Betjeman’s Liverpool Street campaign revived in face of new development

The poet John Betjeman’s campaign to save Liverpool Street station is being revived due to plans to build offices, shops and a hotel over the listed building, which conservationists say will ruin its character.

The late poet laureate had a passion for railway architecture and led a successful crusade in the 1970s against plans to demolish the station. Now his Liverpool Street station campaign is being reformed by the Victorian Society and other conservation groups in response to a new £1.5bn plan to redevelop the station.

In an interview with the Observer in 1975, a year after the campaign first began, Betjeman said he was determined that Liverpool Street should not be replaced by the “slabs and cubes of high finance”. He added: “This is London’s most picturesque terminus.”

The Victorian Society says such concerns have become relevant again.

A consortium including Sellar, the developer of London’s Shard, and Network Rail has submitted plans to build 15 and 10-storey office blocks flanking the station and retail space, and a hotel that appears to be above it.

The plans also involve converting some of the listed former Great Eastern hotel, now the Andaz hotel, into offices.

The developers say the designs by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects of Tate Modern and the Olympic stadium in Beijing, will adapt and protect the station’s heritage.

But the government’s heritage agency, Historic England, said it was “deeply concerned” about the plans. And the Victorian Society, a charity which campaigns for 19th century and Edwardian buildings, says the redevelopment will “irreparably damage its character and architectural and historical significance”.

The society points out that the plans involve destroying the station’s Victorian-style roof and entrances. It says the new roof to support the new towers will cause “serious harm to the listed buildings and their settings”.

On Wednesday, its director, Joe O’Donnell, said: “Today, I am approaching organisations across the heritage sector to reform the Liverpool Street station campaign led by Sir John Betjeman, which successfully defeated British Rail’s proposals to demolish all the buildings at Liverpool Street station.

“We’re hoping that the widespread support that saw off the total demolition of the station and its replacement with a brutalist complex in the 1970s will be once again as effective.”

In his 1975 interview, Betjeman said: “Old stations are places of great joy because of greetings, and great sadness because of partings. They are part of the lives of a nation.”

Liverpool Street station also featured in one of Betjeman’s poems, A Mind’s Journey to Diss. It began: “Dear Mary, Yes, it will be bliss / To go with you by train to Diss / Your walking shoes upon your feet / We’ll meet, my sweet, at Liverpool Street.”

O’Donnell urged people to respond to a public consultation about the plans. But he added: “This consultation gives no opportunity to consider less harmful options.” He also accused the developers of using “misleading” images that “grey out” the proposed towers to make them look “semi-transparent”.

He added: “Rather than a sensitive response to listed buildings in a conservation area, the proposals appear to be an attempt to maximise commercial return by creating a shopping centre dressed-up as a public amenity space over the station.

“We hope reforming the Liverpool Street station campaign group will remind Network Rail of the hard lessons learnt by British Rail. It seems feasible that any changes needed to improve passenger experience can be done without demolishing the sensitive 90s intervention and placing a tower over the listed buildings.”

James Sellar, chief executive of Sellar, insisted that protecting the station’s heritage was a key priority. He said: “The historic station will not be touched. The restoration and preservation of the heritage features are very important to us. Not only do they allow the station to retain its character, but by better showcasing them we can make the station experience more enjoyable to all users, including passengers and workers.”

He also said there would be a “full” and “open” public consultation process about the proposals.

Sellar added: “We have been clear in all our materials that the designs for the commercial elements are still being evolved and that we will present these at the next public consultation early in 2023. The image is ghosted to show the size and massing in the context of the surrounding area and other recent developments adjacent to it, as well as its position on the north-western edge of the city’s eastern cluster.”