Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

In 1937, Jerome Kern, in collaboration with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, wrote a rather lovely, wistful song called "The Folks Who Live on the Hill". Peggy Lee recorded a memorable version in 1957 and it's still popular today; the jazz singer Diana Krall has also covered it. Given our current obsession with property, I'm surprised it's not as well known as Cole Porter standards such as "I've Got You Under my Skin" (1936) or "I Get a Kick Out of You" (1934).

"Some day," it begins, "we'll build a home on a hilltop high, " and goes on to predict that "we will always be called/The folks who live on the hill." (It's got one of my favourite lyrics of all time in the middle section, which goes: "Our ve-randa will com-mand a view of meadows green." They don't write them like that any more.)

I was reminded of this song the other day when I passed a new development round the corner from us which is nearing completion. Because, as far as my neighbours and I are concerned, the people who live on this particular hilltop will always be called the folks who live in the Cornflake Packet.

We've always known what this development was going to look like, because as soon as construction began, it was screened by a huge hoarding bearing an artist's impression of the development. It looked like a cornflake packet in the picture. It looks like a cornflake packet now. In fact, the best thing that can be said for it, in my view, is that it is at least true to the architect's original vision.

Perhaps its designer watched too many episodes ofBlue Peter when they were little, because as well as the cornflake packet, there is also a circular bit at the back which looks like a section of washing-up liquid bottle. My neighbour Caroline suspects it might be a giant Tracy Island and when the whole thing is finished, it will slide to one side so Thunderbird 1 can emerge.

OK, OK, I know we need more housing, but how on earth do these things get planning permission? The Cornflake Packet isn't even in the same red brick as the neighbouring Victorian houses, but a sort of baby shit-yellow stock brick. And yet, if you look back at the planning decision, there doesn't seem to have been much controversy about it.

An article in the Wandsworth council newsletter,BrightSide, in April 2004, says merely: "Plans to demolish a pair of cottages on this site next to the railway line and replace them with a five-storey block of flats and two-storey buildings providing 14 flats have been approved. Councillors felt that the proposals were a good solution for this difficult sloping site on the corner of Windmill Road and agreed the quirky design and layout would retain a good sense of openness."

This is a difficult space. A corner site, on a very cramped, busy junction, it was originally two Victorian railwaymen's cottages - no doubt accommodating employees who in days of yore gave advance warning of leaves on the line, or the wrong sort of snow, or any of the other seasonal phenomena that today seem to take railway companies completely by surprise.

The site does indeed slope. (This problem has been solved in neighbouring properties by the presence of what's known to normal people as "a garden ".) And it's true that the Cornflake Packet is a quirky design, though I don't think that's quite how I'd describe it.

When buildings go up that local people don't like, there is always lots of dark muttering and conspiracy-theorising. But having tried to access the Wandsworth planning applications website the other day only to find that particular service was out of action, it occurred to me that perhaps computer error was at fault.

Perhaps at the time the plans for the Cornflake Packet were posted, the website had gone down then too and potential complainants were unable to log their objections. Perhaps the councillors made their decision blissfully unaware of any dissenting views. Perhaps once you're elected to a local council, your eyesight changes and you think that what looks hideous to everyone else actually looks quite nice. Who knows?

One thing's for sure. I can't see anyone writing a song about the Cornflake Packet any day soon.

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