Andy Billman – “Daylight Robbery” – 38 Delancey Street. Mid C19 Photo: Andy Billman

London Calling

Life is a circus
… Or it soon will be when work starts this year to transform the beating heart of London’s West End! After years of prevarication and deliberation, Oxford Circus, where Regent Street and Oxford Street cross each other, plans have finally been approved to turn the area into a magnificent pedestrian piazza.

Westminster City Council and the Crown Estate have agreed a design following a competition run by the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA) that promises ‘world-class designs’ and ‘value for money’.

The plan is to pedestrianise the area with additional planting of trees and green areas and form a relaxed European-style piazza.

Significant re-routing of buses will be required and taxi drivers are unlikely to be happy that one of their principle areas for passenger-pickup after shopping disappears. But access to the Tube system through Oxford Circus station will be improved significantly and Regent Street will still be accessible from the north and south.

Further changes are planned subject to trial projects and it really does seem that proposals originally made in the 1980s will now come to fruition.

Westminster council leader, Rachael Robathan, said: “There is an urgent need to tackle issues with pedestrian congestion and safety, poor air quality and noise.

The serious congestion of Oxford Circus, of people and of traffic, is unsustainable and demands action. In the aftermath of the pandemic, and with the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, there is an overwhelming need and a compelling opportunity to build back better; a business-as-usual approach will no longer work.”

She added: “We hope the creation of these pedestrian-only piazzas at Oxford Circus will not only improve safety, security and accessibility but create an iconic destination at the heart of London.”

The council has already committed £150 million (€175 million) towards programmes in the Oxford Street area, which pre-pandemic was attracting 200 million visitors a year and employing some 155,000 workers.

Football’s coming home
Slowly, fans are being admitted back to watch live sport around and June has seen some important matches in the rather confusingly still called Euro 2020 Championships.

England took on Scotland at Wembley Stadium mid-month and produced a rather disappointing performance and a nil-nil draw. Meanwhile, plans to hold the final of the event there were in jeopardy because of England’s belated, strict appliance of border controls.

UEFA considered transferring the final to Budapest, but the UK government announced a probable exemption of Covid-19 rules for 2,500 VIPs from Europe.

Home Office Minister, Kit Malthouse, told Times Radio: “We are trying our best at this stage in the Lockdown to enable things like the Euros, events like that as much as we possibly can. While we accept the path of the virus is challenging at the moment, we want to try and make sure that this fantastic tournament is able to proceed as close to normality as possible.”

Wembley will be at 50% of its maximum 90,000-seater capacity for the semi-finals and final to be held on July 11. Ministers are confident that the final will go ahead in London as planned.

Meanwhile, in SW19, excitement is building for the most famous tennis championship in the world. There will be reduced capacity as the event is held in the final week of June and first week of July. It is intended to be one of the ‘test events’ to see how greater opening up of events can take place.

Let there be No light!
In 1696, King William III introduced a Window Tax in England and Wales. The thinking behind this tax was that people with more windows were generally in larger houses and, therefore, could afford to pay more tax.

It was a time when people opposed income tax on principle because it was believed to be an unacceptable intrusion into private matters. Originally, the tax only applied to buildings with 11 or more windows, but an increasingly cash-strapped government later dropped the threshold to seven.

It seems extraordinary today but actually the system of local Council Tax based on a notional value of the property, without any consideration of the income of occupants, is effectively based on the same principle.

The Window Tax has had a long-lasting effect on the street scenes of many towns and cities in the UK and nowhere is this more evident than in London. In fact, so established has this view become that if a property is listed, it is simply not possible to open up a window again from where it was bricked up without obtaining Listed Building consent.

A new exhibition opened at Bermondsey Project Space in southeast London this month, as part of the London Festival of Architecture, to highlight the effect of the Window Tax in London.

Andy Billman has photographed some amazing examples of bricked up windows across London to examine how light and air in architecture affect wellbeing.

Some houses he has photographed have virtually all their windows bricked. One particularly fine example in Albert Street has just four windows left from the original façade containing 11!

Andy said: “Documenting my surroundings to resurface the story of the Window Tax feels very timely, as the last year has proven natural light and fresh air have been more important than ever.”

The lack of light and ventilation greatly affected people’s health and wellbeing, allowing epidemics to fester and spread quickly. Perversely, it also became fashionable for architects to include bricked-up windows in their designs for aesthetic reasons.

Charles Dickens was one of the main opponents to this very odd tax. In 1850, he said: “Neither air nor light have been free since the imposition of the Window Tax. We are obliged to pay for what nature lavishly supplies to all, at so much per window, per year, and the poor, who cannot afford the expense, are stinted in two of the most urgent necessities of life.”

Window Tax was finally abolished in 1851 following pressure from others including doctors and health campaigners.

So far, Andy Billman has photographed more than 80 buildings in London and has plans to expand the project nationwide. He added: “The juxtaposition between appreciating the visual beauty of these overlooked bricked-up windows, yet at the same time how they tell the adverse story of people being robbed of natural light, fascinates me.”

By Richard Lamberth