Ealing - 'A Third Rate Borough in A Third World Country'
A personal and critical view from acclaimed film maker and local resident Tony Palmer
Ealing Council has no vision about what this great Borough should become during the next 50, or even 10 years. Neither the present administration, nor its predecessor, has a clue about how to seize the opportunities which now present themselves, although I do believe that Jason Stacey was edging towards something approaching a vision before he was booted out. The Council spends its time – and our money – blathering about the LDF which is intended to supersede the UDF, without having a single really adventurous idea which might seize the imagination. Raising the level of the pavements in Acton, for instance, is hardly going to be remembered when the history of Ealing’s destruction comes to be written.
Nor is the Council helped by a group of well-meaning individuals called ‘Save Ealing Centre’. I am not denying their incredible hard work, particularly in ensuring that the Glenkerrin/Arcadia Development was consigned to the dustbin where it belonged when it was rejected by HM Inspector (the Council, incidentally, is still nominally supporting this crackpot development). But it seems to me they are all too often lost in the minutiae of charts and tables to rise above and see a grander design.
They believe, for instance, that ‘regeneration’ – which Ealing clearly needs – will come from improving retail. This is nonsense. Ealing cannot possibly compete with Westfields, nor should it. The notion moreover that retail = regeneration is a 60's idea, long since proven to be profoundly mistaken. Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds – and I could give you dozens of examples throughout Europe – are just a few cities where ‘regeneration’ has come from quite other ideas. Birmingham couldn’t wait to pull down its Bull Ring shopping centre once it realised that it had made a crass mistake. In its place it built a concert hall, now one of the best in Europe, which immediately attracted business and regeneration. But I have supported ‘Save Ealing Centre’, and will continue to do so. There is no other lobby group on the horizon, certainly no-one in the present Council capable of having any kind of clue as to what can be done.
If you don’t believe me, I suggest a visit to the next full Council Meeting. My own recent visit was one of the worst experiences I can recall. It made Prime Minister’s Question Time at the House of Commons look like a vicarage tea party. A man from Southall was “invited to present a Petition” about a matter which obviously concerned him greatly. He had at least 1,500 signatures for his Petition. The majority of Councillors talked among themselves while he spoke; some brayed like castrated donkeys. I doubt if any of them could recall single word the petitioner said after he had left. The Mayor mumbled "Order, Order", which is the one thing there was not; the Deputy Mayor was reading something; the Council officers looked bored. It was an outrageous travesty of democracy, an insult to the intelligence. Yet these are the people whom we expect to lead us, to provide a solution to the mess that is Ealing, a solution to our transport problems, our housing, our retail, our future. Forget it. This rabble is condemning Ealing to being a third rate Borough in a third world country.
By its own admission, Network Rail lists Ealing Broadway station as the third worst station in the entire country. It borders the Arcadia site, now owned by a debt-ridden company, which is owned by a debt-ridden Irish bank, which is owned by a debt-ridden country, Ireland. Thus the Council has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enforce a sale of the entire site and impose its own plan, which would incorporate the railway station, provide a much needed transport hub, and revitalise the centre of Ealing. Why doesn’t it do this? Because it is lazy and blinkered.
The existing proposals for the station are pathetic – lengthen this bit of platform, provide a few bicycle racks, a coat of paint here and there. At least, that’s what it feels like. It’s not that Network Rail, Crossrail, Great Western and/or TfL are incapable of a grand design when they want to – look at the miracle of Westminster Station, or what is happening at Tottenham Court Road. After all, we live on the railway line devised by that great Victorian genius, Brunel. He must be revolving in his grave at the thought of the blundering that is going on. I attended a meeting at the House of Commons, chaired appallingly badly by our own MP, Ms Bray, at which the spokesperson for Network Rail (or was it Crossrail? they were interchangeable) admitted that she was not even sure where Ealing Broadway was – “four stops from Paddington”, she said. Four stops??
Again, it is our own Council that must take the blame, simply because it refuses to take the lead, to show leadership. Isn’t that what we elected it for? Not to spend the next decade tinkering with a UDF or LDP.
So what can be done? What the Borough of Ealing lacks is a centre, a heart, something which would focus the different and differing aspects of all corners of the Borough, something to make us proud to enter. Clearly the station and its redevelopment is the key, and why the Council therefore has such a golden opportunity. The only thing that can be said about the present station is that anyone arriving there now is so horrified that all he or she wants to do is get straight back onto the train and get the hell out of here.
So we need a station that is gateway to our Borough, something so spectacular and welcoming that it would attract the very people we need – businessmen, entrepreneurs, artists, residents who are happy to arrive and not flee in panic. All great urban centres, moreover, are built around a piazza. We came up with a scheme (as the illustration shows) in which the new station opens onto a piazza which would occupy the whole of the present Arcadia site. In the piazza we find a new hotel (desperately needed); a multiplex digital cinema (desperately needed); a conference centre (desperately needed); an arts centre with concert hall and/or performance area (desperately needed); extensive underground parking (desperately needed); a transport hub for buses & taxis (desperately needed); traffic re-routed and banished from the centre (desperately needed). You’ll find all of the above in every major urban centre throughout Europe. But not here.
Who would pay for it all? After the initial purchase costs (and what Irish bank at the moment would not sell very cheaply if only to off-load some of its debt?), it would be self-financing - income from the hotel, the conference centre, the cinema, the underground car parking, and so on. The trouble is that such a leap of the imagination is beyond our Council. So just resign yourself to the realisation that probably nothing substantive will get done, and Ealing will degenerate into a commuter suburb of no interest whatsoever. The Council should be ashamed of itself. But of course it isn’t. It’s too busy bleating like demented sheep at anyone who dares to present a Petition during a Council meeting.
Our idea is not the only one; nor indeed necessarily the right one. But at least it’s a start.
Is he right? What do you think? Comment on the forum
24 November 2010