Leading the charge on King's Cross battlefield

Roger Madelin is ready to conquer a former IRA hideout and unexploded German bombs to create a £2billion new order, writes Katie Davies in the first of a new series of Ham&High interviews

Roger Madelin is ready to conquer a former IRA hideout and unexploded German bombs to create

a £2billion new order, writes Katie Davies in the first of a new series of Ham&High interviews

NOT many developers would be blasé about digging up unexploded bombs in the middle of London.

But over the last seven years, Roger Madelin - the figurehead of the £2billion King's Cross development - has been keen to promote himself as a break from the norm.

Mr Madelin's name has become embedded in the local vernacular after Argent - the company of which he is joint chief executive - submitted plans to build 1,700 homes, 150 shops and 4,900,000 square feet of office space on the railway lands.

After a long tussle with campaigners opposed to the scheme, culminating in a High Court case last year, Argent was given the go-ahead to get digging - which he admits is likely to unearth a few historical surprises.

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"There is not that much contamination on the land, just oil from the trains, which is not a major problem. What we will have is unexploded bombs," he predicts. "This whole area was targeted in the war and some of the buildings are still damaged from where the bombs fell.

"We have an emergency procedure with Camden Council so we can raise the alarm and there are records we can follow of where bombs could be. But as with all these things, you just have to be careful."

On meeting Mr Madelin, his conscious effort to be different from your average boardroom dweller is pretty obvious.

Turning up in a balaclava, leggings and reflective top because he made the journey on a bike, is the first obvious sign.

Similarly there is no PA, laser pen or fancy corporate suite. Instead, instant coffee he makes himself and a couple of chairs in a room which looks as if it has already fallen victim to the aforementioned explosives.

Of his interaction with the public he says: "People want a figurehead and up until September 2006 I was the sole chief executive. We wanted to say to people, 'If you want to know anything about the development, here I am. And if you want someone to speak at your community event, I will.'

"We wanted to be completely open and willing to answer any questions people had."

What many have struggled to weigh up is whether this "man of the people" persona is for real.

In an age of spin, cynics say Madelin's mateyness may be a PR stunt but he clearly sees himself as a man on a mission to create an exemplary development.

Of course, the company which is behind the scheme, in a consortium with landowners LCR and DHL-Exel Supply Chain, will be making a pretty profit even after the work is done. As managing agents, the group will collect a service charge from leaseholders and rent from everyone else.

But when he discusses King's Cross, enthusiasm shines through. He marches me through the ancient warehouses on the site, talking with the knowledge and familiarity a man might have for his own back garden.

"I have always been fascinated with King's Cross. I don't think anyone could have spent any time in London in the 80s without being fascinated. I remember coming through here and being completely bemused. Some of what I saw was uplifting with the community and the kids running around the streets. But there were also prostitutes working openly. It was like going onto some kind of film set.

"A former policeman told us there were two operational IRA cells in King's Cross and there were undercover SAS soldiers trying to infiltrate them.

"It was exciting as well as frightening and we don't want to lose that edge completely. If we get urban and gritty but clean and safe, we've cracked it."

Mr Madelin is certainly not a controlled spokesman when responding to his critics.

Currently the Islington part of the scheme - known as 'the triangle' - is in limbo because the council's planning committee turned it down. Argent is now appealing against that decision.

"The only people benefiting from it are the lawyers," he fumes. "It is a stupid situation. We completely support debate and will take criticism from anyone who contributes in a positive way.

"But there is a small number of people who just don't want this redevelopment to go further."

Despite the Islington delay, plans are pushing ahead on the main site. Designs have been submitted for all the buildings in the first phase, focused around the station, to be completed in time for the Olympics.

Mr Madelin says King's Cross's new community will build on the existing one.

"The local community's living standards will be better because the area will be more mixed - they will not be forced out. I hope it doesn't stay the same, though. At South Camden Community School 53 per cent of parents have never worked. There may be cultural or language issues but it's wrong that we've sat here for years letting that happen.''

He seems happy to be judged on the development at the end.

Speaking about the CBE he was rewarded for sustainable development last year, he remains modest. "It was a great honour - but I think it was only because they couldn't find anyone else in the field," he laughs. "They should have waited until the development was completed, though, so we could prove what we are trying to do.

"This is our chance to show the rest of London what it could become and it is an opportunity we will only have once."