I’ve put off writing another article about Vauxhall Bus Station for a while, on the basis that I didn’t have anything particularly new to report. There’s only so many times you can say how amazed you are that transport planners would propose to demolish that rare thing, a highly regarded modern bus station, in favour of a less convenient and lower-quality replacement. Yet here we are again, because last month, Transport for London (TfL) finally got round to submitting its planning application for a new bus station at Vauxhall Cross, and demolition of the old one. So now, we have our first proper look at the proposed replacement for the current bus station.
There is some (to perhaps understate it) local disagreement over the need for a new bus station in the first place. TfL says a new bus station is needed as part of plans to make changes to the local road layout and convert one-way roads in a notorious gyratory system to two-way. But local residents suggest that just as important a factor is a complicated land-swap agreement allowing developers to take forward a commercial tower block(s) scheme on part of the footprint of the current bus station, which would seem to be a somewhat more venal and less justifiable reason for demolishing it. Local pressure group We Love Vauxhall Bus Station says it has no problem with the idea of one-way roads being converted to two-way operation, but would just like it all to happen around the existing bus station if that’s all right with everyone. Not only is the current bus station a highly regarded piece of architecture, it provides a single, sheltered facility serving all the bus routes at Vauxhall Cross. Community group Our Vauxhall even got some architects in to show how you could retain the existing bus station and deliver the same transport benefits, to no avail.
Luckily – or not, depending on your point of view – it is not Transport for London, but local planning authority Lambeth Council which will decide on the planning application.
Luckily for Transport for London and the developers, that is, because it was Lambeth Council which initiated the idea of demolishing the existing bus station and putting new commercial developments on its footprint in the first place. It continued to promote development of the Vauxhall Cross area (as picked up on here), not least through its membership of the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership. That particular organisation, however, amusingly left the current bus station in place in an artist’s impression of a new skyscraper city around Vauxhall Cross (see it in this article), suggesting that if someone put their mind to it, they could commercially redevelop the area and keep the current bus station. For almost as long as Vauxhall Bus Station has been there, Lambeth Council has given the impression that it would very much rather it wasn’t.
Lambeth Council’s position as planning authority deciding on the new bus station planning application is rather less lucky if you happen to be a bus passenger in the area.
At one point in the consultation process in advance of the planning application, TfL was touting some rather snazzy wavy glass canopies as part of the replacement for Vauxhall Bus Station, and something which would shelter passengers interchanging between bus and tube. You can see the picture in this earlier article. Never believe artist’s impressions of transport schemes, is my advice. I can remember all too many such fantastical apparitions passing across my desk when I was a transport planner, and not a single one was ever delivered looking like the original, high-concept, proposal. And indeed, the planning application for Vauxhall Bus Station has now revealed the proposed design of the new bus station, and there’s not a snazzy wave to be seen.
Instead, Vauxhall Cross will be getting a tall (three storey) ‘pavilion’ building of cubical appearance with an even taller clock tower (equivalent to another three storeys, and complete with poster advert hoardings, naturally) rising from one corner. The exterior is a steel frame clad with coloured vertical ceramic strips. This conceals a concrete building with glass windows within, which will contain a ground floor kiosk, customer information office and bus operations offices, first floor bus drivers’ rest facilities and a second floor meeting room.
The pavilion is set at the north-east end of the bus station, which will continue south as an open-sided canopy. Engineered timber roof beams will support an ETFE roof to let daylight through, and the roof will be clad on its outside edges with vertical ceramic strips again, this time in red. It is hard to shake the feeling that they look slightly like the valances on a Victorian or Edwardian railway station (you can just see them at the right of the artist’s impression). There’s no doubt that the new pavilion and canopy will do their jobs, albeit in a rather less attractive and exciting manner than the current bus station does. At least, they will protect bus passengers, but the new arrangements appear to provide somewhat less shelter if you are using the staircase to/from the Underground station below, because the canopy is narrower. The existing bus station has a canopy which extends out over this staircase. As far as I can tell from the plans, the replacement bus station would see a canopy constructed over the staircase, but to reach the entrance of the staircase will involve a route which has no roof above it.
