Fortress Britain: urban design politics gets the NEF treatment

The New Economics Foundation has published a paper entitled Fortress Britain by Anna Minton and Jody Aked, which essentially laments the militarisation of architecture and urban design in the UK. Given the paper’s provenance it may come as a surprise that it is not hilariously awful. Anna Minton is kind of an idiot; the NEF is indisputably London’s most dismal think-tank, a veritable nest of idiots. Aked obviously transcends her colleagues. But not by much. It’s still pretty awful.

It starts with – and is basically predicated on – a claim that “although crime has been falling steadily since 1995, the vast majority believe it is rising”, citing an Ipsos Mori report of 2007.

 Why is a paper published in 2013 using data that is now half a decade old? I mean, I know why: Minton used the figure in her 2009 book, and hasn’t bothered updating it. However, the Office of National Statistics released newer figures on the perception of crime in 2011 – figures which are more pertinent to built environment issues because they cover perception of crime at the local level. Apparently most people still believe that crime is rising nationally, but at local level only a minority of people believe that crime is going up.

This doesn’t invalidate their argument, but when the first substantive paragraph makes sweeping statements based on old or invalid statistics, you know you’re in classic NEF territory.

Their next claim: “High security is a now pre-requisite of planning permission for all new developments, through a government backed design policy called Secured by Design.” “Planning permission for all public buildings, housing and schools is now contingent on meeting Secured by Design standards.”

‘Secured by Design’ is a commercial security certification for buildings run by the sort-of-commercial Association of Chief Police Officers.

The NEF argument (for the moment… for a very short paper, it tends to contradict itself an awful lot) is that these security standards are compulsory. This was because of Margaret Thatcher, obvs.

If there are any planners who want to correct me go ahead, but I don’t think this is legally the case. There was a government consultation last year on whether “voluntary” security standards should be replaced by a mandatory code, but as far as I know the cost-benefit analysis suggested that regulation wouldn’t be effective.

There may be planning authorities who have written the standards into their design codes, but I don’t think it is part of national regulation.

Hyperbole/lie/error. Whatever. In any case, the paper kind of goes on to admit that there are other motivations at work: “increased levels of security offered by Secured by Design standards attract lower industry premiums. In turn, developers market higher security and lower insurance as a bonus and in a virtuous [sic] circle sell properties for higher prices.”

 Note the suggestion that people like these features so much they will pay more for them. In a paper arguing that security interventions make residents sad and angry, that’s a pretty striking admission.

I’ve also seen the standards appear in design and access statements by developers in order to persuade councillors that they are achieving “social sustainability”. For example: “the development shall aim to achieve Secured by Design ‘Developer’s Award’ to reduce crime and adverse effects on neighbours by good design and good practice in construction and operation.”

OK, so they are not, as originally claimed, compulsory. But it’s still happening because it makes insurers and councillors and potential buyers happy.

And yeah, I hate it. I’m a delicate liberal, who is sensitive about such things, and live in Hackney, the CCTV capital of the world. Figures from the GLA Lib Dems (a few years old, admittedly, but I doubt the comparative picture has changed) give a borough comparison: Hackney had 1484 public cameras. Neighbouring Islington (Lib Dem run, at the time), had 202. Merton a relatively unobtrusive 58. Even Barking and Dagenham only had 104.

There is no great effect of the camera-differential on relative crime levels. In fact, the actual preventative effect of various security interventions on local crime would be an interesting thing to look at. The NEF paper doesn’t bother. Whatever the effect on crime levels, what they are interested in is the knock-on effect on social capital and neighbourly trust. I would imagine that if burglaries and stabbings, or rapes and prostitution, went up locally as a result of scrapping physical interventions, social trust would deteriorate more than the warm feeling of liberty would compensate for, but whatever, we’ll let them run with it.

Minton and/or Aked interviewed a couple of people in Pimlico about security measures on their estate:

“Because of the doors, if you see someone you don’t know, there is an element of ‘who is this’?”

“Sometimes CCTV makes me feel even more anxious.”

