Monday, 26 November 2007

Practitionerification makes perfect

Mocking public sector recruitment ads for meaningless managerialism and blairite gibberish is easy sport, and the pages of the Guardian a particularly fertile hunting ground. Easy sport, but to be resisted as far as possible: one doesn't want to turn into Peter Hitchens (or Christopher for that matter), and as daft as job titles might be, they are often attached to roles performing important, if Daily Mail-baiting, functions.


...occasionally your eye is caught by something so toe-swivellingly inane, so mind-bendingly abstracted, so gut-wrenchingly evasive, that it needs to be picked up and shaken, like a terrier with a rat. Saturday's Guardian advertised for two roles at the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners. Even the name of the organisation (surely not NAPPIE?) gives a clue that we journeying far beyond meaning.

The first two sentences of the pre-amble will serve as a taster of the whole:

"If we want to change the world then how our children grow up is a massively important place to make a start. The role of parents is critical to that, and our changing society and its changing demands on parents removes old certainties, leaving many with a real appetite for expert support from those they trust."

Where to start? The inanity of the first sentence (sorry, Whitney)? The ocean-going banality of explaining the importance of parents to how children grow up? The evasive vagueness about "changing society and its changing demands" (we don't want to suggest any parents are inadequate, do we)? The patronising lie about the "real appetite for expert support"?

The sad thing is that, buried amidst more crap about 'parenting agendas' and 'respect action plans', NAPP's website reveals that they actually do rather sensible stuff, like training social workers who work with children - people who do one of the hardest and least appreciated jobs in the world.

It's just a shame that they, or their recruitment consultants, decided to wrap these job descriptions in such evasive, tired and sly verbiage. It makes for such an tempting target that it's hard to resist a Hitchens-esque rant, before reverting to re-assuring Toynbee-ism.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Do as I say, not as I do

There are plenty of serious commentaries on the weird, and increasingly alarming, world of data security after the events of the past few days. This is not one of them.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson's excellent blog has been following the detail of the story, and provides (or at least does at the time of writing) a link to a PDF file of a sheaf of papers, including print copies of the relevant NAO-HMRC emails (with names blanked out), and an exchange of 'letters of record' between Dave Hartnett, the Acting Chairman of HMRC, and Caroline Mawhood, the Deputy Auditor General of the NAO. Mrs Mawhood's letterhead includes, for all to see, her email address, and mobile, land-line and fax numbers.

I'm no expert, but this doesn't sound like data protection 'best practice' to me. It's no excuse for the cock-up at HMRC, but it does perhaps show how easy it is to slip up when you're in a hurry.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

(Not) going down the pub

Raised on concrete stilts, the Docklands Light Railway affords a privileged view of East London to its passengers. Amidst austerely functional blocks of post-war housing, churches and pubs stand out - richly tiled and decorated relics of a Victorian past. Owned by the breweries, they (the pubs, that is) were left standing on street corners as the slums of Poplar, Shadwell and Whitechapel were demolished.

But changes in the pub trade are now conspiring with London's insanely effervescent property market to dismantle what the Luftwaffe and the planners left intact. The Evening Standard recently reported that around a quarter of pubs near the Olympic site in Bow are closing. It's unfair to blame the Olympics for this - a changing population (more muslim in East London), the smoking ban and changing attitudes to drinking all contribute - but London 2012 is accelerating the process that kills boozers.

As the market value for new-build flats goes through the roof, the new pub-owning companies - nowadays as canny as property speculators as they are at managing licensed premises - are quick to take advantage. Depending on your views, you can call this regeneration or gentrification, but the outcome is the same - a gradual retreat from the ideal of mixed-use neighbourhoods to which modern planners and developers must at least claim to aspire.

It's not just happening in East London. Urban 75 lists some of the shabbier (and I mean that as a compliment) drinking dens that have closed around Brixton in recent years, to be replaced by 'luxury apartments'. Fight backs can work: the Pineapple in Kentish Town managed to see off developers a few years ago, but it's probably easier in NW5, where stars like Rufus Sewell will rush to your aid, than in E3 or SW9.

Councils are taking notice, and several (including Tower Hamlets) have put in place policies to protect viable pubs in residential areas, but it may already be too late. The city is zoning itself, making a mockery of mixed use. As brutal 'vertical drinking' districts spread like a rash, neighbourhood pubs are in retreat, before the relentless march of housing-led 'regeneration'.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Underneath the arches

[I wrote this article in spring and have fruitlessly pitched it at all sorts of publications since then. I think the story - one of modernist optimism and arrogance - is fascinating, but I guess that's the problem with writing things that you find interesting: will anyone else? Anyway, station architecture seems to be in vogue this week, so here's some ambivalent advocacy for one of London's least loved landmarks.]

Arriving at Euston Station during the rush hour is a curiously calming experience to anyone used to the chaos of British transport planning. As commuters stream across the concourse or gaze abjectly at the departure boards, the layout of the airy concourse is immediately comprehensible; you can see, in an instant, where everything is.

The triple-height space is bright and naturally lit, with a recessed concrete roof seeming to float above clerestory windows that let daylight flood in. The Station’s design, by British Railways architect RL Moorcroft, was deliberately minimal and monochrome: passengers and advertising hoardings would provide colour; seats were rejected as unnecessary distractions from the business of movement (and as magnets for “layabouts”). While retail kiosks now litter the concourse’s elegant green-grey marble floors, this clarity shines through the clutter.

But there is a strange absence too. The station seems almost embarrassed by grubby presence of trains themselves. Long ramps hurry you through ticket gates, to a low-ceilinged train-shed, whose industrial design and lighting, softened only by a few tentative pot plants, contrasts with the calmness of the concourse. This is not a place for the lingering goodbyes of departing lovers, or for the grimy romance of steam, but a machine for the efficient and hygienic processing of people and goods in an electric age.

