“A conservation tragedy on the scale of the Euston Arch” — the fight for the Bishopsgate Goodsyard

At journalism school in 2003 I had to make a “final project” consisting of a piece of long-form reporting on a particular subject, along with some colour pieces to go alongside it, all typeset to mimic a particular magazine or newspaper’s style.

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I chose to write about the fight by some east London residents to save the Bishopsgate Goodsyard, a large patch of land between Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road. It was one of the key decision points in the rebuilding of what was then London Underground’s East London Line and is now the eastern strut of London Overground.

The piece was in the style of a New Statesman special report. I’ve reposted the main piece of reporting below in the light of a new PR push by the developers of the land, seventeen years later. I haven’t edited it at all; all mistakes therefore are mine, and anything I reported then that has later turned out to be wrong, or wildly inaccurate, remains below as I reported at the time.

There’s also a consultation open for you to submit your views.

No Londoner would argue that public transport in the capital is adequate. Despite the success of the congestion charge since February the buses are still stuck in traffic jams, and far below, the trains are stuck in their tunnels awaiting signal upgrades and track refurbishment.

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The solution seems, as always, to be investment. Since the late 1990s, when capital expenditure on infrastructure was split from day-to-day running costs in the Tube’s annual budget we have been able to watch just how public money is being spent on the public works projects we hear about so often.

Since the completion of the Jubilee Line Extension in 2000 there have been five rail projects dangling in front of Londoners’ eyes. The most talked-about, and most expensive is Crossrail, the underground link from Paddington through the West End and the City to Essex, which would allow railway trains to travel across the city. Then there is the Thameslink 2000 project, which promised to upgrade the ailing and overused Thameslink service that runs north to south across the capital.

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link promises to cut journey times from London to the Continent by thirty minutes, and — uniquely among current major transport projects — is running under budget and to time. The Hackney-SouthWest line, also known as Crossrail 2, is the current incarnation of long-discussed plans — some of which date back to before the Second World War — to bring the Underground to densely populated areas of the city that currently have no easy Tube access.

Finally, the East London Line extension plans to extend a nine-station line that runs through parts of East London and Docklands, to form an orbital railway connecting with the existing overground South, West and North London railways. The line would be a boon for commuters who work in outlying areas, who could avoid having to travel into central London and back out again just to get somewhere that may be just down the road.

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At the moment, the East London Line runs through some of London’s most deprived boroughs. Tellingly, it doesn’t actually connect them to anywhere else. The extension, shown in the map opposite, would connect the line, north and south, to existing railways, over which trains could run to a far greater array of destinations than is currently possible.

The oldest part of the London Underground actually predates the rest of the network by almost 20 years. Sir Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, which runs between Wapping and Rotherhithe, was built in 1843 as a passenger tunnel, and bought out 26 years later by the builders of the East London Railway, who converted it for use by passenger and goods trains. In the meantime, in 1862, the Underground as we know it had come into being with the construction of the Metropolitan Railway.

The plans to extend the line centre upon an even older structure — the 1839 Braithwaite viaduct. This remnant of an earlier railway, when the East London Railway continued on into Liverpool Street from the south, will be demolished under current plans for the railway. Campaigners say it’s a historic building and it would be “an outrage” to demolish it. Moreover, they say, the whole plan as it stands, is “just a shady property deal masquerading as a railway”.

London Underground hope to have the line built within six years. They first need to reassure the people of the East End that their vital local heritage and amenities are not going to be bulldozed to make way for big businesses.

Just a few minutes’ walk east from Liverpool Street station in the City of London, the battle lines have been drawn. Ranged on one side are the Greater London Assembly, Transport for London (TfL), London Underground and numerous local businesses. On the other are the local interest groups, community associations and conservationists, who accuse their opponents of “cultural vandalism”.

What is at stake is the Bishopsgate goodsyard, a cavernous 19th Century site which has lain largely derelict for as long as anybody can remember. That is why, according to London’s government, we should be demolishing it and building a new viaduct across it, which will carry trains from the current East London Line tracks at Whitechapel to a new station north of Liverpool Street, paving the way for the regeneration of the entire East London Line.