 But the majority of the quotes from residents and security practitioners that they cite don’t even support the paper’s conclusions:

 A ‘practitioner’ (ie neighbourhood management, estate services, community safety, youth services and outdoor space) said:

“On one of our challenging estates…we’ve increased, like tripled the CCTV over the last three years but they still want more CCTV, they want it monitored 24 hours a day because the perception is where there’s CCTV things don’t happen. And also I think it’s a question of, ‘We need CCTV.’ ‘You’ve got CCTV.’ ‘Well, we need more. It needs to be located in a different place.’ But CCTV’s not the answer.”

 “Because I think I’m in a bad area, I get into a panic sometimes because, for one, you’re not sure the cameras are working.” (a resident)

“It’s the first thing they say about trouble on the estate and [about] security problems the comment is normally, ‘we need some CCTV, that would be the end of our problems.’” (another ‘practitioner’)

Having campaigned with Lib Dem councillors and candidates, I found that people do actually love security interventions of the types described. People on the Market Estate were over the moon when the undergrowth was swept away, meaning that prostitutes no longer hissed at them from the bushes. They like their new block security doors. As the NEF paper admits, and whether effective or not, people do want CCTV. They like it.

We need to have a discussion about militarisation of building design and the mis-sold effectiveness of CCTV. When security professionals are given too much power in building design they go overboard – which is needlessly expensive and alienating to a specific sort of person (including me and Anna Minton), and, maybe worst of all, just plain ugly. The effectiveness of these measures does not seem to have been systematically tested.

This is at least part of that conversation. It’s not a worthwhile part because of the intellectual laziness born of its characteristic Not Economics Foundation nonsense. Soz.

But in the short term, elect councillors with some concern about civil liberties why don’t you?

Published in: on January 17, 2013 at 10:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Book Review – Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City

Ground Control: Fear And Happiness In The Twenty First Century City. Anna Minton, Penguin 2009

This book control covers an intensely important issue in modern British life: the alienation of public spaces from the public.  However, it is not a good book.  It’s the kind of book you sometimes see quoted in Guardian comment pieces as if Minton were an expert on the subject (which she is patently not) and the book proves a point (which it entirely fails to do).

And the primary complaint is true.  One can’t even picnic near major London landmarks without being moved on by council wardens. You can’t take photographs in the street without being harassed by the police. Urban designers and traffic planners are engaged to make public places physically inaccessible and unpleasant. Public highways are sold to private companies, who get to make and enforce new rules beyond the law. This is important stuff. Sadly, this is a basically lazy and incurious little book, written fairly badly by a journalist who hasn’t mastered long-form writing.

There is one good section: a straightforward journalistic account of the last Labour government’s scandalous ‘pathfinder’ scheme of housing demolitions, which bulldozed houses on behalf of property developers without giving the displaced communities proper recompense.

Anna Minton is a journalist, and as such she has picked up a lot of bad habits that make her attempt at a long-form wholly annoying to read. The standard technique of the newspaper commentariat is to write 500 words consisting of: statement of thesis, personal anecdote, supportive quote from ‘authoritative source’, restatement of thesis. Five-hundred words, all done. Minton’s book repeats this formula over and over.

She is also lazy like many journalists are lazy. There isn’t a single original thought here. There is no attempt to connect the disparate issues covered together with anything other than Minton’s preexisting and unexamined prejudices.

She also writes with the very distinctively Guardianey tone of a person writing about social problems and the poor from the comfort of a Tuscan villa. Indeed, most of the policy recommendations, such as they are, come from her experiences of living in a Milanese apartment, dining by the Grand canal in Venice and on Roman piazzas, and holidaying in various European capitals.

And while she waxes lyrical about her holiday memories (without ever examining them in detail), it is pretty clear that she never really bothered visiting the places in the UK she writes about.

