Residential vs commercial

“… it only rarely happens in the centre of an old city that a large and clear intention coincides with a large and clear site. ”

Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, Architects, “Barbican Redevelopment” April 1959

They City had a huge wartime bomb site to fill with … something. For a long time the plans were all commercial – even industrial. What a dismal prospect that would have been. And the result might well have been that the City, with no democratic justification for existing, would have been carved up between Islington, Camden and Tower Hamlets.

For a long time after the War, nothing was done about rebuilding the huge bomb site between the Golden Lane Estate and Guildhall.

In 1954 what we would now call a ‘pressure group, calling themselves ‘The New Barbican Committee’ began pressing for approval of ‘The Kadleigh plan’ (designed by architects, Kadleigh, Horsburgh & Whitfield). ‘The Kadleigh plan’ proposed a complex of factories, warehouses and offices, rising 45 feet above ground level from a base 60 feet below ground level and covering an area of about 40 acres. It proposed that the City Corporation should buy out the owners of all the land in the area and grant a building lease of 120 years to the New Barbican Committee so that they could parcel out land to prospective developers.

City Corporation didn’t go for that. But not because they opposed a commercial redevelopment of the area. There now emerged the ‘Martin-Mealand Scheme’. This was more of an insiders’ proposal. Leslie Martin was the head of planning at the London County Council and H.A. Mealand was the City’s own head of planning. The most striking feature of this plan was a series of huge office towers constructed along either side of “Route 11” – the future road now known as London Wall. The scheme allowed that there could be some housing but it would be purely incidental and only on land that no developer of tower blocks wanted.

Meanwhile, there were people within the City Corporation who wanted to see a full-scale residential development of the Barbican area and who opposed the entirely business focus of the Martin-Mealand scheme.

Martin and Mealand were only concerned about town planning. The pro-residential party were concerned about saving the City Corporation. The fact was that the City resident population had almost disappeared. Even before the War, the Barbican had been mostly a warehouse area and the residents had only been the caretakers. The War and the devastation from bombing had made much of the remaining population homeless. The danger which some far-sighted people in the City Corporation were beginning to appreciate was that there was a new spirit of local democracy in the post-war years and a local authority needed to have a resident population/electorate to justify its continued existence.

Chamberlin Powell and Bon had successfully created the Golden Lane Estate development just north of the Barbican area, and so the pro-residential party was able to get approval from the City Corporation to ask the firm to report on the potential viability of a residential development for the Barbican area as opposed to a commercial one.

Chamberlin Powell & Bon reported on 3 June 1955. Their conclusion was that the land available in the Barbican was large enough to create a viable residential community of about 7,000 people, and they included a quite detailed proposal.

The lobby in favour of a commercial development were not finished. A ‘conference’ of several committees of the City Corporation was arranged to consider the relative merits of the Chamberlin Powell and Bon scheme and the Martin Mealand scheme. But in fact, only the Martin Mealand scheme was open for discussion.

This brought the conflicts within the City out into the open. Eric Wilkins, the chief advocate of a residential future for the Barbican area, made a blistering speech to the Court of Common Council. He criticised the Improvements and Town Planning Committee, the main proponents of the Martin Mealand proposal, who he described as “this hard-working and over-worked committee which has brought down upon the Corporation and itself such a welter of public criticism. I need only cite Bucklersbury House and the precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral”. I love it! He demanded that the Chamberlin Powell and Bon proposal should be looked at equally with the Martin Mealand proposal and he proposed a motion that the City Corporation could adopt a plan “providing for the harmonious integration of all the needs of the Corporation”.(Subtext: not an establishment stitch-up pushing the interests of private developers.)

The crucial meeting of the City’s Court of Common Council took place in November 1955 to decide whether to proceed with a residential development. The motion passed. The Barbican scheme was officially launched. In fact, the motion had been lost by one vote. Tellers had been counted as councillors by mistake. But it was too late. The embarrassing fact was hushed up and the scheme was allowed to proceed.

The Martin Mealand scheme wasn’t rejected. It still dealt with the area south of the Barbican estate, that is to say London Wall to Guildhall. But for the Barbican area, the residential argument had won the day. Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were instructed to prepare a scheme for development of the South part of the Barbican area. In May 1956 they produced report, which was accompanied by a large scale model.

The Government put its weight behind the residential bandwagon. In August 1956 Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, wrote to the Lord Mayor strongly supporting residential development in the City. “I am convinced that there would be advantages in creating in the City a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, shops, open spaces and other amenities, even if this means forgoing a more remunerative return on the land.”

Chamberlin Powell and Bon continued to produce ever more detailed proposals, with the help of other consultants, culminating in their 1959 report which became the basis for the future development of the area as the Barbican estate.

It should also be noted that the flats were being built to let. The Corporation of London had no intention at all of selling them. Then the Tories under Margaret Thatcher came to power in the late 1970s and gave Council tenants the right to buy their Council houses at a discount. The Corporation of London was a council and the stockbrokers and bankers living in the Barbican were tenants, so they all found themselves the happy beneficiaries of social justice. Now there are almost no Corporation tenants left.