CamdenNewJournal

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Shelved? Project to redevelop library is now no longer viable

'North Sea Oil' strategy hit by changing market conditions

21 August, 2020 — By Richard Osley

Holborn Library needs an upgrade

A FLAGSHIP plan to redevelop Holborn Library has been “paused” because the scheme is no longer considered viable amid the changing market conditions. The move was confirmed in council papers listing officer decisions taken in the last fortnight.

The library site in Theobald’s Road and Cockpit Yard had been lined up for a revamp since 2015, with plans for a modernised building and new local studies centre.

A new space for the Cockpit Arts centre was planned, while new affordable housing had also been included.

The upgrade was due to be paid for by private housing added to the site. Architects U+I was selected as the preferred bidder for the work, but Camden’s director of development Neil Vokes said in a report that the procurement process was now being terminated, adding that the aims of the project “can no longer be supported by the sale of market housing at today’s prices”.

He said values had fallen in central London, writing: “This is in part as a result of the market uncertainty following the 2016 EU referendum result and because of changes to stamp duty. Construction costs have also risen significantly.”

Mr Vokes added: “Once the wider construction market picks up following Covid-19 restrictions, the council will be in a stronger position to review what’s best for the future of the site.

” The hold-up has led to claims that a review into the performance of Camden’s much-heralded Community Investment Programme (CIP) is justified. A panel of backbenchers had begun an investigation earlier this year only to see its work also held up by the coronavirus lockdown.

The CIP is a series of projects in which Camden uses its portfolio of land to bring in private investment to help pay for new homes and other community facilities.

How the new centre would have looked

Labour chiefs originally dubbed it Camden’s North Sea Oil strategy, due to the amount of valuable inner London land it had to work with. Critics say it is a gamble on the private market, but supporters say it has been the only way to provide housing, schools and improved services in the absence of government spending.

Conservative group leader Councillor Oliver Cooper said members had not been consulted on the change of plan for the library and that there should be an “urgent meeting” to discuss the site, warning that a “huge decision” was being made “behind closed doors”.

He said: “U+I were announced as the preferred bidder four years ago. The fact that no works have progressed in that time is a damning indictment of Camden’s ability to manage and deliver these projects.”

Cllr Cooper added: “The delays and collapse of this project will cost Camden homes, a new library and millions of pounds. If the project can’t deliver the library and homes that are needed, that will be because Camden has driven the CIP to the point of collapse.”

But regeneration chief Labour councillor Danny Beales said: “It’s right that we pause and assess future options while working with the local community to decide what their priorities are. Market conditions related to Brexit, Covid-19 and now the government’s planning reforms are all creating instability for the construction sector. But this is why we need increased investment to counter this depressed market.”

He added: “If the government was truly committed to ‘building back better’, they would increase public investment into local government builders like Camden.” He said the CIP remained “resilient” and new council homes were being built in Gospel Oak, Agar Grove and Somers Town.

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