Betjeman’s Liverpool Street campaign revived in light of new development | London

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Poet John Betjeman’s campaign to save Liverpool Street station is being revived amid plans to build offices, shops and a hotel over the listed building which conservationists say will destroy its character.

The late poet laureate had a passion for railway architecture and in the 1970s led a successful crusade against plans to demolish the station. Now his Liverpool Street station campaign is being reformed by the Victorian Society and other conservation groups in response to a new £1.5bn plan to rebuild the station.

In an interview with the Observer in 1975, a year after the campaign first started, Betjeman said he was determined that Liverpool Street should not be replaced by the “plates and dice of high finance”. He added: “This is London’s most picturesque terminus.”

The Victorian Society says such concerns have become relevant again.

A consortium that includes Sellar, the developer of London’s Shard, and Network Rail has submitted plans to build 15- and 10-storey office blocks flanking the station and retail space, and a hotel which appears to sit above it.

The plans also involve converting some of the listed former Great Eastern hotel, now the Andaz hotel, into offices.

Proposal for upgrades to Liverpool Street station.
Proposal for upgrades to Liverpool Street station. Photo: Herzog & de Meuron

The developers say the designers of Herzog & de Meuron, the architects of Tate Modern and the Beijing Olympic Stadium, will adapt and protect the station’s heritage.

But the government’s heritage agency, Historic England, said it was “deeply concerned” by the plans. And the Victorian Society, a charity that campaigns for 19th-century and Edwardian buildings, says the redevelopment will “irreparably damage its character and architectural and historic significance”.

The society points out that the plans involve destroying the station’s roof and Victorian-style entrances. It says the new roof to support the new towers will cause “serious damage to the listed buildings and their surroundings”.

On Wednesday, its director, Joe O’Donnell, said: “Today I am addressing organizations across the heritage sector to reform the Liverpool Street station campaign led by Sir John Betjeman, which successfully defeated British Rail’s proposal to demolish all the buildings in Liverpool down Street station.

“We hope that the widespread support that led to the total demolition of the station and its replacement with a brutalist complex in the 1970s will be just as effective again.”

British poet, broadcaster and author, Sir John Betjeman at Liverpool Street station circa 1961.
British poet, broadcaster and author, Sir John Betjeman at Liverpool Street station circa 1961. Photo: David Sim/The Observer

In his 1975 interview, Betjeman said: “Old stations are places of great joy because of greetings and great sadness because of parting. They are part of a nation’s life.”

Liverpool Street station also featured in one of Betjeman’s poems, A Mind’s Journey to Diss. It began: “Dear Mary, yes, it will be bliss / To go with you by train to Diss / Your walking shoes on your feet / We’ll meet, my sweet, in Liverpool Street.”

O’Donnell encouraged people to respond to a public hearing about the plans. But he added: “This consultation does not allow anyone to consider less harmful options.” He also accused the developers of using “misleading” images that “grey out” the proposed towers to make them look “semi-transparent”.

He added: “Rather than a sensitive response to listed buildings in a conservation area, the proposals appear to be an attempt to maximize commercial returns by creating a shopping center dressed up as a public recreation area above the station.

“We hope that the reform of the Liverpool Street Station campaign group will remind Network Rail of the hard lessons learned by British Rail. It seems possible that any changes needed to improve the passenger experience can be made without tearing it down sensitive 90s interventions down and place a tower over the listed buildings.”

James Sellar, CEO of Sellar, insisted that protecting the station’s heritage was a key priority. He said: “The historic station will not be touched. Restoration and preservation of the heritage is very important to us. Not only do they allow the station to retain its character, but by displaying them better we can make the experience of the station more enjoyable for everyone users, including passengers and workers.”

He also said there would be a “full” and “open” public consultation process on the proposals.

Sellar added: “We have been clear in all our materials that the designs for the commercial elements are still in development and that we will present these at the next public consultation in early 2023. The image is teased to show the size and mass in context with the surrounding area and other recent developments adjacent to it, as well as its location on the northwestern edge of the city’s eastern cluster.”

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