Freedom of information request reveals Labour MP Kate Hoey behind hospital anti-cycling campaign

When a London hospital is lobbying against a healthy activity – cycling – it kind of feels like something is going wrong.  So when Guys and St Thomas Hospital in London runs an extensive (and expensive – campaigner Tom Kearney has uncovered that £10k of NHS money has been spent so far) lobbying and legal campaign to try and prevent a cycle lane being built outside, it’s hard not to smell a rat.

Turns out that the rat was called Kate Hoey, the MP for the local area. (The rat usually does turn out to be a Labour politician, doesn’t it?)

In the FOI’d documents below, you can see how Kate Hoey initially contacted the Trust with a “great opportunity” to sabotage the cycle track.


There seems to have been some internal division, with the children’s wing of the hospital trust sounding pretty incredulous about the whole campaign:


Children's hospital.jpg

And even – and this is maybe the most telling line in all the documents – the Trust itself in internal emails admit that they have zero evidence for their claims:


Documents are below:


Published in: on September 13, 2016 at 11:04 pm  Comments (1)  

Scaring the living daylights out of people: spinning for nimbys

The practice of ‘planning communications’ is, broadly, the process by which developers consult local people about new development proposals and then put together a case to present to decision makers at the planning authority. In the best cases, there is a real element of community-led design input. In some cases, it primarily involves countering the arguments of vocal nimbys to make sure a balanced view is heard. There are a bunch of specialist PR agencies who work for developers to do this – including, for transparency, the one I work for.

A new paper from “urbanist” Anna Minton purports to show how planning communications and PR is “undermining democracy” and causing various terrible things to happen.

I’ve reviewed of Minton’s last two stinkers, so I was curious to read this new pamphlet.

You can read the original on her website, but, to summarise: anyone with a placard is a righteous tribune of the people; anyone who ever wanted anything to be changed or built anywhere is some kind a demoniacal villain.

Firstly, although the paper claims to be about how lobbyists work to influence the planning process, she actually doesn’t seriously address this issue. As I noted in my other reviews, she’s curiously unable to stick to any given subject, so most of the paper is given over to complaining (more or less copy-and-pasted from her previous works) about how despicably badly Southwark, Newham, and Liverpool councils treated their tenants and residents during grand redevelopment schemes. It actually doesn’t take any convincing to make Labour councils behave like bastards, and if lobbyists were responsible Minton doesn’t mention it.

There’s just zero in the way of serious investigation or facts here. She makes really serious accusations – that lobbyists are planted in planning meetings to heckle the public, and impersonate journalists on the telephone. Her most bizarre claim is that lobbyists somehow get entire slates elected to councils and then pack the development control committee and cabinet. I’m pretty confident in saying that this never happened, and Minton only asserts it without proof. Despite it being “ubiquitous”, she admits that it is “difficult to document”. She doesn’t even try. She hints at a problem with conflicts of interest – the development control committee having personal stakes in developments and councillors and council staff being given jobs with local developers. And yet, for no other reason than because she is the world’s laziest investigator, she doesn’t even try to find out or quantify how often it happens or where.

She accuses developers and their PR consultants of “astroturfing”, although this doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. Astroturfing, in the jargon, is creating a fraudulent grassroots campaign to make something look like it has real support, such as by using sockpuppets – false identities or unreal people – as supporters. But that’s not what is happening in the example she gives. The Campaign for High Speed Rail is supported by real, named businesses and individuals, including people at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Minton may not agree with them, but they are actually-existing humans. Forming an organisation to promote a common voice isn’t the “abuse of the democratic system” – it’s practically the definition of a democratic system.

Most of the rest of Minton’s paper just uses increasingly bizarre non-arguments to discredit developers.

The first, is to attempt to associate the issue with causes that are already reviled by her target audience – referencing various bête noirs of Guardian readers even if the reference makes no sense. So planning communications is like tax avoidance (insofar as it is not illegal but still wrong); it’s like Big Tobacco (insofar as they both hire PR companies); it’s like NHS reform (insofar as a former employee of a PR company also worked for the think-tank Reform); it’s like the Tea Party (insofar as… actually, she doesn’t even try to make that make sense). The association fallacy at it’s most tenuous and transparent.

She also has an weird problem with PR consultants using military metaphors, describing it as “extreme” language and “intimidation and threats”. The language under question is the following quote from a Radio 4 interview: “You’ve got to fight them on every street corner…. You can’t just sit in your fortress and watch the opponents run around doing what they like.” She seems to think that they were being literal. All political campaigns use military metaphors: the ground war and the air war. This whole point is just dumb.

And yet this isn’t even Minton’s most stupid argument. She keeps claiming (it’s actually the first subtitle in the paper) that lobbyists want to “shit up” their opponents. That has to be a typo Minton or her researcher has made somewhere along the line. When she asks the man who apparently said it he replies, “I literally can’t remember what you’re talking about.” Of course he can’t: nobody has ever used the phrase “shit them up”, even on the internet, where the only uses that aren’t typos seem to be this paper and one piece of teenage X-men fanfic. He probably said “shut them up”, because that makes sense. Minton based her key argument on a typo in her notes.

The job of local planning authorities is to balance interests: in most cases there is no single identifiable “public interest”. Minton always sides with the people with placards, whether they are social housing tenants decanted cruelly by their Labour councils, or rich white folks in Devon, Grampian, or the Chilterns who are having their country views ruined by houses/railways/a golf course. For Minton, the very presence of a banner and a campaign group is indication enough of their righteousness. She quotes them uncritically – the Southwark Notes campaign group is the word of truth, for Minton. Not that I want to defend Southwark’s Labour council, but this isn’t even competent journalism, let alone a serious report.

Because of course Manchester businesses want a new rail line; of course there are people in Devon who are suffering from a housing shortage; of course there are people in Aberdeen who think that a fancy golf club is going to bring in tourist money; of course a lot of people want a convenient supermarket nearby. Her weird Manichean view of the world doesn’t admit that all these people are perfectly allowed to put their case, and the “public interest” lies in the balance of these opinions – not necessarily kowtowing to noisy minorities.

Published in: on March 29, 2013 at 4:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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 (2)  
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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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Residential streets are wasted public space

Here’s a picture of Harrowgate Road in Hackney, a fairly typical residential street distinguished only by the fact that it is around the corner from my house. It doesn’t see much traffic, and you’ll usually see neighbours chatting to each other at their front gates. Note that it has one thing in common with pretty much every other residential street in the UK: it is choked by cars, nose-to-tail.

On-street parking is a private appropriation of a great deal of our public space, which is particularly disputable in Hackney as in the borough as a whole only 44% of households own cars or vans.

In Copenhagen, in a neighbourhood near the Carlsberg brewery, I noticed that although there was on-street parking, that wasn’t all there was.

Some of the space had been used for picnic benches, turning the street into a place where people might actually spend time:

Some of the space had been used for sandpits and play areas for children:

And, of course, being Copenhagen, some of the car parking space had been given over to bikes:

Lots and lots of bikes:

Basically, there is so much more that we could be doing to make our ordinary residential streets into better, more liveable, more enjoyable places. Yet no public authority in the UK seems interested – certainly not mine in Hackney.

Published in: on July 4, 2012 at 10:30 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  

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)