Inquiry decision into London Undergound structures favours Forum view

Planning inspector David Nicholson RIBA IHBC decided in favour of London Borough of Camden and against London Underground Limited (LUL) in his decision over the four constructions erected by LUL in front of Kings Cross Station. Although technically approving the appeal by giving two years extension to the temporary permission granted by Camden, he told London Underground to come up with better designs for the anonymous stainless steel monstrosity close to taxi pick-ups and the Great Northern Hotel and the three tube station entrances visible from Euston Road. The chair of the Forum, Geoffrey Roper, spoke for the Forum at the inquiry sessions, saying “On behalf of the Forum I wish to oppose grant of permanent permission, to sympathise with the suggestion to extend consent to June 2013 and to suggest that London Underground Limited be required to submit designs for modification by the end of such extended permission. The inspector’s decision grants that request in full.

The LUL appeal against the time limits on design and external appearance of the four structures south of Kings Cross station was ‘allowed’ by the inspector in such a way that permission was extended for two years, in which LUL had to come up with new designs. The decision insists in each case “The approval of the retention of the structure shall be until 30 June 2013.” It cites the statement to the inquiry by Geoffrey Roper.

LUL had ‘deemed’ permanent planning permission under the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) Act for the following structures around Kings Cross station but not for their design and appearance:

  • The large stainless steel clad oval-shaped vent enclosure (‘the Egg’) just north of the blue police portacabins at the south east corner of Pancras Road.
  • The main entrance to the Underground immediately in front of King’s Cross Station just to the east of the blue police portacabins.
  • The two entrances to the Underground on the south side of Euston Road.

LUL only had temporary permission for the current design of these structures. This permission will now run out on 30 June 2013 so LUL will have to redesign them in conjunction with the design of the squreor up to an acceptable standard for the setting between two historic railway stations and Great Northern Hotel which is currently being converted into a retail colonnade and boutique hotel. Of particular note are the permissions for the oval vent and main entrance. Once the horrible green canopy is demolished in 2013 the front of the station will become a new public square.

The appeal was heard on 25, 26 and 27 May 2010, and the report by the inspector arrived on 24 June. The inspector commented as follows:

  • The large stainless steel oval-shaped vent enclosure. “I accept that the location of the ventilation shafts is not before me and that the enclosure will inevitably interrupt some views of the listed buildings, as will the octagonal shaft which will remain, but this does not excuse a poor design. I acknowledge that most of the contents of the Egg are permitted and have been efficiently fitted into the space. However, the bin store is not ‘plant’ as permitted by the CTRL Act and could be located elsewhere. Taken with the largely open space above the bins, albeit surrounded by air conditioning condenser units, I am not persuaded that the pointed end of the Egg needs to be as large as it is or that the condenser units preclude a round, square or other more purposefully shaped enclosure.”…..”I consider that there could be a number of valid design responses to the site. However, I find that the Egg fails to relate to any of the adjacent historic buildings, to the open square once the temporary buildings have been removed, or to the permitted taxi canopy and Western Concourse, or to provide an attractive structure in its own right. I therefore conclude that it is necessary for the Egg to be modified to preserve the local environment.”
  • The main entrance to the Underground immediately in front of King’s Cross Station. “I find that the poor design and quality of the main entrance enclosure, the sense that the lift overrun is an afterthought, and the poor execution of the protection rails all contribute to a structure that does not preserve the local environment against which I am assessing it.”
  • The two entrances to the Underground south of Euston Road. “I accept that the southern enclosures do not interrupt significant views of the listed buildings in the same way as the other structures. Nonetheless, in my opinion they are prominent in the overall context and will become more so when the temporary structures are removed. The appellant argued that prominence was an important part of its function but to my mind this is provided by the roundels, albeit that a better design would place these at the top of the stairs rather than the opposite ends. For [this third subject of] Appeal, I therefore find that the failings in the design and quality of the enclosure and the lack of consideration and integration of the vehicle barriers all contribute to structures which should be modified.”

The inspector therefore decided that “the appellant should have the option of either submitting satisfactory designs for the context as I have assessed it or of waiting to attune its proposals with the scheme for the Southern Square as and when it comes forward.”

Geoffrey Roper spoke in the context of the CTRL Act, under which planning permission is deemed to be granted for all necessary structures and the local planning authority only has discretion over the design and external appearance of the structures to preserve the local environment, for road safety or traffic reasons or to preserve a site of archaeological, historic interest or nature conservation value. He said:

“Inspector, I am Geoffrey Roper, chair of the Kings Cross Development Forum. I wish to:

  • tell you briefly who the Development Forum are;
  • speak about the human significance of the location;
  • suggest a way to understand the word ‘preserve’ in the context of this appeal;
  • mention one fact (which I hope will not be contested) about the future operation of Kings Cross railway station;
  • argue for a more humane design of the exterior of the ventilation shaft complex,
  • raise a question about the location and alignment as well as the appearance of the so-called ‘Main Entrance’,
  • and comment on the appearance and design of the two southern entrances.

