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From the NS archive: Marylebone scandal

2 July 1965: Slum tenants demanded the transfer of unused railway land for affordable housing – to little avail.

By Paw Merriton and WJ Bolt

In this article from 1965, PAW Merriton and WJ Bolt write of the scarcity of land in London on which to build much-needed housing. They propose the use of an abandoned goods yard at Marylebone station. The neglected industrial site, like many across the capital, had become “a ghost-city, well-nigh derelict”, leaving 20.6 acres of unused space abandoned. Despite the nationalisation of the railways, and restrictions on the site’s use ending in 1962, the article reports that at least four requests on the land were refused. Meanwhile over 1,000 residents desperately waited for adequate housing. While officials argued with each other over the sale of public land for public housing, the authors advocate for those who wait for new homes, for an end to slums and overcrowding, and above all else, for “common-sense among competing public authorities”.

The centre of London, as of other cities, is still studded with industrial sites ripe for clearance. Railway yards, electricity stations and factories were all considered by the Albemarle plan, as long ago as 1944, as unsuitable adjuncts to residential, office and shopping quarters. The Milner Holland Report on Greater London Housing, in its only reference to railway sites, notices their potential contribution to the land-hunger: “A further contribution to the meeting of ‘needs’ may be expected from a number of ‘windfall’ sites (airport and railway land, for instance), not considered in the South-East Study.”

Marylebone goods-yard is a case in point. That site has been ripe for redevelopment since the 1940s. It is one of the most valuable locations in central London, being handy to Regent’s Park. In the open market, it could well fetch £250,000 an acre, and there are 20.6 acres of it, with an adjacent five acres of redundant coal yard, reaching towards Edgware Road. The noise of train-shunting ceased to worry its neighbours years ago; it has become a ghost-city, well-nigh derelict. Its war damage has never been repaired. The shunting lines are rusty, and the sheds and offices empty, save for a small corner occupied by a road parcels depot, soon to move to new quarters at Euston.

When the railways were nationalised in 1948, a restriction was placed on their use of realty for non-railway purposes, and that restriction was not removed till 1962. So when Marylebone Borough Council approached the Transport Commission in 1951 for 10 acres of this land for municipal housing (the Council then had a list of over 1,000 residents waiting to be more adequately housed), the railways stalled. The Estates Office of the Midland Region clearly had other plans than to let this potential gold-mine go at the price of a local authority’s valuation.

The use of the goods-yard for housing was never a party issue in the locality. Everyone has agreed that this was the obvious, indeed the only, place to start on reducing the waiting-lists and on slum clearance. In 1955 the request for the land was renewed and again refused. By 1959 the clamour was sufficiently loud for Sir Wavell Wakefield, standing for re-election in one of London’s safest seats, to give a pledge that he would raise the issue in the House of Commons. He redeemed it on 27 January 1960, by moving the adjournment of the House. Ernest Marples, then Minister of Transport, replied to the debate with some equivocation, suggesting that the railways were at the moment considering what to do with the site – whether they could use it as a parcels depot. This particular project cannot have been very serious at the time, because the depot which they, in fact, erected at Euston in 1964 must already have been in the planning stage in 1960.

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When Quintin Hogg became candidate for Marylebone in 1963, the issue of the goods-yard met him squarely in the face. At one of his campaign meetings in the 1963 by-election, Sir Keith Joseph gave a pledge to use the goods-yard for housing “as soon as possible”; he made public the assurance given him by the Railways Board that 20 acres would be made available “immediately”. In March 1964 the Railways Board began negotiations with the LCC on a possible transfer of the site, but progress was stultified by the question of price.

At this point the Tenants’ Associations in the area, representing more than 1,000 members in slum dwellings and “sub-standard accommodation”, became impatient. In July 1964 their Liaison Committee called a public meeting to launch the “Campaign for Marylebone Homes”. The campaign demanded an end to further office building in the central London area, and also the transfer of the unused railway land to local authorities for housing at rentals which working people could afford. Well over 6,000 signed a petition to the Housing Minister. At a meeting convened during the general election campaign, all three parliamentary candidates pledged support, and councillors from both parties on the expiring Borough Council sent contributions to the campaign funds.

After the change of government progress seemed at first rapid. The minister in charge of London Housing, Mr Robert Mellish, received a deputation from the campaign on 18 December and declared government sympathy for its aims. At a meeting of the campaign leaders with Mrs Dennington, Chairman of the GLC Housing Committee, in early December, specific dates for the release of the land were given. The Railways Board had pledged to transfer the land in two stages, the first part at the end of 1965, and the second at the end of 1966. Office development in that part of London seemed dead and buried. The GLC was designated as the acquiring authority, and was authorised to acquire the land from the Railways Board without prejudice to the question of which authority, GLC or City of Westminster Council, would carry out the development of the site.

On 4 February 1965 the junior minister for Transport, replying to an adjournment debate in the House of Commons, announced the release of large parcel of railway land all over London with no specific mention of the Marylebone goods-yard and further attempts to elicit the date of release brought an assurance from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that eight acres would be freed at the end of the year. The Railways Board are now ready to yield up only the least valuable and suitable part of the site, the northwest corner.

The price of the land has again become the spectre haunting the negotiations. Two public authorities, the GLC and the Railways Board, haggle and negotiate for the “sale” of what has been public property since the railways were nationalised in 1948. Since 1962 the Treasury guarantees the railways’ deficit and the interest on railways stock, and the same department is issuing housing grants, and particularly large grants where land is specially expensive. It is a Gilbertian situation, suggesting that the right hand of the Treasury knows little of what its left hand is doing.

Whilst thousands of people are waiting for decent homes, public officials, paid from the public purse, in competing valuation departments and estate offices are drafting the criteria to satisfy the putative requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The public land must be “sold” to the local authority for public housing. Land for which the taxpayer has paid, in and since 1947, must be paid for again in 1965, 1966 and 1967. For whose benefit – for the current revenue account of the railways (that would be bad book-keeping) or for the capital account (that is the responsibility of the Treasury)?

At the present juncture the railways are hedging. The homeless and under-housed public are waiting for the remaining 17 acres, for their new homes, for an end to slums and overcrowding, and, above all, for common-sense among competing public authorities.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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