Category Archives: London

Books London Politics

Throw away the keys and lose the fear – no gates, no CCTV please

I was really pleased when residents in my block of flats voted recently against becoming a gated community – or at least against locking the gates we already, unfortunately, have installed. I don’t want to live in something that feels like a prison, when you have to rattle keys to get to your front door, with the gate clanging shut behind you as you walk towards it. And I think that having people around in the communal garden, a pleasant, social environment, as we have now – I regularly say hello to at least 20 of my neighbours, and know some people who use it as a walkthrough – is much better security than a lockdown that screams “something to fear here!”.

I found academic backing for that instinct in Anna Minton’s Ground Control, in which she concludes (talking here about the awful One Hyde Park in London where apparently the penthouses have bulletproof glass, iris scanners, purified air and panic rooms) “no matter how much military hardware is installed, the aim of creating a maximum security environment to make people feel safer is doomed to failure because … security is as much an emotional as a physical state”. (p. 66) (Even the attempt by owners to secure themselves against stamp duty has apparently failed.)

There’s evidence, as Minton wrote recently in the Guardian, that CCTV makes people feel less secure. I’d very much like to get rid of the one in our garden – and not just because of its recent controversy. Minto: “One of the most important studies is by criminologist Jason Ditton, who carried out a study for the Scottish Office of CCTV in Glasgow, which found that recorded crime actually increased after CCTV had been installed …. the majority of people supported its introduction and believed that it would make them feel safer, but the findings after CCTV was put in showed that there was no improvement in feelings of safety.” (p. 169)

She reports on the case of a Dutch architect brought to Liverpool astonished by public housing estates surrounded by walls and CCTV. Hans Van der Heijiden, she reports, worked for six years with local people in Fazakerley, consulting on a proposed scheme, more continental in design and relying on the presence of people for security, but the “Secured by Design” certificate was unlikely to be granted on this basis, so the scheme fell through, the architect was sacked, and a new one built a “traditional”, prison-like structure. His words on consultation are telling: “The consultation process was a big book with procedures we had to follow with boxes to tick. An enormous amount of money was spent on it – venues were rented and bus services were provided.” But their support for his scheme was ignored.
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Books London Politics

Powerful testimony on politics and architecture

I haven’t time now to provide a full account of Owen Hatherley’s A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain, which is a pity, since his unique form of exploring politics through architecture, as shown in his previous A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, is well worth time.

But I will note a strong testimony to the Green Party, and particularly Caroline Lucas, in it. in his chapter on Brighton, noting that it is the first city to elect a Green MP, Hatherley says: “It would be churlish and sectarian for anyone on the left to object to this: as a parliamentarian, Lucas has proved herself far more of a Social Democrat – hell, far more of an Opposition – than practically anyone in the Labour Party.” (p. 150)

There’s also lots of personal interest to me, both about my own political work, and more broadly as a resident of Camden.

I often cycle past the dreadful Central St Giles in Holborn – or what the marketers are trying to awfully call “Midtown”. This is Hatherley’s take: “… an atrocious botch-job, a bunch of extremely dense, stocky and inelegant blocks crammed into the site, with a grim postage stamp of public space in the middle; in order to distract attention from this act of violence, Piano decided to colour the entire thing in lurid yellows, oranges and greens”. (p. 346) Couldn’t agree more!

He also draws attention to a (sadly lost) campaign to which I devoted a lot of time and energy, including testifying to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, against the then UKCMRI (UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation), now Crick Institute, behind the British Library. He describes Somers Cross and King’s Cross as an area “undergoing severe gentrification”, noting that the Crick “was fiercely opposed by local campaigners who pointed out that the site was zoned as social housing”. (p. xxxvii) Yep – we were fiercely opposed indeed – and with it just getting out of the ground now, its full horrors have yet to be revealed.

But he’s vert positive, interestingly, about the new London headquarters of Unison, just around the corner from me. I agree with him in quite liking the office building that fronts Euston Road – it has a sense of calm, stability and permanence not found in most of the corporate, clearly temporary and cheap glass horrors being thrown up all around. And as he notes, it has “impeccable environmental credentials” – and it sounds as though, unlike another building labelled with that epithet, which it was my misfortune to briefly inhabit, the workers are enjoying the experience.
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Books London Politics

An early history of the London Assembly and mayoralty

With the fourth election of the London Mayor and Assembly, in which I’ll be taking a part, fast approaching (all those doors to knock on!), now seemed an opportune time to take a look back over the origins and structure of this rather curious institution of the Greater London Authority (that term applies _only_ to the combination of the two, for those who like to get the technicalities right – hi Darren!)

I’ve got a lot of respect for Tony Travers, not only because I know that he’s one of a handful of experts on local government in Britain, but because he very sharply chaired one of the ten hustings in 2010 for Holborn and St Pancras, and helped make it one of the most interesting. So his The Politics of London: Governing an Ungovernable City seemed a must-read.

In it, he covers the lead-up to the creation of the GLA in 2000, and the first three years of its existence. I must admit some of the latter is really only of interest to the specialist, but he’s very interesting on the historical long-view of London – broadly what he sees as the “ungovernableness”, and the strains, stresses and nature of the unusual (in British terms) and rather anomalous constitution structure that we have today.

