The Development Battle

The Community's struggle to save Covent Garden

By Anne Bransford

Photo:Protesters gathered to save Jubilee Hall from destruction

Protesters gathered to save Jubilee Hall from destruction

Covent Garden Community Association

A Brief History

Photo:The hustle and bustle of the market in 1864

The hustle and bustle of the market in 1864

Westminster City Archives

For many hundreds of years Covent Garden, a unique little spot in the heart of London, was known for its fruit and vegetable market, where barrow boys and stall holders from all over London would flock through the early hours to buy their stock. Produce had poured into Covent Garden throughout the night from places as far away as California and would be sold later that day in grocery shops and markets across London. With the relocation of the market to Nine Elms in 1974, the Greater London Council (GLC) were eager to get their hands on this prime real estate and, working in conjunction with Westminster and Camden Councils as well as a team of urban planners, they prepared a new and bold urban development plan.

For centuries the market, the theatres, the Opera House, and the different people associated with their running had been a vital part of Covent Garden’s culture. Historically it was a colourful and yet seedy area populated mainly by the working classes. In the 20th century, Covent Garden had become home to a wide variety of eclectic small businesses. In the specialised shops: “the atmosphere is subtly different from curio shops in Shepherds Bush Market or Camden Passage; the pressure to sell expensively is less and genuine appreciation and interest seem to be at least as important as willingness to buy” (a description from the 1968 Draft Plan for Covent Garden’s redevelopment).

Ian Christie, a critic of the GLC’s approach to urban development, vividly describes the local character of these shops, often run by just one man: “the market, the theatres, and Opera House, and the publishers dominate the area, and are served by their haulage-contractors, barrow-makers and solicitors, makers of ballet shoes, pianos and scenery, their printers, book-binders, and literary agents. All are interspersed with a wide variety of restaurants and cafes, lavish pubs (those near the Market remaining open all night), cheap, ‘sub-standard’ housing, warehouses, and local shops.” The singular, vibrant character of the area was entwined with the close-knit community of the people engaged in these diverse activities.

Photo:A view of Russell Street crowded with trucks in 1904

A view of Russell Street crowded with trucks in 1904

Westminster City Archives

Since the 19th century, traffic congestion in the market had been a problem. By the 1960s, it had reached breaking point. Naturally, the area had been designed in the 1600s for horse cart traffic – not for lorries. The existing roads and buildings couldn’t handle the huge volume of produce being brought in for sale, so business began to decline.Because there was no room to expand, local authorities eventually decided in 1965 that the market shoud move to Nine Elms in Battersea, where a new and much more efficient market space was built. The smart, inevitable, and bittersweet move would occur in 1974. This transplant of the market left Covent Garden as an empty space, strange after centuries of activity. The recently created and very ambitious Greater London Council decided to use the moving of the market, which had taken up about 15 acres, as an opportunity to develop 96 acres of the area confined to the north by
Photo:Jubilee Hall, where the flower market had been. After the market moved, it was left empty during the planning decade.

Jubilee Hall, where the flower market had been. After the market moved, it was left empty during the planning decade.

Westminster City Archives

High Holborn, to the west by Shaftesbury Avenue, to the south by the Strand, to the southwest by Aldwych, and to the east by Kingsway. Long Acre divides this region from east to west and serves as a border between the boroughs of Camden and Westminster.

The GLC, in conjunction with the borough councils, began planning a grand new development project. They brought together a multinational team of urban planners to deal with the unique challenge of developing right in the middle of London. The whole plan to upgrade Covent Garden was hailed by Gordon Gardiner, a former journalist and Tory MP, as: “the most exciting comprehensive development scheme since the Great Fire of 1666.” The area was prime real estate, and its historically animated culture made it a tempting location for its urban renewal as a modernised hub of London life.

The Draft Plan

Photo:A view of the proposed redevelopments to Covent Garden - areas marked in red would be affected by the plan.

A view of the proposed redevelopments to Covent Garden - areas marked in red would be affected by the plan.

The Planning Team published an initial draft of the plan to make Covent Garden a Comprehensive Development Area (CDA) in 1968; they had conducted an intensive and detailed study of the local character of the area, collecting statistics and information about the residents. They found a large population of people had lived in the area for over twenty years, many of them elderly and retired. A significant portion of the residents earned relatively low income working long and late hours in small businesses and in industries like publishing and theatrical supply. To their credit, the Planning Team: “were determined to respect the complexities of the area and to avoid the sterility of much post-war comprehensive development…Above all, they were concerned to create ‘places for people,’” says Christie.

