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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