“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.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.