Lon­don is los­ing its in­di­vid­u­al­ity

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

LON­DON is un­der as­sault. As the Christ­mas sea­son opens and coun­try peo­ple go up to town for shop­ping and en­ter­tain­ment, the ex­tent of the change is all too ev­i­dent. It’s not just the bulk of the new build­ings ris­ing to vie with The Shard, the con­tin­ued street-level in­tru­sion as Cross­rail reaches to­wards its open­ing or the num­ber of hoard­ings pro­tect­ing restora­tion and re­fur­bish­ment. Much more im­por­tant is the in­ex­orable de­struc­tion of the fab­ric of Lon­don and the vil­lages that make it up.

Cork Street, once chock-a-block with gal­leries and hum­ming with art, is now a shadow as so few have man­aged to hang on in the face of the more lu­cra­tive lettings that now take up the space. So far, West­min­ster City Coun­cil has man­aged to pro­tect much of Sav­ile Row, but the in­ter­na­tional chains are press­ing hard to take it over from the in­di­vid­ual be­spoke tai­lors that have cre­ated its at­mo­sphere and made its name.

The ex­am­ple of Burling­ton Ar­cade is all too omi­nous. Most of the shops that made it such a quirky Christ­mas de­light have gone, to be re­placed by the same rep­re­sen­ta­tives of top-end lux­ury that have al­ready colonised Bond Street— as they have the fashionable ar­eas of ev­ery other ma­jor city.

The ar­cade now of­fers lit­tle that’s dif­fer­ent, just the same old la­bels that dom­i­nate smart streets from San Fran­cisco to Moscow. Even the in­di­vid­ual English el­e­gance of Pick­ett, long the Christ­mas des­ti­na­tion of the dis­cern­ing, has gone, to be re­placed by Manolo Blah­nik as if we didn’t have enough op­por­tu­nity to buy the com­pany’s shoes in Har­vey Ni­chols, Har­rods and its Kens­ing­ton shop—as well as in ev­ery other cap­i­tal city in Europe. Noth­ing spe­cial here—just the Free­man, Hardy & Wil­lis of the rich. Hap­pily, Trevor Pick­ett has found new premises just around the cor­ner and left Burling­ton Ar­cade to be ho­mogenised.

It’s not only the smart places that are be­ing cloned and ho­mogenised. Trans­port for Lon­don’s (TFL) head­quar­ters in St James’s Park is due for an en­tire re­fit in or­der to turn it into a pres­ti­gious block of flats. The small shops in the ar­cade of its Un­der­ground sta­tion used to serve the needs of the lo­cal com­mu­nity as well as the com­muters. There was an in­di­vid­u­ally owned gro­cery store and a very good newsagent, which stocked a wide range of mag­a­zines, cards and con­fec­tionery that re­flected the per­sonal choice of its own­ers. Half a dozen other pri­vately owned busi­nesses thrived there un­til TFL got greedy.

Now, it’s dom­i­nated by the chains. Wh­smith, Paper­chase and Tiger of­fer here what they of­fer ev­ery­where. The lo­cal­ity is im­ma­te­rial. They, like Pret a Manger round the cor­ner— which re­placed a pop­u­lar print shop—can pay higher rents and pro­vide a bet­ter covenant, so they drive out in­di­vid­ual shop­keep­ers and re­place va­ri­ety with the con­form­ity that cen­tral buy­ers and cor­po­rate bean­coun­ters im­pose. The in­di­vid­ual Ital­ian-owned cafes re­duce in num­ber as their sites are eyed greed­ily by the fast­food chains and ca­sual-din­ing con­glom­er­ates de­ter­mined to ex­tend their em­pires. As a re­sult, these Lon­don vil­lages cease to be des­ti­na­tions with their own in­di­vid­u­al­ity and be­come an in­dis­tin­guish­able part of the Great Cor­po­rate Wen.

That’s just what’s hap­pened in the Vic­to­ria re­de­vel­op­ment. Not a sin­gle proper restau­rant, just the chains. Why bother to come here from your own clone vil­lage to eat the same food, at the same table, with the same dec­o­ra­tion you could get there? Big de­vel­op­ers and big bucks don’t make space for the small, in­di­vid­ual and dif­fer­ent and Lon­don is very much poorer as a re­sult. The ho­moge­nous and the medi­ocre are dumb­ing down our cap­i­tal and all of us must de­mand bet­ter.

‘The ho­moge­nous and the medi­ocre are dumb­ing down our cap­i­tal

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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