This evening, Camden Council’s cabinet met to discuss a wide range of topics. HS2 was by far the most high profile. But tucked away in the agenda – in fact so well hidden that you’d have to have inside knowledge to find it – were details about the “Liddell Road scheme”.
I’ll explain what this is in more detail in a moment, but there’s one thing to understand. In one extremely important regard, a number that Camden is using to help push its own proposal through is clearly wrong. According to some people, very wrong indeed. And this matters – not just for the people directly concerned, but for the mix of our local economy.
Let me take you back.
West Hampstead needs a new primary school. This is a different issue to the free school debate that’s going on at the moment, that’s for a secondary school. This is a primary age issue, and Camden is pushing hard for an extension to the successful Kingsgate School. When they say “extension”, we’re not talking about building a new science wing, we’re talking about an entire school-size building about a mile away from the existing one. The whys and wherefores of this don’t really matter at this moment, although some would argue that they are ideological rather than practical.
The preferred location for this extension is Liddell Road. Most people say “Where?”, but in fact Liddell Road is five minutes’ walk from West Hampstead’s stations, and is home to more than 25 businesses employing – traders there claim – 250 people. That’s a lot right?
Camden council, however, believes there are 80 jobs on the site. Even if the 250 is an exaggeration, the discrepancy is surely too big to write off as an administrative error.
Camden plans to pay for this new school by building flats next to the school and selling them on the open market. Someone told me yesterday that these would have no affordable housing units, but that seems implausible. Camden has also boasted that the site will offer employment space – office jobs for around 130 people.
done the maths?
By Camden’s reckoning, there’s a net gain of 50 jobs. By the traders’ reckoning there’s a net loss of 120 jobs. Quite a difference.
Nor are these like-for-like jobs. This is swapping light industrial jobs – skilled manual work – for office work. Yet, barely a stone’s throw from this site, agents struggled for two years to let modern office space, until they finally gave up and that site is being turned into flats. Camden also admits that it’s woefully short of light industrial space and is forcing the Iverson Tyres redevelopment to have a small light industrial unit. None of this really adds up, unless you accept that the council appears willing to go to any lengths to deliver the school.
Unsurprisingly, the local traders on Liddell Road aren’t happy. They are an eclectic bunch. I’d assumed it was most car repair outfits, and there are certainly some there. But there’s also a glassware company, an upholsterer, a Middle Easter art restorer, and other surprising businesses that I suspect most West Hampstead residents had no idea were on their doorstep.
No-one’s denying the need for the school places in this part of the borough. The traders are aware of this. They are being led by Branko Viric, who runs West Hampstead Motors. I met him, his brother, his Dad and various other employees when I went to see them this week [a side note and only anecdotal, but I saw at least 20 people working in Liddell Road and I only walked up to the end and back and only went into one unit]. West Hampstead Motors has been there 14 years, but most businesses have been on the site far longer.
What Branko is saying is that not enough thought has gone into alternative options. He has set out quite a few in an open letter to all Camden councillors. Most of them probably wouldn’t fly – expanding Kingsgate on its own site seems unlikely. One idea though has that ring of common sense about it.
Kingsgate Workshops, which sit next to the school, is a collective of artist studios. It’s very popular, it has lots of exhibitions that most of you never go to, and it’s been around a while. It’s also a perfect location for extending Kingsgate School. Largely because it’s next door.
Where would the studios go? Well, there’s space on… yes, you’ve guessed it, Liddell Road. The buildings on one side of the estate are subsiding and could do with being replaced – they’re also not all in use at the moment. It’s been impossible to let them with the prospect of redevelopment looming large. Could the Kingsgate Studios relocate to Liddell Road? It almost sounds too sensible.
It would leave Camden with a financial problem – it has to pay for a new school, and there’s no money from central government. But have they even looked into it? Has anyone done the sums? If they have, why haven’t we been told about it? There’s all that Section 106 money knocking around at the moment after all – would some of that help offset the cost? The point is less that this is a brilliant solution, and more that this is at least an alternative that makes some sense and yet we have no idea whether it’s ever beeen thought of. Would Kingsgate Studio artists like the idea? I’m sure some would find it very disruptive. But nowhere near as disruptive as losing their jobs and their livelihoods.
Local councillor Keith Moffitt was at the meeting earlier this evening and “urged” the cabinet to defer the decision as the report misrepresented both the job numbers and the consultation results. Cabinet member Phil Jones tweeted not long after, “Camden cabinet just agreed to rebuild one school in Somers Town and extend another in West Hampstead – without a penny of support from govt”, and later “officers stated that evidence supports council figures”. However, a tiny glimmer of hope flickers on the horizon as he also said in response to my question about the discrepancy in job numbers that “I agree that this issue needs to be clarified and work to now take place on that.”
The development has caused controversy for other reasons too; specifically the distance between the two schools, which won’t help parents with siblings at both sites (the sites will be divided by age group); and the fact that the school decision and the decision on the residential and commercial redevelopment that is funding it are being treated separately, even thought the former is entirely contingent on the latter making it inconceivable that the latter won’t get approved whatever objections may appear.
Branko and his colleagues on the site may yet get a chance to bolster their position. They should be applauded for not simply rolling over, even if they have left the PR campaign a little late, and for thinking about solutions that maximize the benefit to everyone and include the school.
Camden’s cabinet may have made its decision this evening, but there’s a sense that this is far from done and dusted. Do read Branko’s letter – also available below