The draft plan described the construction of a new road system through the area with corresponding pedestrian walkways, London’s first international conference centre, office blocks, hotels, schools, open spaces for the public and a sports centre. A continuous “Line of Character” would run through the middle of Covent Garden that would try to keep the existing buildings as they were. Criticism of these plans abounded, and it became clear that the Planning Team’s intentions had gone awry.

The proposed bands of development would artificially divide Covent Garden into commercial strips. Later, at the critical 1971 public Inquiry of the GLC’s plan, S.P.C. Plowden of the Covent Garden Community Association would comment that: “roads go in lines, character does not go in lines.” The international conference centre was scheduled to be built over Inigo Jones’ Piazza, and the church of St. Paul’s would be knocked down, horrifying people all over the city, the nation, and the world. Almost half of the buildings listed as sites “of historical interest” would be demolished. The sports centre was seen as totally unnecessary. The hotel and conference centre would bring thousands of people into the area at a time, making absurd the GLC’s claim that their plan would reduce the problematic volume of traffic through the area (which had largely disappeared with the removal of the market anyway). Public outrage to the many problems of the proposals culminated in a 1971 Public Inquiry, where the Plan was examined critically to see if it truly would be appropriate for Covent Garden. Architect Rob Middleton of Drury Lane testified as an objector at the Inquiry:

My main objection to the plan submitted by the GLC is that it will, by the very nature of comprehensive development, destroy an area that is diverse and varied – messy, it could even be called – and replace it with a monolithic environment unsympathetic to the nurturing of the rich complexity of life as it is most to be valued in a city…Covent Garden is not tidy. It is a teeming and complex area. Everything seems to happen there, and to happen everywhere. Activities are not isolated…there are good and interesting buildings everywhere. There are (or were, until recently) no less than 60 glittering pubs. There are almshouses, secret gardens, black brick warehouses, and shored-up castles of tenements, narrow alleys and steep slits cutting down to the River Thames…


Additionally, 82% of the homes in the area were to be demolished to make space for new – and more expensive – flats. This issue erupted immediately between the planning authorities and the community residents and was a major impetus for the backlash against the comprehensive development scheme.

First, the 'decanting' process was a disaster. Decanting is the necessary part of the development process in which residents of homes to be bulldozed are temporarily housed elsewhere. The Planning Team understood that 80 of the 183 people needing to be rehoused, many of them elderly and single, would require single units. However, the GLC had a “balanced community” policy that effectively would require people to move entirely out of the area: “against their express wish and despite the obligations of the developing authority to find them alternative homes in the neighbourhood,” (Time Out, 1971).

Second, the proposed flats were entirely out of sync with the needs of the residents. Rent in the area ranged from about £2 to £4 – rates for the new flats would be as high as £10. Those who could not pay would have to leave. The same went for local businesses: such a significant increase in economic rent would mean that traditional, long-established businesses would have to move out. Time Out reported that: “In an astonishing interview, Mr. Birlo, one of the [Planning] Team’s valuers, admitted that in his experience only 2½% to 5% of the businesses in a redevelopment area who expressed a desire to remain in the area actually did so.” The article alos pointed out that: “behind these figures lies the death of a community – not through malice and not even solely through incompetence, but through the inexorable logic of a development which can only be carried out in terms of profit.”


Photo:A public exhibition of the Plan was set up, though it was aimed primarily at developers and local leaders rather than residents.

A public exhibition of the Plan was set up, though it was aimed primarily at developers and local leaders rather than residents.

