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The battle for the soul of London

The capital survived the Blitz only to be attacked by zealous city planners – but its citizens fought back.

By Simon Jenkins

We marched. We chanted. We lobbied politicians, crowded airwaves, summoned meetings and wrote diatribes. Just for once the stones of London seemed to rise in protest. A city was not a drawing on a planner’s desk but its citizens’ flesh and blood. The result was that rarest of British events, a street rebellion. Fifty years ago, in 1973, it saw victory. Covent Garden was saved.

The battle for Covent Garden signalled the end of a 30-year struggle over London’s fate. It began in 1942 when the wartime government commissioned a planning academic, Patrick Abercrombie, to chart a future for the nation’s capital. His answer was dramatic. The entire metropolis, he declared, was “obsolete”, “unsuitable” and “inchoate”. Above all it was cursed with “uncorrelated road systems” and “dismal journeys to work”. It should be born afresh, cleansed of the horrors of its Blitz-strewn present.

Abercrombie had been a countryside campaigner with little feel for London’s life and history. He sought the goal that had defied the hero of modernism, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, in rebuilding Paris. This was for a completely new city, one fit above all for the age of the motor car. Five orbital motorways would be served by radials and “expressways”, dividing the metropolis into precincts, lined by blocks of flats and workplaces. A motorway – the M1 –would end at Marble Arch. It was not a renewal but a replacement.

The plan was passed at the end of the war by the Attlee government and adopted by the London County Council (LCC). It was later augmented by an engineer, Colin Buchanan, with his concepts of “traffic modernism” and “vertical separation”. These had vehicles given the run of the ground level with pedestrian decks or podiums above, served by escalators and lifts. They would act as bases for a new London of slabs and towers.

It was a measure of the authoritarianism of war that such a proposal could be so readily advanced by those in power. There was no public inquiry or process of consultation, nor was the staggering cost mentioned. Abercrombie’s inner ringway would alone destroy the houses of 100,000 people, more than had been lost in the Blitz. The revolution did not do economics. Similar schemes were put forward for Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle and Plymouth, among others.

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[See also: The utopian dreams of 1960s architecture]

One of the few historians to analyse this period, Otto Saumarez Smith, sees Abercrombie’s ambition as a “utopian urge to reconstruct… to bring order out of disorder”. For a brief moment, dreaming architects had the ear of politicians, offering them “a modern, dynamic, and progressive image”. To the modernist Architectural Review this was “a liberation of the imagination”, while to Abercrombie it was “what the working man needs”, though he never thought of asking. Keith Joseph, a Tory housing minister in the Sixties, recalled that “I used to go to bed at night counting the number of houses I had destroyed and the number of planning approvals that had been given”.

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Dream soon hit reality. Abercrombie came up against the same obstacles that faced Christopher Wren, when he was creating his equally drastic plan for London after the Great Fire of 1666. As before, Londoners needed to get back to work. Even during the Blitz, surveyors were seen crawling the battered streets, seeking opportunities to rebuild and profit. Their names and wealth soon became legendary – Jack Cotton, Charles Clore, Max Rayne, Joe Levy, Harold Samuel – with their favourite architect, Richard Seifert, in close attendance. The London historian Jerry White has Seifert “thrust into the mantle of a modern Christopher Wren… given nothing less than the task of wiping clean the biggest slate of all, London’s 250-year-old skyline”.

Much as London’s planners might champion Abercrombie, they were simply outsmarted. The LCC and local councils owned little land, and controlled mostly just roads. A developer who promised a flyover, an underpass, a gyratory, even a road-widening could get what they wanted, preferably by keeping it secret. London’s traditional shopping hubs were doomed and their frontages eradicated. It was goodbye to the Elephant and Castle, St Giles, Aldgate, Vauxhall and Hammersmith.

Modernism was an ideology. Desperate not to seem old fashioned, the Conservative government broke London’s 100-foot height restriction to allow a Hilton to rise over Hyde Park and Shell’s towering office on the South Bank. Meanwhile, Harold Macmillan personally ordered the demolition of Euston Arch. The aldermen of the City of London eagerly showed themselves on-message by clearing 30 acres of the Barbican for a Buchanan-style podium, tower and slab estate. They wiped out Thameside warehouses to make way for an Upper and Lower Thames expressway.

In 1965 the architect Leslie Martin was commissioned to design a new “government quarter” for Whitehall. A platform of ziggurats was proposed over a motorway leading from Victoria Street to the British Museum. Such was the ethos of the day that such colossal destruction evoked little comment.

