“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.

 
 
 
 

It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.