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)  

Islington Council meeting ends with left-on-lefter débâcle

As a connoisseur of Islington Council meetings, I was very sad to miss this month’s council budget meeting. Islington’s new Labour administration ended up directing the police to eject 60 people and finished the Council Meeting, which made £52 million of cuts, in secret.

I have no time for the cuts protesters. They are deficit deniers that even make Ed Balls look sane and responsible. They want Labour councils to pass illegal budgets and help foment popular protests, to topple the democratically-elected Government “by making the country ungovernable”.

Still, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching two villains duke it out. In this case, it’s particularly ironic because Labour council leader Catherine West, a shrill harpy of a woman, spent her time in opposition trying her hardest to hijack and disrupt meetings, either by shipping in stooges to heckle and shout, or by giving endless filibustering speeches. Looks like Labour can dish it out, but they can’t take it.

Islington’s Labour council also deserves the protests, because a good portion of the cuts are entirely of their own making: they are wasting millions of pounds on their ‘meals for millionaires‘ scheme– universal free school meals, even for the children of bankers in the borough. Literally even for Boris Johnson’s children.

The Lib Dems opposed this when Labour brought it in; but now the budget is being squeezed, it’s unconscionable that millions of pounds are spent on giving free lunches to bankers’ children, while services are cut. ‘Free School Meals’ was the pet project of an influential Labour councillor, who was also a professional lobbyist for a fake charity which campaigns for universal free school meals across the country.

Labour have also refused to cut back on the communications budget and council propaganda magazine.

It’s also a fact that Islington is in a relatively good position because the Liberal Democrats, who ran the council until last May (though latterly as a minority administration), having inherited a Labour-run council with more debt than a lot of third-world nations, brought in far-reaching efficiency savings. Would it surprise you to learn that Labour opposed almost all of these savings at the time? Rationalising office buildings and disposing of unnecessary offices was called ‘asset-stripping’ and ‘selling off the family silver’. Moving back-office functions to Manchester, where it’s cheaper, was opposed by a Labour campaign to keep the staff on “Upper Street not Coronation Street”.

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 4:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Hackney’s Labour Council shows no interest in making cycling safer

Every year in Hackney, around 6 cyclists are killed and 150 seriously injured. There have been so many accidents recently that the local newspaper has launched a safer cycling campaign. Our Labour Mayor has claimed to support the campaign, but the borough’s new Transport Local Implementation Plan has been released – and it won’t do a thing to improve safety for cyclists.

Mayor Jules Pipe told the Gazette:

“In recent years, Hackney Council has gone to great efforts to improve safety for cyclists, including free cycle training to people living, working or studying in the borough. We also host a local safety working group, where the council and its partners meet up to discuss ways of improving cyclist and pedestrian safety around heavy goods vehicles. As a council, we support any additional efforts to try and create a safer environment for cyclists in Hackney.”

But the proposed Transport Local Implementation Plan barely says a thing about physical improvements to make the transport network safe for cyclists.

Three out of four of the borough plan’s cycling goals are just to provide more cycle parking:
– Estate cycle parking: providing cycle lockers in Hackney Estates.
– Increase in cycle parking at rail, Overground and Tube stations in the borough.
– Provision of on carriageway and on footway cycle parking.

That’s all very well – and very cheap. Hackney has about half the amount of bike stands as neighbouring Islington; and installing secure cycle parking at rail stations would be particularly welcome, although I’ll believe it when I see it. In general, though, Hackney already has a tolerably good amount of cycle parking, so this doesn’t add much.

No matter how much parking there is, without improving the safety of the road en route, more people won’t take up cycling.

No matter how much “Provision of cycle training levels 1,2,3 to adults” the council offers, without improving the safety of the road, more people won’t take up cycling.

The council’s plan wants more pupils to cycle to school. That’s not going to happen without without improving the safety of the road en route ETC. ETC.

