A business proposal to transform the 26 “ghost” stations of the London Underground network has been proposed this week, which means that whereas people used to use stations for travel and going to work they will now be using them to access branches of Costa, Click & Collect their Ikea furniture shopping and generally attend shopping mausoleums below ground amidst diabolical overhead lighting and Take That being piped in at a friendly decibel. (It’s always a friendly Debenham’s-level volume, and it’s always Rule The World ). Of course, there is a need to use ghost stations. It’s not entirely fair that the ghosties should have first dibs on them. But I’m not entirely convinced that what our metropolis needs is another ball-clenchingly orange Sainsburys shoving red pepper hummus at commuters and essentially taking business away from local shops and more money away from us.
Sainsburys have yet to recover from the lunatic shame of their Christmas commercial, whereby they inferred that wars could be won much easier and with far less bloodshed if we exchanged bars of Dairy Milk instead. Whilst not adding war propaganda to their list of unsavoury achievements, they are now convincing us to buy their savoury and unsavoury nasties from a former ticket hall at a station that was used as an emergency replacement Cabinet War Room (when the original wasn’t available) during the War and has since been used only in James Bond films starring Daniel Craggy McCrag Face Craig. 34 sites in all have been identified, one of which may be turned into a herb garden (Hello the disused station of Clapham North!) and another a nightclub (Leinster Gardens!). York Road will be incorporated into the Kings Cross residential and commercial development triangle, which shows little signs of stopping. Down Street, the afore-mentioned Cabinet War Rooms stand-in for Churchill when the Germans were busy bombing his other one, is the deepest, and the one with the most potential. But the plans are so recidivist and reductive that they are tragic : a waxwork Churchill presiding over a muddling mock-up of his war time fags, cigars, champers etc whilst offering the visitor a tour of his daily life (sleep, half bottle of Moet, ham sandwich, RULE, CAMPAIGN, snooze, port, lunch, SPEECHES, snooze, Bordeaux, cocaine lozenges etc). Another tourist-inciting museum in the centre of what should be a working city? Another non-station trying to convince us that what we need are waxworks, which haven’t been thrilling since 1978, and only then to 11 year olds? In addition to that Churchillian melting pot of wax nightmare on Platform No 3, there will be a restaurant and above ground retail zone – which is brilliant obviously, because London doesn’t have enough of those.
We don’t need more waxworks. We need real things. We are talking about a total of 10m sq ft of land, much of which is in some of the most expensive areas on the planet. What is it that London is beginning to lack, that these ghost stations could aid in creating? The obvious answer would be affordable housing, but not everyone would want to live underground like eerie characters in an HG Wells story. The plan currently is that TFL would lease the properties out to business clients, and the profits from the leasing will be fed directly back into the public purse. Therefore the renovations of the ghost stations will cost you and I nothing, but will benefit those who use the TFL system on a daily basis as the profit will be spent there. Yet there are practical difficulties. Many of the sites are very close to live railways, and therefore require investment to ensure safe change of use before Waitrose rock in and open up. Procurement law dictates that all bids for stations must be open to a series of commercial tenders. TFL want to accept the more interesting and appropriate ideas that celebrate individual stations’ histories, but may not find themselves able to do so. It had been hoped that Brompton Road tube would be opened as a museum to celebrate its history as one of the RAF anti-aircraft secret underground divisions in World War Two, from where V1 and V2 rocket attacks were monitored. But then, suddenly Brompton Road was sold to luxury developers last year (presumably by TFL?). There goes another good idea up in Russian billionaires’ cigar smoke.
So, what should happen to those 32 stations:
1. Five of them should be turned into community resource centres, with free internet and library services. Whilst many of London’s community centres are non-profit, independent organisations, this will include a small annual fee. This gives book-lending rights for the library, access to printers / the internet for those seeking work, and the introduction of homework clubs for the children of working parents.
2. Five of them should provide small scale, minor ailments assistance to people, assistance that A&E departments all over London are currently struggling to provide : drop in centres for sprains, cuts, basic antibiotics dispensation and non-emergency illnesses. Funding will be an issue, so Londoners will each pay a fee to use medical facilities and private nurses. Central London disused stations will be particularly vital for people who have drunk themselves into vomit and bile inducing oblivion during a West End night out too.
3. Three of them should be converted into temporary fire stations, especially in light of the raised terrorist risk to the UK (and the fact that the West End actually only has one fire station – Soho).
4. Five of them should be grant leases to local, sustainable cafes and restaurants within a 5 mile radius of that disused station to promote the growth of local, small businesses and ban the presence of all supermarket and coffee chains.
5. Five of them should house some of the permanent collections that our 240 museums cannot permanently display and which are currently languishing in archives.
6. Five of them should provide temporary homes for those business that have been silently “cleared” in Soho / Denmark Street over the last decade thanks to the development of the Crossrail project, at affordable rents. The rents are paid directly to TFL as landlord.
7. Four of them should be granted temporary live music licences and offer affordable gigs and evening concerts to schoolchildren (and grown ups) across the capital. The concerts and gigs will have a cover charge which will be processed into a system to ensure musical education with the possibility of several hours of free music tuition to all London children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There you go. Do that and those stations will never be empty. There won’t even be room for the ghosts. You see, only two of the seven points are not directly funded by the pocket of the consumer (The Fire Brigade and the Museums). The rest we will pay for. My argument is, we will be happy to pay for them if they provide us with some meaningful improvement in the nature of our civic life. I’m just not entirely sure that a Tesco Direct with a large shoe shop on top of it will offer us anything at all that we actually need. It only offers us something that we might, from time to time, require.
London is getting beyond itself; we need to identify precisely the kinds of services – civic and retail – that we need, in a city overrun with greed, new restaurants and endless opportunities to spend money many of us feel like we don’t have. Money for vital services is far more required in a city where the numbers are growing but both wages and access to services are not. The difficulty with over-bloating the market with retail outlets is it implies that we all have the desire to spend money on things that we only ever buy through choice. A Tesco muffin is a Tesco muffin. So what? What I propose is that we are encouraged to make the choice to buy things we as a city currently need as a necessity. If London’s empty spaces can’t create this for us, who on earth can?
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