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Plan B: The town that fell to Earth

Toby Jug site

What has David Bowie to do with a plot of undeveloped land in Tolworth and London's affordable housing crisis? Quite a lot, according to our resident commentator Plan B.

On 10 February 1972, in a large pub in a small corner of south-west London, a chapter in our recent cultural history began. The Toby Jug in Tolworth hardly ranks alongside Madison Square Garden in the pantheon of performance venues, yet it was here that David Bowie unveiled Ziggy Stardust to a perplexed, excited public.

It seems remarkable now that a fairly well-known performer with a recent album now regarded as a classic (Hunky Dory), a striking Old Grey Whistle Test performance and an outrageous interview in Melody Maker just published, would launch a UK tour in a pub beside an access junction to the A3, in full glam regalia.

"A week after The Toby Jug, Bowie and the Spiders from Mars played Wallington Town Hall"

But the Toby Jug had also hosted Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, and it was part of a circuit of small venues that big names would play because – well, that’s what you did. In 1972, the Hammersmith Odeon was as big as it got. A week after The Toby Jug, Bowie and the Spiders from Mars played Wallington Town Hall.

How the world changes. The Toby Jug declined under the pressure of new markets, struggled during the 90s and was demolished in 2000. Two years later its plot was parcelled up with some Ministry of Agriculture land and sold to Tesco.

For 14 years, this derelict site has been in planning limbo. Tesco submitted a series of planning applications to develop the site as a superstore with housing. Kingston Borough Council didn’t want a supermarket. With each iteration of the proposal, the size of the store receded and the number of homes went up.

In March 2015, the retailer submitted a bid for more than 700 homes on the site, then sank into an accounting scandal. It sold the land to ‘retail specialist’ Meyer Bergman, who pledged to continue with the application, which now includes a 21-storey tower block.

Across the road from Bowie corner, the council has consented to a £300 million redevelopment of the (architecturally notable) Tolworth Tower. Previously offices, this will now be joined by four other buildings up to 19 storeys. Collectively, the development will provide 300 homes (just 10 starter homes, mind), plus office space.

Tolworth can be seen as a microcosm of London. Here we have the loss of a small but notable venue; extensive housing development; office-to-residential conversion; glass and steel towers; starter homes; affordable housing pushed offsite. Realistically, there is no place for the young and impecunious – not anywhere you’d want to be, anyway.

"You wonder whether, had David Jones been born in 1997 rather than 1947, he could have become David Bowie in contemporary London"

Forty-four years ago, a lower middle-class boy from Brixton had lodged, squatted and busked his way through the 60s in a miasma of chemical and musical experimentation, and initiated a cultural revolution here. You wonder whether, had David Jones been born in 1997 rather than 1947, he could have become David Bowie in contemporary London. Our suspicion is that young David might now be more inclined to head to Brighton or Bristol or Manchester, or even to Barcelona, Berlin or Warsaw – places where young people are valued for enterprise and creativity, and their artistic ambition isn’t squeezed out of them by long hours, bad contracts, unaffordable flats and a corporatised public realm that is hostile to nonconformists.

RIP The Toby Jug, RIP David Bowie. RIP you pretty things in the town that fell to Earth.

This piece was originally published in The Planner in February 2016.

Image of Tolworth Tower and the former Toby Jug site | Plan B


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