Comment: Will Camden’s radical past inspire the next wave of developers?

ReStage by Dmitri Galitzine explores the history of Camden as a radical borough. Photo by Roberto Cr

ReStage by Dmitri Galitzine explores the history of Camden as a radical borough. Photo by Roberto Cracco - Credit: Archant

An exhibition celebrating 50 years of the London borough of Camden offers an inadvertent insight into the history of housing in the area.

ReStage, the solo show by Camden-based artist Dmitri Galitzine, charts the little-known history of radical theatre in 1960s London, most of which was centred on Camden.

These were fringe organisations ranging from Stirabout, the first company to work in prisons, and Spare Tyre, a women’s company addressing body image, to Recreation Ground who set up a youth centre in a former pub in Swiss Cottage. An essential factor enabling these fringe groups to operate was the unofficial yet considerable subsidy provided by having cheap or free living costs.

Hard to believe as it may be today, in the 1960s large swathes of Camden were little more than inner-city slums, full of empty houses waiting to be developed. Derelict houses, along with pubs, halls, warehouses and garages became squats or housing co-ops for the grass roots organisations. Initiatives like Kentish Town City Farm and the Weekend Arts College sprang up alongside the artistic or theatrical but always counter-cultural activity.

The whole borough was riding a wave of radicalism with the Council Architects’ Department presiding over a surge in groundbreaking new homes.

Camden is still home to some of the most innovative new residential buildings, but nowadays these tend to be luxurious commissions for individual owners or developers, not high volume social housing, a fact that was highlighted by last weekend’s violent anti-gentrification protests.

Under new planning rules put forward last Friday, developers will no longer need to wait for planning permission to build homes on brownfield sites, with 45 GLA-owned Camden sites earmarked as possibilities.

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I will be fascinated to see if any Camden developers draw their inspiration from the borough’s radical past to equal or surpass Camden Council’s own recent forays into mixed sector house building.

ReStage is at Swiss Cottage Library until July 21.