Why has Victoria tube station started to smell like roast meat?

The light at the end of the tunnel. Image: Nick Hilton.

About a year ago, the District line platform at Victoria tube station started to smell a little different. Some said the smell was burgers, some said it was steak. Some said garlic bread, some said onions. Some sick losers said it was burnt track grease or a dead rat. To me, it always smelled like the most delicious roast potatoes, cooked in goose fat.

It was one of those changes that 99 per cent of commuters took for granted, leaving a noble 1 per cent to be perplexed as to why they now left Victoria inexplicably famished. On the internet, the most popular theory was that the smell came from Burger King. Some people are apparently able to discern difference between high-street chains, and, to them, the smell was more Whopper than Big Mac. “To me it's the distinct smell of Burger King,” one said.

Meanwhile, others donned their tin hats. “I'm pretty sure Burger King vent their kitchens onto this platform intentionally and then put adverts up on the station.”

Whilst they’re wrong to point the blame at Burger King (whose nearest branch is some distance away in the station terminal), they did a better job at identifying the smell than me. It is burgers. First reports of the smell emerged on social media in early 2017, at the same time as Bleecker – a gourmet burger chain – opened premises on Buckingham Palace Road, directly over the underground station, and, more tellingly, the District line platform. The roast potatoes I have been smelling are, in fact, chips; the steak or dead rat, depending on your nose, a beef burger. 


To put it simply, the situation has arisen because the District line is a cut and cover line, which is to say that it was created by cutting a deep trench across London, and then covering it with roofing and structures, such as roads and buildings. It is not genuinely subterranean in the sense of its neighbour, the Victoria line. As such, at both the westbound and eastbound ends of the platform there is an exposed area, which, in this case, opens behind commercial premises. Simple.

Because I’m only an occasional visitor to the District Line platforms at Victoria, not to mention a meat eater and general enthusiast for fried goods, I have always enjoyed the smell and assumed that others felt the same. In reality, a lot of people think it smells not just bad, but unacceptably awful.

“The District Line is bad enough without it making your hair and clothes smell terrible,” says Jac, a District line commuter who has waged a one-woman war with TfL on Twitter over the issue. “Even if you are just on the train too near a door you can end up smelling like food for the rest of the day.”

Social media might amplify negative opinions, but there are quite a lot of people who agree with her. The smell has been branded “gross”, “horrendous” and “manky”, but it seems there’s nothing that can be done about it. A spokesperson from TfL told me that all the vents from local businesses and restaurants are legally compliant, and, given that the source is outside the station’s jurisdiction, there’s nothing else they can really comment on.

The basic problem is this: Bleecker ventilate by outputting smutty kitchen air, whilst Victoria ventilates by sucking fresh air down into the platform. The proximity of these two systems, brought together by incompetence rather than malice, means that neither party is culpable or responsible. In the end, it is, as Chris Christie might say, something of a nothing burger.

The air vent at Bleecker. Image: Nick Hilton.

Inside Bleecker, the old ventilation system has been repurposed and repainted into a hipster artefact. It might well be this exact pipe that is providing commuters with their olfactory curate’s egg.

Even though the chronology, geography and evidence of hundreds of noses point to Bleecker as the source, no one from Bleecker was available for comment, and it is impossible to entirely verify this solution without having terrorist-levels of access to the underground system. Either way, they’re unlikely to change this form of inadvertent viral marketing: as one former London Underground worker told me, “TfL could filter the shop vent, but that's a massive cost and pungent aromas are very hard to filter. They could filter their own vent, but again it may not be practical.” The only organisation which might make some headway over the stink are Westminster council, which confirmed it would investigate the situation.

For now, however, vegetarians ought to beware when exiting at Victoria. So long as Londoners maintain their enthusiasm for expensive, deep-fried fast food, the District line’s meaty stench isn’t going away.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.