This segregation of concourse from trains suggests that the model for Euston was the modernism of airport design, not anything as clunkily old-fashioned as a railway station. In the 1960s, of course, airports were still glamorous places, holding out promises of the exotic, rather than airless boxes stuffed with opportunities for queuing, and humiliation in the name of security. When the station was completed in 1968, Architects Journal made this comparison explicit, criticising the paucity of catering outlets at Euston compared to West London (now Heathrow) Airport, and – more outlandishly – asking why the station still relied on porters, rather than using conveyor belt technology to transfer luggage.

The Station was also criticised for its external spaces, and age has not improved these. There is no sign of thinking outside this glass and steel box, and any fleeting flavour of sixties glamour quickly evaporates. In front of the station, a statue of George Stephenson watches over one of London’s most desolate public spaces. Even on the calmest of days, smokers, street drinkers and commuters are buffeted by gusting winds and mini-cyclones of debris. The black glass and marble office buildings and gallery that create this foul microclimate also contrive, together with desolate planters and kiosks, to hide the station’s façade from the bus station and Euston Road. There may not be many fans of the Euston’s architecture, but making stations invisible does not improve their accessibility to the travelling public.

Things were very different 100 years ago. Euston’s Doric Arch (or propylaeum to be thoroughly correct) stood at the gateway to the Victorian station. It was designed, together with the original buildings, by Philip Hardwick for the London and Birmingham Railway Company and completed in 1838. The station buildings, and in particular the Great Hall designed by Hardwick’s son and completed in 1849, were themselves fine pieces of classical architecture: the current concourse pays sly tribute to the Great Hall’s recessed ceilings and clerestory windows. But it was the 22-metre high Arch that became iconic. It was described by JM Richards, editor of the Architectural Review, as “one of the outstanding architectural creations of the early 19th Century, and the most important – and visually most satisfying – monument to the railway age which Britain pioneered”.

The Victorian station was set further back from Euston Road than its sixties replacement. Bringing the station south, to make room for longer platforms and larger trains, was a crucial element of the re-development plans. Today, architects might have been asked to work round the Arch, to treat it as a non-negotiable ‘given’ in their designs. British Rail does not appear to have given much consideration to this possibility: the Arch would have to go. First of all, it was to be re-located intact, then demolished and rebuilt, and then simply demolished, unless someone could come up with £190,000 (nearly £3 million today) to enable its relocation and reconstruction.

Between 1959 and 1961, appeals from a growing and sometimes improbable coalition – including the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the Victorian and Georgian Societies, Nikolaus Pevsner, Woodrow Wyatt, Tom Driberg, Sir John Betjeman, and Alison and Peter Smithson – fell on deaf ears, as the buck passed from the British Transport Commission (British Rail’s ‘parent company’) to London County Council, and back again. Eventually, in November 1961, Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, received a deputation of protest, but loftily dismissed their arguments. “Concern for such relics,” he said, “will sap national vitality.” Nothing could be done, nothing was, and the Arch was demolished in 1962.

All that remains of the 19th Century Euston today is a pair of gatehouses, inconspicuous alongside the thundering traffic of Euston Road, the destinations engraved on their stone a mute memorial to the height of the steam age. The Doric Arch itself is cheekily commemorated on decorative tiling in Euston Underground Station, and in local street and pub names. In a curious footnote, fragments were found in an East London river in the mid-1990s, and a campaign to rebuild it was launched. But it is hard to see the sense in its resurrection, divorced of context, after a 45-year absence.

But, in some ways, Euston Arch’s destruction has had a more powerful legacy than its retention could ever have achieved. It galvanised and united the heritage movement, drawing it away from the perceived elitism of preserving set-piece churches and palaces, to a more democratic concern with the places – stations, factories and shops – that were part of modern every day life. The apathy, arrogance and evasiveness of the state also prompted new legislation: the 1967 Civic Amenities Act established conservation areas as a more subtle tool than the listing of individual buildings, and the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act made the demolition of listed buildings illegal.

Nobody shed a tear just before Easter, when Network Rail announced the return of the bulldozers to Euston. Nobody is going to start a campaign to preserve the Station as a treasure for the nation. Its charms are too elusive, and its faults too obvious. Aside from which, the strength of London’s commercial property market and the potential of the empty space above the station makes a compelling case for redevelopment. But, long after British Land’s promised “major mixed use development” has been completed, Euston may still be remembered for what it once represented – the dawn of a new electric age of convenience and efficiency – as well as for the cavalier disdain for the past that accompanied that dawn. This was the future once, and this was where that future stopped.

Friday, 2 November 2007

The world turned upside down

[Now also on Comment is Free]

Ken Livingstone was on virtuoso form on Today this morning, defending Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair as robustly as he could (and that’s pretty robustly), and freestyling over a range of topics – from the iniquities of Health and Safety culture, to the superiority of continental inquisitorial courts to our adversarial model - like a saner version of Heather Mills.

Even more dazzling than the Mayor’s gladiatorial skill is the curious sense that we have passed through the looking glass. A Labour Mayor, elected from the left of the party, stands behind a police chief whose officers shot dead an innocent immigrant worker, and whose force has been found guilty of ‘catastrophic’ failings as a result. On the other side are ranged Conservative Party figures, from the curiously Edwardian figure of Dominic Grieve to the just plain curious mayoral candidate Boris Johnson, calling for resignations and considerations of positions. It will make for an interesting mayoral election next year.

