By Roger Wilson
For those who want to travel cheaply and aren’t too concerned about a window view, an inside cabin on board ship can be an expedient, if not delightful, experience. It may not matter too much that waking up in the morning you don’t know whether to put on a sweater or a T-shirt. What the hell, the cabin didn’t wreck the holiday budget and a ship’s a ship isn’t it!
Some may feel the same way about a city break; so long as one can get there and can see the sights, what does it matter if the room doesn’t have a view? You won’t be in it long enough to worry. The younger generation, in particular, now seem to be prepared to forego a view if the room enables a trip that would otherwise be beyond their limited budgets. The latest London offering goes a step further with “windowless” rooms — windowless because they are underground.
“Once you take the window out you can just pack them in,” said Michael Hughes of Criterion Capital about now abandoned plans for a similar capsule hotel at Piccadilly Circus.
Criterion are instead offering that prospect, or lack of it, in their latest development in an underground carpark in Great Russell Street under the St Giles Hotel. Two floors of “pod” accommodation, possibly rented by the hour as happens at Heathrow and Gatwick, with everything artificial — lights and air included.
The temporary occupants may be able to endure this, but not so the surrounding residents of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia.
While servicing a ship’s inner cabins may be neither difficult nor would it affect other people, the same cannot be said for a central London development of 166 underground pods.
Naturally, or in this case, unnaturally, air-conditioning is essential. The air-con equipment can, for the most part find a home anywhere in the building — the incoming air supply and extraction cannot. It must have an external face, and herein lies the problem. Since the St Giles Hotel occupies the upper floors, the only place available to locate the public face of the air supply/extraction is at ground level facing Adeline Place. This will provide an unpleasant experience for pedestrians at street level, and a constant noise source for the blocks of nearby residents. That the air intake and extract are within nudging distance of each other is another health concern.
The pressure on city residents has recently become significantly more intense with noise, disturbance and poor air quality high on the list of concerns. There are already three hotels clustered around the junction of Great Russell Street and Adeline Place, all within a few metres of each other. Criterion’s underground bunker will make it four: that means four air-conditioning plants, four separate vehicle servicing regimes, four uncoordinated refuse pick-ups and countless restaurants, bars and café franchises ancillary to the hotel uses, each with their own servicing and refuse collection, and none of which required planning permission.
One would hope that councils would be aware of these issues and prevent development that causes them. Wishful thinking, I’m afraid, because other pressures are being brought to bear. According to London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, the city needs 40,000 more hotel rooms. Cumulative environmental impact is a planning issue, but astonishingly, council officers have declined to consider it here, an approach that is fundamentally flawed and risks misleading its Members. Their only hope is to “condition” planning permissions so that unwholesome environments can be avoided. With planning permission granted and an initially satisfactory air-con in place surely everything is hunky-dory? Not necessarily.
Machinery needs regular maintenance, and without it, parts wear causing excess noise and poor performance. How does a council control over-noisy machinery? If you thought they had a monitoring service, think again. It relies entirely on residents complaining more loudly that the machinery, and often! — until the council officers get fed up with hearing about it! Even then, councils are not obliged to enforce planning regulations. They will pick off the easy hits, and leave the more difficult ones to fester. For government planning policy, this is the law of unintended consequences .
Then consider waste collections. This is a necessary convenience for residents, organized by the local council, but for businesses, it’s a commercial trade collection, often once a day. Again, lorry noise and disturbance goes with the territory. The level of control councils can effectively give is limited, and when business bins are full, the surplus, and there often is a surplus, ends up in street-side community containers. The same deficiencies in the council’s “control” regime applies to waste storage and collections. Commercial pressures ensure that space allocated for waste storage is better employed making money. All too often councils take a relaxed view of standards — anything for an easy life.
The area around Bedford Square was once an attractive residential enclave within the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, but changes have been arriving by the lorry load. The air quality in Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street has been measured as the worst in the country. Growing noise levels leave residents with sleepless nights and early morning disturbance — no alarm clocks needed here. The threat of another incoming development is “code red”. There are many local objectors including Bloomsbury Ward Councillors, the local MP Keir Starmer and GLA Member Andrew Dismore, but the council’s planners seem oblivious to the dangers. If the underground pod is allowed, I foresee a war of attrition between the residents, hotel operator and Camden Council.
Planning application: 112A Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3NP. 2015/3605/P: Change of use of part ground floor and basement levels -4 and -5 from Car Park (sui generis) to 166 bedroom hotel (Class C1), including alterations to openings, walls and fascia on ground floor elevations on Great Russell Street and Adeline Place. A decision is due to be made on Thursday 14 January 2016.
Roger Wilson is an Architect with over 35 years experience in private practice, the Planning Inspectorate and the Scottish Government’s Planning Appeals Service. He has advised the Bloomsbury Association on these proposals since 2012, and is a frequent visitor to Bedford Court Mansions.