Davids slay Goliath of Dolphin Square

A consortium of residents and community groups has defeated plans to revamp one of London’s most famous—and notorious—buildings

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Dolphin Square: London landmark with a racy reputation (©DAVID HOLT CC BY-2.0)

Dolphin Square is one of the landmarks of London. Famous as a haunt of MPs, living fairly affordably within the limits of the division bells of the House of Commons—they can dash from their flats to the Palace of Westminster to cast their votes in the archaic lobby system that requires the physical presence of our legislators—it looks like a fortress. This was no accident. When it was built in the mid-1930s, it already seemed more than possible that London would be attacked from the air. Dolphin Square was built to withstand being bombed. Which was just as well because its proximity to Battersea Power Station on the other side of the river meant that it did receive a number of direct hits. A dozen or so people were killed, but the buildings themselves came through needing little repair.

You can’t fail to notice Dolphin Square. It rises like a series of tawny-red cliffs, as much like a natural phenomenon as a work of architecture. It’s splendid in its ambition, monumental in the stern discipline of its style, glorious in its single-minded devotion to the London material of brick. But a proposal by the American owners, Westbrook Holdings, to demolish a significant part of it and increase the height has made me look at it with a new curiosity (I live nearby). And I find it’s even more remarkable than I had thought.

Researching the history of Dolphin Square, I find its construction was not  quite a case of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”—“They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.” A century before, it had been Thomas Cubitt’s famous yard. From the 1820s, Cubitt had been the builder/entrepreneur who developed Pimlico, not merely laying out the grid of streets and squares but controlling every aspect of production. The yard, placed next to the Thames so that it could take deliveries from places such as Cubitt’s brickworks on the Medway, became one of the sights of London. As many as 80 heavy horses could be seen hauling cartloads of wooden beams, scaffold poles, iron railings, plaster details and paving slabs. It was the one part of Pimlico that the great man did not develop. Before the project was finished in the 1860s, Cubitt had died and fashion had moved on. When the yard was no longer needed, it was replaced by an army clothing factory.

‘You can’t fail to recognise Dolphin Square. It rises like a series of red cliffs, glorious in its single-minded devotion to London brick’

The site’s next owner, the American Frederick French Corporation, probably got it from the landlord, the Duke of Westminster, on the cheap. That was in the Depression-hit 1930s. But the finances of that corporation did not stand up and French sold it to Richard Costain, a building contractor whose inherited firm (now the Costain Group Plc) had begun life in Liverpool in the previous century. Costain began work in 1935 and within a year, the first 600 flats were on the market. That number had doubled again by 1937. It was now the biggest development of its kind in Europe.

The idea was American. As A.P. Herbert wrote in a promotional booklet of 1935, the Square was intended to constitute “a city of 1,250 flats, each enjoying at the same time most of the advantages of the separate house and the big communal dwelling place”. All the needs of life were met on site. There was a restaurant, a swimming pool, a squash court, a little parade of shops (inward-facing, so as to serve the Square rather than the none-too-salubrious surrounding streets), a delightful Spanish Garden around which residents could stroll without leaving the precincts of the development. A nursery constituted its own “little world” (according to an article in the in-house magazine The Dolphin) on some of the upper floors. Heat came from the surplus hot water of Battersea Power Station—no grimy coal to carry to the domestic fireplace. Here was dolce far niente for the affluent middle classes. As Herbert wrote, with brazen male chauvinism, “fortunate wives”, having been provided with an in-house restaurant, might not “have enough to do. A little drudgery is good for wives, perhaps. The Dolphin lady may be spoiled.”

The claim was not repeated in the publicity material of 1937. That sought to evoke the up-to-the-minute glamour of Dolphin Square life. Under the heading  “Effortless Home Life”, the virtues of the hard-working housekeeper of the Victorian era were disparaged. Now that “modern science” made it all unnecessary, a devoted wife and mother was no longer judged by the amount of drudgery she put in. How much more agreeable, the illustration suggested, to join her suavely tailored husband on a terrace overlooking the river, or to look down from a roof terrace, cigarette-holder in hand, on the rest of humanity in their motorcars on Grosvenor Road. A tangerine and red striped parasol makes it look like the Côte d’Azur.

One of the earliest tenants was Lord Burghley, politician and Olympian. He was one of a number of aristocrats whom the owners might have thought added tone. But the enormous development catered to more than one social class; the cost of the cheapest flats was one tenth that of the most expensive. Novelists, journalists, actors and army officers could be found there, as well as a high number of single women for whom the sheltered environment was thought safe.