Covent Garden Community Association

The most significant issue, which reared its head repeatedly during the planning years, was the GLC’s utter unwillingess to communicate with Covent Garden residents. First, when the plans were first published for public review, the exhibition was closed down for an entire day so the GLC could host a reception for developers. Then, the head of the Development Committee wrote a letter in 1970 to the head of the Planning Team describing the formation of residents’ associations as: “a lot more trouble than they are worth.” Brian Anson disagreed. A member of the Planning Team, he had become concerned with the failure of the project to take into account the community’s needs. Late in 1970 he reached out to residents in a letter describing his: “grave misgivings” about the Plan. Anson later wrote that once disillusionment hit, he realised he hadn’t actually spoken to a single resident since the beginning of the project in 1966. The letter he had sent out found its way back to his bosses at the GLC, who removed him from the Planning Team. Furthermore, Oliver Williams stated during the Inquiry that

The most disturbing factor…is the enormous gulf which exists between the GLC (as Landlords) and their tenants. People are sent letters addressed ‘Dear Tenant’, signed by a rubber stamp, and advised that it would be prudent for them to move as soon as possible from their homes. A move which would totally alter their way of life. [sic] They are humble, timid people for the most part who simply want to go their way in peace…What is tragically evident from my research, most of which was in the form of conversation with tenants, is the anxiety and misery these misunderstandings make for…

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Development Battle' page

Covent Garden Community Association

The extremely patronizing attitude of the GLC, believing that it knew without consultation what was best for Covent Garden residents, was criticised not only by community members, but also by professionals and local authorities. Robin Middleton reprimanded the GLC at the Inquiry, stating: “Individual freedom is to be sacrificed to a public good that is in the minds only of the planners – and possibly the developers. The plan aims to make the developers the privileged heirs to a domain in which individuals have long enjoyed freedom.” Alderman Greengross of Camden said in a public statement printed in the Sunday Times: “A major principle has got to be faced. In central London the GLC has adopted an arrogant big-brother behaviour in town planning. It is interfering in local matters in the interests of what it calls ‘strategic planning’. This has got to be stopped. The only question seems to be, when.”

The Covent Garden Community Association

Photo:The CGCA headquarters in Covent Garden

The CGCA headquarters in Covent Garden

Covent Garden Community Association

“When” proved to be 1 April 1971, when over 500 protestors gathered in the Piazza at Covent Garden to object to the GLC’s plans and form the Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA). These defiant individuals put together demonstrations, fundraisers, newsletters, and a system of street representation to engage both residents and non-residents in the fight to save Covent Garden from ‘Big Brother’ GLC. Jo Weir, a member of the CGCA today, said: “I don’t think anybody here realised how brave they were, fighting against the biggest council in the world.” Their ire took on tones of a social class struggle. Ms. Weir described Covent Garden then as: “one of the poorest areas in the whole world,” filled with immigrants looking for any kind of work to feed their families. In the first edition of the Covent Garden Community Newspaper, Reverend Austen Williams (a major instigator of the protest) commented: “It is sad that above a certain line people ‘live’ in an area; below that line they are ‘housed’; they are somehow detachable, they can somehow be moved, they can be offered alternative ‘housing’ in a way that would be impossible above the line.” The massive public outpouring of disgust and rage with the potential annihilation of not only their homes but also their community was successful in catching the attention of those in charge of the project. Lady Dartmouth, who had presided over the creation of the revised draft plan and had served on the Covent Garden Joint Development Committee, very publicly resigned in 1972. The Plan went through an extensive public inquiry in 1971 and heard the testimonies of 140 objectors, who: “ranged from national amenity societies and financial interests to local pressure groups and individual residents or business people. Among them were the London Borough of Camden, the Peabody Estates, the Midland Bank, the National Westminster Bank, the National Provident Institution, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Civic Trust, the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, Moss Bros., Rules Restaurant and a number of other Covent Garden businesses, Street Aid and the Covent Garden Community Association” (Terry Christensen, Neighbourhood Survival).

The final word of approval or disapproval came from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Geoffrey Rippon. Despite all of the momentum the community had gained, it certainly looked as though their efforts would fail when in January 1973 Rippon approved Covent Garden as a Comprehensive Development Area under the GLC’s authority. However, he simultaneously added over 250 buildings to the protected historical architectural preservation list and rejected certain key parts of the GLC proposal. Essentially, he made it impossible for the GLC to continue development as planned.

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Development Battle' page

Covent Garden Community Association

Photo:Residents, architecture students, local government officials, and other interested people gathered in the Piazza to form the Covent Garden Community Association on 1 April 1971.

Residents, architecture students, local government officials, and other interested people gathered in the Piazza to form the Covent Garden Community Association on 1 April 1971.

Covent Garden Community Association

A Happy Ending?

