Spatial strategy and Finsbury Health Centre

31 January 2009 | blog, cities, comment, frameworks, place making, strategy, working with communities

Finsbury Health Centre
In a Guardian article this week, French journalist Jacques Monin came to the conclusion that Britain is obsessed with money, drowning in debt and morally bankrupt. Also this week, as if to supply further evidence for Monsieur Monin, Islington Primary Care Trust voted to sell off Berthold Lubetkin’s Grade I listed Finsbury Health Centre in North London – ending 70 years of healthcare at the centre.

The decision to put the building on the market and move all services to other parts of the borough was made by the PCT board, despite last-minute pleas from John Allan of Avanti Architects and John Cooper of Architects for Health. This decision has sparked concern for a broad range of reasons including:

  • the cultural and historic importance of the architecture
  • the historical symbolism of the building in terms of health care
  • the view that the building is entirely saveable and is not a maintenance basket-case
  • the likely future of the building and the site – for example private clinic or luxury flats

Consideration of any single issue on this list might lead to the conclusion that the building should be kept and used for its original purpose never mind taking a holistic view of all the points. But there is another issue that lies in the territory of spatial planning and social infrastructure.
Gordon Cullen - health education murals in the entrance hall of Finsbury Health Centre, Clerkenwell, London, 1935-1938
There are many examples throughout the UK of health authorities and others selling off city centre land and facilities at attractive prices in order to fund the development of new facilities on land that is cheaper but less well located for the very people who wish to use these facilities. More often than not, these new facilities are accessed by poor public transport facilities or demand the use of the private car. See TCPA Journal (November 2007) by Graham Haughton and Phil Allmendiger. (link here to pdf)

Over the past twenty years, planning in the UK has become increasingly regulatory rather than visionary. There is evidence that this might be changing since the introduction of a new planning system that has a strong emphasis on spatial strategy. However significant property moves by health, port or water authorities tend to become the spatial plans, rather than being determined by spatial plans – in other words planning often has had to adopt the plans of others as fait accompli even though there is little spatial or placemaking evidence that they are desirable.

Integrated strategic spatial planning needs to play a much stronger and influential role in coordinating the work of organisations like health trusts and port authorities. The fate of Finsbury Health Centre seems sadly predictable – another casualty of the obsession with money and moral bankruptcy that Monin was referring to – part of a wider culture of philistinism and short-termism which is peculiarly endemic in UK organisations that once were public goods.