BLIGHT IN THE WEST ENDCategory: Land + People
If visitors from abroad think Britain is in a sorry state, it may have something to do with the fact that the first place most of them go is London’s West End. Over the years pockets of the most famous area of this great city have been allowed to decay. The fact that similar metamorphoses have occurred elsewhere — in the Times Square, Broadway district of New York, for example — makes it no less distressing.
The biggest disaster is, of course, Piccadilly Circus, around which confusion and argument have revolved for 16 years since proposals for its redevelopment were first submitted. The latest controversy concerns Trust Houses Forte’s plans for the Criterion block on the south side of the circus, which were recently approved by Westminster council’s planning committee and are due to go before the full council soon. The scheme would retain much of the present facade, together with the entrance and auditorium of the Criterion theatre itself. Its opponents include the minority Labour group on the council, a large section of the theatrical world, and, inevitably, the Save Piccadilly Campaign.
If Piccadilly Circus is the worst it is by no means the only example. Parts of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road are in the sort of condition that, in Birmingham or Manchester, would qualify them for wholesale slum clearance.
The National Gallery is currently giving space to a contentious exhibition of redevelopment plans for the south east corner of Trafalgar Square on either side of Northumberland Avenue. The owners, Land Securities and the United Kingdom Temperance and General Provident Institution, want to replace the present Victorian buildings, with new offices. Although the proposed replacements are
not, on the evidence of the drawings, immediately objectionable, it has been argued that they are unnecessary and will merely substitute expensive offices for relatively cheap ones. Objectors see a danger that, once the present buildings are demolished, the site will remain a “hole in the ground” for possibly several years, when there are already more than enough empty sites all over central London.’ On the other hand, if the plans are delayed another Piccadilly Circus situation may develop; the buildings already grimy and badly in need of paint, may simply be allowed to decay from lack of attention.
The fact is that parts of the West End are suffering from an acute case a large part of responsibility. But there are other culprits. Conservationists show “a negative tendency to oppose any sort of redevelopment, when it is, obvious that no city can live forever on its past. As for the developers themselves: the principal reason why some of the shabbier West End buildings are in their present state is that their owners hope, by running them down, to press local authorities into permitting profitable redevelopment.
(The Times, October, 1974)