Everyone has heard of Dolphin Square. As a result, it attracts scandal, or accusations of scandal, often false, though not always. Four years ago, the BBC described it, conditionally, as the UK’s most notorious address. That was extreme. No serial murderers have lived there, and if Winston Churchill’s daughter
Sarah was evicted for throwing bottles out of the window, well, couldn’t that happen to anyone?

Admittedly, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley occupied one of the flats—it was where he was arrested during the Second World War—and in 2015 Lord Sewel had to resign from his position as deputy speaker of the House of Lords after having been filmed allegedly snorting cocaine with two prostitutes. It was also in Dolphin Square that the Tory MP Iain Mills drank himself to death, depriving John Major’s parlous government of its majority in 1997. But frankly, you would expect some goings-on in so vast a complex. For there’s an awful lot of Dolphin Square on its site of seven acres. Although the place is generally regarded (in defiance of the BBC) as rather upmarket, the density, as planners call it, is one of the highest in London.

Each of the blocks at Dolphin Square is named after a British naval hero. Westbrook’s plan involved demolishing one of them, Rodney House, built lower than the rest (originally so that it would not overshadow the then neighbouring streets). This was to be replaced by a building in more or less the same style but several storeys taller. Another storey was to be added to all the other blocks, too. A side road would be developed with the equivalent of mews houses. Throughout would be a smattering of the affordable houses which Pimlico, like other places in this expensive city, badly wants. And in the new Rodney House, an entrance of three arches would proclaim the accessibility of the internal garden to the public at large. But in the course of providing extra leisure facilities, the existing Spanish Garden, with its attractive pergolas and trellises, would have been demolished; and it had been listed Grade 2. Actually, the garden was already open to the public. The sweet parade of original shops would have been swept away, to be replaced by a more standard offering facing the street.

There were benefits to the scheme. These had been painstakingly negotiated by Westminster councillor Angela Harvey over several years. They included public access to the Thames, across what are at present private tennis courts. There would have been a modest provision of affordable housing, the occupants of which would have been designated by Westminster Council. Crucially, 215 tenants who have fixed payments of half the rental value on lease that don’t expire until 2034 would be handsomely treated. They were to be moved out while the worst of the building work took place; on their return, they would have occupied better flats that the ones they had left—not least because the services would have worked. After years of little maintenance, the plumbing and heating systems are on the point of collapse. Against this weighed the great disbenefit: the majority would comprise small flats that could be let on short tenancies, one up, as it were, from the Airbnb model. This is hugely more lucrative than conventional lets. But what local people want is accommodation for families and others who will put down roots. People often laugh at our neighbourhood, which has not quite brushed off the reputation acquired from the 1949 Ealing Comedy Passport to Pimlico. We don’t mind. Pimlico is not quite the same place as it was when full of jokey post-war cockneys, but it remains a community.

The Westminster planners were impressed by the Westwood project. They produced a 92-page report recommending that it should be accepted. Opposing them was a substantial body of public opinion, led by Dolphin Square’s neighbours in the rest of Pimlico and a large number of tenants. Still, what price the views of neighbours and tenants when a multi-million pound development is at stake? Westbrook were planning to spend £500 million (and, it is said, make a cool £400 million profit). The David of local opinion was but a stripling compared to the forces of the Philistines arrayed against it, led by the Goliath of Westbrook. The issue would be decided by a meeting of Westminster’s planning committee on June 4. I was deputed to represent the federation of local residents’ associations. I confess it: I trembled.

The meeting was a model of local democracy. The planning officers put forward their recommendation. Two advocates of the scheme spoke, followed by three lay objectors. After them came the councillors who represent the ward. Nobody except the planning officers was allowed more than three minutes, which concentrated minds and honed rhetoric. The meeting room, high in Westminster City Council’s tower on Victoria Street, was packed with local residents who had, occasionally, to be brought to order. Each of the dozen or so councillors on the committee expressed a view, rationally argued, highly informed from a reading of the paperwork and yet receptive of the arguments being made by local people. I won’t keep you any longer in suspense as to the verdict. David won. Goliath was floored by a unanimous vote of the councillors on the committee against the Westbrook scheme.

The emotion in the room was exhilarating. A lot of grey-haired people had been told that their homes were safe. Pimlico, whose population has already increased by a third since 2000, won’t have to suffer a further densification of Dolphin Square, for the sake of transient traffic who strain the system without contributing much to the neighbourliness we hold dear. This may not be the end of the story. The Mayor of London could decide to call the judgment in. Westbrook might appeal. They could come back with a different scheme, which would reboot the process and make us start again at the beginning. We shall see what the fates have in store for us. For the time being I am content. The democratic system has been under strain of late, to the point of dysfunctionality. But in some corners of the planning system, it works fine.