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The conservationists say that the blame for leaving the yard derelict lies squarely with British Rail, Railtrack and its successor Network Rail, who owned the yard for years and never did anything with it. They say that the site would not be properly redeveloped under current plans — that the line would be built through it and the rest of the land would be given over to wealthy property developers.

What the local community wants, according to the conservationists, is to see the goodsyard redeveloped to serve the surrounding area — the railway could be built over the yard, where an original railway viaduct still stands, and the land could be used for more community-friendly development of shops, businesses and housing, while keeping its structure intact.

The existing, long-disused track through the site is laid on a piece of architecture known as the Braithwaite viaduct. The viaduct, built in 1839, is a relic of the days when the line passed through the area on its way into Liverpool Street. Railway consultant David Brice remembers travelling on the old line: “I remember travelling from Brentwood to Worthing on a through train. After the war freight trains ran through it, and there were Sunday excursions to Eastbourne and such places.”

‘All of the local councils are in support of this. TfL is in support of this, Ken Livingstone has said so numerous times.’

The East London Line, according to the current plans, would run from where it currently ends, at Whitechapel, north-west towards Liverpool Street, taking in a new station north of the goodsyard, before continuing north to Dalston, Hackney and linking up to other underground lines at Highbury & Islington. Dalston, Hackney and parts of Islington feature often in lists of London’s most deprived areas. New plans for Tube expansion have, down the years, often included bringing a line to Hackney, but for one reason or another — usually a lack of money or time — the plans have been shelved. This is the closest the line has got so far, and the residents are not going to give up now.

The famed regenerative power of Tube stations on depressed communities is one reason why Hackney and Dalston are so desperate for Tube links. The line would effectively give residents new places to work, shop and live, because of the ease of hopping on a Tube and heading down to Canary Wharf or the City, rather than sitting in a traffic jam on a bus or taking your chances on infrequent overground rail services.

More importantly politically, the regeneration of the East London Line would lead the way towards one of Tony Blair’s pet projects, the redevelopment of the Thames Gateway, another deprived area to the East of London, as well as forming part of the fabled outer-circle route.

This is another project that has long been dangled before Londoners’ eyes — an orbital railway taking in areas not previously connected to the Tube, or easily connected to each other, allowing travellers to get to neighbouring areas quickly without going through the expense and time of travelling into central London and back out again.

What is odd about this planning fight is that both sides actually want the railway to be built. Everybody appreciates the benefits that the new line would bring. It would be quick to build, at six years’ total construction time, and cheap at around £500 million, compared to the billions that the better-known Crossrail scheme would cost.

The Sydenham Society campaigns on behalf of south London residents, and has been in favour of the extensions for some time. Their Secretary, Barry Milton, says: “All of the local councils are in support of this. TfL is in support of this, Ken Livingstone has said so numerous times. It’s a comparatively low cost scheme, and in relation to what it would do for this area and the East End and the north of London, it’s extremely cheap, since most of it already exists.”

In October 1993, six years after the plan was first mooted, London Underground (LU) applied for planning permission to begin building the northern section of the extension. It took over a year for the inquiry to reach its verdict, which was that the line would go ahead without objections. In September 1996, the Dalston viaduct, which would form part of the new line, became the first site of construction work on the extension. However, work on the rest of the line could not begin until the government had pledged the money for its construction.

In the meantime, in March 2000, LU applied for similar planning permission for the southern extensions. The public inquiry took place in November that year, and the plans were approved the following October. In April of that year (2001) the £39 million funding for the northern extension came through from the Strategic Rail Authority, which approves and funds all British railway building projects.

Work finally began on the northern section of the new line in September 2001, a full 14 years after the first plans were published, and seven years after the initial moves were made. It was then that the real problems began.

The regeneration of the East London Line would lead the way to one of Tony Blair’s pet projects, the redevelopment of the Thames Gateway.

