22nd Sep 2017 — The Case of the Missing Mural

The Case of the Missing Mural

Sarah Wigglesworth


The street scene adjacent to our office used to be framed by corrugated iron panels flanking the railway line. The panels hosted a mural celebrating the Queen’s Jubilee. Sporting red, white and blue tones and a serrated top, the panels radiated optimism rather than hostility. In my imagination the mural formed the backdrop to a street party that took place in 1977 – the dates recorded on it. Featuring themes of nationhood and continuity, the mural was a record of an important national event and, though faded, dirty and neglected, it had become something of a landmark in the public realm – the backdrop to gritty urban photo-shoots and shelter for nefarious street deals. But as record of a collective celebration, the mural created an interesting and unique character to the streetscape.

I returned one day to find the mural gone. A green security fence of vertical bars with jagged ends now stood in its place. Our jolly, colourful frontage now resembled a prison camp. Explanations within the office were hazy. Nobody knew precisely what had happened or where the panels had gone.

A call to Network Rail provided a few facts. Someone had alerted them to an unauthorised person on the tracks and the entry point had been traced to a loose panel in the mural. The alert had escalated into an emergency. This gave the authority license to secure their property immediately. While I imagined re-fixing the loose panel, to NR this meant an entire new security fence.

As part of a Conservation Area, I argued, did NR have the Council’s permission to remove the wall? No, the voice argued, it was not a Conservation Area: her records showed this. Then your records are wrong, I responded. They couldn’t be, came the retort. In any case, I was told, in an emergency, statutory powers give utilities such as NR license to override normal planning procedures.

How callously can NR treat the residents of the streets that flank their property – the very people that painted the mural, that lived with it and who had a sense of pride and ownership in it? I argued. Stoney silence. I tried another tack: what provisions did NR have for disposal of waste material and where was their site waste management plan? If they had one, they’d know where the panels were. Why weren’t the residents consulted before the mural was stripped away and disposed of? This sent the operative into a fluster. She’d have to get back to me. I felt a certain pyrrhic victory in having managed to rattle an uncaring apparatchik.

Later that day I had a call from a member of the demolition squad. “The good news is we’ve located the operatives that removed the panels. The bad news is that they were handed to a passing scrap merchant’s truck and we don’t know where they’ve ended up”. Clearly, this wasn’t going to end the way I wanted.

I berated the man for the absence of the SWMP, the lack of traceability, and for his disregard for the urban landscape that is a key part of our urban setting. He offered abject apologies and gave me his name. Somewhere in this sad story there was, at least, an individual with feeling.

This is a story about powerful authorities treating places as if they were purely technical/functional, with no regard for the social, historical or place-making dimension. Behind the ostensible security breach is a mechanism that trumps all proper procedures and is unaccountable. Utilities can lay waste to the built environment, ignoring those aspects that give it meaning. With their swingeing powers and answerable to nobody, our own streetscape has lost something both essential and unique, recalling a time of collective event and shared celebration. The mural that once characterised ‘our street’ has gone, and the street is the poorer for it.