Peter’s Perspective

A new history of Smithfield considers the Crossrail effect. Our columnist says Clerkenwell might look very different in a decade…

“I was pleased to discover that the excellent book “Smithfield Past, Present and Future” (Robert Hale) by architect and former Islington conservation officer Alec Forshaw has been republished. The third edition looks at the people, history and buildings in the area as well as the impact of Crossrail. Others will write about Alec’s perceptive insights but I wanted to mention how it highlights the way planning has made Clerkenwell the place it is today.

The first edition in 1980 described a vibrant craft centre of milliners, leather makers and jewellers. Ten years later the second edition was covered in footnotes chronicling how these trades had recently closed down. What happened in the intervening period? Well, what happened was the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 which bundled light industrial uses together with office use – which meant that all those workshops could be converted into studios and offices without the need for planning permission, providing landlords with higher rents. Thus began the exodus of physical making and the influx of designers, architects, filmmakers and digital entrepreneurs.

Luckily for these users Clerkenwell was exempted from the government’s decision in 2013 to allow the conversion of offices to residential use without planning permission, because it sits within the capital’s Central Activity Zone (CAZ). This legislation would have decimated the number of workspacesin Clerkenwell, as it has in other parts of London.

The CAZ exemption will be abolished in 2019 and Islington has until then to put in place ‘Article 4 directions’ to protect areas of employment. If that doesn’t work then in the 2020s the area might well experience as significant a change as it saw in the 1980s. This time from an office area to a residential one. Back to what it was in the 17th century.”

Peter Murray is Chairman of NLA: London’s Centre for the Built Environment