The southern extension to the line would run over a new viaduct from Surrey Quays, south-west towards Dulwich, before joining the existing railway tracks in the area. The plan is to use the extended East London Line as the basis for the orbital railway, something consultant David Brice looked at in 1995. He says: “I was commissioned originally in 1995 by LU to look at the feasibility of creating an outer circle service, which I did and I said that the only problems were managerial. Pretty well all the physical infrastructure is there, the West London, North London, East London, and there was a gap across to the South London line. Most of the formation for that is there — it’s missing a bridge, it’s a question of putting back something that was there to begin with.”

Christian Wolmar, transport journalist and Crossrail advocate, says that the project is stereotypical of our inability to pull together construction projects. “The real thing about the East London Line was, here was a simple project for which permission was obtained some time ago, which didn’t need a huge amount of money, which would have enormous cost-benefit, and which would bring the railway to Hackney for the first time,” he says. “And in the end it stalled for God knows how long. It’s so indicative of our inability to get big projects going.”

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The problems facing the line are twofold: the planning permission for the line has still not been granted, and the funding for the construction of the extension is not secure. The authorities argue that the cheapest option would be to demolish the entire goodsyard and rebuild it with the new line. Jon Aldenton of the Environment Trust, which campaigns for community schemes in East London, disagrees: “Our view, and the view that we’ve got from some fairly careful professional analysis done by Alan Baxter Associates, was that in order to build the railway line it’s cheaper to leave the existing structure than to demolish it, because the demolition costs of the existing structure are enormous.

“You’ve got a structure that was built to take steam trains, so of course it’s going to take the lighter trains that are likely to run on the East London Line. Basically, then, the only new infrastructure you have to put in are the ramp up from Whitechapel station and the bridge across Bishopsgate. Whereas in order to do what they’re proposing to do, you’ve got to spend something like £25 million on demolishing the existing structure. Once you start demolishing that structure it’s over railway lines — I mean, there are railway lines running into Liverpool Street alongside it, and indeed underneath it. And in order to do this demolition you can only do it at certain times when the railway isn’t operating which makes it very expensive indeed.”

The Jubilee Line extension, in the 1990s, was built with the assistance of private funding, under what is now known as a Private Finance Initiative, and it is likely that PFI would be brought in for the ELLX. Christian Wolmar doesn’t think PFI is the answer: “It makes every project more complicated. It always does, because you then have to work out how the project is going to be realised. And you can never have it directly funded by the Treasury, so then you have to go and get funding consortia together, and there’s nobody to do it. I had a session with London and Continental the other day, and I was quite taken by their argument that what you need in these sort of schemes is a kind of project development arm like that. You need somebody to take the project forward that is separate from the financing bit, and just to do the project and not worry about the financing.”

The man who has been holding back the project — as far as the authorities are concerned — is former market trader Andy Prokopp. The 54-year-old first came to the attention of the press in March when he issued a legal challenge to Tower Hamlets Borough Council, after they decided to allow London Underground to demolish the site.

His stand was backed by high-profile architects Peter Hall, Edzo Bindels and Richard McCormac, who said at the time: “I am amazed that there isn’t a solution to all the requirements that makes use of what’s there. It is a fantastic piece of construction. It is absolutely astonishing.” Hall, professor of planning at the Bartlett school, envisaged the site as “a very special kind of London place which will become as big an attraction as Covent Garden and Camden Lock.”

Prokopp took over the campaign from railway historian Keith Hammerton, who last October took LU to the High Court over what he claimed was a breach of planning consent. The judge agreed with him but refused to grant an injunction, leaving the final decision to the two councils involved, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Jon Aldenton believes that pressure from the government meant that the two councils had little choice: “There’s enormous pressure on them — there was enormous pressure exerted on both local authorities, neither of whom are capable of resisting much pressure. They’re not rich authorities with lots of resources, or even much depth of knowledge and strength in their planning departments. I mean, Hackney essentially doesn’t have a planning department.”

Hammerton was assaulted on the first day of the judicial review, having received a series of threatening telephone calls. At the time Det Insp Alan Jenkinson, who was investigating the assault, said: “There are a number of interested parties in the East London Line extension project who may want to use intimidation to ensure the project goes ahead.” Hammerton bowed out of the campaign, and Andy Prokopp became its figurehead.

Work finally began on the northern section of the new line in September 2001, 14 years after the first plans were published, and seven years after the initial moves were made.

A softly spoken cockney, the grey-haired Prokopp doesn’t look like the average heritage campaigner. He worked in the market and in the surrounding warehouses all his life, until two falls three years ago left him unable to carry heavy objects or walk without pain. He was already involved in community work before that, but now he devotes almost all of his time to helping the market and its people.

“I ended up living in Brick Lane market, in Buxton Street, living there full time, seven days a week,” he says. “And it gets into your blood, not just on a Sunday, it’s a way of life. If I was a somnambulist, that’s where I’d end up on a Sunday morning. One of the traders here, Charlie Burns, he’s 86 years of age, he’s been known to go for a world cruise, to get off the boat on a Saturday, and fly back for Brick Lane market on a Sunday. I’m not exaggerating, that’s how much it can get into your brain.”

The fight over the goodsyard is not his first brush with the legal system: “I got involved in with the council for the first time by taking a car park that they’d rented out to the Truman Brewery — when Truman’s vacated they welded the gates up. Now we’ve got parking restrictions all around and this belongs to the people, this car park. So what did I do? I opened it up, and printed up flyers, gave ’em to all the market traders saying: ‘Free parking for market traders at the community car park.’ It was all covered up with beer tins and overgrown. And they’d covered it with big thick aggregate stone. I raked it all and made little roadways — it was like the seaside! They took us to court and the judge thought we’d looked after it so well and that we’d had the brains to clean it up properly, he recommended to the council that I run the car park!”

He is hugely critical of Tower Hamlets’s Liberal Democrat administration: “In my time I’ve seen the Liberal Democrat administration come in, and some of them were corrupt. And they tried to gentrify the market itself. They tried to give out planning permission for all the B1 units to become residential. They put ironmongery up under the guise of ‘City Challenge’ — £40 million to spend amongst yourselves, and go home at five o’clock. Not live in the area or have any concern, you can have lovely ironmongery and litter bins and road markings, but you can’t have a needle exchange for prostitutes. You can’t have a couple of nurses going round in a bus with a doctor, like they do in Paris, to check on people’s kids who’s out there, whoring.

“They still want to get rid of the market, it’s still the same that the market inspectors are fuck-all use, a waste of space — tax gatherers. They just want the market gone, because councils want to provide no services. Councils want to provide planning and policy. It’s control. You’ve read Nineteen Eighty Four, haven’t you? If you look at the local government now, we’ve got a thing called the cabinet, and it’s authorised by central government. It’s seven councillors with no opposition, no independents. Just decisions behind closed doors. Which is how businesses operate, around the world. Governments don’t exist for the welfare of the people anymore.”

He has been interested in the fate of the goodsyard since long before the idea of the ELLX came about. “I protested because since 1981/82, when I became interested, I’ve been writing to British Rail, to try and do something with them,” he says. “It was called the Undercroft then, that’s how they referred to it. I was into British Rail, saying, I can do something here, I can put the market there, anything. But they said, no, no. It just seemed that one scheme after another was proposed.

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“So I’ve got nowhere with British Rail, I’ve protested at the council meetings, I’ve gone to the public inquiry and protested, tried to get it listed, tried to get English Heritage on board.”

“And then I was invited by Kay Jordan of the Spitalfields Small Business Association (SSBA). Kay Jordan knows my concern, I’ve always wanted to work with the SSBA, I said the perimeter should be rebuilt as it was originally all with small shops, which they would administer. And the market could go inside — Saturday and Sunday, you could have it all night, like it used to be in Brick Lane. And then Monday to Friday you’ve got an enormous car park right next to the congestion zone.

