Eric Wilkins

In late 1955, Mr Eric Wilkins appears on the scene. In my opinion Eric Wilkins is one of the unsung heroes of the Barbican estate project. He was a member of the Court of Common Council and on 3 November 1955, he made a speech to the Court, which was to have a profound effect on the future direction of events.

He had been provoked by into action by a ‘conference’ convened take place on  27 October 1955. This conference had been specifically convened to consider the two competing schemes for the redevelopment of the Barbican area: the Chamberlain Powell and Bon scheme submitted in June 1955, and the Martin Mealand plan being promoted by the Committee for Improvements and Town Planning. However, when the participants arrived at the conference only the Martin Mealand scheme was presented in any detail. At the time Mr Wilkins moved for an adjournment of the conference to to ensure consideration of both schemes equally. Since then he had been informed by the Town Clerk that the rearranged conference would not be free to consider redevelopment of the entire area, but would be restricted to considering the provision of housing accommodation in 13 acres only of the area north of London Wall. In other words, the conference was to intended to anoint the Martin Mealand scheme as the blueprint for the redevelopment of the area.

Mr Wilkins recounted all of that, and then he set about the Improvements and Town Planning Committee. He did so savagely but using polite City-speak.

“Naturally, my Lord Mayor, it is the Improvements and Town Planning Committee, which advises the Court on matters of planning, but it is precisely this hard-working and overworked committee which has brought down upon the Corporation and itself such a welter of public criticism.”

He then goes on to mention Bucklersbury House and the Precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral as examples of developments approved by the committee which attracted particular opprobrium. He put these bad decisions down to the fact that the City had yet to appoint a City Architect, and were in dire need of better technical advice in relation to the City’s reconstruction. He referred to “the utter confusion in which the absence of a chief architect has plunged them [the unfortunate committee members]”.

“It is this confused, criticised and totally inadequately advised committee that is responsible for the development of the Barbican. …”

(Not for long, you begin to think at this point.)

” … How does it attempt to discharge its duty? When presented in June last with the most detailed and comprehensive scheme prepared by Messrs Chamberlain Powell and Bon – whose Golden Lane scheme evoked from the eminent assessor of the Golden Lane competition that “it stands out from all the others by the assurance and imagination of its plan”, it files it in a pigeonhole.”

He went on to point out that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had in July 1954 specifically suggested the development of a large part of the overall site for housing purposes.

“By all means let private developers be given every possible encouragement but within the framework of the corporation’s own needs and without vitiating the unified development of Barbican as a whole.”

Perhaps taking the view that he should try to win one battle at a time rather than the entire war, he continued:

“But the question: ‘Housing or no housing?’ is not part of this motion – important as this issue is for the continuation of the civic life of the Corporation. The report of Messrs Chamberlin Powell and Bon shows the value of obtaining consultant advice and it may be that what is required is consultants’ advice on the whole of the Barbican area.”

He turned to a consideration of the competing Martin Mealand scheme.

“Now, what of the scheme which the Improvements and Town Planning Committee propose to adopt – without reference to this Court? It is a scheme providing for office and commercial development. It appears to have been devised, so far as the area north of route 11 is concerned, to provide an El Dorado for potential developers for office and commercial purposes – and to pay particular attention to one developer, Mr Charles Clore. … No one will dispute that there should be some office and commercial development north of route 11, but it should be considered pari passu with other needs – chiefly those of the Corporation itself. What does this Martin Mealand compromise hotch-potch scheme seek to achieve? It is to fill the whole area (apart from 13 acres) with office and commercial properties and from what I hear, even these 13 acres have been left for housing for two reasons: –

One. The land has not attracted office or commercial developers.
Two. It is a sop to the Minister’s view that there should be some housing in the City.

This is the beginning of the tragedy. You cannot plan housing accommodation on land just left over which no one wants, least of all land as expensive as this, split up, as it is by existing roads. The Corporation to undertake high-class unsubsidised housing in this 13 acres is a grave risk,: it will create a monument – a piece of monumental folly. Housing cannot be undertaken in this haphazard way.

He was opposing the proposed 13 acres of residential development because it was too small and unambitious to be successful.

In truth, this so-called Martin Mealand scheme is not a Corporation scheme at all. It is a London County Council scheme prepared in the architects department of the London County Council with a model, if you please, supplied by County Hall. Since when, my Lord Mayor, have we wanted the London County Council to ascertain our needs or plan for them?

So here he is appealing to the civic pride of the burghers of the City. Lest he should be accused of being guilty of the same partisanship of which he is accusing the members of the Improvements and Town Planning Committee, he adds:

“.. although I hold no brief for Chamberlin Powell and Bon scheme at such…”

He gives another argument why the court should not proceed with the Martin Mealand scheme. Since they knew the Minister was keen on housing, he raises concerns about the City Corporation’s own future powers if it defies the Ministry.

“If the corporation allows this new Martin Mealand scheme to proceed, with its emphasis on further large-scale office development, against the Minister’s expressed intention, is it not very likely he will intervene? Is not this the gravest danger to the retention of our planning powers? Our technical weakness must not allow us to fall into the arms of the London County Council.”

He concluded:

“My Lord Mayor, our duty is clear. We must here and now give a firm directive to ensure that this never-to-be-repeated opportunity is not lost for all time. Barbican must be developed for the well-being of the citizens of London, whose interests we are here to represent.”

I wonder who instigated Chamberlin Powell and Bon’s involvement in the first place. I believe it must have been Wilkins. He had a history of promoting residential development. He was head of the committee responsible for the Golden Lane Estate on which Chamberlin Powell and Bon were still engaged at the time of this speech, and so he must have had a close relationship with them. Wilkins’ approach to the Court of Common Council was that he was only trying to ensure that the City’s overall best interests were being served and he had no axe to grind for any particular scheme. As he said, “I hold no brief for Chamberlin Powell and Bon scheme as such”. But I suspect that was a necessary posture. To persuade the Court of Common Council he needed to appear to be intervening in the interests of the City Corporation above all. That would be totally undermined if he criticised the Improvements and Town Planning Committee for seeming to be promoting the personal interests of Charles Clore and others while similarly promoting the interests of another plan. But it seems very likely to me that he was the motive force behind the residential project from the start.

His intervention was hugely successful. The Court of Common Council referred the development question to its Special Committee. They found themselves on the back foot because they had also been proceeding on the basis that the commercial development was a sure thing. They scrambled to support the residential plan. The Barbican Committee was formed to explore it in detail. Eric Wilkins was its chairman.

Eric Wilkins died in 1957 from a heart attack – many thought from the strain of the battle to keep the residential project on course. He was replaced as Chairman by Alderman Gilbert Inglefield. The residential project remained on course. My opinion is that it might never have come to fruition without the powerful leadership and support from Eric Wilkins.

At least he had a house named after him – unfortunately not in the Barbican, or even somewhere else in the City, but a housing estate in Soutwark. Maybe he fought for that estate too.

Eric Wilkins House, Avondale Square Estate, Old Kent Road, Southwark, London, SE1 5PD. This is the City of London’s biggest housing estate.