The Covent Garden Community Association fights back

By Anne Bransford

Photo:Reverend Austen Williams, Brian Anson, and Jim Monahan lead a community march, taking back London for the people.
Photo:A display set up by the CGCA to educate the community about the details of the plan. They feared a "Blitz 1972...if the GLC and developers get their way".
Photo:The CGCA printed and plastered the neighborhood with funny and engaging posters like this one.
Photo:Covent Garden residents protesting against the GLC proposed sell off of Matthews Yard
Photo:Covent Garden Neighbourhood Festival
Photo:The Covent Garden Community gathered for meetings frequently in 1971.
Photo:Calling the community to action!
Photo:A 1973 march through Cambridge Circus

In response to the looming development upheavals taking place in Covent Garden, the community began to organize itself. Brian Anson, a disillusioned former member of the Planning Team, and Reverend Austen Williams, vicar of St.-Martin’s-in-the-Fields, were two key figureheads of the grassroots movement to stop the GLC Plan. Brian Anson realized late in 1970, while he was still on the Planning Team, how destructive the GLC Plan would be. He circulated a letter to residents in which he described his “grave misgivings” about the Plan, a sentiment shared by many by expressed by few at the time. The letter found its way back to GLC headquarters and Anson was removed from the Team. The Reverend, whose parish district included part of Covent Garden, also became involved in the battles to save the community. A protest meeting on 1 April 1971 brought together about 500 people who were ready to do something about the situation.

The striking feature of this rally was the amazing variety of people who showed up – a “remarkable mix of class and ages,” describes Jim Monahan, who was there. Kathy, a current member of the Covent Garden Area Trust, said it was:

“quite interesting that is was a wide variety of people who joined [the protest]: old community, working class people who lived in the area, people who had worked in the market, the print, and the theatres, the young architectural strain who were interested…and some quite high profile people who were interested because they knew the area.

In his book Neighbourhood Survival, Terry Christensen gives us a look at what happened that day:

"On April 1, 1971, a public meeting was organised by Anson, Austen Williams…and Jim Monahan and a group of young architects who had been studying the plan. ‘More than 500 housewives, vegetable porters, students, company directors, artists, pensioners and clergymen’ attended and ‘voted to send a deputation to the GLC immediately.’ [quoting The Times, April 2, 1971] The Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA) was formed…Chaired by Lord Soper, the meeting passed this resolution:‘This meeting called upon the GLC to publish in clear terms what the GLC intends to do in Covent Garden to guarantee that the existing residents will be accommodated in Covent Garden at rents and rates comparable to those they are paying today; to guarantee to people and organisations working in the area that they will not be bought or priced out by the GLC and/or private developers; and to give a promise that the GLC will strive to assist the conservation of the present community in Covent Garden.’”

Thus the CGCA was born. This “motley vociferous collection of locals who had no evident power or influence and were for the first few years largely ignored” (Monahan) immediately got to work in setting up community meetings, a newsletter, protest posters and exhibitions, fundraisers, and a system of street representation that included 11 working committees and 33 elected representatives. A major goal was to educate the community on what the Plan would mean for them – something the GLC had utterly failed to do. Brian Anson states that the CGCA: “had done more in these few [first] weeks to familiarise people with the proposals and elicit their views than the Planning Team had done in the five years from 1966 to 1971…”

Demonstrations were another way the Covent Garden community made its voice heard. “The largest took place in 1973 when the CGCA co-ordinated London community groups in a huge demonstration that filled Trafalgar Square to protest the destruction of their communities by way of official plans and crude speculation by private developers,” says Monahan, who also mentions that they: “thought nothing of taking over GLC press conferences, squatting buildings, organizing demonstrations, circulating ‘scurrilous leaflets full of untruths’ and organizing demonstrations to Lady D[artmouth]’s Mayfair home.”

Things came to a head in the autumn of 1971 as a public Inquiry was held to decide whether the Plan was truly appropriate and beneficial to Covent Garden. The roguish rabble-rousers buckled down to do serious battle as formal objectors to the plan. The CGCA was one group of many: objectors “ranged from national amenity societies and financial interests to local pressure groups and individual residents or business people.” (Christensen) Those who testified were eager to have their voices heard at last. However, Monahan describes that “what purported to be an independent enquiry was evidently a charade and the result preordained. True to form, the enquiry approved the GLC’s proposals.” All hope was not yet lost, however. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Geoffrey Rippon, had the final say. In January of 1973, while appearing to approve the Plan, he listed over 250 Covent Garden area buildings as sites of historical protection and made critical recommendations for amendments to the Plan. The CGCA and everyone who had supported the cause of the community had, by the skin of their teeth, saved Covent Garden.

The CGCA is still active today, protecting the interests of those who live and work in Covent Garden. They work with Westminster and Camden Councils as well as local businesses to maintain quality in areas like housing, street environment, business licensing, town planning, and health care. Over the years the CGCA has been responsible for a wide range of projects, including the Seven Dials Community Centre, Jubilee Hall Sports Centre, the Covent Garden Area Trust, community gardens, tenants’ associations, and a variety of others. Without this group, made up of and supported by the Covent Garden community, Covent Garden as we know and love it today would not exist. For more information see their website.

"Rhubarb to the Covent Garden Plan." Timeout 14 May 1971: 8-13. Print.

Monahan, Jim. "Rev Preb Austen Williams CVO - An Appreciation." Covent Garden London.

Covent Garden Community Association, Dec. 2001. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.

Lane, Sarah. Personal interview. 9 Oct. 2012.

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

Pembroke, Simon. An Independent Report of the Objections Raised at the Inquiry into the Covent Garden Plan . London: n.p., 1972. Print.

Anson, Brian. I'll Fight You for It!: Behind the Struggle for Covent Garden. London: Cape, 1981.Print.

This gallery was added by Anne Bransford on 07/11/2012.

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