From Canary Wharf to Canvey Island

Thames Gateway: environmental disaster in the making, bleak repository for the worst of ticky-tacky volume housebuilding, or an unrivalled offer of increased prosperity, enhanced environment and vibrant quality of life? Only one of these asssessments is drawn from a Government website. You can probably guess which.

In the wake of a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, commentators have been lining up to give ‘the Thames Gateway project’ a comprehensive monstering. The NAO criticised the project for having too many organisations involved, and for lacking clear leadership, a costed delivery plan and performance indicators.

This is all fine as far as it goes (though as an ex-researcher for the Audit Commission, the NAO’s local government equivalent, I know that these criticisms are audit boilerplate, applicable to almost any area of public life), but it’s worth keeping a sense of scale.

The Thames Gateway is vast: more than 700 square miles of land, stretching from London’s East End to the Isle of Sheppey (as far as the distance from Marble Arch to Oxford). It contains multitudes: marshland and power stations, wharfs and wild horses, factories and new towns, Canary Wharf and Canvey Island. Should there be – could there be – a single vision or plan for such a place?

Architect Sir Terry Farrell thinks there should. He has been decrying the Government’s failure to adopt his ‘vision’ in the media. He thinks we could accommodate not hundreds of thousands, but millions of home in London’s built up areas, leaving the rest of the Gateway as a national park and creating new islands at the mouth of the Thames. But these proposals are more a welcome provocation than the sort of plan the NAO are seeking.

I should declare an interest. In a previous life, I helped develop plans for London’s slice of Thames Gateway. These were profoundly modest in their scope, and even then took more than a year of debate between multiple agencies and layers of government. It’s hard to see what the alternative is, in a pluralistic and complex society. Which organisations should be knocked out of the way: county councils, the Mayor of London, regional development agencies?

To an extent, the Government is a victim of its own hype, or even of hubris. They trumpeted Thames Gateway as the biggest regeneration project in the world and said that they were in charge. Their bluff is now being called. They have a small team in Whitehall, some new urban regeneration bodies, and a budget of £700 million over three years. This is a lot of money, but looks smaller spread across 700 miles; it’s probably only about twice the build costs of London’s Olympic stadium. To be honest, government can only tinker at the edges, while Barratt, Persimmon and Bellway Homes get on with business as usual.

There is a growing debate about whether the state should become more interventionist, and should start to manage house building and urban regeneration more directly, rather than seeking to regulate and plan a market over which they have little real control. This is a subject for another day, but in the meantime we might ask: is the problem that Thames Gateway is too big, or that government is too small?

An archaeology of advertising

Metronet, the PPP consortium struggling to stay solvent while it operates and upgrades London Underground\’s Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines, doesn\’t have many fans.

But either Metronet, or one of their sub-contractors, seems to be running a rolling exhibition of antique advertising, which has been carefully left in place as posters are stripped back in the public spaces of Victoria Line stations. Towards the end of 2006, this exhibition hovered at Oxford Circus. Now – for a limited time only – it is at Warren Street.

The posters at Warren Street seem to date from around 1989 (on the basis of the release dates of Wilt and Ghostbusters 2), though one for Whitley\’s Shopping Centre could have been dated from the 1930s. They look incredibly antique: bright blocky colours, wordy captions, and none of the sly irony that we have come to expect over the past 20 years. The overall effect is as alien as the garish supplements about investment opportunities in former soviet republics that sometimes fall from the Sunday papers.

Normally, advertising on the underground is just unwelcome visual noise (now even clumsily imposed on the minimalist Jubilee Line extension escalators), but these posters are worth a view. So, hurry, hurry, the opportunity to enjoy these blasts from the past is strictly time-limited.

Within weeks, the posters will be gone, and Metronet will have begun to \’improve\’ Warren Street Tube, with its usual glaring striplights, bargain-basement tiles and tacky wipe-clean wall panels.

Larks\’ Tongues

BBC2\’s Rome was back on the television last night, revelling with gory glee in the plottings and the stabbing. The orgies, the feasts of larks\’ tongues and the pearls dissolved in vinegar are just around the corner.

This is history in hindsight: we see the seeds of the Roman Empire\’s collapse being sown in the retreat from the austere and stoic values of the Republic. We can thank historians like Suetonius for this lurid and prurient tale of geopolitical decline following close on the heels of moral decadence. It has proved a compelling narrative for future generations too, from Shakespeare to Gibbon.

Is it a narrative for today? While problems press on us from all sides – environmental collapse, intractable wars, political and social alienation – many of us have never had it so good. We live lives of comfort and plenty, lives that are enriched by foreign travel, new foods, new media.

Is this dissonance a new normality or is our persistent celebration of consumption a sign of our decadence? Are we eating larks\’ tongues? Two things I noticed recently:

The ipod is a totemic piece of technology for our time, offering unparalleled ease of use coupled with elegance of design. I recently picked up a flyer, asking \’Is your ipod still sitting in its box?\’, and offering to fill ipods with music for their owners, to give training sessions, to personalise ipod mixes to make their owners look sophisticated.

At the Young Vic Theatre, performances of \’Vernon God Little\’, a satirical tale of the white working class in the southern USA can be preceded by a special menu in the venue\’s restaurant, where middle-class theatre-goers can eat ironic (but locally sourced and organic) variants on southern white trash food.

I\’m not trying to criticise these quirks of our culture (on the contrary, I can vouch for the Vernon God Little burger as juicy and well-cooked), but I sometimes wonder how our lives would look to a visitor from another planet, or even to a future historian sniffing out the decadent portents of decline.

Any more larks\’ tongues out there?

What\’s in a name?

It\’s very rare these days for a story to appear and disappear, without leaving a digital trail somewhere on the internet.

