“The change of use can add to the history of a place, rather than diminishing it”

BBC Television Centre, 2009: the site has since been sold to private developers. Image: PanHard/Wikimedia Commons.

The news last week that the BBC is to close Maida Vale Studios and relocate live music to Stratford in East London was received with exactly the kind of enthusiasm long time media watchers have come to expect from this kind of thing – with words like “disgusting” and “misguided”, and pleas for the preservation of our cultural heritage. Hashtag campaigns and requests for listing have been duly launched into the ether.

The responses from musicians and music fans echoed those from TV historians to the partial conversion of the BBC's Television Centre to private flats over recent years, with occasional outbursts of “I can't bear to look at it” and “It makes me feel sad when I go past” continuing to this day.

Now I'm not an architect, property developer, TV producer or internationally renowned rock guitarist, sadly; so I can't speak to whether either of these land deals are particularly good value, or the claims and counter-claims as to the long term viability of the old facilities and their new replacements. Equally, there's a whole separate argument about the fact that such London buildings are usually converted into high-end oligarch hives that are at best a symptom and at worse a driver of inequalities within our cities and society as a whole.

What I do question, though, is the idea that preserving heritage in our built environment requires continuity of use. There is of course an undeniable buzz for people working in a particular creative industry to occupy the spaces and walk the corridors their predecessors did, to be part of a history. When change must come, there's also a case for excellent examples of workplaces to be preserved as museums or heritage sites.

But the impulse to freeze a building in its current use, fixing its purpose like the glue-wielding bad guy in The Lego Movie, cuts against the city as a living, evolving place that changes with the requirements of its population and industries.


More than that: it’s through allowing changes of use, by preserving historic facades and putting up plaques but by allowing the buildings to be reshaped to contemporary needs, that history accumulates in the architecture of our older cities.

I live in Exeter, I used to live in London, and, when I was young, my favourite city near to my home town was York. All three cities date back to before Roman times, and are places where the medieval has been partially over-written by the eras that followed, with new development filling the spaces left by fire and war and other disasters. As the commercial areas of a city expand, old domestic dwellings find themselves reshaped into business properties, while further from these commercial centres former places of work become domestic properties. Hospitals become restaurants, old houses become shops, central tenements become office space and, yes, the factories and warehouses and studios of industries that have collapsed or moved on are split into apartments.

At worst these changes of use can feel like a crushing of the imagination. A place of once fervent worship might deserve better than becoming a Wetherspoons. We do not respect the toil and horrors that our historic docks represent by divvying up the buildings into cute riverside apartments with high price tags.

At best, though, there's a pleasure in coming across a building that has changed use over the centuries and decades; that bears a unique character from having spaces that bear the marks of previous use; that has quirks of layout that you wouldn't find in a building designed precisely for its current requirements. The change of use can add to the history of a place, rather than diminishing it.

The preservation of old signage, commemorative plaques and clues in street and square names all contribute to the idea that a city has a long, changing history. The fact that new uses are found for old buildings, that we can remake our buildings for a new use rather than just demolishing them and starting over, preserves history in a different way to heritage centres and museums. It weaves the past into the present, creating a sense of historic continuity that is layered and evolving. The separation between the preserved past and the under-construction future is dissolved – and we can see ourselves within a city's history rather than simply observing it.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.