< Ideas Bank, < Economic wellbeing
< Regeneration, < New Start editorial index page

You don’t have to be the Queen, or even a regular user of Midland Mainline, to be impressed by the jaw-dropping splendour of London’s restored St Pancras Station, officially reopened this week.

I’ve spent a fair few years working in and around King’s Cross, and for most of that time St Pancras was a shabby shell, a symbol of the Dickensian squalor that characterised the area.

The neighbourhood was packed with seedy hotels, stomach-turning takeaways and all the signs of neglect.

Yet it was, and still is, also full of life and community activity.

Camley Street Natural Park, an oasis from the hassle and hustle a few hundred yards away, is one of my favourites.

There were weird and wonderful specialist shops: some, like Housman’s Bookshop, still peddle a plethora of alternative worldviews, from green Marxism to revolutionary veganism; others, like the late lamented Mole Jazz, have been swept aside by the rising tide of fast-food outlets.

Throughout the time I worked there, the area was blighted as one proposed regeneration scheme after another got shunted into the sidings.

And all the time there were conflicts between local people who wanted affordable homes and facilities for families, and the planners and developers dreaming of gleaming offices.

We are now closer to redevelopment than at any time in the last 20 years. The huge works to turn St Pancras into the Eurostar terminal are just the beginning.

And there are times when you need to think on the grand scale: a major transport interchange like St Pancras shouldn’t look like a glorified version of your local bus station.

Neither should the British Library next door look like an Alligator self storage warehouse.

The secret of a successful city, though, is that the grand coexists with the human and serves human needs.

If local enterprise, entertainment and activism is bulldozed, we can scarcely call the result regeneration.

The new St Pancras may have the longest champagne bar in Europe, but I’d still rather go to the Lebanese-Italian pizzeria in nearby Chalton Street.

What kind of King’s Cross will emerge is anyone’s guess. At worst, it will be another Canary Wharf, overcoming a hostile environment through the weight of money and concrete.

At best, local people will influence its flavour and accept it as theirs.

Conflicts and campaigns are vital to that process. We shouldn’t be afraid of them: they can force us all to think laterally and search for new solutions.

If they stop, the planners and developers should really start to worry, because it will mean people have ceased to care.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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