Planning and Cromwell Buildings

Gagarin Square within the Thrale Street Conservation Area

Reflections on Victorian Housing (Cromwell Buildings) and the failure to emulate 19th century property solutions.  

The Law of Unintended Consequences.

 It would be too kind to excuse the disasters resulting from the government’s imposition of rules, regulations, and governing bodies onto the media, banking, healthcare and the arts industries as merely obeying the law of unintended consequences. The crises visited upon these industries are rather conforming to the law of state disasters. The recent findings published in the annual Dr Foster report noted that ‘high mortality rates persist’[1] in many of the hospitals and trusts examined. For this to be a finding in one of the most developed countries in the world is a shocking testament to the fatal effect of governmental meddling in essential national organisations. The state has the very opposite of the Midas touch; whatever it grasps turns to ashes. The introduction of NHS health e-records is an example of a large scale failure on the part of the state, a mistake for which the taxpayer is being billed at least £12bn.[2] The government is implicitly given permission by the country to engage in immoral actions for which the individual would be certainly be punished; the state, for example, can go to war and thus is legally sanctioned to kill. But it is another thing altogether to allow the state to implement this apparent right to stand outside the realm of morality in their dealings with the NHS. We have given them the right to defend our country through force, through violence; we have not given them the right to treat any elderly patient like ‘a battery hen.’[3] We have permitted them to kill in the name of national security; we have not permitted them to cause 1 in 10 patients to feel that they have been denied respect and dignity.[4] The NHS is unfortunately a bloated yet well defended sacred cow that wandered into being from a need for compassion and  healthcare following  the devastation Britain suffered in World War Two.

Another bloated beast is the world of property development regeneration. The government has at last  recognised that the planning laws, which had the admirable intention of preserving the face of the country from unsightly or unregulated constructions, are in fact endangering the economic future of Britain.[5] The failure to adopt 19th century free market solutions in relation to low-cost housing has proved to be disastrous, causing a steady decline in  the percentage of homeownership in the UK[6], and a rise in unaffordable mortgages being taken out by many families.  Victorian philanthropists and property developers understood that the road towards an independent and self-sustaining populace should start with the institution of accommodation that could provide temporary accommodation to low-income families, even if it required that they briefly shared a single room. Octavia Hill is one of the best known exponents of this type of social housing; in her view, ‘municipal socialism and subsidised housing’ led to arbitrary demolition and  re-housing proposals, and ultimately the destruction of communities that could have supported its members with local healthcare and education schemes, eschewing state intervention.

 Octavia Hill was connected with the Southwark area, a plaque on Redcross Way commemorating a garden that she instituted there. At the eastern perimeter along Redcross Way, south of Southwark Street, there stands a set of 6 storey Victorian flats called Cromwell Buildings. The buildings are handsomely designed, modelled after a pair of houses designed by the Prince Regent for the Great Exhibition of 1851, according to the plaque attached to the building’s façade. They are not noteworthy for their design alone, however. Constructed by the Victorian philanthropist Sir Sydney Waterlow, these flats comprised a central part of Waterlow’s Improved Industrial Dwellings Company, designed to provide workers with low-cost, sanitary rented accommodation. Too few  post WW2 municipal dwellings were constructed along these and Hill’s precepts.  These Victorian philanthropists understood that in order to provide good temporary rooms near to work places for the low paid, low density would not work. Thus, the tall, well-ventilated style of architecture chosen by the architects should set the tone and scale of the area’s future development.

However, when plans inspired by this original Victorian design were put forward for the redevelopment of the derelict buildings at 34-40 Southwark Street, drawing inspiration from the balcony façade and airy feel of the neighbouring Cromwell Buildings, Southwark Council rejected them. The plans were replaced by a plain enclosed warehouse façade which incorporates none of the philanthropic history of the neighbouring area. The rest of Redcross Way has similarly suffered an architectural death at the hands of Southwark Council’s wisdom. The housing spreading from the Park Street/Maiden Lane estate backs onto Redcross Way, providing no sense of continuity either in terms of style or scale­.

This road towards freedom from state regulation was cut short as the government made the disastrous assumption that it knew best how to regulate the welfare of the country. Today, we live in the aftermath of this decision, and the destruction is palpable: prison populations are soaring,[7] the UK is outside the top 40 countries in terms of literacy,[8] and the number of people seeking jobseekers’ allowance has risen by over 10,000 in 2012. It is hard not to see the destruction of communities being at the very heart of this downward spiral. The Gagarin Square project could reinvigorate the Thrale Street Conservation Area, and resuscitate the moribund cultural and social community of this area. It would serve as a hub for both locals and visitors to congregate and re-form their own neighbourhood bonds.