It just so happens that she uses my own neighbourhood in East London as one of her examples. She describes a new shopping mall in Stratford as being an alien imposition on the landscape, unavailable and unused by local people. But she didn’t survey shoppers to find out where they were from. I don’t think she even visited – her description of ‘high-end’ retail ‘out of reach of local people’ doesn’t match the standard high street offer of the mall. She writes about sitting by the canal in Venice, lamenting that she “couldn’t do this in England”. Had she walked a few minutes along the Regents Canal or Lea Navigation from the aforementioned mall, she could have found dozens of places to do just that, whether hipster coffee shops at Fish Island, barge-cafes in Mile End, or old Clapton boozers.

At one point the book turns from lazy to disgraceful. She spends pages detailing the travails of a family in London and their attitudes to crime. One of the family members looks out from his gated community across the Isle of Dogs and trembles in fear of the locals. Another struggles to find a builder who is willing to remove the security features her flat came installed with. The older members of the family read the Daily Mail and fret about the crime rate. BUT THEN, after pages of this, Minton writes: “they are, of course, a fictitious family which I invented to illustrate [my thesis].”  This was supposed to be non-fiction. It made me wonder what other ‘interviewees’ were invented too.

Most of it is just rehashed commentariat talking points about ASBOs and criticism of the right-wing media. No attempt is made to link these to the built-environment issues supposedly at the core of the book. Because that would require both original research and original thought, things which Minton is apparently incapable of.

Published in: on January 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm  Comments (2)  
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Cyclists are law-breakers

“I’ll stop running cyclists down when they stop jumping red lights.” The response, apparently, of a good portion of British drivers to the current cull of cyclists by the haulage industry.

I’m not going to go into the arguments about whether cyclists breaking the rules of the road is justified. Those arguments being, briefly, that a lot of the rules are designed to solve the problem of motor-traffic that bikes simply aren’t; that obeying the rules can sometimes actually put cyclists in danger from traffic; that cyclists are forced to do so by a negligent lack of safe and continuous infrastructure. All true, but it’s still the case that most cyclists who jump red lights do so because they are assholes. So many do it even when it involves screaming through pedestrians who, after waiting and waiting, have finally been given right of way to cross the street without being mown down by truck drivers.

So I’m not going to defend it. What I am going to say is that it absolutely pales in comparison to the quantity of law that motor drivers break incessantly.

Running through red lights. On my average 20-minute urban commute I probably see three or four cars jumping red lights. Most are amber gambles gone bad, some are because after queuing at traffic lights forever they are going the hell through this junction right now. Others (black cabs, mostly, I find) scream across pedestrian crossings because they are dicks. Jumping red lights is not a distinctively bike problem.

Breaking the speed limit. Want to do an easy test? Drive down the motorway at 70mph. In theory you shouldn’t be overtaken. In practice, you’ll be the slowest thing on the road. My local council have made it easy to test how many drivers obey 30mph restrictions too, by installing vehicle-activated signs that flash a warning when people are speeding. My estimate is that a good 80% of vehicles are doing more than 30, some by very significant amounts.

Driving using a mobile. Technically 3 points on the license and a £60 fine, but scarily common. The head of road safety at the AA, has said that there are probably 100,000 people driving around using their phone on the roads at any one time. Ed Balls and Harriet Harman were both caught doing it, the latter actually crashing because she was busy chatting on the phone.

Driving without insurance. Hard to measure, but the amount of accidents on the 30mph residential street racetrack outside my house that end with participants just yelling at each other then driving off probably suggest it’s pretty common.

Driving with fog lights on. The Highway Code says: You MUST NOT use front or rear fog lights unless visibility is seriously reduced (see Rule 226) as they dazzle other road users and can obscure your brake lights. You MUST switch them off when visibility improves.” It can technically get you points on your license and a fine. Yet on the average commute I see maybe 20 cars and taxis with fog lights on. I can’t quite work out why this is. Maybe they genuinely don’t know how to use their car: I pointed it out to one driver stopped at a junction, and he just pawed at his dashboard ineffectually then shrugged at me. Maybe they are such bad drivers that they don’t know what fog lights are or what the glowing sign on the dash means. Maybe they think they are bling lights for added disco. Odd one.

