Behind the battle for Tolmers Square
Ahead of a film screening and discussion event, activist and former squatter Nick Wates reveals the lessons that can be learned from the successful campaign to save a Victorian square from a property developer
01 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Residents of Tolmers Square gather for a photograph. All photos: Nick Wates
IT was a crumbling, Victorian square in central London with many of the large homes boasting once-graceful porticos. Bought up gradually by a property developer who hoped to leave them to fall so far into disrepair they could be demolished with little effort, their demise would leave the way clear for soaring new office blocks that would make millions.
But the story of Tolmers Square, sandwiched between Euston Road and Hampstead Road, is one that shows that with the right campaign, a white flag does not have to be raised when the forces of money come over the hill.
Next week, a film and discussion that tells the story of the battle to wrest this large patch of Euston from the fists of profit-driven development features a man who was at the centre of the fight: architect and planner Nick Wates.
And the story of the battle for Tolmers Square also has connotations for today. As soaring property prices have altered the face of neighbourhoods, and private developers are seen as the first port of call for much-needed new housing, such examples of communities fighting back are inspiring.
Works starts on the demolition
In the mid-20th century, the Tolmers area had commerce, industry and private rented housing nestling next to each other in various states of repair.
The first application to demolish a swathe of housing and build a 22-storey office block came in 1959. It was refused – but then the Stock Conversion and Investment Trust began to buy property. By the late 1960s, they asked for permission to build offices in return for selling back some land for housing. Camden needed new homes, and the soaring cost of the land meant they could not issue a compulsory purchase order. It seemed this deal was the best they could get – until Nick and others stepped forward.
Nick was studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL in 1970 and while he was an undergraduate he became aware of the issues surrounding the neighbourhood near his college.
With a group of other final-year students, they embarked on a project to discover who lived there, who owned the housing and what the future held.
“There was a deal on the table to build offices,” he recalls. “People did not know what was happening so we did a survey and looked at what the property developer was proposing.
“Out of that project came an organisation called the Tolmers Village Association.”
Activists spread the message
The area had a diverse community, including independent businesses such as Drummond Street’s famous curry restaurants. “There were families and single people who had lived for decades in rented accommodation, and then empty homes,” he adds. “It began to feel very run down.”
The Tolmers Village Association included squatters who had begun to move in – including Nick.
“After graduating in 1973, I was thinking about what I should do next,” he says. “We were still interested in what was going on and it was a fairly secure place to squat, so we made our homes there.” The first squatters were in place by June 1973 and two years later 50 homes were occupied by 180 people.
It became a lively place with many people offering different skills and was at the vanguard of the battle to halt the office blocks.
As the deal between the developers and the council began to take shape, two journalists – Benny Gray and the editor of Private Eye Christopher Booker – got wind of it.
“Gray and Booker worked out by giving planning permission, the Town Hall would be handing the developer around £20m,” he recalls.
Photos of the activists’ battle to save Tolmers Square
The TVA and activists from the Labour Party, with the help of councillors, fought to halt the plan by showing they could set up a similar deal – but hand all the profits back to the council to re-invest.
“They exposed what was going on,” says Nick.
“Eventually, frustrated by the delays and a temporary drop in the office market, in 1975 the developers sold up to Camden.”
The Town Hall eventually developed it – with less office space and more homes. It also safeguarded Georgian terraces such as North Gower Street, which otherwise would have been levelled.
“I was sad to see the old square go, but at least it was being used by Camden and most of the businesses survived,” he adds.
The battle for Tolmers was recorded by film-maker Philip Thompson and screened in the 1970s on BBC2. It brings back many memories for Nick.
“The campaign dominated my life for six years,” he says. “I was obsessed by it, I lived and breathed it. I spent hours in smoke-filled meetings. I paced the streets and talked to people.
“I wrote thousands of words and did frequent all-nighters preparing artwork for printers.
“I am looking forward to sharing my memories of our campaign and revealing some of the tools of our trade as activists. The key lesson is the importance of information, of solid research, and communicating it. If people know, they can campaign, they can organise and make an impact.”
With the area now again being changed – this time by HS2 – the story of Tolmers Square has added resonance.
“Neighbourhoods are still facing the destructive power of property speculators and mismanagement by local and central government,” says Nick.
“The housing crisis is worse than it was then – and activists are still burning themselves out trying to create sustainable, urban neighbourhoods.”
• Nick Wates will be giving a talk at Leila’s Cafe, 15-17 Calvert Avenue, E2 7JP, introduced by Will Palin and hosted by the East End Preservation Society, on Monday, February 5 at 7.30pm.