Attention then turned to Piccadilly Circus, regarded not as a London landmark but as merely a traffic bottleneck. In 1962 the developer Jack Cotton offered to relieve congestion as part of a renewal of western Soho. When this was leaked, public opinion for once did object, furiously. One plan was rejected after another until, in 1972, a proposal emerged for a decked piazza with three octagonal towers covering the entire Circus area. This too was turned down but on the grounds that it allowed for only 20 per cent more traffic against the required 50 per cent. Had it been the latter, Piccadilly would today be another Centre Point.

By the late Sixties renewal was being ruled by a coalition of developers and planners, the first seeking offices and the second seeking roads. Together they ran rings around politicians. It took just one complaint in 1964 that London was short of hotels for the economics minister, George Brown, to say he would subsidise new ones at £1,000 a room. The streets and parks of Westminster erupted in ugly concrete towers that deface west London’s skyline to this day.

Residential renewal proved more difficult. Abercrombie had wanted density reduced and residents moved to as-yet unbuilt new towns. Districts of the voiceless poor, such as Stepney and south Pimlico, were bulldozed to make way for Corbusian point blocks and slabs. An unrealised plan for Fitzrovia saw a maze of decks and towers looming over acres of traffic. Oxford Street was to go two-tier beneath a “pedway”.

The grandest proposal of all were to be Abercrombie’s ringways, liberating London from bondage to its Georgian and Victorian streets and made fit for a city of cars. The innermost was dubbed the Motorway Box, to run through neighbourhoods occupied by London’s most vociferous citizens, the boroughs of Islington, Camden and Lambeth. This was to be its undoing.

Abercrombie’s last hurrah was Covent Garden. A government decision in 1964 to move its fruit and vegetable market to Battersea offered a run-down district ripe for redevelopment. A 1968 plan proposed to demolish 60 per cent of some 100 acres of property between Holborn and Trafalgar Square, to be replaced to the north by another Barbican while to the south, by a Strand dual-carriageway, would be another Victoria Street. A conference centre would rise over the old piazza and Cambridge Circus would host a sports facility. Without it, traffic engineers warned, “London will grind to a halt.”

The Covent Garden plan was promoted by the new Tory Greater London Council (GLC) and chaired by a high-profile councillor, Raine Spencer. It ran into immediate trouble. Both the Motorway Box and Piccadilly were now attracting concerted opposition. Unlike east London, Covent Garden had an army of fierce local defenders, reinforced by actors, publishers and writers. They could muster celebrity rallies overnight and Evening Standard headlines the next day. Historic area protection was pioneered by an MP, Duncan Sandys, in a private members’ bill of 1967. Its “conservation areas” were to be the salvation of urban streets across Britain.

Over the course of 1972 the temperature rose as the plan grew ever-more unpopular. The GLC’s Spencer resigned and defected to the side of the protesters. Then in January 1973 the planning minister, Geoffrey Rippon, sabotaged his own Tory party. He privately walked the area with an official, listing some 250 buildings due for demolition as “historic”. In April that year the Conservatives were voted out of County Hall. The Covent Garden plan was dead.

So too was Abercrombie’s dream. Leslie Martin’s Whitehall was abandoned in 1970. The demolition of Piccadilly was quietly forgotten. The Motorway Box vanished under a Labour GLC. The result was a wave of gentrification as properties “safeguarded” in the path of the Box were released on to the market. All that survives is the east cross route at Blackwall tunnel, and stretches of the west cross at Shepherd’s Bush and Wandsworth.

The Covent Garden rebellion – or perhaps counter-revolution – established a pattern of neighbourhood conservation that revitalised historic Soho, Marylebone, Shoreditch, Bermondsey, Camden and Portobello. It showed that merely preserving Georgian and Victorian streets could stimulate urban renewal with no need for state intervention. Respecting a city’s history and character was enough to make its fabric desirable and prosperous. The rebellion saved swathes of London’s streets and squares. What it could not do was protect for all time the communities that had occupied them. There was much comment on whether one invader had been succeeded by another, money. The leading activist John Toomey asked, “How the hell can working people exist on land worth £3m an acre?”

Clearly not for long. Public housing survived in Covent Garden, but all city neighbourhoods mutate in response to the market for property. What Covent Garden showed was that London’s streets were peculiarly adaptable to changing uses, be it a house, shop, office or studio. Comprehensive renewal produced inflexible exercises in urban design, such as around St Paul’s and Elephant and Castle, Paddington and Vauxhall, Hammersmith and Nine Elms. Some were so unpopular they were later demolished.

Concrete gigantism now constitutes a major part of London’s built environment. To many it is a manifestation of the city’s excitement. But modernism has not fused with London’s traditional texture, a texture that has magnetised a new generation of city-dwellers – those of the creative, entertainment and hospitality industries, students and tourists, old and young. As can be seen in today’s Covent Garden, such people seek inspiration from London’s past to fashion its future. They should remember the battle that made this possible.

[See also: How Christopher Wren built Britain]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation