Plans for the £1 billion “super-hub” HS2 station at Old Oak Common, announced with fanfares this week, are certainly eye-catching. They will provide the catalyst for huge development, creating some 25,500 new homes and 65,000 jobs in a previously neglected industrial area north of Wormwood Scrubs — the vast open common that is bordered on the south side by Hammersmith Hospital and HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs.
Local amenity groups such as the Friends of the Scrubs, of whom I am one, applaud the ambition of the project but are wary of the impact of 250,000 passengers a day on their precious open space. The Scrubs is not a park but a haven for walkers, dog-walkers, kite and model aircraft flyers, botanists, bird watchers, lepidopterists, joggers, sports and games players — indeed, just about anyone who treasures a temporary escape from the urban environment. The Scrubs has been described in certain planning documents as “more wild than tamed”. It is this uniquely rustic character that devotees of one of London’s last big open spaces fear may now be under threat.
The Scrubs enjoys statutory protection under the Wormwood Scrubs Act 1879, by virtue of which it is held in trust for its “perpetual use...by the inhabitants of the metropolis for exercise and recreation”. The current trustee of the Scrubs is the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, a committee of which is responsible for its administration. It is also protected from inappropriate development as Metropolitan Open Land. Parts of it are a Local Nature Reserve. Recent planning history tells us that inroads can be made into planning policy designed to protect open space. When the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) was created in 2015, its boundary included the Scrubs (with the exceptions of the Linford Christie Stadium and the Pony Centre). The OPDC is the planning authority for the area north of the Scrubs where the proposed development will take place and many local residents as well as the Friends of the Scrubs opposed the Scrubs’s inclusion. Indeed the London Assembly which had to approve the creation of the corporation added a recommendation that the Scrubs should be taken out – but it hasn’t been. The question remains unanswered as to why the Scrubs, governed as it is by the Wormwood Scrubs Charitable Trust (WSCT), needs to be within the area of a planning authority dedicated to one of Britain’s biggest urban developments just north of its border.
It is incontrovertible that the station and proposed development will bring enormous benefit to an area ripe for regeneration. It is also obvious that with the creation of so many homes and offices, in addition to the station, there will be an inevitable increase in the number of users of the Scrubs. As “inhabitants of the metropolis” they are entitled to that use. At the same time there is no reason why the development on Old Oak Common should be unsympathetic to the character of the Scrubs. The current proposed OPDC Local Plan, on which there has been extensive consultation, is about to be the subject of an examination in public in April. It contains numerous proposals concerning pedestrian and cycle access to and across the Scrubs. Something of a bone of contention between the OPDC and Scrubs users has been the question of access from the north, in particular whether it should proceed direct from the new station. The Friends of the Scrubs accept access from the north but not from this point, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who considers that the character of the Scrubs merits protection, a stance supported by the WSCT.
How views across the Scrubs would be affected by numerous proposed tall buildings is another issue. There is a natural anxiety that developers will view a “park aspect” as a considerable selling point. Regular Scrubs users will have to remain vigilant to ensure that its distinctive aspect, “more wild than tamed”, does not become manicured, metalled and trampled by a crush of fleeting visitors. The questioner of any development that carries some benefit always runs the risk of being labelled a Nimby. It is certain that there is going to be a huge something in the backyard of the Scrubs and no one is going to stop it. Lovers of the Scrubs just don’t want that something to swallow up one of the capital’s most precious jewels.