But underneath all this opportunism and inversion of political normality some longer games are being played out. Compared to his predecessor, ‘copper’s copper’ Sir John Stevens, Sir Ian Blair has been a force for reform within the Met, pushing managerialist battles against waste, as well as ideological warfare on the ‘institutional racism’ that was diagnosed by the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry.

As such, Sir Ian is an important ally for Ken Livingstone, whose anti-racism is only matched by his strong (and sometimes 1950s-nostalgic) law-and-order focus. But there is something deeper too. When Ken Livingstone was elected in 2000, the Mayor’s powers over the Met Police were pretty limited: he could appoint 12 of the 23 members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which oversees the Met Police, and even these were essentially nominated by the party groups on the London Assembly. He could also agree the Met’s annual budget (subject to the ability of the Government to stipulate a minimum).

This was not the relationship between a US City Mayor and Police Commissioner, but something far weaker, stymied by Government’s traditional reluctance to cede power over policing in the capital to any form of local government. Ken Livingstone set about changing this confused structure of accountability by ignoring it. He proclaimed himself an ally of first Stevens then Blair, boosting their budgets in exchange for promises of specific action on crime, on waste, on racism, beating up the hapless London Assembly when they sought to challenge these hikes in Council Tax, and presenting to the world an image of the Mayor as the man in charge.

This tactic has worked: from next year the Mayor will be able to appoint the Chair of the MPA, or even to take the role himself, as well as taking power over many other policy areas where he has staked his claim. By seeming, or even pretending, to be in charge, Ken Livingstone has clawed power from a possessive and nervous state. That’s why the man who has no right to hire or fire the Met Police Commissioner was defending him on the radio this morning.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Big bad cities

The pun may have been weak, but the message behind WWF's headline ("Cities need to green up their act") seemed pretty clear: cities are the problem.

WWF (formerly, and perhaps formally, known as The World Wildlife Fund) has come up with a catchy and polemically useful way of describing our ecological footprint - the amount of the earth's natural resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles and consumption patterns. We - in the UK - are living a 'three-planet lifestyle'. That is, if the whole world were to live as we do, we would need three (or 3.1, to be precise) worlds to support us. That we are still alive is only thanks to people like the Indians, who make up for our profligacy by living a '0.4-planet lifestyle'.

The WWF report compares the performance of 60 British cities, and creates a ranking. Newport and Plymouth perform best, and Winchester comes off worst. So, these urban dens of eco-iniquity are dragging the rest of us down. Or are they? When you look at the figures again, it looks as if British cities are actually doing rather well: more than two thirds of them are performing better than the UK average. The press release seems to have forgotten to mention this.

This does not, of course, contradict WWF's main message, that we ought to consume and live more frugally and responsibly. Sure. But why are cities always the villains in this piece? In some ways (for example, sourcing food locally) it may be harder to live a one-planet lifestyle in a city. But Tesco's pandemic spread across the UK suggests that not everybody in rural areas shops locally, and in other arenas (public transport and higher density living) cities should have a natural advantage.

Asking how the green potential of cities could be better unlocked would be a constructive approach to this debate. But the green movement seems unable to move on from its utopian, pastoralist roots, regarding everything since the invention of the spinning jenny with deep suspicion. Green and pleasant land good; dark satanic mills bad.

Our cities may be part of the problem. But with a growing population, they will have to be the core of any solution.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Magic and loss

Tread softly when you tread on a childhood.

I surprised myself, when I read reviews of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and when I saw the trailer. I felt angry, let down, even personally affronted.

One has to put away childish things, but Susan Cooper's sequence of novels were probably the most important books I read as a child. Dad read me The Lord of the Rings (del capo, one hell of a job), and Narnia always looked a bit naff. But The Dark is Rising was perfect. It was about a child growing up near the Chilterns, where I grew up, and the books were rich, humourless and terrifying in a way that only a kid can appreciate.

The supernatural elements were prehistoric and portentous: mutilated sheep, horses' skulls and sad sea hags, not muggles, recidivist billy-bunterism and magic spells. They alarmed, but also inculcated a curious supernatural patriotism, educating the 1970s child about British folklore, and its casual and persistent horror, like a cross between The Wicker Man and the didactic monotone of Willard Price's novels.

Susan Cooper has been chillingly polite about the film, acknowledging the need for novels to change, but also questioning why an 11-year old English child had to be changed to a 13-year old American child in England. Others have also noted that an evangelical Christian director has reduced an essentially pagan world view to one that is reassuringly Manichean (anticipating the row to come over the films of Philip Pullman's novels).

Interestingly, she also reveals that she wrote the books as an exile in the USA, conjuring a vivid image of a distant Britain that is even more lost today than it probably was even then. I probably won't watch the film. But the books still grip me, and haunt me when I walk, and when I imagine I walk, in the old hills of England and Wales.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Fairways...and foul

Aside from looking as if a sporran, or some other Highlands rodent, has taken up residence on his head, there was never much to tie Donald Trump to Scotland, before his battle, reported in yesterday’s Guardian, to take over Michael Forbes’ coastal landholding 13 miles north of Aberdeen.

Mr Trump wants to build 1,000 homes, a 45-room hotel and a golf course on the site. The houses are regrettably necessary as a cross-subsidy for the nine-hole golf course, which is presented as a good thing in itself (and a saviour of the dunes, rather than, as Scottish Natural Heritage see it, a destruction of important natural heritage). Mr Trump’s sensibilities are particularly offended by the state of Michael Forbes’ property: “... the area is in total disrepair. Take a look at how badly maintained the piece of property is: it's disgusting. Rusty tractors, rusty oil cans.”

