Lib Dem villains of the month: Bob Russell and Mike Hancock

I’m pretty sure that no Liberal Democrat members volunteered time and money to put people into Parliament so that they could join notorious crook/idiot Keith Vaz MP in trying to ban computer games

But this month Bob Russell and Mike Hancock co-sponsored an EDM essentially calling for a ban on Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, which is to say a ban on letting adults choose how they entertain themselves.

It’s hard to tell why they would do this. Maybe there was a splash about it in the Daily Mail or something. Maybe Hancock is concerned that the game portrays Russian spies in a bad light, just when he’s trying to rehabilitate their reputation as sexy secretaries rather than gun-toting fiends.

Of course this is nothing more than an EDM, the most pointless of Parliamentary documents, written by a dumbass and essentially signifying nothing, but as Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw put it, if someone who wants to legislate the censorship of arts and culture gets elected, then the next thing you know you’re picking jackboots out of your teeth.

It’s worth remembering that politicians all over the world, even those who call themselves Liberals, are gagging to regulate culture, and may one day require an organised response – such as the Video Game Voters Network in the USA.

In the meantime, though, it would be nice if some liberal Liberal Democrats could sign up to Tom Watson’s anti-censorship amendment to the motion, just to counterbalance the embarrassing actions of Bob and Mike. Julian Huppert to the rescue?

Published in: on November 23, 2011 at 9:01 pm  Comments (2)  

Tories don’t understand the countryside

Tories are waging a bitter war against anything they see as damaging the countryside. Wind farms, high speed rail, and new housing developments are all encountering their organised resistance. This is because they have, dangerously and inaccurately, come to regard the countryside as a garden for their own enjoyment.

Prince Charles described wind farms as “a monstrous carbuncle”; his father just called them “a disgrace” (Wind farms are defended in the Mail article by fellow Lib Dem blogger Adam Bell!) The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is condemned on the basis that it might allow buildings to go up on green fields. The HS2 high speed rail link to the North is excoriated just for having the temerity to pass through the countryside. Forget the energy crisis, the housing crisis, the decades of underinvestment in the country’s infrastructure, these people say – what about our views of grass?

The countryside is not, and has never been, some kind of vast pleasure-garden. The countryside is about grinding a hard living from the soil, corralling and slaughtering beasts by their millions, blasting rock apart for its mineral wealth, gouging out solid energy from the earth’s crust. It is a landscape wholly created by industry and toil, girded all about by steel rails.

There is wild land that is wholly worth preserving as national park. But a national park has the same relation to the countryside as a city park has to its urban context: a necessary complement, but something fundamentally unlike its surroundings.

One of my favourite spots in the country, perhaps the world, is Stanton Moor in the Peak District, for its megaliths, its ecology, a curious folly commemorating the Reform Act of 1832, and because its height affords a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. That view is of working farms and working quarries – of toil. That doesn’t detract from the view any more than all those damn buildings detract from the view at the top of the London Eye. It is the view; it is the essence of it. The moor itself was shaped by its industrial history. You can’t walk anywhere in the Derbyshire countryside without seeing where our Bronze Age ancestors carved rocks from the earth, or the Romans dug for lead, or where Victorian Englishmen started a little thing called the industrial revolution.

These commuter Tories who escape to the country and buy up farmhouses to create a fundamentally suburban simulacrum of rural life misunderstand the element they are entering. They don the Barbour and attend the village fete and enjoy the view from their rustic-style barnconversion kitchen windows, but they misunderstand.

There is another moor that I love, just to the North of Stanton-in-the-Peak: Beeley Moor. From here you look down across an artificial rustic landscape – the Chatsworth House estate, with its Capability Brown gardens, neat turf and precisely-picturesque number of lambs. The fourth Duke of Devonshire went as far as to demolish the local village, Edensor, and have it rebuilt behind a convenient hill so that it would cease spoiling his view across the Derwent.