Hackney Council are currently making Goldsmith’s Row ‘safer for cycling’, involving a massive amount of digging-up and repaving. It’s a popular cycle route into the borough… but it was already safe. This is a quiet, slow, minor street. It was even one of the few places with a segregated cycle path. This couldn’t be a more pointless tinkering exercise with something that was already basically fine.

This seems utterly symptomatic of Mayor Pipe’s approach to cycling: tinkering around the edges. There are mad five-way junctions like Pembury Place, HGV Chaos at Dalston Junction (the scene of the most recent killing). Even on Goldsmith’s Row- after the clear and safe stretch that the council are pointlessly digging up- on-street parking narrows the road to a bottleneck and causes constant clashes between cyclists and traffic. What will be done to tackle these genuine problems?

In conclusion, Hackney’s transport plan is utterly uninspiring, doing only the easiest of the easy stuff. It lacks any sort of coherant vision, and doesn’t even plot a clear way to achieve its stated goals.

It’s still out for consultation of course- but why bother responding? As we know, no matter what people say, Hackney’s Labour council isn’t interested in listening.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

Localism Bill: what’s a community?

The Localism Bill gives more power to “local communities”, letting “communities” run their own affairs. There’s a Community Right to Challenge. Communities will keep the proceeds of the Community Infrastructure Levy. Community, community, community. Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, won’t stop talking about communities.

The problem is that in practice it doesn’t mean “communities”, it seems to mean something closer to “parish”, which is something quite different.

The Bill seems to suggest that the new level of power is arranged along prescriptive ward/parish-style boundaries. But that’s not how communities actually function, and would likely remove power from the majority of people who actually use and care for a place.

Urban neighbourhoods are not self-contained to any degree: what we really have is a series of communities that overlap geographically. They may be based on age, class, religion, colour, or just on a favourite pub. Although people may live next door to each other, their ideas of what constitutes their ‘neighbourhood’ might vary wildly depending on the shops, pubs, and parks they frequent, their usual walking routes, and so on.

So, for example, I view my neighbourhood as extending roughly from Columbia Road to the London Fields Lido. My neighbour might think of their community as being centred around the Shah Poran Masjid, or Hoxton Square, or Haggerston School. Our imagined place in the urban fabric is only marginally decided by where we are physically located.

There’s a meeting next week to set up a ‘Community Council’ for London Fields – the Localism Bill will promote many more such Neighbourhood Forums.

Andrew Boff (a great local Tory Assembly Member, who is helping with the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign) says that a community council in London Fields could give “residents” more influence:

“A community council can set up youth facilities (much under- resourced in London Fields), get local consent for any future road works, address a shortage of child care facilities, or set up a transition town strategy to address climate change.”

The people who use the park probably aren’t residents of the immediate area, but they are still stakeholders in the park. They are the customers of local businesses, and the life of local streets. A neighbourhood purely managed for the local residents wouldn’t necessarily cater for those who live somewhat more geographically dispersed, but are still invested in the place.

The principle of subsidiarity is a good one in theory – that decisions should be taken at the smallest, lowest competent authority. But this looks a bit too atomised, and doesn’t take into account of how people live their lives.

There’s no doubt that the existing Boroughs are too big – why should decisions be taken on a level that covers Bethnal Green, Canary Wharf, Fish Island, and Wapping? I’d suggest that the former Metropolitan Boroughs, established by the 1900 London Government Act, better contain the possibilities of human activity and communities.

So, I suppose, here begins the Shoreditch secessionist movement. More Light! More Power!

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Will the Localism Bill create a new era of architecture for the people?

The Coalition’s Localism Bill aims to give communities more control of their own physical habitat, letting us write Neighbourhood Plans and expedite popular developments. It aims to create a world where neighbours come together to play a part in the planning system. It will transfer decisions from the professionals at the Municipal Office to the people who actually inhabitant the streets: moving power from the bureaucrats to the community. Developers will be obliged to consult much more extensively on projects – and to put the consultation results into practice.