Making illegal manoeuvres, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, making illegal turns: all entirely common.

Stopping in advance stop lines for cyclists and in yellow box junctions.

Use of the horn. The Highway Code states: “Use only while your vehicle is moving and you need to warn other road users of your presence. Never sound your horn aggressively. You MUST NOT use your horn while stationary on the road or while driving in a built up area between the hours of 11:30pm and 7.00am except when another road user poses a danger.” You can technically be fined for using a horn, yet at any given time London’s roads sound like the Salvation Army band warming up.

Oh, and let’s not forget the thousands of people, mainly pedestrians, killed or seriously injured on London’s roads each year. That probably counts.

The point is that drivers are so coddled that their crimes are largely ignored by the police and the media.

Our roads, barely policed or regulated, are full of criminal drivers, speeding about in tonne-heavy steel boxes in a way that is negligent and dangerous.

Let’s get some perspective here.

Published in: on February 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  

Metropolitan Police continue to harass photographers

Apparently the Metropolitan Police have got some good intelligence that Al Qaeda are in London and HUNGRY FOR OUR BRITISH SNACKS. I can’t see why else a Police officer would stop a photographer taking this picture of JUST CAKES, demand to see the photographs, and try to take down the photographer’s name, address, phone number, workplace, and birthplace. When the photographer refused, he was threatened with arrest while the officer held him for “a full hour check.”

Had this happened a year ago I would have been really fucking angry, but ultimately just rolled my eyes and put it down to the sort of arbitrary Orwellian bullshit that you could expect under a Labour Government.

But we were promised that this would stop.

Last year the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary said “Gordon Brown and Labour have trampled our civil liberties for far too long. Whether they’re trying to impose ID cards, or allowing hundreds of thousands of innocent people to be stopped and searched under Terrorism powers, they always seem to think the state knows best. We can’t go on like this. Conservatives will end the abuse of stop-and-search as part of a full review of all Labour’s counter-terrorism laws.”

One Chris Huhne said: “When trainspotters, photographers and Japanese tourists are all up in arms, it should be clear even to Labour this law needs to be tightened up. Random and indiscriminate use of stop and search is an infringement of liberty and alienates the communities we rely on most for the intelligence and witnesses to fight terrorism.”

Either the Metropolitan Police haven’t read the memo yet, or they actually do think that terrorists are preparing to strike – presumably as soon they’ve finished their afternoon tea.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm  Comments (2)  

Localism Bill: Citizens doing it for themselves

Across the country, right now, local communities are holding meetings to discuss their reactions to the Localism Bill, to start the process of drawing up Neighbourhood Plans, and to talk about the decisions that could be better taken around the parish pump than in the Town Hall. My advice to Liberal Democrat councillors and activists would be to get working on this as soon as you can, because the spoils- both political and practical- seem destined to go to those who take the initiative first.

This evening, the founding meeting of the London Fields Community Council was called by the local GLA member, who declared: Citizens are doing it for themselves.

There was a great talk from an Urban Planner called Euan Mills, who is working on the Neighbourhood Plan for the Chatsworth Road neighbourhood, a bit further East.

He showed that Neighbourhood Planning can be a positive, proactive role for the local community.

Local campaigners and Focus Teams will know that it’s usually easy to mobilise the community against something; much harder to mobilise them in favour of something. And there did seem to be some strength of feeling in the room that Hackney Council’s borough-wide strategic planning didn’t meet local needs. People seemed particularly aggrieved that London Fields is designated as suitable site for tall buildings in the Hackney plan.

But the new process is positive one: Identifying high-level aspirations for the neighbourhood, and linking each one with the policies or projects needed to fulfil them. Establishing the neighbourhood’s key values, and tailoring the physical environment to suit them.

This is fantastic. I think we’ll get a real clarity of purpose when planning in a much more detailed way for a small neighbourhood– something the borough hasn’t managed to do successfully.

The fly in the ointment still seems to be getting all the right stakeholders a say in that plan.