He explains: “The status of the GLA is unclear. The mayor’s hugh electorate and the GLA’s strategic role suggest devolved regional government, like the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but the financial rules and close continuing central government control make it look more like local government. … it is not the top tier in a vertically integrated hierarchical system of metropolitan government. As set out in the legislation, and confirmed in practice, the powers of the mayor are largely those of patronage, persuasion and publicity. Patronage, through his or her ability to appoint to functional bodies; persuasion, using limited control over resources and position at the centre of hat is a continuing system of network and multi-level governance; and publicity through exploiting the mayor’s legitimacy, accountability and democratic claim to ‘speak for London’.” (p. 68)
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Books London Politics

Sense of deja vu all over again? Housing, house building, poverty, the City and private and government interests

From A Journey Through the Ruins: The Last Days of London, by Patrick Wright, a slightly curious mixture of architectural/heritage comment and development politics of the 1980s in the capital (first published in 1991). A few snippets of interest…

“Hackney’s experiment with high-rise flats was accompanied by the usual allegations of corruption and graft, but whatever may have been going on locally, there can be no doubt at all that large dividends were being reaped elsewhere. Patrick Dunleavy investigated the links between national politicians, civil servants and the large construction companies that thrived on the public housing programmes during the years of Conservative government, and his findings certainly add up to an interesting picture of corporate and personal involvement. A significant number of of MPs had connections with the construction industry but so too did two ministers in the Cabinet responsible for the high flat subsidy*: Keith Joseph was heir to the Bovis fortune and Geoffrey Rippon was a director of Cubbitts. Among the construction companies both McAlpine and Taylor Woodrow were major contributors to the Conservative Party and also such right-wing pressure groups such as the Freedom Association. Dame Evelyn Sharp as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government during the crucial years, 1954-64; she was also a friend of the construction boss, Neil Wates, and, after her retirement from the civil service, the holder of a directorship at Bovis. Kenneth Wood, Chariman of Concrete Ltd, as among the ‘advisers’ employed by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government from the construction industry; even as late as 1974, a Bovis executive was appointed to ‘mastermind a more vigorous public housing drive’.
Architects are still inclined to blame the worst excesses of the Sixties on every aspect of this planning framework, except their own professional culture. But there can be no doubt that a self-referring professional world built up; one in which consultation with the ‘client’ meant nothing more than discussion with borough architects, planners and other such experts who shared a professional outlook based on what Martin Pawley described as a ‘curious amalgam of ‘modern’ thought and scientific mumbo jumbo’.” (p. 92)

* High-rise flats were always an expensive form of housing… High-rise flats grew out of central-government subsidies. There were ‘expensive site’ subsidies in the Thirties, and in 1946 Attlee’s Labour government had added a ne increment per flat for blocks of at least four storeys high with lifts. But … it was the Macmillan government that triggered the high-rise boom in 1956, when it introduced a progressive storey-height subsidy that gave large increments for four-, five- and six-storey flats and a fixed increment for every additional storey over that.” (p. 91)
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London life in all its glorious variety and energy

Had a lovely time at the Netley Public School International Evening earlier today, as did a great many excited pupils. A great turnout of parents too.

The DJ did a great mix – up-to-the-minute songs (at least I’m guessing that’s what they were, given some of the older girls knew all of the words and the accompanying actions), and music from around the world.

There was also an eclectic mix of food – including Australian traditional favourites of lamingtons and fairy bread, and a fabulous snack of puffed rice, gram noodles, onions and parsley whose name I have forgotten but was definitely more-ish, particularly the spicy version with mustard oil.

There were lots of simple games and pleasures. I haven’t heard how I went on guessing the number of Smarties in a jar; it was a large jar so I went for 720, based on some quick maths of numbers in three dimensions (yes, I can still do mental arithmetic when I have to!) And the queue of the throw the beanbags in the hoops was a bit long for me, though I would have liked a go.

A huge amount of work from staff and parents making for an unforgettable day for the children – well done all!

Books History London Politics

When Camden had a thriving, mixed local economy

I’ve been reading recently about the importance of local economies, and how money can be kept in them and its benefits multiplied, in the New Economics Foundation Plugging the Leaks programme. I’ve also been reading, courtesy of my local (threatened by cuts library) The Growth of Camden Town: AD1800-2000 by Jack Whitehead.

It’s not the best-organised book of local history ever written, but the passion of the author for this area of London, and the depth of his research, is obvious, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in Camden. The illustrations are also fascinating (although unfortunately only in black and white).

It’s mostly non-political, a narrative account rather than statement of what Whitehead would like to see, but the feelings occasionally slip through: “About 1970, when industry in Camden Town was almost defunct, I cleared out part of an old piano factory… The owner was retiring because of rising rents and falling business. His mews factory was being refurbished and restored as part of an urban renewal programme. This included a new roof of Welsh slates at £3 each. At a time when huge new factories and trading estates were being erected on green-field sites, with roofs in corrugated iron, this inner-city factory was being treated like a stately home and priced out of any future manufacture…. The planners were working to the ideas current at the time. Industry should be zoned away from housing, preferably in a New Town beyond the Green Belt…. With the best will in the world and hoping to improve people’s lives, planners were destroying industry. The same thing was happening all over London… Within a few years the delicate network of local employment was shattered. London, which in Victorian times had been the biggest industrial city in the British Isles, had lost its industry. Instrument making in Islington and Clerkenwell, gunsmiths in Paddington, furniture in Hoxton, metal casting in Bayham Street, brewing in Hawley Street – industry withered or fled.” (p. 59)
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