It sounds a mess, but the countryside isn’t neat. The countryside can be beautiful, alarming, calming and depressing. It can smell beautiful or rank, and can be muddy, sandy or soft. But it is rarely neat. Modern farmyards are some of its least appealing features: lean-to sheds, decaying farm machinery, scraps of blue plastic sacking and strange rivulets of chemicals vie to disabuse us of any pastoral fantasies. This, the shambolic yards seem to say, is a productive place, not a pretty place.

Golf courses, on the other hand, are neatness incarnate. Flying into Heathrow or Gatwick, you get a privileged, if not particularly sustainable, view of these made-up meadowlands, which pepper south-eastern England with their curiously pock-marked landscapes. Golf courses may be neat, but they are a whole barrel of ugly too: privatised green spaces, permitted within the green belt on the basis of being a 'leisure' use, but bearing as much relationship to the countryside as Mickey Mouse does to the rodents under my floorboards.

With the rising demand for land for housing, and insistent questioning of the sustainability of green belt policies, we might be tempted to follow the example of the Mayor of Caracas, who suggested seizing golf courses to house the city’s poor. Even at a fifth of his proposed density (5,000 people per course), we could use England’s 1,800 golf courses to house nearly two million people, which must go some way meeting the Government’s annual target of 200,000 new homes.

If that turns out to be a touch controversial – as it may – here is another modest proposal. We could simply reclassify golf-courses as previously developed ‘brown field’ land (which they surely are, given the earth moving and ersatz planting that goes into their creation), and let the housing market do the rest as land values rose.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

It's been a long time

I've been distracted, having holidays, not smoking, all sorts. I've also been reading Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

The book is a monster of nearly 1,200 pages, and its subject comes over as pretty monstrous too. From the mid 1920s to the 1960s, Robert Moses dominated public projects in New York, covering the five boroughs and Long Island with new toll roads, beaches, parks and bridges, creating the type of alienating, car-dominated urban landscape that Jane Jacobs has taught all good urbanists to despise. He achieved these feats through a combination of thuggish arrogance and low cunning, with unattractive top-notes of racism and class prejudice.

And yet, governor after governor, and mayor after mayor, found him indispensable, unsackable. Whatever his methods, Moses got things done, and he got them done within electoral timescales. When he was building his first parks on Long Island in the mid-1920s, he had $1 million out of a total of $15 million. Instead of completing a few projects within budget, he assembled land for a much larger number, thereby forcing NY State Congress to vote him the remainder. Caro reports him as saying: "once you sink that first stake, they'll never make you pull it up."

What would Moses have made of Crossrail's latest faltering step forwards? When I worked on the Jubilee Line extension project in the mid 1990s, Crossrail was the next big project. Offices were being set up, and engineers recruited. And then, nothing. And now, maybe something? But breakthroughs are reported so frequently, and to so little effect, that it's hard to feel too excited by the news.

We seem to be very good at stopping big projects happening in the UK. The Treasury feels that it has been burned by so many wannabe-Moses characters, that it publishes volume upon volume of guidance on stopping big projects. The safest answer is always 'no'. Soon after London won the 2012 Games, I had a meeting with a senior civil servant. "You've got the Treasury in an awful spin," he said. "You've robbed them of their three standard strategies: delay, descope and say 'no'." At the IOC meeting in July 2005, London (Jowell, Livingstone, Coe) put some stakes in the ground. They won't be quickly forgiven.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

No time for heroes

Think tank ippr are arguing for a new national bank holiday for Britain, 'which would act as a national ‘thank you’ for community heroes and as a national ‘ask’ for people to give back to their communities'.

I have nothing against another day off work, but this endless flailing around after a post-nationalist national day for Britain seems doomed to fail (I'll leave Northern Ireland out of this for the moment).

We are not like other countries: for nearly 1,000 years, we have consistently failed to be invaded (hence giving us the opportunity to liberate ourselves), to stage any proper revolutions or to execute our aristocracy. Other countries can celebrate these bloody triumphs, or equally arcane religious festivals, saved from guilt by the power of tradition.

Instituting a new festival is a lot more complicated: it's not easy to find an uncontroversial historical event that fits the bill since 1066 (and it's not clear whether 'we' won or lost then, or even who 'we' were). Waterloo? Trafalgar? Too bellicose. Patron saints? We have three of them, and there are other religions (and Richard Dawkins), you know. Welfare State Day? Too lefty. Diana Day? God help us.

So, we are left with the lowest common denominator, a fuzzily inclusive 'community day'. Do you live in a community? The word is weasel-y, often used as a euphemism for 'poor people', as a hollow claim of legitimacy or as a vacuous affirmation - an attempt to create unity through its application to a disparate group of people. It is hard to imagine what depths of telethon schmaltz such a celebration would sink to.

The interesting thing about ippr's proposal is their choice of date: the Monday after Remembrance Sunday. Remembrance Sunday already serves as a curiously sombre national day, lent diversity by the contribution of the Commonwealth to the wars of the last century. It's a poignant, autumnal event, a mournful memory of individual and national loss. Rather British, when you come to think about it...

Monday, 6 August 2007

Siren songs

I live on a busy road near Brixton Police Station, so I get to see – and hear – plenty of policing in action. From morning to night, police cars and vans rush past in a blur of sirens and blue lights, sometimes zipping past each other in opposite directions.

But you rarely see police officers out of their vehicles. Friday night was an exception. Emerging from Stockwell tube station, I was confronted by ten or so police officers in the ticket hall, with dogs nosing at passengers’ briefcases and shopping bags. What was this all about, I asked? ‘Public reassurance’, I was told, then (when I insisted that I was not feeling re-assured), ‘drugs’.

