Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Don't Let Business in to Destroy Unique Fitzrovia

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Don't Let Business in to Destroy Unique Fitzrovia

Article excerpt

Byline: Griff Rhys Jones President of Civic Voice

[bar] HIS month, behind closed doors, the Fitzrovia Partnership has corralled the larger businesses of Fitzrovia into a "Business Improvement District" (BID). Under the sponsorship of a property developer, these companies will put money into a central fund to "improve" this much-loved district -- for business.

I asked my barber what he thought of it. He had never heard of the BID. Neither had my optician, my newsagent, or Honey, the miniature miracle of a Lebanese cafe where I had lunch. Only businesses with a rateable value over [pounds sterling]100,000 are eligible to vote.

Their stated aims are to increase the number of customers in the area, bring larger businesses in and gain permission for more commercial development.

No doubt rents will rise gratifyingly, more expensive clone shops will arrive and larger premises will follow. One assumes that more interventions -- like the recent one by Mayor Boris Johnson to authorise rebuilding of the Saatchi block, even though the council had turned it down -- will go sailing through.

Already we are told the southern part will be "rebranded" Noho. The nighttime economy will be livened up. Neither the people who live there, nor the many intriguing small shops and businesses, have been allowed to vote or have even been consulted.

This is the other side of the muchtrumpeted "localism" in this government's planning reforms. It is based on a vision of "downtown" as a commercial wasteland, fit only for commercial interests. It takes no account of diversity or mixed use. It provides a onesize-fits-all solution. And it is obsessed with the idea that the best way out of recession is construction.

As a sop, ministers have proposed that "the locals" will decide where they put this required new construction. The trouble is, it doesn't really mean you and me. Examine the small print in the new legislation and you discover that the emphasis throughout is on "retail" and the "business community".

Fitzrovia's BID is an overblown expression of this philosophy. The people deciding are not locals at all: they represent the interests of multinationals or nationwide chains. Fitzrovia already has a local scheme, the Fitzrovia Action Plan. It recognises, albeit in a slightly perverse way, that Fitzrovia is special. It points out that the district is full of small shops and businesses. It points to the limited residential population and the huge influx of commuter workers. It fails to understand its own context, however. Fitzrovia is not what it is because of "bad planning".

It is in the centre of London and it is hugger-mugger in an old-fashioned, unplanned way. It is not an inner suburb like St John's Wood. It is pure inner-city London. Jonathan Meades is not the first to point out that there is a European feel to this part of town. Here is a mixture: of workplaces and living places, institutional places, art places, entertainment places, and of some mad people who live in the middle of it all. It needs to be "saved"? Says who? Fitzrovia is not a run-down or deprived area. It does not need "regeneration". …

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