For many years, until finally defeated, there were plans to demolish much of Covent Garden and most of Seven Dials. Seven Dials was regarded as 'a redevelopment opportunity...a mixed use zone with obsolete property...with an urgent need for redevelopment.'. The plans, originally proposed by the London County Council, were continued by the Greater London Council (GLC) in tandem with Westminster and Camden Councils.
After a prolonged battle by local residents and long-established local businesses, led by the Covent Garden Community Association, and with much national support, the proposals for comprehensive redevelopment were overturned. In 1971 a seminal Public Inquiry helped turn the post-war tide for comprehensive redevelopment into more fruitful directions. Following the Inquiry, the late (Lord) Geoffrey Rippon had over 200 buildings in the area 'listed' and the GLC was instructed to draw up a new plan and establish a formal consultation body.
The Covent Garden Forum of Representatives (1974-1984) was ahead of its time and a model for current 'Localism'. Fifteen residents were elected bi-annually from the Electoral Register with fifteen businesses from a business register. The Forum had two non-voting seats on the GLC's Covent Garden Panel. The Forum saw through every aspect of both drawing up the new plan for Covent Garden and its implementation, including confidential lettings. Covent Garden, including Seven Dials, became a national exemplar of regeneration through partnership and the active conservation of the built heritage.
In the early 1970s, Seven Dials was in a state of dereliction which is difficult to comprehend today. The planners took dereliction to mean demolition. 90% of the housing stock had lain empty for more than 40 years. Between 1977-1984, a Housing Action Area Committee, comprised of local residents and local businesses supported by Camden officers, brought back into use all 200 vacant residential units and encouraged much new public and private housing. With grants of up to 90% of costs, all the late seventeenth century houses were restored and the long process of urban regeneration begun, with new businesses moving into the area. The process of regeneration was continued by what was to become The Seven Dials Trust. Our first action was to persuade Esso to sell their petrol station on the Dials. This was a double win as it restored the integrity of the Dials and provided more housing through the redevelopment of the site.
The GLC was abolished in 1986. The sale of its properties in Covent Garden (about 10% of the area, including the Central Market and buildings surrounding the Piazza, substantial social housing and other properties) was tasked to the temporary authority, The London Residuary Body. A bold group of seasoned local activists persuaded the LRB and the Government to set up the Covent Garden Area Trust and to grant it a 150 year lease over the freeholders of the the ex-GLC commercial properties in the Piazza and surrounds, to protect the area's special character. This also generated a substantial income for the CGAT.
While there are many factors which contributed to the success of Covent Garden and Seven Dials as models for conservation and regeneration, it is indisputable that none of this would have been achieved without the tenacity, vision and commitment of local people, prepared to stand up for their neighbourhood. Not least among them is our own Chairman, David Bieda, who organised and led a two week Objection at the 1971 Public Inquiry, was a member of the Seven Dials Housing Action Area Committee, chaired the Covent Garden Forum of Representatives' Housing Committee and was a founder trustee of the Covent Garden Area Trust.
For those who have an interest in planning and the regeneration of our city centres, we include a selection of documents which do not appear elsewhere on the web.
The Rebirth of Covent Garden. Judy Hillman, 1986
Covent Garden's Moving. Greater London Council, Camden & Westminster, 1968
Covent Garden, the Next Step - Revised Plan for the Proposed Comprehensive Development Area. Greater London Council 1971
Less Planning, More Happening. Bieda & Petersson, 1976
The Covent Garden Action Area Plan. Greater London Council, Camden & Westminster, 1978
The Covent Garden Action Area Plan Statement. Greater London Council, 1978