It made me think of another incident a few weeks earlier. A crowd of school kids had gathered opposite my flat at about 4pm, and were argy-bargying about. The man from Brixton Cycles, who keeps a close eye on the street, came out and told them to calm down, which they did.

A few moments later, a police car screeched to a halt, and two officers leapt out. As the crowd began to scatter and slink away, two more vehicles appeared: an unmarked car with two plain-clothes officers, and a minibus with several more. It’s worth noting in passing that all the kids were black, and all the officers white.

Meanwhile, within the past ten days, two black teenagers have been shot dead within half a mile of my flat: Nathan Foster near Brixton tube on Friday night, and Abukar Mahamud a week earlier in Stockwell. The lack of volume control shown by the police – their inability to deploy anything less than full force – is thrown into sharp relief by this horrific backdrop.

The police can’t be everywhere, of course, and cannot be expected to anticipate where crimes may take place, but this style of policing seems to have no sense of proportion, to allow for no half-measures. Police charge around in their vehicles, either chasing after crimes that have already taken place, or swarming over every infraction, however minor, as if facing the combined force of Osama Bin Laden and the Kray Twins

I know that many police officers deem the ‘bobby on the beat’ to be a public relations strategy that does nothing to prevent crime or catch criminals, but this approach - it would be tempting to call it the 'Hot Fuzz School of Community Policing' if it wasn't so serious - does not look efficient or effective. A few policemen and women patrolling on foot, particularly at night, might even deter the impression that our streets are war zones requiring personal protection, sirens and high speed driving skills to stay alive.

It’s hard to say whether a more visible presence on the streets might have saved two young lives, but we need to try something different. Whatever is happening now – however much it is presented as ‘scientific’ or ‘evidence-based’ – is clearly not working.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Paper tigers

It must be depressing being Victoria Borwick, Warwick Lightfoot, Andrew Boff or Lurline Champagne. Magnificent names aside, these putative Conservative candidates for the London mayoral election in 2008 are already eclipsed by Planet Boris. Former DJ Mike Read has thrown his questionable weight behind the bumptious blonde on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, prompting ribald comment and cruel queries about when fellow DJ Nicey will make his intentions clear.

What promises to be a lively contest will be made livelier still by the fact that London now has two evening papers, which are already making their picks.

The current Mayor's loathing for the Evening Standard (and London Lite, its free sister paper), published by Associated Newspapers, is fully reciprocated, so it was no surprise that the paper gave Boris Johnson the platform to launch his candidacy yesterday, and followed it up today with tenuous tales of a 'Boris bounce', based on Facebook entries and a pretty ambiguous poll.

The London Paper, the freebie anti-Standard spoiler launched by News International last year, has been less explicit about its preferences (and lacks the formal editorial column to make these clear). But today it gave Ken Livingstone a column to attack his opponent, and further space to a less than glowing portrait by Johnson's biographer, Andrew Gimson.

The brutal war being waged between Associated Newspapers and News International (and their proxies in London politics) has opened up a new front. This is about more than politics; this is about circulation.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Undignified, yes, but efficient?

Walter Bagehot’s masterwork, The English Constitution, famously distinguished the ‘dignified’ from the ‘efficient’ parts of government. The monarchy was part of the former, parliamentary democracy (still in robust health in the 1860s) was the latter.

The office of Mayor of London can be viewed in a similar way. The Mayor is the elected representative of the metropolis, with one of the largest personal mandates in Europe. Nationally, and internationally, he is seen as the capital’s voice, whether talking about his statutory responsibilities or offering views on world affairs.

But the Mayor also has specific duties, powers and functions. He is responsible for developing a curious ragbag of strategies, for allocating budgets, for overseeing the London’s transport, economic development, police and fire services, and for certain key planning decisions. The ‘dignified’ Mayor deals publicly in visions for London. The ‘efficient’ Mayor functions invisibly, working his limited powers and resources to deliver this vision, forever locked in titanic struggles with the apparatus of the state.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. There is little doubt that he would be able to dominate the headlines like Ken Livingstone, and perhaps to cause offence to as many people. So that’s the ‘dignified’ (or perhaps ‘undignified’) role in the bag. But does he have the stomach for the detail, the serpentine cunning and tactical skill to wring money and powers from the state (the second most centralised after North Korea’s, according to current Mayor)?

Recent US history shows us that there is no barrier to buffoons forming governments, if they have the shadowy figures around them to undertake the nitty gritty of administration. And Boris Johnson is, of course, far less of a buffoon than he likes to appear.

Interestingly, he has also, in launching his campaign, gone straight for the policy jugular. A bit of robust abuse (“King Newt”), which will no doubt be repaid in kind, is combined with an attack on those fronts where Ken Livingstone is weakest: muggings, buses and the Underground. These may not be things that any Mayor can easily solve, but they are the irritants that scratch away at London’s world-beating veneer and at the daily lives of its citizens. Johnson has even managed to draw out the contrast between himself – the Old Etonian everyman on his bike – and Livingstone, who is as reluctant to ride a bicycle himself as he is keen to promote their use by others.

This promises to be a bloody, and entertaining, fight. Boris Johnson is right to describe the incumbent as "'one of the wiliest and most enduring politicians of the modern age." But If he can match his celebrity status with convincing Londoners that he means business, he could go the distance with the man who has come to personify London for the past seven years. London’s irreverent electoral mob might just swap one renegade for another.

High stakes

Today's news that Metronet, the consortium contracted to maintain and operate the London Underground's Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, is likely to enter administration can actually be seen as a curious type of success for the PPP. These contracts are not a one-way bet.