Now every two-bit Tory in the land thinks that they can act like this Duke and look out across a panorama of bucolic fakery. Never mind that this stops affordable housing development and drives up housing prices beyond the reach of real low-paid rural workers. Never mind that we’re dependent on Arab sheikhs for our energy security.

Tories of the shires: our countryside is not your frivolous playground. It is a serious place for serious work.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Neighbourhood planners: at least they’re not on drugs.

Anyone following the neighbourhood planning aspect of the Localism Act 2011 will be interested in seeing whether letting real people take the lead in shaping their own surroundings will actually result in better places. But professional planners are already failing to create decent places. In Middlesborough this appears to be because they are dropping acid during working hours.

People know intrinsically what they like in a place. To quote the heir apparent: “in a strange way we operate like bees making a hive and ants making a nest or whatever. The universal pattern is within us.” People want streets that feel safe from crime. They want convenient places to buy groceries. Places that are safe from traffic and easy to travel around. Places with a diversity of use.

You can always tell when you find a good place, because there are people around – and they look happy to be there.

One of the tragedies of the modernist housing projects of the twentieth century is that they constructed decent homes in solid buildings (whatever your personal view of municipal brutalist architecture), but put them into terrible contexts. Set in pedestrian canyons that are not overlooked at almost any hour of the day, they usually feel unsafe and sometimes are. They are starved of amenities. The eradication of traditional street patterns makes them difficult to traverse (I had to climb through a children’s playground while crossing through a Hackney estate the other day, because there was no other clear route through). They tend to be surrounded by dangerous roads as if by a moat. They are single-use structures dropped into dehumanising environments as if they were self-contained units.

And professional planners are still making the same mistakes. Middlesborough’s Middlehaven regeneration project reproduces these mistakes by plonking regeneration structures (a college, a museum, a football pitch, a hotel, and so on) into a wilderness, without considering how people actually use places and what they actually want from them.

Oh, and because they were taking acid when they were drawing up the plans, the regeneration buildings looks like fish and eggs, and stand in the middle of impenetrable jungles of gladioli.

No, really.

Yes, this is seriously what expensive urban planning consultants came up with, and what the council signed up to. Random buildings dropped into cripplingly expensive, uncrossable, and hilly fields of flowers.

Here’s a close up of how they supposed a normal day would look in this part of Middlesborough in 2015.

Sadly this was done before councils were obliged to account for each item of spending, so we may never know how much acid their planning officers were buying on the rates, but even disregarding the LSD-induced design elements, don’t forget that this is supposed to be Middlesborough.

And here we have another problem with the planning establishment: their chronically, compulsively dishonest use of architectural renders.

Who are all these people? Where are they going and where did they come from? Are we supposed to believe that they are just taking a wander through the Willie Wonka wilderness? There are no shops here, no purpose for people being there. It’s easy to drop non-specific pedestrian activity into architectural renders: they come free with Google sketchup. But it’s incredibly hard in reality to get people to congregate in any given place.

Note also the crisp blueness of the sky, which is so characteristic of Northeast England.

Here’s another, just to make the point that, yes, they really are apparently envisioning replacing Middlesborough’s derelict docklands with colossal fields of gladioli. Take that, age of austerity. The non-specific pedestrians here are perhaps even more baffling. You might be able to make out half a dozen men standing on a platform half way up the Space Invader thing. How did they get there? What are they doing? How will they escape?

In conclusion, urban design is a discipline that could do with the dose of reality that community planning will hopefully bring.

The task will be to get people to think seriously and methodically about how they actually go about creating the kind of place they already know that they like, and find a way to articulate it. But I will bet everything that I own (ie, a framed portrait of Gladstone, one half-decent tweed suit, and a dog-eared copy of Jane Jacobs) that no neighbourhood plan will advocate bulldozing a street to replace it with a gladioli field or a giant Space Invader statue thing.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 12:43 am  Comments (1)  

The Localism Act: are you ready for war?

