructure projects nearby: Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Smithfield Market, Farringdon Crossrail and Kings Cross.
Amongst the ten buildings that make up this exclusively inward-looking fortress-like development, architectural doublespeak abounds. On the southwest corner at Elm Street, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris have proposed a nightmarish fifteen-storey (48.5m) tower directly opposite the entrance of Christopher Hatton primary school, already hemmed-in by high-rise high-density council housing. Despite the councils’ aim of supplying 50% affordable housing on new developments, the RMG is offering just 20%. A form of modern-day architectural apartheid will ensure these properties are suitably distinguished from their private neighbours who will fill the vast majority of the 681 residential units.
An excluding future
In a bid to encourage communication between the local community, the Councils and the RMG, concerned residents established the Mount Pleasant Forum in 2012. Council planners attended only one meeting. A recent meeting was specially arranged for ward councillors and members of the respective planning committees to hear the views of local residents before they convene to consider this application. Of the thirty-three elected representatives invited, just five admirable ward councillors turned up to listen. Twenty others had neither the time nor the decency to even acknowledge the Forum’s repeated invitations. As for the RMG, not one of their members has ever made contact with the Forum. Instead, they send their minions from Indigo Public Affairs.
To rub salt into the wounds, the RMG’s planning application submitted in late June 2013 comprised over 5,000 pages of highly technical documentation, mostly written in a verbose style burdened by management jargon. Statutory regulations demand that the local community read, digest and respond to this information in three weeks – the same time that would be offered to respond to a conservatory extension.
At Mount Pleasant, the local community felt there was a chance to create a truly remarkable mixed-use development in the heart of London that invigorates not only the local area and respects its unique cultural and historical characteristics, but augments an exceptional part of London’s rich urban tapestry that now finds itself auspiciously placed between the Crossrail/Thameslink hub at Farringdon and the international terminal at Kings Cross/St Pancras. However, as the RMG’s privatisation looms, the optimism that local residents once had for this site has long since vanished, expunged by the dead weight of corporate anonymity and the architectural avarice that accompanies vast capital.
For many locals, Mount Pleasant has exposed the harsh realities of large private developments and their negative impact on established and often fragile inner-city neighbourhoods in which "public realm" is increasingly a mask for "private public space" creating "malls without walls". In this new private public world that is being created by big business, the general public are an inconvenience and often treated as such by the private security firms that police them. Public gatherings, demonstrations, rights of way and even photography are routinely outlawed. Over time the self-interested private investors will grow tired of the public occupying their domain and erect gates to protect their investment, isolating themselves from the world and eroding the societies that sustain them. Like a cancer, these dynamic but ultimately selfish entities, are eventually counterproductive because they will kill the host that supports them – the towns and cities that we once owned and were built by healthier societies than ours.