Russell Square - is this the right place for a 10 day Festival of Culture?

The Evening Standard intends to host a Festival of Culture in Russell Square for ten days in June 2019 and made an application to Camden's licensing Committee to do so.

 

The licence application received objections from a large number of local groups on the basis the proposed event is too long, too big, and would cause too much damage at the wrong time of year. It would certainly impact negatively on the grass and landscaping of this important historic square. As a ten day ticketed event, it would also deny local residents and visitors access to most of the available space within a popular Bloomsbury destination. 

However, a licence application can be objected to on only four grounds:

  • The prevention of crime and disorder

  • The protection of children from harm

  • Public safety

  • The prevention of public nuisance

The licence was granted, even though Camden say the grass will actually take 3 months to repair but this is apparently not considered a nuisance or even a factor to be considered.  However, following a meeting of the Russell Square Commissioners, there is a letter going to the Evening Standard suggesting that Malet Street would be a more appropriate venue for the Festival. The University apparently support this suggestion.

 

Community Objectors

The objectors represented landowners, hoteliers, business,  residential associations, community associations, and Friends groups of gardens and squares in the Bloomsbury area.

  • The Association of Bloomsbury Squares and Gardens representing St Georges Gardens, and Marchmont Community Gardens

  • Bloomsbury Residents Action Group

  • The Bedford Estates

  • The Tropea Café in Russell Square Gardens

  • The KIMPTON FITZROY London Hotel

  • Imperial London Hotels Ltd

  • 54 Russell Square Residents Group

  • The Residents and Directors of Bloomsbury Mansions

  • Marchmont Association 

  • Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee

  • Queen Square Gardens Trustees

  • Brunswick Tenants and Residents Association

  • Jessel House Residents Association

  • Camden Civic Society

  • Friends of Tavistock Square

  • Friends of Bloomsbury Square

  • Friends of Brunswick Square Gardens

  • Friends of Red Lion Square Gardens

Community Objections

A document was prepared following input from the Organisations above. It focused on:

 

The prevention of crime and disorder

  • The sheer size of the event creates increased opportunity for potential crime and disorder.

  • Russell Square is a central London square and as such has specific vulnerabilities to acquisitive crime, such as phone and bag snatching and pickpocketing, both within and outside the proposed event.

  • The organisers are planning for 5,000 people at any one time mainly in the evening.  Over ten days that could amount to more than 50,000 people over the full duration.  That, for example, is the size of a Premier League football crowd. 5,000 is still a large crowd in relation to the average West End theatre (500 to 1,000). 5,000 is almost the number held in the Albert Hall with its capacity of 5,272.  This number of people is likely to increase the number of crime and disorder occurrences especially drug dealing in the area which the police are actively trying to control and do not have the resources to increase their numbers.

  • Russell Square and its surrounds have also been targeted by terrorist attacks in recent years.

 

The protection of children from harm

  • The provision of alcohol in unrestricted quantities in the gardens is likely to impact greatly on the public use of the Square by children, families, residents, and members of the public, generally, for whom the Square is intended for primary use.

 

The servicing of the event will create additional pollution, which is a danger to health

  • 50,000 people or more might consume 100,000 pints of beer and 50,000 snacks. This requires significant logistics and will require many vans and lorries over the duration of the event in terms of delivery, service and refuse collection. Despite prohibiting 40 ton commercial lorries entering the Gardens, Camden for past events have not been able to control their access, resulting in permanent damage to the grass.

  • The visitors to the event will generate additional Uber journeys, particularly at the end of the evening. The ease of an alternative access by very large numbers of people via London Transport creates further vulnerability.  An event last year in Finsbury Park was invaded by gate crashers who were organised over social media and descended via public Transport.

  • The consumption of perhaps 100,000 pints of beer will result in the need for many public lavatories which all need to be delivered, installed and serviced. 

  • All the other structures proposed, require transport and construction workers to be on site during the installation and dismantling periods.

  • The total effect of these journeys will be to create noise, congestion and pollution which is not only a public nuisance but a danger to health and contrary to the Council’s walking and cycling initiatives for local roads.

 

The prevention of public nuisance

  • A large number of people live and work around the Square and there does not appear to have been a proper noise impact assessment for the level and duration of sound from the event.  The organisers are proposing two outdoor stages, this will double the sound output, and encourage each to compete to be heard.  The Council advise that they are not able to make a specific requirement for the maximum db sound generated which will result in an uncontrolled public nuisance.

  • In evidence to the House of Lords regarding past events in Lincoln Inns Fields, it was shown that despite their best endeavours, Camden and their staff were not able to keep proper control of the noise.  This is also likely to be the case in controlling an audience of 5,000 with access to bar facilities.

  • While public events have taken place in Hyde Park, Regents Park and other large public spaces, the events usually only cover a small percentage of the total area, leaving ample space for normal use. This Application is for 100% of the gardens, excluding the Café and the Park Maintenance Yard and cannot be considered comparable.  Within the 100% area approximately 80% is fenced off and will require payment for access.  The remaining 20% is designated as a queuing area.  The Guardian reports at the Sunfall festival in Brockwell Park (which is much larger than Russell Square), ‘serious problems with entry checks, thousands of ticket holders were forced to queue for over four hours, with reports of fights, panic attacks and vandalism among the crowds spilling across the park, before the police were called in.’