The Localism Bill finished its passage through Parliament this week, and the consultation has closed on the new National Planning Policy Framework. The Coalition Government’s reforms in this area have been called the biggest shake-up of the planning system in fifty years. Neighbourhood planning is going to be a big deal. I’m not sure that the Government knows quite how big. But the evidence is that the current planning establishment are absolutely fucking terrified.

The system of neighbourhood planning comes largely from the Conservative green paper ‘Open Source Planning’, which identified the democratic deficit in the old planning regime, and wanted to move it away from being an issue primarily for ‘insiders’ to one where real people take the lead in shaping their own surroundings.

I’ve blogged before about how I think this will lead to better outcomes, and it’s no surprise that this Conservative policy paper made it into the Coalition agreement: it is fundamentally liberal.

But I think the vanguard schemes might be presenting an inaccurate view of how Neighbourhood Planning politics might pan out.

They have been basically cooperative, with council planning officers in some cases being heavily involved in preparing them – either as dedicated resource for the neighbourhood forum, or in some cases seemingly taking the lead on the project. In consequence, it looks like the vanguard Neighbourhood Plans generally exist to embroider District plans.

The vanguard schemes have been chosen by the Council in areas which are rather unproblematic – where the council doesn’t mind them existing.

There have been 134 front-runner Neighbourhoods.

According to an impact assessment carried out by the DCLG there are more than 4000 more neighbourhoods expected to produce a neighbourhood plan in the next 10 years.

What will these look like? I’m betting that the experience be quite different from the cooperative vanguard schemes.

At a conference recently on the Localism Bill, with an audience largely composed of members of the planning establishment, there was an audible gasp of horror in the room when someone suggested that a Neighbourhood Forum might want to do something that went against the district plan or an Area Action Plan agreed by the council. Planners fretted that there will be legal challenges if the council tries to resist.

The establishment seem terrified that neighbourhoods will think that they are in the driving seat. That people who live and work in the green belt might want to build on it.

The talk was of intervening early in the process to ‘manage expectations’ and make neighbourhood forums and parishes aware of what they couldn’t do. Or shouldn’t do, rather, because the scope within legislation is actually very broad: scarily broad for the planning establishment.

They hope that neighbourhood planning will add the fine detail, and will embroider existing plans (where they exist, I guess. Two-thirds of councils haven’t managed to get their act together and produce their main planning strategies yet, somehow).

They hope that neighbourhood plans will help by identifying development sites that are somewhat beyond the ken of the Town Hall, like infill on estates, rather than address the big questions, like deciding what development should go on brownfield sites or replace decommissioned office blocks. Anything large or important should be “beyond the scope of neighbourhood planning”, they said.

I hope that neighbourhood forums and parish councils fight such a reactionary stance if they find it in their district or borough authorities – and I predict that they will.

Most of the neighbourhood forums will probably be established because of some perceived defect with the existing system. Communities will think that the district has done planning badly and want to do a better job themselves.

This could be anti-development, and worries that the localism agenda will be hijacked by NIMBYs is well-documented. Or it could be quite the opposite. Real, working rural communities are currently desperate for rural industrial development and for affordable housing – while their planning authorities are often more representative of suburb or town, or of rich noveau-rural gentrifiers, whose main interest is preserving the green belt or countryside rather than the industrial interests and housing needs of its inhabitants.

Political parties who represent a minority on the council will want to take what control they can of neighbourhood plans, particularly if they are elected in an enclave.

Indeed, if there are any Liberal Democrat ward councillors who are not already busy working on neighbourhood plans then I would strongly urge them to do so right now – as a way of getting in touch with the other local movers and shakers, leading the debate locally, and putting a Coalition Government policy into practice thereby showing the value of coalition reforms.

Has the ALDC produced a Neighbourhood Planning guide for councillors yet?

Essentially, I predict this to be more combative than collaborative in the long term.

And that is a good thing.

Published in: on November 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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