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Local Government Chronicle – 22 November 2007

It has been a long and controversial journey, but London's St Pancras station has finally arrived at its destination of international status. But what effect has the development had on local communities? Mark Smulian finds out

As the first Eurostar pulled out of the reborn St Pancras station, the long-term effects of the new high-speed service were being calculated with either eager anticipation or uneasy foreboding.

While the launch celebrations were in full swing, local residents protested at what they saw as another nail in the coffin of the community around St Pancras.

The new line will make it quicker to get from London to Paris and Brussels, and open up important regeneration potential that the councils concerned are eager to exploit. Cities in the Midlands hope to become more attractive places for investment once they are within three hours and one change of train from these continental capitals.

Domestic high-speed services start in December 2009 and will bring both economically depressed east Kent and the growth areas around Ashford and the Thames Gateway within easy reach of London. But Eurostar's new stopping pattern also threatens huge traffic jams in central Kent around its new Ebbsfleet station.

For those who live around St Pancras the problem is not the station or train service itself, but development on the adjacent derelict former railway sidings north of King's Cross. This will be largely devoted to offices, with only a little housing, and the community feels squeezed out by commercial interests.

By coincidence, the Eurostar launch came only a week after Camden LBC sent a protest letter to housing minister Yvette Cooper and culture secretary James Purnell over an increasingly acrimonious dispute about the fate of the last major plot of available land near St Pancras. It is a clear example of what happens when the regeneration juggernaut and local needs come into conflict.

Brill Place was once earmarked for an extension of the adjacent British Library, but has now been put up for sale by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport. Camden has a planning brief that calls for housing on most of the site. But a group of medical charities wants to buy the site with University College London to build a huge laboratory that would bring together leading research experts.

Great, but not here, Camden says. Leader Keith Moffitt (Lib Dem) and deputy leader Andrew Marshall (Con), told the ministers the government has repeatedly urged councils to devote more land to housing.

Faced with a 10% projected growth in population by 2016, Camden stands by its brief and objects to DCMS selling the site without any provision that would "prioritise housing provision at a level in excess of what can reasonably be achieved relying solely on the local planning authority using its planning powers". The DCMS says "public value" would be a consideration along with price in any sale.

There is another concern. A medical research facility would almost certainly house dangerous substances and engage in animal experiments, and Camden fears that putting such a facility in the middle of London could make it a magnet for terrorists, animal rights extremists and others bent on disruption.

Michael Edwards, joint chair of the King's Cross Railway Lands Group, says: "The brief for the site is for housing and various commercial uses, and I don't understand why such a medical research facility has to be there.

"The station will be a gateway to England and the site should not be a medical research facility that will open only to those who work there."

Mr Edwards points out that the area also has a very diverse settled community of some 60,000 people living within 1km of the station, which is "under pressure from very dramatic rises in house prices and rents, and the arrival of the new station will accelerate that".

He accepts that Camden, and its neighbour Islington LBC, want more housing, but says "they don't seem to have the guts to stand up to the very intense pressure from developers and very attractive planning gain agreements".

Those deals, known as s106, allow councils to require developers to contribute to affordable housing, community projects and infrastructure.

Mr Edwards says: "Councillors always feel very proud when they have negotiated them and say they have got things for the community, but they are no compensation for a bad scheme."

Only around 2,000 homes, some 30% of them affordable, will be built among the 750,000 square metres of offices planned.

"We would want to see 50% of homes affordable out of a larger total," he says. "The developers have got planning permission, but things change. People can go bust and the economy may change, so we remain optimistic that we could still see a better outcome."

Camden's cabinet member for culture Flic Rea (Lib Dem) says that while the council would like more homes and thinks "there are quite enough offices", all the relevant planning permissions have long been in place and the council cannot undo things to which previous administrations agreed.

"It's true there are only 2,000 homes, but we have got a lot of other things there through the s106 agreements: a museum, swimming pool, possibly a library, a sports hall, performance space and preservation of some historic buildings," she says.

However a battle over homes looms on the small part of the site that lies in Islington, where the local planning committee - controlled by opposition Labour councillors under the council's devolution policy - has rejected a development for having insufficient affordable homes. The council now faces a planning appeal by the developer.

Leader James Kempton (Lib Dem) hopes that Islington will benefit economically if its nearby concentration of bars, eateries and entertainment venues tempt Eurostar passengers. "We hope many of them will head into the restaurant capital of north London," he says.

It is possible investors arriving from Europe will take a break in Islington on their way to the East Midlands. But it is unlikely that many people in Paris or Brussels have ever thought 'I could be in Derby in three hours'. Nonetheless the Three Cities Partnership, a co-ordinating body for Derby, Leicester and Nottingham, sees its area as attractive to continental investors.

Land is relatively cheap in the East Midlands, wages are lower than in the south, it is nearer to the continent than is the north and it has a pool of readily available labour.

Partnership manager Una Key says: "We want to create links and things have been done for that, but Eurostar seems focused on marketing the outward journey, rather than with promoting travel to London.

"The Three Cities are an alterative to the south-east for business investment and our objective is to grow the knowledge economy in an area where traditional industries have declined."

Kent CC faces both opportunities and problems. Eurostar has controversially almost abandoned its services from Ashford, in favour of Ebbsfleet. While Ashford is a town on the national rail network, Ebbsfleet is a gigantic park-and-ride site with 2,500 spaces near the M25 and is neither in a town nor served by any conventional railway.

If that switch seems perverse in an age when public policy generally discourages car use, Eurostar is having none of it. A petition against the switch away from Ashford was gathered last year, signed by prominent councillors from Kent, Hampshire, East Sussex and West Sussex county councils and by almost every district council and MP in Kent. It noted that the many passengers who drive to Ashford from further west would have to clog up motorways towards London to reach Ebbsfleet.

"The cut in Ashford services would send out the wrong signal for the promotion of Ashford as a designated government growth area and weaken the area's ability to attract new companies in search of international connections," the petition said.

This fell on deaf ears. Eurostar says its research showed that two-thirds of Ashford passengers would prefer Ebbsfleet, and that hardly anyone travelled from the town to Brussels. "There is a fall-off in passenger numbers the more stops we have, because we compete with airlines which are all nonstop, and we think we have the stopping pattern right in Kent," the company says.

Domestic services from Ebbsfleet will reach St Pancras in just 17 minutes, and towns in economically struggling east Kent are pinning their hopes on these to bring them into London's economic orbit. Most of this area is beyond reasonable commuter range at present and rapid links to London, and indeed to Paris and Brussels, should make it a more attractive destination for investment.

Mick Sutch, Kent CC's head of planning and transport strategy, says the traffic effects of Ebbsfleet remain "a bit of an unknown quantity", but expects the real pressure will come once the domestic services begin. There are no new roads planned to cope with this, though. Kent is pressing the government for a second bridge across the Thames downstream from the Dartford Bridge.

"The domestic services will improve the attractiveness of Thanet, Folkestone and Dover for commuting," Mr Sutch says. "Kent is concerned about infrastructure, since both Ashford and the Thames Gateway are in growth areas, but that is part of a general concern across the south-east about infrastructure keeping pace with development."

The high-speed service from St Pancras is an impressive technical achievement, not least for having been built on time. No one yet knows what the economic effects might be of it being as quick, and often cheaper, to get from London to Paris or Brussels than to major cities in northern England, and people's opinions of the new services will depend very much on where they are looking from.