I worried before the meeting that the urban parish system looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people view their community. I have to say, my worries were not assuaged.

Andrew Boff had prepared a suggested map of the parish boundary. I’ve a few issues with this. For example, Goldsmith’s Row is very obviously part of the community, yet is excluded. It was emphasised that this is just the starting point, but could it ever capture everyone? As I wrote in my last post, an urban community, centered on a specific location, can be geographically dispersed in terms of where people actually live.

There were voices calling for an extremely restricted definition of the neighbourhood. An elderly man representing the London Fields User Group complained about people coming in from as far away as Queensbridge Road, “using our park”, let alone making decisions about it. Queensbridge Road is about 100 yards from the park gate.

This would be the worst result of the atomisation of London: that people like this get more power, and use it to exclude people they don’t consider to belong – that they might try to redefine a park or street of regional importance as a local place for local people. The projects the London Fields User Group are pushing for seem fair enough, but this is the user group that since I’ve lived around here seem to have concentrated on trying to stop outsiders from using the park in the summer (or “hogging the space”, as they put it), stopping barbecues, attempting to get the whole park closed at night, and succeeding at getting a large piece of the park fenced off and tarmacked for football.

On the other hand, the opposite problem could occur- that these parishes are too expansive. The Chatsworth Road Parish Council seemed intent, from the look of their maps, on absorbing part of Lower Clapton Road – which has the potential to be a high street in its own right. Would this expansive districting subordinate the needs of that for the interests of the movers and shakers on Chatsworth Road? As a precept on the council tax can be levied, not to mention potentially very large sums through Community Infrastructure Levy from developers wanting to build in the area, there are financial incentives for expansionistic parishes.

It seems that because this is very much a Big Society citizens’ initiative, it depends on the citizens that get involved and get their territorial claims in first.

This could all get a bit ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill‘…

These issues of balance notwithstanding, it’s still a good policy from the Coalition Government.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 3:08 am  Leave a Comment  

New vision for equality and the real class conflict in urban life

Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, talked about Urban policy at the LSE this week. He spoke about the need for governments to create socially inclusive cities and articulated a vision of the good city. Before we know what city we want, he said, we need to know how we want to live. Urban planning is about building happiness. And it’s all about politics, about choices.

The speech is online here, and it was inspiring stuff.

Peñalosa put equality as the foundation of his urban vision. He explicitly didn’t mean income equality (because “we all agree that the best way to manage most of society’s resources is private property and the market”), but, rather, equal access to the features of cities that enhance the quality of life.

So he spoke against gated communities, private waterfronts, exclusive parks. But the main thrust of his argument was about mobility in cities:

“If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with a hundred passengers has a right to a hundred times more road space than a car with one person. This is not communism, this is basic democracy. A child with a tricycle has the same right to road space as a car driver.”

The transport system we have currently prioritises car drivers – it grants them greater legal rights to public space.

Peñalosa spoke about some ways to reclaim this space, including dedicated bus lanes. In London, it strikes me that although bus lanes represent a small attempt to introduce some equity into the road system, they are still accessible, and usually blocked up, by black cabs. Taxis cost £20 a pop and so are only available to the tiniest heights of the social spectrum, and in any case generally cruise around in the bus lanes completely empty. Ironically, the bus lanes for the people become zil lanes for the rich, presumably because the few people who can afford to take taxis also happen to be the ones writing or buying the law.

Peñalosa insisted that segregated cycle lanes are hugely important. They are not “cute architectural features”, but ought to be be a right. Otherwise, the only people who have a right to safe mobility are car drivers.

A segregated cycle lane “shows that a citizen on the $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $300,000 car.”

Cars were rightly identified for particular opprobrium. Not only do they represent a hugely disproportionate distribution of space and money, they make cities a dangerous place to live.

In 2009, 3,227 people were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, of whom 1488 were pedestrians or cyclists. 184 people died– 101 pedestrians and cyclists.

Around the world there are tens of thousands of children killed by cars every year. Children grow up in cities in terror of being killed.

