Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

Two cherished places are under threat from the ruinous activities of utility companies

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

May 13 2011
Stephen Bayley

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There are days when my paranoia is unusually active. This is one of them. They are out to get me. According to recently delivered expensively produced six-colour hand-delivered laminate fliers, two places I hold rather dear are threatened with ruinous practical and aesthetic disturbances from utility companies. In London I live in an area which the ambitious estate agents call Kennington and which realists call Vauxhall. The very ambitious estate agent says it is “10 minutes from Sloane Square”. Anyway, it is close to the new US Embassy and the residents and agents specially desperate for social promotion are now inclined to call it “The Embassy Quarter”. This will be served by an extension of the Northern Line to Battersea Power Station. I am no Luddite, at least not in the traditional sense, and there are obvious commercial and social benefits to a new Tube, but the consultation process which the glossy flier announces is a spatchcocked ugly duckling of doublethink and deviousness.

Obviously, creating a new Tube through the congested infernal regions of subterranean London with its intestines of sewers and conduits is an exercise that will produce ugly spoil tips, require obtrusive exhaust stacks and be host to a near-continuous cacophony of low-frequency underground rumbling. So much is clearly understood, if not positively appreciated.

What annoys is the refusal of the administrators and the engineers, Halcrow, to be honest about exactly what route the new Tube will follow. I suspect that parliamentary constituency or local authority boundaries might be more the reason for this coyness than any real sensitivity or any real willingness to act upon public response to the proposals. And who has actually done the cost-benefit calculations? How exactly might the cost of years of noise and mess for a large established community be priced against the profit in convenience for US diplomats and new residents in expensive flats? I do not, for instance, imagine that the US ambassador will be a Northern Line regular. And my confidence that costs will be kept under control and democracy respected has not been fortified by the fact that my house has received no fewer than seven fliers and attached questionnaires.

Meanwhile, in the Tanat Valley, George Borrow’s Wild Wales, where my wife has a family house which we use often, a horrible consortium of diaphrasic local pols and lumpen electricity cabals has declared its intention, whether we like it or not, of building pylons, gantries, wind farms, sub-stations and perhaps hunting lodges and dachas for power executives all over the rolling Berwyns. The rationale for this is couched in terms of such factitious manipulation, arrogant swagger, self-love, special-pleading, lightly camouflaged greed and untested assumptions that, when I read it, I actually gasped.

I really am no Luddite and am actually rather fond of the old nuclear power station at nearby Trawsfynydd: but what is proposed in this part of mid-Wales is a violent offence against every contemporary idea of progress. I am not convinced that a true vision of a good future in either city or country involves either more Tubes or more electricity.

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