In Brent Cross
In Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) there’s only one moment at which the camera moves: on the up escalator in the old central court of Brent Cross Shopping Centre, a once magical attraction for children all over north-west London. The fountain you can see in the court and the panels of rainbow-coloured ‘stained-glass’ in the cupola above aren’t there any more. They disappeared in 1996, in an ‘improvement and expansion’ scheme.
Last October, the central court had a display explaining the first phase of the Brent Cross Cricklewood regeneration scheme. The £4 billion, 151-hectare development is being carried out by the London Borough of Barnet and the shopping centre’s owners, Hammerson (the property developer that built Brent Cross as Britain’s first American-style mall in 1976) and Standard Life Investments. The shopping centre will double in size, and there will be 450,000 square metres of new office space.
The council likes to talk more about what will happen after that. On the other side of the North Circular there will be 7500 new homes (10 per cent of them ‘affordable’) and a waste and recycling facility, and three local schools will be rebuilt. There will be new green spaces (existing playing fields will be lost), a new pedestrian and cycle bridge over the North Circular road, a new bus station at the shopping centre and a new train station in Cricklewood – but only years after the roads have been widened and there's a huge increase in road traffic. In 2005, Barnet Council estimated that a development like this would bring in an extra 29,000 cars a day.
The residents of the Whitefield Estate – owner-occupiers as well as tenants – will all have the right to a new home in the new development, once their existing homes are demolished. The land will be used for the construction of new pedestrian bridges: Hammerson doesn't want the works near the shopping centre and Transport for London and the Highways Agency don't want them near the North Circular. The Brent Cross scheme is an outstanding example of the way our planning system has almost no power to make places better for the people who live in them, but is very useful to developers with deep pockets who can afford to wait until political circumstances are in their favour, and to councils who find their populations inconvenient or unprofitable. Hammerson has wanted to expand Brent Cross since the late 1990s. A proposal to increase the shopping centre by 27,000 square metres was turned down in 2000. The current plan is 15 times bigger.
On my way to see the plans I walked from Brent Cross Tube station to the shopping centre. This is the long way round: the nearest stop is Hendon Central. Between Brent Cross station and Brent Cross shopping centre is a landscape of motorways, flyovers, semi-detached houses and retail sheds. There’s a Holiday Inn not far from the course of the River Brent; the arches of Wembley Stadium rise in the distance. The last time I was there, more than ten years ago, I hadn’t read any Ballard and didn’t know what a non-place was, but it’s the urban scenery I know best (I grew up a little further down the A41, in Edgware). The shopping centre is beside the North Circular, between the Brent Cross Flyover to the east and the roundabouts of Staples Corner to the west. An IRA bomb exploded under the A406 flyover in 1992, a few hours after the bomb at the Baltic Exchange. No one was hurt, but the B&Q (also mentioned in Keiller’s London) had to be demolished and the junction was closed for months. All the talk of ‘a new town centre’, which suggests there was an old one, seems very strange.
But Hammerson and Standard Life have made the most of the area’s hard-to-pin-down quality. In 2000, John Prescott’s inept ‘super-department’ of the Environment, Transport and the Regions blocked Hammerson’s plan on the grounds that creating an even larger out-of-town development was against current planning policy. When Hammerson and Standard Life appealed, the DETR withdrew its objection, agreeing to the developers’ claim that Brent Cross was a ‘regional shopping centre’ rather than an ‘out-of-town centre’.
When Railtrack was liquidated and its property portfolio sold off in 2002, Hammerson bought 24 undeveloped sites, including a vast warehouse area in Cricklewood. ‘While we don't see these as immediate development opportunities,’ a Hammerson spokesman said, ‘they are important for our long-term landbank.’
In 2004, the new London Plan identified 14 ‘opportunity areas’. The mayor didn’t have the power to say what any of the land could be used for, exactly, but could say how many jobs and houses each area should provide. Ken Livingstone thought he could work with developers to guarantee that 50 per cent of new housing developments would be genuinely ‘affordable’. Growth (more commercial developments and privately funded housing) was a means to this end. Since 2010, council cuts mean that developers in London are in a strong enough position to wriggle out of providing affordable housing (redefined as 80 per cent of local market rents). Boris Johnson has ruled in favour of developers who have put forward schemes rejected by borough councils – such as the plans for Mount Pleasant, which both Camden and Islington turned down for the lack of affordable housing. Growth is now an end in itself. Anyone who lives on an estate in an opportunity area should be worried that most councils have a strong financial interest in selling the land they live on to a developer.
Cricklewood, Brent Cross and West Hendon is one of the opportunity areas identified in 2004. Barnet Council approved an outline planning application from Hammerson, Standard Life and Brookfield Europe (which dropped out soon afterwards) in November 2009 and then spent nearly a year negotiating a Section 106 agreement – which obliges developers in one way or another to make up for the drawbacks and inconvenience of a scheme – worth £998 million, the largest ever agreed in the UK. This is the money that will pay for £200 million of road works. The Brent Cross Coalition is a loose network of campaigners, including residents worried about traffic, cyclists and people whose homes will be lost to compulsory purchase, among others. There’s little consensus about what the right kind of development would be – though no one has asked them – but everyone seems to agree that this scheme isn’t it.
Barnet Council agreed to a revised masterplan in 2013. Hammerson and Standard Life are no longer involved in the southern half of the scheme. After months of looking for a new partner, Barnet chose Argent, whose work at King’s Cross has been much praised. But in King’s Cross, community groups spent twenty years campaigning for the kind of development they wanted. There’s no sign that Barnet Council, currently controlled by the Conservative group with a majority of one, is interested in the views of residents. In 2013, Barnet signed a ten-year deal to run its planning service jointly with the ‘business process outsourcing’ firm Capita. In February Hammerson and Standard Life submitted a detailed planning application for expanding the shopping centre, the part of the scheme they have wanted all along. Hammerson also reported that its yearly pre-tax profits had more than doubled, thanks, in part, ‘to a significant uplift in asset valuation’.