As Peñalosa put it: “Even in Columbia where we never had wolves, we tell children about wolves, because Western civilisation is still scared of them, because a few children in the Middle Ages were eaten by wolves in Northern Europe. But I can assure you that in any given month in our time there are more children killed by cars than were killed by wolves in the Middle Ages.”

It’s mad that we think it’s normal and natural because it isn’t – it’s the result of choices.

There is no such thing as a natural level of cars in a city, or a requirement for the privileges the law gives to drivers. This all came about through political choices.

Just one local example for me, as described on Freewheeler’s blog:

“Cyclists and pedestrians have to GIVE WAY to motor traffic on Richmond Road and are not even given a zebra crossing or signalled lights, even though cycling and walking flow is high and traffic flow is relatively light. The message, as always, is that those who choose to travel around London in a car are the top priority, and those who cycle or walk are an inferior species, who must at all times defer to the primary transport mode.”

This was a political, not a technical decision.

Peñalosa said that:

“The real class conflict today is not the Marxist class conflict between proletariats and capitalists and all that story, although it was very beautiful, but between car owners and those who do not own cars.”

The space and resources given to the owners of these dangerous machines is fundamentally inequitable, and ruins cities. It’s because of the car that the twentieth century will be remembered as a disastrous one in urban history. But it’s something we can change.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

No sex please, we’re Hackney

Hackney Council’s licensing committee voted this week to approve a new ‘nil’ policy on sex establishments in the borough. Sex shops, strip clubs, and porn cinemas will not be able to open in Hackney if and when the Committee’s decision is endorsed by full council. This fight between a broad coalition of libertarian citizens on one hand, and a nest of clucking moralistic biddies on the other, is instructive, as the former were in the majority even if the latter have won this round.

I’ve never been to a strip club or porn cinema BY THE WAY, and when I went into a sex shop once I went scarlet and wasn’t sure where to look. Such, I suppose, is the residual effect of Catholicism even on the committed apostate. But, as a matter of principle, freedom of choice should always be respected, and it is deeply offensive that the borough authorities should be able to stamp their moral code on the rest of us.

The consultation went massively against the Council’s proposed ban. It was reassuring that most of the responses from members of the public to the council’s consultation were broadly libertarian. Two-thirds of respondents opposed the council’s proposal to ban sex encounter establishments; three-quarters opposed banning sex shops.

Local businesses also opposed the ban. Strip clubs in particular seem to generate a lot of business for other aspects of the evening economy. Bars, kebab shops, cab companies, and the local comedy club all opposed the nil policy.

A lot of residents told the consultation that the establishments are well-run and not a cause of antisocial behaviour or crime. Local Tennants’ Associations wrote that “None of the tenants or residents have complained of the crime of anti-social behaviour from Browns or the White Horse. Off-licences causing more problems”. Pubwatch, an organisation that runs a voluntary accreditation for well-run pubs, noted that the “premises operate in a professional manner.” Even the Vicar at St. Leonard’s Church, Rev. Turp, told the committee that although there are “tensions between local residents and transient commercial users” and crime caused by local bars, the strip clubs happen to be a “big success” when it comes to managing antisocial behaviour, and that “none cause trouble for the police or community disruption.”

This doesn’t surprise me. When For Your Eyes Only was applying for a license on City Road, the police told the licensing committee that in streets where this chain had opened a club, crime and antisocial behaviour actually went down, so effective were its door staff.

30% of the consultation responses were from Gay men, many attempting to save the ‘Expectations’ sex shop as a resource for the gay community. Shops like this may sell rude items, but they are also an important source of condoms and lubricants and other sexual health needs.

So why did the curtain-twitching moralistic tendency win out?

The obvious response is that Hackney traditionally has a respect for democracy roughly equivalent to Cuba, and the Labour Council is all about imposing their own moral code despite people’s actual wishes.

Yes, Hackney Council’s consultations are usually some form of sham. But pandering to moralistic groups is not the preserve of one party or one borough – even the Liberal Democrats have jumped on this bandwagon before.