  • The proposed event will cause a public nuisance to the Bloomsbury Conservation Area and as this is a Grade II listed square, protected by the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931 whose remit is to ‘protect and enhance’. There is no provision for such an event to “protect and enhance” this important landscaped historic square within this conservation area. 

  • The reduction of public access to all apart from a small section of the square not including the fountain area which is most popular with children during the month of June constitutes a major public nuisance for the many users of the gardens, as follows:  

       a) local residents;

       b) those who live in dense accommodation without outside patios or gardens, some of whom

           exercise their dogs on a daily basis;

       c) those with protected characteristics, especially elderly residents, for whom the square provides

           much needed respite;

       d) local office workers;

       e) tourists and visitors of the British Museum arriving at Russell Square underground station and being

           unable to walk in a direct route across the square.

  • Russell Square provides an essential green oasis with trees and plants that absorb pollution and offset the negative effects of dwelling in an inner-city urban environment. The grave potential for harm to plant and wild life in the Square does not appear to have been properly addressed, particularly the danger of rain and foot fall turning the square into a quagmire which may take years to repair.

  • The effect on the grass of The Frieze Art event in Regents’ Park is shown in the photographs provided.  The Frieze Art event was of only 4 days’ duration, but the grass has been destroyed.  In the case of Embankment Gardens (which has Christmas events) the gardens are re-turfed and extensively re-planted in time for public use in the spring and summer.  Neither of these conditions has been applied to Russell Square. The organisers are suggesting matting as grass protection, but this has not worked in the past nor has rubber sheeting or sheet metal pathing.  Wilde Ones (the suggested organisers) appear to have only experience of events on hard standing surfaces.

  • In addition to the lack of full access, great public nuisance will be caused for many weeks, if not months, after the event while the grounds are repaired.  We are advised by the Parks’ Department that damage resulting from an event of this extended period would take many weeks to repair, at the most popular time of year. Grass seed takes 6 weeks to two months to properly generate even when watered twice a day, and the hidden problem of soil compaction also requires separate treatment. Turf can take longer to become established. People will not be able to use the lawns during treatment.  It should be pointed out that treatment for re-seeding the grass is still in operation 16 months after the last event.

Conclusion

  • In conclusion, this Licence proposal that is put forward for not only June 2019 but all subsequent years, is very vague with no substantive description or detail and no guarantees.  This license should be rejected as it will cause considerable nuisance, additional crime and disorder, risk to children and a danger to the health of local residents and office workers who currently enjoy the open space during the summer months.

  • This Application does not have the approval of the Landlord or Commissioners of Russell Square who consider the proposal to be too large, too long, the wrong time of year and exposes the Gardens to damage that will render the gardens unusable for an unacceptable length of time while being repaired.

  • The Licence Application is premature and ES should withdraw the application as there is no agreement to use Russell Square.  It seems a waste of administration and time to go through that process until agreement on the location is reached.

  • A lot of details are still outstanding in relation to sound, impact, security, design etc.  These are all promised as deliverables in words only. A license of such scale should be only granted after all details are known and after they have been found satisfactory. 

Accountability Deficit

 

There was also a brief presentation on the issue of accountability.  This was unable to be discussed at a Licensing Committee meeting - but it provoked a couple of questions from one of the Camden Councillors present. 

 

The text which follows was prepared and presented by a representative of BRAG, the Friends of St George’s Gardens and the Association of Bloomsbury Squares and Gardens, all of whom considered that the Evening Standard application was premature.

 

We understand that your decisions have to be based on the four licensing objectives. Our problem is that other questions ought to have been answered first. We would like permission to explain them very briefly.

 

As community groups, we understand the pressure on funding for parks and gardens. But there are opportunities for income generation – filming the final episode of Bodyguard in Woburn Square, for example – and parks and gardens can benefit if the terms are right. So this is not about blanket opposition to events.

 

Events ought to be managed within a transparent local policy and Camden doesn’t have one.

So for example, a policy might define the duration of an event as including setting up, dismantling and garden repair time as well as the event days themselves. And it might then say that these activities shouldn’t occupy more than a specified proportion of days in the year. And individual events shouldn’t last longer than another specified number of days. A policy would be quite easy to draw up and consult on and it would then be guide for bodies like the Evening Standard considering a new event. And it would be a reassurance for groups like ours worrying about thin ends of wedges. Without clear policies the temptation is just too great for Councils to jump at almost any offer from a body with money.

Parks and gardens are at risk.

 

A Parks Charter is currently calling on government to endorse a legal duty for public green space to be managed to a good standard. And that includes protection from inappropriate development or use. In objecting to the Russell Square proposal Bloomsbury’s community groups are mainstream, not out on a limb.

Lack of consultation.

 

Mr Studd’s paper says (para 13) that there has been ‘wide consultation’ on this proposal. There hasn’t.  Most of the groups which have indicated concern heard about this proposal by word of mouth, not from Camden or the Evening Standard. The Evening Standard’s presentation says (para 1.4.3) that the Festival will be part of the ‘Camden Alive’ programme. But all local people know about Camden Alive comes from a press release at the start of the year. As for working with the Parks Department, para 5.2.5 says ‘conversations are ongoing’, not that there is agreement on garden repairs and timescales.

So our view is that this application has come to you too soon and that you should not let yourselves be bounced into making a decision which may then be used to force the hand of other decision makers, such as the Parks Department.

Another was of saying this is to point to an accountability deficit. The only democratic input at the moment is via the licensing committee and that isn’t enough on something as important as this.