Public private partnerships for major public infrastructure projects have tended to look like one-way bets for the private sector. They charge the public sector for taking on 'risk', but everybody knows that the state will have to step in if problems threaten to destroy public goods: hospitals, schools, railway and road networks cannot be allowed to go to the wall as private businesses would if they became insolvent.

The fact that the PPP arbitrator has called their bluff, and refused to grant Metronet the mind-boggling £551 million that they were seeking to cover their overspend, shows that this bet is not the sure thing it must have once looked like. But whatever the short-term pain to Metronet's shareholders, it will ultimately be taxpayers who meet the cost of keeping these Underground lines afloat, and of the bizarrely money-gobbling, lawyer-ridden farce that the PPP has turned out to be.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Green grow the balance sheets oh!

The morning after the world of pop and rock jetted to Wembley to tell us about climate change, a browse through the Sunday paper...

Nearly 12 pages of the 40-page main section of The Observer are given over to advertising. Top categories are:
  • electricity, IT services and electrical goods (30 per cent of the advertising space)
  • cars (25 per cent)
  • financial services (14 per cent)
  • holidays and flights (8 per cent)
Perhaps more revealing than these figures is the fact that 40 per cent of space is given over to advertisements that make environmental claims. A few are summarised below, without any lawyer-baiting discussion about the claims made:
  • A satellite TV system switches itself off at night, transforming its dozing customers into 'eco-warriors';
  • A credit card gives 50 per cent of its profits to climate change projects (thereby helping a cute wide-eyed baby);
  • A bank is carbon-neutral, as illustrated by equally cute polar bears;
  • A small car-manufacturer questions 'why spend 2 litres of petrol to get one litre of milk?';
  • An IT firm points out that its inkjet cartridges are recycled through their 'Planet Partners' programme.
Keep shopping. Save the world.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Life after Livingstone?

Boris Johnson? Greg Dyke? John Major? With less than a year to go till the next London mayoral election, a growing sense of desperation is settling over opposition parties. Is there anyone out there who the Conservatives haven't approached? Anyone who has a chance of beating Ken Livingstone?

Standing against the Mayor, who has twice seen off all comers (including his own party in 2000), must be one of the least enviable jobs in politics. Steven Norris has twice proved an effective and jocular opponent, largely through distancing himself as far from Conservative Party policy as Livingstone has from Labour Party policy, but will surely not have the appetite to be ‘three times a loser’.

The Conservatives’ much-trumpeted plans for a talent-show approach have gone rather quiet, though several candidates – primarily from local government backgrounds – have expressed interest, and a London-wide primary will take place in September. But rumours of bids from heavy-hitters like John Major, Olympic chief Sebastian Coe and former Met Police commissioner John Stevens seem to have evaporated.

The Liberal Democrats have mounted serious candidates – Susan Kramer (now MP for Richmond Park) in 2000, and Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes in 2004 – but the prospect of their party holding the balance of power at Westminster after the next general election must look more attractive in career development terms than another round in the ring with the former member for Brent East.

In 2000, it was said that Tony Blair hoped that an independent businessperson rather than a professional politician would win the mayoralty. This time around, plenty of colourful characters are emerging: DJs Mike Read and James Whale, Big Issue founder John Bird, actor Tom Conti and Right Said Fred singer Richard Fairbrass. Leaving aside the fact that many of these candidates seem propelled primarily by their resentment of London’s congestion charge, they are not quite of Michael Bloomberg’s – or even Richard Branson’s – calibre.

The irony is that, in setting up a system to attract political outsiders, New Labour created a job that was tailor-made for one of their own renegades. In seven years, Ken Livingstone has entrenched himself, re-engineering the City Hall machine to operate as he wants it to; he has become part of its wiring.

Like him or loathe him (and there are plenty in both camps), Ken Livingstone is a consummate politician, on top of his brief, sharp and able to speak off-the-cuff (and sometimes off-the-wall) on pretty well any subject. As a former GLA employee, I can testify to the frustration of listening to a pitch-perfect mayoral performance, with the only duff notes being those taken from his carefully-crafted official briefing.

Though the media relish the intemperate outbursts – against Evening Standard journalists, against the Saudi royal family, against George Bush – Ken Livingstone is now more likely to be heard extolling his carefully nuanced vision for London: the city succeeds because ‘The City’ succeeds, supported by London’s diversity and openness (in contrast to New York, marooned in Fortress America). London’s turbo-capitalist growth and growing diversity are to be embraced and celebrated, but also to be used as an engine for greater social justice and for tackling climate change.

Over seven years, almost unnoticed, he has transformed himself from the khaki-clad newt-fancier of yore, into the very model of a modern city boss, known across the world, and clad in imperial purple (or at least the odd Ozwald Boateng bespoke suit). La cité, c’est lui.

There are two sides to Ken Livingstone. One is the glamourpuss, clearly relishing the limelight and the occasional slanging match. The other is the slightly nerdy technocrat, who enjoys the day-to-day business of running London. He has stretched the Greater London Authority’s curious rag-bag of powers taut in trying to create change in a chaotic city. The Mayor enjoys getting stuck in: from negotiating with developers, to introducing and extending a congestion charge, to battling with local boroughs, pigeons and PPP consortiums, to bringing more buses onto the street, to making deals for cheap oil with Hugo Chavez, to attracting the 2012 Olympics (and billions of pounds of public money) to East London.

Ken Livingstone has said that a good candidate could easily unseat him next year, but this sounds more like a playground taunt – ‘come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough' – than a sincere sentiment. He would like to stay in post till 2016. Running London is not a springboard for him, but the only job that he seems to want. GLA polls show a gentle decline in his personal approval ratings, but the field of opponents does not give confidence that he will be easily toppled.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

From Canary Wharf to Canvey Island

Thames Gateway: environmental disaster in the making, bleak repository for the worst of ticky-tacky volume housebuilding, or an unrivalled offer of increased prosperity, enhanced environment and vibrant quality of life? Only one of these asssessments is drawn from a Government website. You can probably guess which.