London Underground, for their part, say that “An assessment was produced in 1993 for the original attempt to preserve the yard. All the work that we intended to carry out was thoroughly examined during the course of extensive consultation with a number of bodies including English Heritage, culminating in a full public inquiry in 1995.

“English Heritage stated there was ‘nothing of special architectural or historic interest’ other than the gates and screen wall”. English Heritage were encouraged to have a closer look and reassess the goodsyard in 2002, and in the second report they changed their tune somewhat. “The needless demolition of the goodsyard would be a conservation tragedy on the scale of the Euston Arch [part of the original Euston station that was lost in the rebuilding and found in someone’s back garden],” they said last year.

‘It gets into your blood, not just on a Sunday, it’s a way of life. If I was a somnambulist, that’s where I’d end up on a Sunday morning. I’m not exaggerating, that’s how much it can get into your brain.’

Andy Prokopp continues: “She said that people had been getting agitated about it and they’d started forming up. Prince Charles had got involved. So I went to a meeting and they asked me to be their spokesperson. This was about two years ago. So I wrote to Prince Charles, and Prince Charles didn’t write back to me, he wrote a full page in the Evening Standard as a reply, about saving the goodsyard. Nowhere on their agenda did they have the market, which I got to the top of the agenda somehow — harryin’ ‘em!

“I even offered them an alternative, through an intermediary. I said, the city’s trying to push out in different directions to different sites, all of which are meeting active opposition. And when they get together they’ll be more than active. Why not use a bit of foresight — how about decanting rich and poor alike into Wapping, kickstarting the Thames Gateway regeneration? There are some of those schemes up and running already. The City and Canary Wharf can meet the rent differential by coming together.”

The goodsyard is not the only thing on his agenda as a community activist, either: “I’ve got lots of things that I want to take to the High Court. But I need to have solicitors like Richard Buxton, I need barristers that have got more motivation than money. One of the barristers that we’ve got said that his chambers were the ‘street-fighters’ of barristers. Well, I’ve not had that proved to me. I know who the street fighters are in real life, because I’ve been there. I’ve been a street fighter, but for an educated barrister to tell me that his chambers are street fighters, he’s got to do a lot more than win or lose a property deal. I’m interested in lots of things, but welfare of people’s pretty high.

The future of the site is still uncertain. Andy Prokopp’s legal team have a meeting on June 18, where they will decide on their appeal strategy. Prokopp still believes in the future of the goodsyard as a local asset, and denies that he is holding up progress: “What would you like to see? An office block or something that the community can use? Of course I want the railway line through the complex, but I don’t want it to run on two grey concrete pillars. LU said to me we could have the space under the pillars for the market. I have said to the City and to LU that we’ll do everything we can to raise the money. “
LU and the East London Line Group, which has been steering the project since its inception, still say that the plans, as put forward by Prokopp and the Environment Trust, will not work.

They say: “Our engineers believe that it is not safe to run a railway over these structures. If they cannot demonstrate to the Railway Inspectorate that the structures are safe then the extension would not go ahead.” The company is concerned that since the 1964 fire there has been no maintenance on the structure of the buildings. But Andy Prokopp thinks the future is bright for the yard: “We want the East London Line, but we don’t want the goodsyard to be knocked down. Because it’s a property deal hiding behind a proposed railway. There isn’t any heritage without the community, and there isn’t any community without its heritage.”

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I am indebted to the following people for giving me their time and expertise during the reporting of this piece.

Andy Prokopp
Christian Wolmar
Maxwell Freedman
Barry Milton, Sydenham Society
Vincent Stops, London Transport Users’ Committee
David Brice, David Brice Rail Consultancy
Jon Aldenton, The Environment Trust
Tony Davies, Tower Hamlets Borough Council
Richard Buxton, Richard Buxton Solicitors
Tony Luvey, LRHS
Peter Boxell, London Underground Communications Office
Jonathan Roberts, East London Line Group

I used to be a journalist. Now I’m a product manager.

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