The City of London’s decision on 22 April to destroy the heart of its Fleet Street conservation area was the most brazen defiance of conservation law. The demolition will extend not just to one building but over an entire block between Fleet Street and Salisbury Square. Among other buildings it includes a handsome neo-baroque bank, the historic Chronicle newspaper building, a Victorian pub and the restored Georgian mansion of No. 1 Salisbury Square. The conservation area was redefined as recently as 2007.
The buildings along Fleet Street form an integral link, in the nearest London has to a processional way, between the Cities of London and Westminster. To Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage – which is currently petitioning against the decision – it is one of the most historic thoroughfares in London, ‘its lively commercial architecture remarkably unchanged since the Second World War’.
More outrageous, the developer of the site is to be the very authority charged with protecting it, the City of London itself. It wants to build three massive blocks – one of them 10 storeys high – for a so-called ‘justice quarter’: a police headquarters, 18 courtrooms, legal offices and a block of holding and police cells. This means the frontage on to the pavement of Fleet Street will be a continuous windowless wall. A busy street of variegated shops and other uses will become a fortified bunker. This is not civilised modern planning. It is the worst sort of 1970s brutalism.
Courts and prisons are an inappropriate use for a busy commercial street. The City of London seems to feel that posh City fraudsters should not be made to travel south to scruffy Southwark to have their cases tried. In truth the reason for this extraordinary proposal is that a tiny, archaic local council feels insulted that its judicial activities are not exercised on its home turf.
It is wholly against natural justice that a local authority should be able to act as judge and jury in its own highly controversial breach of the spirit of conservation law. It apparently reconfigured its planning committee to pretend to be impartial. This was local government at its most cynical and must surely put the City vulnerable to judicial review.
The decision to dismantle a scheduled conservation area should always be subject to superior review, whether by the mayor of London or by the secretary of state. Not five years ago Westminster council ignored the reality of its Bayswater conservation area after councillor Robert Davis had been wined and dined by the property speculator Irvine Sellar. Today neither the mayor, Sadiq Khan, nor the secretary of state, Robert Jenrick, has shown the slightest concern for London’s increasingly chaotic appearance. At present, it seems, any developer, however outrageous, can do anything they like.
The Civic Amenities Act 1967 that ordained conservation areas has been by far the most critical defender of London’s visual character. Without the act, planners would have reduced the metropolis to an east European capital, a scatter of historic structures amid a desert of concrete and glass. Clearly the City has, off its own bat, decided the act is outdated. But if Fleet Street is not safe, who will defend Mayfair, Marylebone, Soho, Shoreditch or Clerkenwell?
What is undoubtedly outdated is the tinpot City of London as a statutory planning authority. The Fleet Street fiasco shows it useless as a guardian of the character of London’s past. Last month the BBC broadcast a devastating three-part documentary about the City police force in the 1970s, steeped in astonishing criminal corruption and with no public accountability. Old habits die hard. This local authority should be left to its dinners. Its planners are clearly philistine to the core.