The Kings Cross Development Forum is a consortium of thirty local community organisations, mostly voluntary, and a number of individuals who live or work in the area surrounding Kings Cross Central development area, the former railway lands and the two great railway termini lying to their South. Our members come from North, South, East and West of that development area, in the two London boroughs of Camden and Islington. Although brought together originally about ten years ago by the London borough of Camden and receiving some administrative support from them the Forum is now an entirely free-standing body which receives no funding nor is subject to any control by the local authority.

All of us, along with millions of other people, use the transport node which is Kings Cross St Pancras, though we may be unusual among them in that most of our visits to the site are on foot. Some members are long-standing residents, with memories of wartime bomb damage to Kings Cross Station, the erection of the southern canopy complex in 1973, the tragic underground station escalator fire of 1987 and the gradual but drastic changes to the local community.

King Cross and St Pancras railway stations with the underground, bus, taxicab and (increasing) cycle use form a transport node or hub of unique significance. More people live within reach of this spot by public transport on single conveyance without changing carriage than anywhere else in Europe, possibly the world. Thousands are the daily commuters whose journeys are just part of their routine. For others this is the place of arrival or departure, of partings and farewells or reunions and first encounters. People arrive here from Scotland, France, Belgium and beyond – and emerge to put their first foot on English paving. The surroundings are of great significance. I am not saying that many people think of the king or the saint commemorated in the joint name of this underground station, but you cannot absorb the view of these magical monuments without being impressed by St Pancras’ fantasy cathedral of red brick and the contrasting stern stock brick castle of King’s Cross, two implacable royal eyebrows glowering southward across the triangle which is now to become a ‘Square’. Lewis Cubitt the architect set out to make a design that would ‘depend for its effect on the largeness of some of its features, its fitness for its purpose, and the characteristic expression of that purpose’. [1]

We carry these images in our memories. The form of these buildings is easy to read and remember. St Pancras floats in the varying sky as we catch views of it from mean streets. Kings Cross stands proud, whatever clutter gathers at its feet. Through the decades when for convenience various functions have been projected forward below the façade, the viewer possesses a mental image of the whole structure, now to be revealed by eventual clearance of the green canopy. Just as London has benefitted by the revelation of design integrity at Somerset House, British Museum, Royal Academy, so the reality of Kings Cross will be best preserved by its revelation. The vista of Kings Cross which some can remember and others have only seen in old illustrations or by mental exercise through ‘reading’ the building intelligently – that is the environment which will be preserved by judicious design of a Southern Square. The place’s significance culturally and in public memory has been enhanced through films and in recent years by television news coverage, especially on account of the 7/7/2005 outrages.

The issue before the inquiry is whether these four structures may remain permanently as they are or whether their future appearance should be influenced by the transformation which will reveal and preserve Kings Cross – as changes have already revealed and preserved St Pancras station.

I said I want to bring forward one fact which I hope will not be contested. Network Rail have made it clear and the planning permission granted them allows that the southern façade of Kings Cross railway station will only be used for exit. The station will be ticket-only entry and a part of the Oyster-ticketing system. Barriers will only work one way (exit-only). Entry will be restricted to the Western Concourse now under construction. That means the ‘Main Entrance’ may be that, but not the main exit. Moreover a further entrance not the subject of this inquiry, marked on Mr Crabtree’s Supporting Figure 33 as a green oblong adjoining the original south façade wall of King’s Cross railway station and named ‘South East Entrance’ although is lies North of the ‘Main Entrance’. The photo-montage on page 01.Introduction of the Public Realm Strategy[2] shows the location without fully illustrating its eventual appearance. Since arriving train passengers will be restricted to exiting South from the station (apparently for crowd-control reasons) they will naturally turn to the right and use this ‘South East Entrance’ if they wish to travel by Underground.

In present circumstances I think people arriving by train find the ‘Main Entrance’ hard to read. Many miss the lift and struggle with their luggage or pushchairs down the steps. Questions should be asked to elucidate the relationship of these two underground entrances and whether technical considerations determine their design and use.

With regard to the two entrances to the South of the Euston Road leading to the two subways (one for public use and the other available for emergency evacuation) I would ask whether when I wheel my grandchild in a pushchair or bring wheeled luggage whether it would be possible to provide an access ramp on the South side of Euston Road.

The ventilation shaft structure, oval in plan but like a truncated cylinder as you look at it, appears massive, foreboding, menacing. It is anonymous and its functions concealed. As has been made clear its contents exist for the safety and comfort of passengers. Can the appearance of a cut-off cylinder be adapted? Could there be some capping or completion on the top as all the neighbouring buildings have? Obviously in the nature of a vent it has to be open at the top, but would it be possible to shape a partial roof in a curve; take the shape of a Gherkin or otherwise arch it? Nearby buildings have curves, principally the train shed roofs, but no neighbouring building is curved in plan.

On behalf of the Forum I wish to oppose grant of permanent permission; to sympathise with the suggestion to extend consent to June 2013 and suggest that London Underground Limited be required to submit designs for modification by the end of such extended permission.”

[1] quoted in The London Encyclopedia ed. Weinreb and Hibbert (1993 edition); publ. Macmillan, London, p.448
[2] John McAslan Partners March 2009

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