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.

But...

...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 fa├žade 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.