“We’re not a borough”: why is the City of London putting a school in an underground car park?

The Barbican Centre. Image: Getty.

If you were scouting ideal locations to build a prestigious preparatory school for girls, how high up the list would you put a windowless, concrete underground car park built in 1973?

If you were on the Board of Governors of the City of London School for Girls, you would apparently put it first on the list.

In January, the City’s top-ten independent girl’s school (annual fee: £17,000) announced that its preferred location for its new prep school is the car park beneath Thomas More House, one of the love-them-or-hate-them brutalist blocks of the Grade II listed Barbican Estate. (Full disclosure: I live there, and I love them.) The current school is located in purpose-built premises in the middle of the estate.

It would honestly be difficult to come up with a worse location to educate girls aged 7-11. The car park is underground. It receives very little natural light. It suffers from water ingress (several of the parking spaces are unusable for this reason).

It has no ventilation. It has one narrow access road, and is located off a busy street with no space for parents in large luxury off-road vehicles to drop off their children. And like much of the Barbican, it’s riddled with asbestos.

It’s hard to see how the school fits the government’s own standards – “Good quality daylight within the learning environment is essential,” says the Education Funding Agency. Perhaps this is an advantage of being an independent school. You are free to deprive children of daylight for six hours a day in return for £17,000.

Not only does the car park have these problems, but the school has far better options close by: the virtually-unused Barbican Exhibition Halls, and, even better, the London College of Fashion’s Golden Lane building, soon to be vacated and just over a quarter of a mile away.

So how on earth can these plans even have progressed beyond a governor’s fever dream, and become a genuine possibility? The answer lies in the arcane, medieval and baffling governance structures of the City.

Shortly after I was elected last year, one long-standing member described the City of London Corporation to me as, “One third local authority, one third lobbyist for financial services, one third historical re-enactment society.”

This was brought home to me when I was fitted for my robe. Yes, I have a robe. It has fur cuffs.


The City’s unique status as the oldest democratic body in the UK has created lots of quirks in its status, and they lead to bizarre situations like this. The school plan looks at first glance like a London borough gifting enormously valuable central London real estate to a private school.

But, the City of London argues, we’re not a borough. And legally, it’s right. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave the City special dispensation to ignore the overhaul of how London was governed – and there are all kinds of subsequent local government legislation that doesn’t apply there.

All the same, the City receives council taxes, maintains roads, collects rubbish, decides planning applications, runs libraries, and licenses restaurants and bars, just like any London borough does. In simple terms, it quacks like a duck. No other local authority could get away with gifting publically-owned land to a private school. The City should not either, regardless of the smoke and mirrors it might use.

The other big problem here is that the City is on both sides of the negotiating table. The City of London, a local authority that owns the freehold of the entire Barbican, intends to gift the car park to the City of London, the administrator of a private school).

This conflict of interest arises pretty frequently, such as when the City of London has to decide planning applications made by… the City of London. It may not surprise you to learn that the City approved 99 per cent of planning applications in the 12 months to September 2017.

The ‘school in a car park’ plan is a perfect example of why local authority reform has happened over the last 200 years. Because if you don’t improve the systems, mad things happen. Until serious reform takes place, the Square Mile will remain more prone to mad things than most local authorities.

Richard Crossan is a Labour member of the City of London’s Court of Common Council, representing the ward of Aldersgate.

 
 
 
 

Never mind Brexit: TfL just released new tube map showing an interchange at Camden Town!!!

Mmmmm tube-y goodness. Image: TfL.

Crossrail has just been given a £1bn bail out. This, according to the Financial TImes’s Jim Pickard, is on top of the £600m bailout in July and £300m loan in October.

That, even with the pound crashing as it is right now, is quite a lot of money. It’s bad, especially at a time when there is still seemingly not a penny available to make sure trains can actually run in the north.

But the world is quite depressing enough today, so let’s focus on something happier. On Saturday night – obviously peak time for cartographic news – Transport for London emailed me to let me know it would be updating the tube map, to show more street-level interchanges:

Connections between several pairs of stations that are near to each other, but have traditionally not been shown as interchanges, now appear on the map for the first time. These include:

  • Camden Road and Camden Town
  • Euston and Euston Square
  • Finchley Road and Finchley Road & Frognal
  • Kenton and Northwick Park
  • New Cross and New Cross Gate
  • Seven Sisters and South Tottenham
  • Swiss Cottage and South Hampstead

The stations shown meet a set of criteria that has been used to help determine which should be included. This criteria includes stations less than a 700m or a 10 minute walk apart, where there is an easy, well-lit, signposted walking route and where making the change opens up additional travel options.

The results are, well, this:

In addition, interchanges between stations have traditionally appeared on the Tube map as two solid lines, irrespective of whether they are internal or external (which means customers need to leave the station and then re-enter for the station or stop they need). This approach has now been updated and shows a clear distinction between the two types, with external interchanges now being depicted by a dashed line, linking the two stations or stops.

And lo, it came to pass:

I have slightly mixed feelings about this, in all honesty. On the positive side: I think generally showing useful street-level interchanges as A Good Thing. I’ve thought for years that Camden Road/Camden Town in particular was one worth highlighting, as it opens up a huge number of north-east travel options (Finchley to Hackney, say), and apps like CityMapper tell you to use it already.


And yet, now they’ve actually done it, I’m suddenly not sure. That interchange is pretty useful if you’re an able bodied person who doesn’t mind navigating crowds or crossing roads – but the map gives you no indication that it’s a harder interchange than, say, Wanstead Park to Forest Gate.

The new map also doesn’t tell you how far you’re going to be walking at street level. I can see the argument that a 400m walk shouldn’t disqualify something as an interchange – you can end up walking that far inside certain stations (Green Park, Bank/Monument), and the map shows them as interchanges. But the new version makes no effort to distinguish between 100m walks (West Hampstead) and 700m ones (Northwick Park-Kenton), which it probably should.

I’m also slightly baffled by some of the specific choices. Is Finchley Road-Finchley Road & Frognal really a useful interchange, when there’s an easier and more direct version, one stop up the line? No hang on West Hampstead isn’t on the Metropolitan line isn’t it? So that’s what it’s about.

Okay, a better one: if you’re switching from District to Central lines in the City, you’re generally better off alighting at Cannon Street, rather than Monument, for Bank – honestly, it’s a 90 second walk to the new entrance on Walbrook. Yet that one isn’t there. What gives?

The complete new tube map. The full version is on TfL’s website, here.

On balance, showing more possible interchanges on the map is a positive change. But it doesn’t negate the need for a fundamental rethink of how the tube map looks and what it is for. And it’s not, I fear, enough to distract from the Crossrail problem.

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