Rippon made recommendations for changes in the Plan, including a reorganization of the proposed road network; more space for housing, open space, and schools; less space for hotels, shopping and office space; reconsideration of the need for the international conference centre and the formation of a new plan created with the input of local employees, residents, and interest groups. The next few years were an exercise in compromise for the GLC and the CGCA. In 1974, the Covent Garden Forum was created to satisfy Rippon’s public participation requirement. Delegates to the Forum played a major role in policy-making as well as in the implementation of the Covent Garden Action Area Plan, which was approved in 1978. This new attempt at development was: “a carefully prepared brief which takes as its starting point the view that Covent Garden is not simply a vacant lot awaiting rebuilding but a community which has had changed forced upon it but which can be developed with a new vitality and focus,” commended David Brewerton of the Telegraph in 1977. There were no grandiose schemes to redesign the existing road networks or construct massive concrete office blocks; instead, the emphasis was on improving housing, local industry, and shops and on the conservation of the historical architecture of the area. While the earlier plan had confused the traffic issue, the new and more modest plan strove to simply discourage traffic altogether. The Action Area Plan reflected a much better understanding of Covent Garden as a living space as well as a better understanding of how to maintain its well-loved character.

The London Transport Museum was set up in the former Flower Market building. The Central Market was carefully let to be renovated, according to public criteria, for new shops and cafes. Its restoration took place from 1976-1977 and the building reopened in the summer of 1980 as a resounding success. Schemes for badly needed social housing were put into action that would improve the living conditions of the residents (many people at that time still lived without a toilet or bathroom in their home) as well as increasing the population of Covent Garden. After the Plan’s formal approval, lettings and new uses (small-scale, of course) began to increase in the area and Covent Garden was back on its feet.

It had nearly become a victim of its own success: the true and tragic irony of the original GLC Plan was that the people of Covent Garden, the living and breathing Covent Garden, would be destroyed by the crowds scrambling in to be part of that culture themselves. What people loved about Covent Garden would be destroyed by their pushing and shoving to get the Covent Garden experience. Timeout recognized this in 1971: “All those tourists the GLC expect to fill the new hotels and the developers want to see shopping in the new boutiques didn’t come for Covent Carnaby at all. They came looking for England. Soon, they won’t find it anywhere.” Thankfully it never came to that, and Covent Garden survived the turbulence of the 70s to be passed down to us with its vibrancy, its energy, its quirkiness, and its special character intact.

However, the “victim of success” theme still plagues Covent Garden with the ever-increasing presence of commercial giants like Apple and various multinational coffee shop chains. Jo Weir describes the past few decades in Covent Garden: “There was a time in the 80s and 90s when it was absolute heaven – small, local, crafty shops with real community feeling. Artists, originality, greasy cafes, Covent Garden General Store, the pen shop where Charles Dickens bought his nibs! And going in there you just really get the sense that these were the floorboards Charles Dickens walked on…Then came the commercial rape when Starbucks, Costa, and mediocrity squeezed out the greasy cafes and swamped us with their crap, so uniform and corporate. The M&S on Long Acre replaced the General Store and the floorboards of the pen shop are now shiny and clean.”* Jo Weir is a current member of the Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA), which still stands guard along with the Covent Garden Area Trust (CGAT) to protect the heritage of Covent Garden.

At present there is a very delicate balance between history and modernity. Let’s hope that future generations will still be able to hear the echoes of Punch and Judy shows, of Oscar Wilde on trial at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, of the riotous clamour of the Flower Market, and of all of the ghosts of Covent Garden’s rich past at the very heart of London.

Photo:The Flower Market today, filled with shops and tourists

The Flower Market today, filled with shops and tourists

Westminster City Archives


*This is a statement by an individual, independent citizen and does not necessarily reflect the position held by the Westminster City Council or its affiliates.


Greater London Council, Covent Garden’s Moving, The Covent Garden Area Draft Plan, 1968

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“Covent Garden Market ”, Survey of London: volume 36: Covent Garden (1970), pp. 129-150.

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Gardiner, George. The Changing Life of London. London: T. Stacey, 1973. Print.

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[London] 2 Aug. 1977: n. pag. Print.

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Christensen, Terry. Neighbourhood Survival. N.p.: Prism, 1979. Print.


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