Lib Dem councillors in Archway fought against a new strip club for example. (I should declare an interest as having drafted the press releases.)

To be fair on them, the councillors involved there are impeccable liberals, and the argument was always couched in the ostensibly liberal terms of local people having a say on what happens in their community. The loophole in Labour’s 2003 licensing act pretty much allowed licensed pubs and bars to transform into strip clubs at will – a loophole that was closed by the Coalition Government last November. There probably are good and bad places for strip clubs, and councillors are there to make that decision for the local community. I guess that’s legitimate local democracy. Although sitting as it does in the middle of an ugly and inhospitable – and largely inaccessible – gyratory, I probably wouldn’t think of the Archway Tavern as an obviously wrong place.

From the Islington Lib Dem press release, you’ll note that the Liberal Democrats were working hand-in-hand with the Fawcett Society and Object, who aren’t interested in finding the right place for different sorts of entertainment. They want it banned outright.

Almost all of those responding to support the council’s proposed policy included the formulation that the “Borough has a duty to tackle gender inequality”, usually citing Harman’s Gender Equality Duty 2007. According to the Committee’s own analysis of the consultation responses: “When looking at the arguments presented in support of the “nil” policy and in opposition to the different types of sex establishments, the ‘exploitation and objectification of women’ was the main reason presented”

The chair of OBJECT (tagline: “Women are not sex objects!”) sent a response, and many followed her template. Including, in a move I find rather disturbing, an apparently official submission from Amnesty International UK.

“Very uncomfortable with the existence of the licensed clubs”, says one supporter of the nil policy, summing up the Object argument in a nutshell.

In this case there was clearly an organised group of Feminists attempting to use the force of law to impose their morals on everyone else.

In one brilliant example from Islington, the licensing committee was considering giving an adult entertainment license for a new strip club at Bar Aquarium in Shoreditch. The committee was bombarded by letters and template emails from outraged women saying how degrading it was to have women stripped and objectified, how it would inevitably lead to rape on Old Street, and so on. The bar, however, was applying to have male go-go dancers. The feminists are fiercely organised, even if they are bad at reading the small print.

So what are the lessons here?

That in this country, even here at the heart of the Metrop, politicians are keen to legislate for morality. In Hackney it’s a problem with Labour, but even Liberal Democrats can jump on that bandwagon to curry favour with vociferous local groups of WI-type ladies, and that’s a difficult beast for a liberal to ride.

These noisy interest groups can represent a form of tyranny. As Lib Dems, we have to recognise that while localism is good, the dangers of autocracy are as relevant at a local level as a national one. Adam Bell has warned that the Tories in Government are in favour of state intervention as long as it’s at the local level – which shouldn’t be surprising, but is something we need to keep an eye on.

But the most heartening lesson is that, at least in Hackney, the vast majority of people just want the Council to mind it’s own damn business.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 4:32 pm  Comments (1)  

Vélib and the Boris Bike: reasons to be optimistic

There has been some scepticism about the possibility of the Boris Bikes causing a critical mass of cycling that will turn our city into a pedal-powered Utopia. My experience of cycling in Paris this week suggests that it could. The Vélib hire-bikes are everywhere in Paris, and since their introduction the number of people cycling Parisians has increased hugely, despite physical conditions on a par with London.

Sceptics of vehicular cycling say: “The problem is not a lack of bikes, but that Londoners in the main don’t cycle because conditions for cycling in London as with the rest of the UK, are terrible when you compare them with Dutch cities. Londoners are scared to cycle and it’s quite obvious why. This problem cannot be resolved by making fractionally more bikes available. It can only be addressed by making conditions for cyclists better.”

I agree. But Paris shows that getting a critical mass of people on bikes can increase the number of people cycling, even if the infrastructure isn’t welcoming.