In the wake of a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, commentators have been lining up to give ‘the Thames Gateway project’ a comprehensive monstering. The NAO criticised the project for having too many organisations involved, and for lacking clear leadership, a costed delivery plan and performance indicators.

This is all fine as far as it goes (though as an ex-researcher for the Audit Commission, the NAO’s local government equivalent, I know that these criticisms are audit boilerplate, applicable to almost any area of public life), but it’s worth keeping a sense of scale.

The Thames Gateway is vast: more than 700 square miles of land, stretching from London’s East End to the Isle of Sheppey (as far as the distance from Marble Arch to Oxford). It contains multitudes: marshland and power stations, wharfs and wild horses, factories and new towns, Canary Wharf and Canvey Island. Should there be – could there be – a single vision or plan for such a place?

Architect Sir Terry Farrell thinks there should. He has been decrying the Government’s failure to adopt his ‘vision’ in the media. He thinks we could accommodate not hundreds of thousands, but millions of home in London’s built up areas, leaving the rest of the Gateway as a national park and creating new islands at the mouth of the Thames. But these proposals are more a welcome provocation than the sort of plan the NAO are seeking.

I should declare an interest. In a previous life, I helped develop plans for London’s slice of Thames Gateway. These were profoundly modest in their scope, and even then took more than a year of debate between multiple agencies and layers of government. It’s hard to see what the alternative is, in a pluralistic and complex society. Which organisations should be knocked out of the way: county councils, the Mayor of London, regional development agencies?

To an extent, the Government is a victim of its own hype, or even of hubris. They trumpeted Thames Gateway as the biggest regeneration project in the world and said that they were in charge. Their bluff is now being called. They have a small team in Whitehall, some new urban regeneration bodies, and a budget of £700 million over three years. This is a lot of money, but looks smaller spread across 700 miles; it’s probably only about twice the build costs of London’s Olympic stadium. To be honest, government can only tinker at the edges, while Barratt, Persimmon and Bellway Homes get on with business as usual.

There is a growing debate about whether the state should become more interventionist, and should start to manage house building and urban regeneration more directly, rather than seeking to regulate and plan a market over which they have little real control. This is a subject for another day, but in the meantime we might ask: is the problem that Thames Gateway is too big, or that government is too small?

Saturday, 23 June 2007

An archaeology of advertising

Metronet, the PPP consortium struggling to stay solvent while it operates and upgrades London Underground's Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, doesn't have many fans.

But either Metronet, or one of their sub-contractors, seems to be running a rolling exhibition of antique advertising, which has been carefully left in place as posters are stripped back in the public spaces of Victoria Line stations. Towards the end of 2006, this exhibition hovered at Oxford Circus. Now - for a limited time only - it is at Warren Street.

The posters at Warren Street seem to date from around 1989 (on the basis of the release dates of Wilt and Ghostbusters 2), though one for Whitley's Shopping Centre could have been dated from the 1930s. They look incredibly antique: bright blocky colours, wordy captions, and none of the sly irony that we have come to expect over the past 20 years. The overall effect is as alien as the garish supplements about investment opportunities in former soviet republics that sometimes fall from the Sunday papers.

Normally, advertising on the underground is just unwelcome visual noise (now even clumsily imposed on the minimalist Jubilee Line extension escalators), but these posters are worth a view. So, hurry, hurry, the opportunity to enjoy these blasts from the past is strictly time-limited.

Within weeks, the posters will be gone, and Metronet will have begun to 'improve' Warren Street Tube, with its usual glaring striplights, bargain-basement tiles and tacky wipe-clean wall panels.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Larks' Tongues

BBC2's Rome was back on the television last night, revelling with gory glee in the plottings and the stabbing. The orgies, the feasts of larks' tongues and the pearls dissolved in vinegar are just around the corner.

This is history in hindsight: we see the seeds of the Roman Empire's collapse being sown in the retreat from the austere and stoic values of the Republic. We can thank historians like Suetonius for this lurid and prurient tale of geopolitical decline following close on the heels of moral decadence. It has proved a compelling narrative for future generations too, from Shakespeare to Gibbon.

Is it a narrative for today? While problems press on us from all sides - environmental collapse, intractable wars, political and social alienation - many of us have never had it so good. We live lives of comfort and plenty, lives that are enriched by foreign travel, new foods, new media.

Is this dissonance a new normality or is our persistent celebration of consumption a sign of our decadence? Are we eating larks' tongues? Two things I noticed recently:

The ipod is a totemic piece of technology for our time, offering unparalleled ease of use coupled with elegance of design. I recently picked up a flyer, asking 'Is your ipod still sitting in its box?', and offering to fill ipods with music for their owners, to give training sessions, to personalise ipod mixes to make their owners look sophisticated.

At the Young Vic Theatre, performances of 'Vernon God Little', a satirical tale of the white working class in the southern USA can be preceded by a special menu in the venue's restaurant, where middle-class theatre-goers can eat ironic (but locally sourced and organic) variants on southern white trash food.

I'm not trying to criticise these quirks of our culture (on the contrary, I can vouch for the Vernon God Little burger as juicy and well-cooked), but I sometimes wonder how our lives would look to a visitor from another planet, or even to a future historian sniffing out the decadent portents of decline.

Any more larks' tongues out there?

Saturday, 16 June 2007

What's in a name?