This empowerment of individuals and communities is on the face of it, a fantastic result, and one consistent with the view of the Coalition as being a radical liberal government.

We’re already getting some optimistic views about where this will lead. Architect Robert Adam has written in the current edition of Planning in London how this could be “the start of a new era of architecture for the people”:

“The new Government looks like it’s going to make the most important reforms to planning since 1947. In the last 50 years an increasingly bureaucratic planning system has grown and grown, backed by advancing legions of civil servants. Somewhere in all this, the people for whom the system was designed was forgotten.

“As it got more and more complicated with more and more regulations, the cohorts of bureaucrats joined hands with the architectural profession. Neither of this deadly duo cared what the public wanted: they were both experts and they both knew better. Overloaded Councillors handed more and more decisions to their bureaucrats, only occasionally fighting a rearguard action for their electorate. Now a Government that understands that all this is for people not officials might take the truly radical step of handing power back to communities.

“Architects might just have to accept that their designs are for people not other architects or their cronies in officialdom.”

The physical condition of our towns and cities is a huge contributor to the good society, so I hope that the optimistic views are proven right in time.

But will Neighbourhood Plans actually produce good neighbourhoods?

There are theoretical models for good design. There is a huge corpus of literature on how you actually go about creating a good place; professional planners spend years at University studying a craft.

One famous work on creating a good urban neighbourhood is Jane Jacobs 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She suggested four conditions for a well-designed locality:

1. Every city street or district should serve a variety of functions, so that different people, for different purposes, are using the street at different times of day.
2. City blocks must be short; long blocks produce monotony visually and functionally.
3. Buildings should vary in age and condition, recognizing that visual diversity is also associated with variety in economic activity. This mingling of building types should be close-grained, i.e. without large empty spaces between buildings.
4. Concentrations of population should be reasonably dense, from about 75 to 200 people per acre.

This is just one of many models for creating a good place, and the professionals have spent time studying them. Why should mere people know better? After all, whenever the council arboriculturalists prune or pollard, local residents inevitably complain that they have brutally murdered those trees, even though it’s vital for the healthy growth of the tree. A bit of expertise sometimes helps, actually. Is a bit of planning and urban design expertise any different?

Well, are our professionals doing a good job?

The current developments in the East End of London aren’t very inspiring, with very few honourable exceptions. A multitude of ugly, cheap, badly-designed blocks; bleak spaces and blank walls where they meet the street; local character swept away. I was wandering around City Hall one morning this week, and the celebrated More London development is largely a collection of glass and metal canyons, awful bleak landscaping, and no consideration to what the area is like at a human level. The Bad British Architecture blog has done a fantastic job of cataloguing a few crimes against neighbourhoods and taste. Transport planners in particular are doing a horrendously poor job at creating humane roads, prioritising their own metrics of moving taxis about at top speed.

Will community planning make things better? It could hardly make them worse.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs was writing in reaction to the professional planners of her day: “they have gone to great pains to learn what the saints and sages of modern orthodox planning have said about how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people and business in them. They take this with such devotion that when contradictory reality intrudes, threatening to shatter their dearly won learning, they must shrug reality aside.”

She praised the natural and chaotic as creating something that works for people, against the Le Corbusier tendency of professional planners of building something they consider formally perfect and demanding that the humans alter themselves to fit the machine.

In many ways I think Prince Charles was right in his recent speech that good design is innate: “in a strange way we operate like bees making a hive and ants making a nest or whatever. The universal pattern is within us. I think that if you look at the way we’ve developed our approach over the last hundred years, we have gone against that intuitive process.” The proper human hive is “A traditional town with little tiny passages, streets and shops”.

For the heir apparent, bad design is a result of “going against the natural human intuitive aspect”. I think that’s what Jane Jacobs was getting at too.

So I’m feeling optimistic about giving people more control over their own habitats. Forget the experts, it’s time to trust the people.

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 3:26 am  Comments (1)