Camden's burning

Last night's fire is a blow to Camden. But in re-development, it must retain its character

It’s Sunday and I’ve just been through Camden Town, on my way back home to Kentish Town from the Chinese New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square and Chinatown. As I changed buses, I saw first-hand the massive amount of damage done to the canalside market by last night’s fire.

The destruction is extensive, and the danger from the damaged buildings so great that all the markets have been closed for the day. The police cordon extends most of the way down the roads leading away from the scene. As I walked over the canal to catch my bus home, I could see fire crews on cranes still pouring water over the gutted shops and market stalls, more than 18 hours after the fire started.

It was so sad to see one of my favourite parts of Camden in such a state. I have been talking up the excellence of its markets a lot lately, seeing as one of the standard Mayoral interview questions seems to be, ‘Where do you shop for clothes?’ (I do hope all the other candidates are getting that one). But of course it’s not just good for racks of second-hand bargain jackets; Camden’s markets support a wide range of entrepreneurs, artisans and craftspeople – unique small businesses that must all be suffering today.

It was a reminder, too, that we have to cherish the individuality of London’s various ‘urban villages’ - whether Camden Town or Chinatown - and support them, not take them for granted. The London Chinatown Chinese Association are doing a great job maintaining the spirit and character of their area, as shown by their tremendous work organising today’s celebrations. The stallholders and small business owners in Camden are similarly united as they find themselves under pressure from circling developers. I have joined them more than once in recent years to object to the encroachment of shiny new shopping centres into the area.

This latest blow is a challenge for all of to make sure the damaged buildings are restored for the benefit of the existing businesses and householders, and that this disaster is not used as an excuse for another characterless mall to spring up in their place.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.