Fitzrovia – Whitfield Gardens skulduggery

By Bertie Dinnage Skulduggery was never far away as regards the land between Tottenham Court Road and Whitfield Street which was a burial ground before and during most of the 19th century. Eventually the London County Council in 1895 acquired the land to provide and maintain it as a public park which became Whitfield Gardens.

A contemporary photograph showed this as being enclosed by railings which of course is relevant to the recent controversy over enclosure. The Georgian houses at the corner of Tottenham Street and Tottenham Court Road were destroyed by a bomb in 1945 and the site cleared, then added to the public open space.

During the 1970’s an improvement scheme was implemented with a fountain, planters and a grassed area at the corner of the Tottenham Court Road frontage; this soon fell into disrepair and through misuse and neglect the whole site began to resemble a bomb site.

Then around 1995 the Council set up a Working Group, to produce a scheme to revitalise the area and a Landscape designer was appointed but the proposals proved impractical and expensive; so another designer was appointed and the approved scheme was more or less completed in 2001: but along the way the Parks Service made changes to the specification and the installation was poorly carried out; the local history panels were, against strong local objection, inserted and later metal railings were erected around the planting areas, without consultation.

The result was destruction of the space as public garden and furthermore the area at the Whitfield Street entrance became the rendezvous for unsocial activities; the whole area had become a ‘tip’ again, not helped by an increase in the pigeon population.

The Friends of Open Spaces lobbied the Council to take action to make improvements to the Garden and in the Autumn of 2008 a series of public consultation meetings were organised that resulted in a generally agreed scheme proposing to enclose the area between Tottenham Court Road and Whitfield Street as a ‘Green’ space but with gates that would be closed at night: the area at the main road junction was to be a paved ‘Square’.

Prior to this a representative from the Fitzrovia Partnership, set-up by Derwent London, who have recently acquired a considerable amount of property in Fitzrovia, came forward with a scheme to erect a series of kiosks along the boundary with the American Church and in conjunction with this the ‘pedestrianization’ of part of Whitfield Street; a scheme that was soundly rejected.

Then came the hiatus, first we were told the Planning Service opposed the scheme for closure but the Parks Service resolutely refused to arrange a meeting to discuss the issues; then came the appointment of the new Head of Parks in the Summer of 2009, Shaun Kiddell, who showed no inclination to support the closure of the ‘Green’ space, citing the problem of funding as the reason; but then in December 2009 announced that additional funding had been provided by a local developer and work would proceed in January on a scheme of which the Friends Group was unaware and without further public consultation.

At a subsequent meeting with a Derwent director it was denied that Derwent had any interest in influencing proposals for Whitfield Gardens but did admit to being prepared to make payment in advance of dues for future planning schemes.

What started as exemplary public consultation has ended in a ‘stitch-up’ (or is it more skulduggery) and are we are expected to believe the problems that were there before will have gone away. Some are relieved that something is happening but should the others just sit back and wait to say ‘we told you so’: Perhaps there is another way?

Given that funding for any fencing will be difficult in the future, should everyone be persuaded to walk directly through from Tottenham Court Road to Whitfield Street, including at night (assuming the lighting works) and claim the space for the local community then perhaps, just perhaps the route should be named Whitfield Walk.

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