When I moved into London’s King’s Cross in the early 1980s and announced where I lived the usual reaction would be one of sympathy. “I bet you can’t wait to get out of there,” people would say, frowning. The area was notorious for it drugs and prostitution but I’d say “I love living there” and they’d frown even more. Over the past decade and more King’s Cross has been the focus of what is hailed as one of Europe’s biggest regeneration projects as 67 acres of former railway land has been brought back into use, completely transforming the place. Now people are wondering why I ever left.
From the very beginning community and resident groups worked hard to ensure that local people themselves would benefit in terms of much needed housing and increased amenities. On the one hand, the cobbled streets around St Pancras and King’s Cross stations have been obliterated along with the St Pancras coaldrops and Culross Buildings and a part of Stanley Buildings, two Victorian tenement blocks built as model homes for workers. In her poignant 2007 book, Railway Lands, the late Angela Inglis correctly anticipated that the saved half of Stanley would be trapped in a “sterile time capsule” as part of an office complex.
On the other hand, a number of heritage sites have been carefully preserved amid a stylish new neighbourhood dominated by former wheat warehouse the Granary Building, now home to the University of the Arts. There are no tacky towers or bland shopping centres to remind you of Canary Wharf and the canal has been treated respectfully, unlike at Paddington Basin where it has been rendered sterile.
However, one of the great things about living in King’s Cross was that it was a lively, mixed community and this is what campaigners sought to maintain. But as the corporate grip on public life has increased, the number of homes available for social rent has been whittled down, with the developers going back on their earlier commitment. Social housing now represents a small portion of the 33 per cent of flats deemed affordable, a term that is a figment of the imagination as it includes those sold as shared ownerships, a kind of buy-to-rent to yourself scheme that gets you on the property ladder without the prospect of ever owning the property; and homes available at ‘intermediate rents’, meaning the rent charged is 20 per cent less than the market rate. Aimed at key workers, two-bed flats in one development go from £340 a week.
The short walk along the canal towpath from the now defunct Jubilee Centre, where my son once learnt canoeing and rock climbing, takes you past the Urbanest Students Hostel, which from the look of it accommodates those wealthy foreign students the government relies on to prop up our tertiary education institutions. Then you come to Gasholder Park, in which four of the famous cast iron gas holders that once bestrode the railway lands have been transplanted, one encircling a small gardens, the other three forming the wrap around to provide the “stunning setting” for “historic canalside” apartments. Beyond, are a number of shiny new eight to 10 storey apartment blocks with mind boggling price tags. More are under construction along the newly created Mary Wollstonecraft St and Lewis Cubitt Park, bringing you to the jewell in the crown of Granary Square and its choreographed fountains.
The sales pitch boasts of the blocks being designed by leading architects, and off-the-shelf cladding materials and wood panelling have been mercifully dispensed with, as have garish colour schemes. However, the blocks are packed tightly together and often the only views on offer will be someone else’s balcony; lack of direct sunlight is surely another issue for those without really deep pockets. The main attraction is not design but living in the trendy new N1C postcode just metres from the canal.
Historic sites in the development have been put aside for retail use, another disappointment. A large branch of Waitrose occupies the former Midlands Railways train shed while the 19th century brick arches of Coal Drops Yard are to become what is described as a “a unique shopping destination” for London with a focus on high end independent shops. The German Gymnasium, built in 1864 as the first purpose-built gym in England, has become a restaurant. The other eateries are mostly upmarket, although lunchtime take-aways are available from vendors along King’s Boulevard, managed by “street food” outfit Kerb.
Genuine community facilities are limited and include Camley St Natural Park, which was there already and is to be linked to the north side of the canal by a new bridge. There is also a small cinema, a pay-to-enter gallery and a free sports pitch. But the outdoor swimming pool is no more and the pop up King’s Cross Theatre, where the Railway Children enjoyed a two year run of sell out shows, was recently dismantled to make way for the Google HQ. And while there are plenty of pleasant open spaces to lounge about in, with seating everywhere, these are all private and watched over by security guards.
King’s Cross Academy primary school has been opened as part of a flashy residential complex known as the Plimsoll Building, sharing premises with Frank Barnes School for the Deaf. Although few of its pupils will live in the surrounding luxury apartments, it is great that the sound of whooping kids can be heard bouncing off all that expensive steel and glass. As an academy, the school is owned by its business sponsors, in this case the King’s Cross developers themselves, and funded directly by the government rather than the local authority, a privatisation model the Tories are currently trying to impose on the entire country.
What about public transport? The problem is that it is public and there are no plans for tax payers’ money to be invested in opening up the defunct Piccadilly line tube station in York Way, the long and winding road that runs the length of the development site that at present is only served by a single bus route. The transport hub at King’s Cross, which now serves to inflate property prices rather than as a gathering point for undesirables, is quite a walk away and and with car parking limited, Uber is the most likely beneficiary.
Back in the day, the people of King’s Cross worked hard to rid the area of sleaze, something the authorities were slow to do themselves and even the Director of Public Prosecutions himself felt bold enough to go kerb crawling. They fought to save historic buildings like the Hillview Estate from demolition, and to see valued amenities created out of wasteland like Calthorpe community gardens and Camley St. Their input in the railway lands project has certainly helped bring about a more thoughtful development than others of its kind. But at the end of the day, it simply does not possess the social mix for a genuine community. As elsewhere in London, flats are targeted at high earners or people desperate enough to pay through the nose for a 25 per cent ownership or more or less market rents. They are unlikely to attract families or those wishing to put down roots, and the crowds one sees at weekends are mostly on a day out. The small number of low rent homes available are no more than a charitable concession to give the illusion of social inclusion, as are the handful of community facilities.
At the end of the day, for all that it is pleasing to the eye, this is yet another gentrification scheme posing as regeneration and one may as well be in La La Land than King’s Cross.