Last Thursday (14 June 2007), London\’s three evening papers picked up the same story: that the International Olympic Committee Co-ordination Commission (the group of IOC members sent over to check on London\’s progress in preparing for the 2012 Games) had said that they were uncomfortable with the Olympic Delivery Authority\’s name.

Why? Because the bulk of the ODA\’s £9bn budget is now to be spent on cleaning up land and putting infrastructure into East London\’s Lea Valley, rather than on erecting Olympic venues. The panjandrums of the IOC are nothing of not assiduous in defending the value of their brand, and they were reported to be unhappy with the association of the \’O-word\’ with such extensive public spending (and some of the unavoidable but unpleasant side-effects of development, like displacement of businesses and residents).

The story had a ring of truth, however odd it might seem at first glance. The IOC is very keen to emphasise that the Olympic Games are self-funding (from ticketing, sponsorship and merchandising revenues). Their view is that, if a city has to build new facilities to accommodate the Games, then that is their business, and a demonstration of the catalytic effect that the whole circus can have on nations that host it.

But you can\’t have it both ways. It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that \’regeneration\’ is not the one way street that its shiny name implies. Regeneration displaces, and regeneration costs. The Olympics have made the Government do what they would never have done otherwise: make the heavy investment needed to turn round one of the poorest areas in the UK. The IOC should be proud to be associated with this investment, and should take its share of the knocks too.

The story had vanished by Thursday night. Perhaps it was untrue. Or perhaps it was seen as too damaging to the brand…

S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G

The capital city of the nation of shopkeepers is getting worried. Is London beginning to face the same pressures that have stripped many other town and city centres of their life?

Over the next few years, central London\’s shops will face a bit of a rocky road, with growing competition from what might be called \’out-of-town-in-town\’ retail malls: at White City to the west, at Stratford to the East and at the expanded Brent Cross/Cricklewood scheme to the north. Combined with congestion charging, and the homogenisation of retail through \’clone town\’ encroachment by large chains, the threat is particularly acute for smaller and independent shops.

Kensington and Chelsea recently established an independent commission to look at the future of retail within the borough and their report (here) makes some interesting proposals: how can you preserve retail diversity, and the character of neighbourhoods that this creates?

Some of the changes they recommend relate to planning policy, and in particular use classes. If your boredom threshold is low, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Land and building uses are categorised by Government, and local authorities uise them to define what activities are allowed on a particular site: retail, offices, housing, industrial uses, etc. \’Retail\’ includes sub-classes for shops, financial and professional services (ie, banks, estate agents and bookies), restaurants and cafes, drinking establishments and hot food takeaways. In general, changes within a particular use class are permitted, but changes between use classes require planning permission.

The K&C Commission suggested putting small shops into a new category, and making mergers of smaller units a matter for planning consideration. They also proposed creating a new class for coffee shops, to prevent local retail being \’Starbucked\’. The report also suggests letting councils take over large shops\’ car parks, to remove their unfair advantage, and even toys with the idea of creating special \’retail conservation areas\’.

Why is this interesting? Firstly, because retail conservation areas could be seen as the next step in the heritage movement. Since the mid 1960s, we have woken up to the value of the every day buildings that surround us (of which more in another post soon), but have paid little attention to their use. A listed factory building or church can be changed into housing as long as it looks the same. Protecting the use of a building, as well its looks, is a pretty radical move, more reminiscent of the way we approach farmland, than buildings in the centre of a city.

It\’s a pretty conservative move too, though not one that would seem strange in New York or Paris. The leadership of Kensington and Chelsea is Conservative, but this feels like a far cry from the laissez-faire world of the market, seeking to protect shops like Rough Trade (a collectivist record shop) from the depradations of capitalism.

Thirdly, like most people, I am deeply hypocritical about shopping. I love smaller shops in theory, but the half-stale produce and limited range soon sends me scuttling to Sainsburys. Perhaps the streets where I live are slightly less replete with specialist sourdough bakeries than the streets of Notting Hill are. Not every small shop is worth saving.

Similarly, when I work in poorer parts of London, they don\’t tend to worry about small retailers. They feel they have too many of them already. They want Starbucks. They want Tescos. They want that holy grail of upwards mobility, Pizza Express. Keeeping good small shops afloat is important, but should we really rely on planning to save us from our own actions?

First post

Well, the London Olympics have shown their unifying force. With a great fanfare, the new London 2012 logo was launched last week, and the nation came together to take the piss.

Whatever the merits of the new logo, it has unleashed a torrent of creative abuse and mockery. Does it resemble a broken swastika? Larry Grayson in teapot stance? David Brent dancing? Lisa Simpson doing something lewd and quite possibly illegal? The UK\’s GDP must have taken a pounding last week: normal business was suspended, in favour of that Great British pastime, mockery.

Co-incidentally, Communities and Local Government Minister Ruth Kelly announced a desire for a British \’national day\’, another of the Government\’s fumbles at national identity (here). The trouble is, all assessments of what \’Britishness\’ means dissolve quickly into cliche: tolerance, rule of law, sense of humour, blah. Sense of humour gets nearest, but the reality is less cuddly than that. Our real characteristic is the ability to laugh at anything. Anything.

In his wartime polemic, \’The Lion and the Unicorn\’ (the source for John Major\’s much-mocked evocation of \’old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist), George Orwell argued that the goose-step would never have caught on in England: \”because the people in the street would laugh\”.

Our laughter is not gentle. It is scatalogical, harsh, unforgiving. It infects the engravings of Hogarth and Gillray. It has no respect for authority, and is ready to attack any trace of pretension or pomposity. It\’s not pleasant, but it is ours.