It's very rare these days for a story to appear and disappear, without leaving a digital trail somewhere on the internet.

Last Thursday (14 June 2007), London's three evening papers picked up the same story: that the International Olympic Committee Co-ordination Commission (the group of IOC members sent over to check on London's progress in preparing for the 2012 Games) had said that they were uncomfortable with the Olympic Delivery Authority's name.

Why? Because the bulk of the ODA's £9bn budget is now to be spent on cleaning up land and putting infrastructure into East London's Lea Valley, rather than on erecting Olympic venues. The panjandrums of the IOC are nothing of not assiduous in defending the value of their brand, and they were reported to be unhappy with the association of the 'O-word' with such extensive public spending (and some of the unavoidable but unpleasant side-effects of development, like displacement of businesses and residents).

The story had a ring of truth, however odd it might seem at first glance. The IOC is very keen to emphasise that the Olympic Games are self-funding (from ticketing, sponsorship and merchandising revenues). Their view is that, if a city has to build new facilities to accommodate the Games, then that is their business, and a demonstration of the catalytic effect that the whole circus can have on nations that host it.

But you can't have it both ways. It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that 'regeneration' is not the one way street that its shiny name implies. Regeneration displaces, and regeneration costs. The Olympics have made the Government do what they would never have done otherwise: make the heavy investment needed to turn round one of the poorest areas in the UK. The IOC should be proud to be associated with this investment, and should take its share of the knocks too.

The story had vanished by Thursday night. Perhaps it was untrue. Or perhaps it was seen as too damaging to the brand...

Thursday, 14 June 2007


The capital city of the nation of shopkeepers is getting worried. Is London beginning to face the same pressures that have stripped many other town and city centres of their life?

Over the next few years, central London's shops will face a bit of a rocky road, with growing competition from what might be called 'out-of-town-in-town' retail malls: at White City to the west, at Stratford to the East and at the expanded Brent Cross/Cricklewood scheme to the north. Combined with congestion charging, and the homogenisation of retail through 'clone town' encroachment by large chains, the threat is particularly acute for smaller and independent shops.

Kensington and Chelsea recently established an independent commission to look at the future of retail within the borough and their report (here) makes some interesting proposals: how can you preserve retail diversity, and the character of neighbourhoods that this creates?

Some of the changes they recommend relate to planning policy, and in particular use classes. If your boredom threshold is low, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Land and building uses are categorised by Government, and local authorities uise them to define what activities are allowed on a particular site: retail, offices, housing, industrial uses, etc. 'Retail' includes sub-classes for shops, financial and professional services (ie, banks, estate agents and bookies), restaurants and cafes, drinking establishments and hot food takeaways. In general, changes within a particular use class are permitted, but changes between use classes require planning permission.

The K&C Commission suggested putting small shops into a new category, and making mergers of smaller units a matter for planning consideration. They also proposed creating a new class for coffee shops, to prevent local retail being 'Starbucked'. The report also suggests letting councils take over large shops' car parks, to remove their unfair advantage, and even toys with the idea of creating special 'retail conservation areas'.

Why is this interesting? Firstly, because retail conservation areas could be seen as the next step in the heritage movement. Since the mid 1960s, we have woken up to the value of the every day buildings that surround us (of which more in another post soon), but have paid little attention to their use. A listed factory building or church can be changed into housing as long as it looks the same. Protecting the use of a building, as well its looks, is a pretty radical move, more reminiscent of the way we approach farmland, than buildings in the centre of a city.

It's a pretty conservative move too, though not one that would seem strange in New York or Paris. The leadership of Kensington and Chelsea is Conservative, but this feels like a far cry from the laissez-faire world of the market, seeking to protect shops like Rough Trade (a collectivist record shop) from the depradations of capitalism.

Thirdly, like most people, I am deeply hypocritical about shopping. I love smaller shops in theory, but the half-stale produce and limited range soon sends me scuttling to Sainsburys. Perhaps the streets where I live are slightly less replete with specialist sourdough bakeries than the streets of Notting Hill are. Not every small shop is worth saving.

Similarly, when I work in poorer parts of London, they don't tend to worry about small retailers. They feel they have too many of them already. They want Starbucks. They want Tescos. They want that holy grail of upwards mobility, Pizza Express. Keeeping good small shops afloat is important, but should we really rely on planning to save us from our own actions?

Saturday, 9 June 2007

First post

Well, the London Olympics have shown their unifying force. With a great fanfare, the new London 2012 logo was launched last week, and the nation came together to take the piss.

Whatever the merits of the new logo, it has unleashed a torrent of creative abuse and mockery. Does it resemble a broken swastika? Larry Grayson in teapot stance? David Brent dancing? Lisa Simpson doing something lewd and quite possibly illegal? The UK's GDP must have taken a pounding last week: normal business was suspended, in favour of that Great British pastime, mockery.

Co-incidentally, Communities and Local Government Minister Ruth Kelly announced a desire for a British 'national day', another of the Government's fumbles at national identity (here). The trouble is, all assessments of what 'Britishness' means dissolve quickly into cliche: tolerance, rule of law, sense of humour, blah. Sense of humour gets nearest, but the reality is less cuddly than that. Our real characteristic is the ability to laugh at anything. Anything.

In his wartime polemic, 'The Lion and the Unicorn' (the source for John Major's much-mocked evocation of 'old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist), George Orwell argued that the goose-step would never have caught on in England: "because the people in the street would laugh".

Our laughter is not gentle. It is scatalogical, harsh, unforgiving. It infects the engravings of Hogarth and Gillray. It has no respect for authority, and is ready to attack any trace of pretension or pomposity. It's not pleasant, but it is ours.