At the south-west end of the canopy will be a small building faced with glazed brick and sporting a complicated angled roof, again made of transparent material. This is the stores and toilets building. The new canopy is much shorter than the existing bus station (presumably to facilitate construction of the tower block, though it’s hard to tell because that would be the subject of a planning application yet to be lodged), and it’s here that the offence sets in if you are actual user of the current bus station. Because the proposed new canopy is shorter than the existing bus station, it cannot accommodate enough bus stops alongside it to cope with the number of bus services which pass through Vauxhall Cross. So there are no less than three freestanding small canopies further to the south-east, on the other side of a new roadway. And there are two other freestanding canopies at the north-east end too, one of which can be seen on the left of the artist’s impression. Somehow, TfL has come up with a replacement bus station which scatters waiting facilities across no less than six separate shelters, which means that passengers changing from one bus to another will have to do so without continuous shelter, and will in some cases have to cross the new roadway, introducing a brand new risk to their safety.
I imagine that if there was currently no Vauxhall Bus Station at all, this scheme would seem like a great improvement to the area. The architecture isn’t absolutely amazing, but it’s not actively bad. It appears to be done with an eye to the cost pressures local authorities (TfL included) are under, and is, I suppose, just not very imaginative. It lacks the design flair that marks out the current bus station as so significant.
But as a replacement for a genuinely architecturally significant bus station which collects all of its bus stops together under the shelter of a single structure? There’s no way to describe the planned new bus station as anything other than a retrograde step. And here is the worst of the supporting documents in the planning application: the Demolition Statement. It’s 30 pages of exacting detail on precisely how the existing bus station will be eviscerated, carved up, and carted away.
Yet I find my capacity for anger all but exhausted. We’ve been here before, with countless transport buildings that have been demolished to make way for a replacement that people never asked for in the first place, and local representations comprehensively ignored. I’m no great lover of the Euston Arch, but I understand what it meant to those who loved it, and I certainly grieve the loss of the old Euston’s Great Hall. I don’t mind the new Euston (I like it a lot more than its critics do) but the process of replacing old with new was grossly insensitive. It didn’t matter what representations were made. You just got the feeling that somewhere higher up, the decision had been made and all the lobbying in the world wouldn’t change it. Don’t forget the demolition company which offered to move and store the stones from the Euston Arch somewhere else at its own expense – an offer the government blithely turned down.
I can remember the arguments over whether the 1930s Hastings station should be refurbished or replaced – I lived in Hastings at the time. Properly restored it could have been truly great, an unusual hybrid of Classical and Modernist architecture that embodied the transition in railway station architecture which took place between the wars. Instead, there’s now a perfectly functional, but very unexciting, modern station there instead. And how many lost bus stations are there? Towns with their local transport hearts ripped out, and their buses scattered around the streets, served only by mean, small shelters.
I can’t fault the efforts of Our Vauxhall and We Love Vauxhall Bus Station efforts to save the bus station they (and I) love. They’ve roped in the great and the good (and me, though I suspect I don’t quite fall into either category) to their cause. All these people seem to find it extraordinary that anyone would want to do away with Vauxhall Bus Station to facilitate yet another tower block, with no of them quite able to believe that Lambeth Council and TfL couldn’t find a way to have a commercial redevelopment and retain the existing bus station if they actually wanted to. We Love Vauxhall Bus Station is currently encouraging people to object to the planning application, not least on the basis that Lambeth Council has an apparent conflict of interest in the matter.
One day, I’m sure, people will look at the pictures of the original Vauxhall Bus Station. They will feel the same puzzlement that we do now, looking at pictures of the Euston Arch, or the old Hastings Station, or Bognor Regis’s Southdown bus garage, or Dorking Bus Station, or Scarborough’s Northway bus station. How is it, they will wonder, that this amazing piece of transport infrastructure came to be lost?
As it is, many of us who love the existing Vauxhall Bus Station have got the sinking feeling that the decision to demolish it was made long ago by TfL and Lambeth Council and the consultation and planning permission processes have been little more than stages in an exercise in justifying it. There’s the answer – now, what’s the question?
Bibliography and Further Reading
The planning application page for the replacement of Vauxhall Bus Station, here
The three previous The Beauty of Transport articles on the sorry saga of Vauxhall Bus Station:
- The Ribbon That Came Out of the Pod (13 November 2013)
- Return to Vauxhall Cross (7 July 2014)
- Failing The Grade? (21 January 2015)
How to find Vauxhall Bus Station
Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map. Go and see it while you can.