Paris is technically a horror for cyclists. Haussmann’s wide Boulevards are fast-moving, multi-lane roads that are frightening for cyclists to navigate. The boulevards meet at huge roundabouts like the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Bastille: chaotic, unmarked, terrifying wheels of death for a cyclist. Parisian drivers have scant regard for lane discipline even where there are road markings. The Byzantine one-way systems stymie each and every attempt to reach ones destination. There are very few advance stop lines for cyclists at traffic lights.

There are cycling routes across Paris, but not noticeably more useful than the ones in London. And the French attitude to cleaning and maintenance means that parts of the cycle paths are in a state of disrepair, blocked by rubbish and parked cars. Parking enforcement in general seems non-existent, with cars and vans casually abandoned all over the place (in one case, in the middle of a four-way intersection).

The Vélibs themselves are in a poor state of repair. Most had poor brakes and made concerning mechanical noises. Many in the stands were completely unusable- with flat tires, broken seats, no brakes at all. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of attention to moving the bikes around to where they are needed as there is in London. A lot of the stations were either completely full or totally empty – whichever was worse at the particular time.

It ought to be a nightmare – but somehow it works. The Vélib scheme doubled the amount of journeys taken by bike, and it shows. Cyclists, especially Vélibists, are everywhere. Presumably in consequence, motor-drivers seemed to understand how to share the road with bikes, and treated cyclists with more respect than the average London cabbie. Pedestrians were similarly understanding of cyclists mounting the pavement at the worst roundabouts and most inhumane stretches of road.

The Velib has performed a real modal shift in how Parisians get about. Paris has terrible cycling infrastructure on a par with London’s– so I’m optimistic that the Boris Bikes could be part of a similar revolution in our city.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Could Boris Johnson be the Coalition candidate for Mayor?

Who will be the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor? Liberal Democrat Voice had an inconclusive discussion, and applications for the nomination are currently open. In other news, Nick Boles proposed a pact between the two Coalition partners at the next general election. But why wait ’til 2015? Maybe Boris could be our Coalition candidate for the London Mayoral election.

What are our options?

Lembit Opik? God seriously forbid, and I don’t think London members will be rushing to Pick Opik (as the slogan inevitably goes). Floella Benjamin? I’m sure she’s perfectly nice, and she probably deserves her peerage and all, but I can’t see how’s she’s even the slightest bit qualified to run the metrop, and Londoners will see that. And do we, brand new to the business of Government, really need people talking about our ‘playschool’ candidate? Brian Paddick is certainly qualified for the job, with his experience in the Met. His performance on the stump impressed me last time round, and I wouldn’t be sorry if he got the nomination.

But the issue is that, to be realistic, we will once again be squeezed in a two-juggernaut race. The important thing is to lose in style, and in a way that gives us most influence in the future. As a third party, we should be used to thinking like that.

My favourite idea would be to follow the example of the Greens, and put the excellent Caroline Pidgeon on both the Mayoral and Assembly ballots. This would almost certainly increase our share of the vote for the Assembly and give C. Pidge the higher profile she deserves.

Or, most radically, we could endorse Boris Johnson as the official Coalition Candidate for Mayor!

The most important thing is that Labour are stopped. Ken Livingstone is probably going to win the Labour nomination (or if he loses, stand for Mayor anyway), and stands a real chance of getting his unspeakably horrible claws back on City Hall. As well as being a terrible old crook, he actively promotes disharmony between London’s communities by encouraging identity politics. He ferments grievances for his own political gain. And I literally shudder to think how much he’d relish revisiting his old battles with ‘Thatcherism’ and what a disaster that would be for the administration of London (and our council tax levels).

But Boris can beat Ken, again. He’s a proven winner. But it will be midway through a difficult Parliament, and if the Tories are worried about their chances of success, maybe they could be convinced of the merits of a ‘coalition agreement’ for London that would actually put Liberal Democrat policies into effect. We’re finding out in Government how good that is.

I believe that Boris is broadly Liberal in outlook, with his failures being more in the implementation than the ideology. He has some admirable achievements under his belt, not least the Boris Bike scheme. He believes in local democracy and works well with the boroughs, which Ken never could.

Just a thought.

source: Conservative Home

Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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