(Not) going down the pub

Raised on concrete stilts, the Docklands Light Railway affords a privileged view of East London to its passengers. Amidst austerely functional blocks of post-war housing, churches and pubs stand out – richly tiled and decorated relics of a Victorian past. Owned by the breweries, they (the pubs, that is) were left standing on street corners as the slums of Poplar, Shadwell and Whitechapel were demolished.

But changes in the pub trade are now conspiring with London\’s insanely effervescent property market to dismantle what the Luftwaffe and the planners left intact. The Evening Standard recently reported that around a quarter of pubs near the Olympic site in Bow are closing. It\’s unfair to blame the Olympics for this – a changing population (more muslim in East London), the smoking ban and changing attitudes to drinking all contribute – but London 2012 is accelerating the process that kills boozers.

As the market value for new-build flats goes through the roof, the new pub-owning companies – nowadays as canny as property speculators as they are at managing licensed premises – are quick to take advantage. Depending on your views, you can call this regeneration or gentrification, but the outcome is the same – a gradual retreat from the ideal of mixed-use neighbourhoods to which modern planners and developers must at least claim to aspire.

It\’s not just happening in East London. Urban 75 lists some of the shabbier (and I mean that as a compliment) drinking dens that have closed around Brixton in recent years, to be replaced by \’luxury apartments\’. Fight backs can work: the Pineapple in Kentish Town managed to see off developers a few years ago, but it\’s probably easier in NW5, where stars like Rufus Sewell will rush to your aid, than in E3 or SW9.

Councils are taking notice, and several (including Tower Hamlets) have put in place policies to protect viable pubs in residential areas, but it may already be too late. The city is zoning itself, making a mockery of mixed use. As brutal \’vertical drinking\’ districts spread like a rash, neighbourhood pubs are in retreat, before the relentless march of housing-led \’regeneration\’.

It\’s been a long time

I\’ve been distracted, having holidays, not smoking, all sorts. I\’ve also been reading Robert Caro\’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker.

The book is a monster of nearly 1,200 pages, and its subject comes over as pretty monstrous too. From the mid 1920s to the 1960s, Robert Moses dominated public projects in New York, covering the five boroughs and Long Island with new toll roads, beaches, parks and bridges, creating the type of alienating, car-dominated urban landscape that Jane Jacobs has taught all good urbanists to despise. He achieved these feats through a combination of thuggish arrogance and low cunning, with unattractive top-notes of racism and class prejudice.

And yet, governor after governor, and mayor after mayor, found him indispensable, unsackable. Whatever his methods, Moses got things done, and he got them done within electoral timescales. When he was building his first parks on Long Island in the mid-1920s, he had $1 million out of a total of $15 million. Instead of completing a few projects within budget, he assembled land for a much larger number, thereby forcing NY State Congress to vote him the remainder. Caro reports him as saying: \”once you sink that first stake, they\’ll never make you pull it up.\”

What would Moses have made of Crossrail\’s latest faltering step forwards? When I worked on the Jubilee Line extension project in the mid 1990s, Crossrail was the next big project. Offices were being set up, and engineers recruited. And then, nothing. And now, maybe something? But breakthroughs are reported so frequently, and to so little effect, that it\’s hard to feel too excited by the news.

We seem to be very good at stopping big projects happening in the UK. The Treasury feels that it has been burned by so many wannabe-Moses characters, that it publishes volume upon volume of guidance on stopping big projects. The safest answer is always \’no\’. Soon after London won the 2012 Games, I had a meeting with a senior civil servant. \”You\’ve got the Treasury in an awful spin,\” he said. \”You\’ve robbed them of their three standard strategies: delay, descope and say \’no\’.\” At the IOC meeting in July 2005, London (Jowell, Livingstone, Coe) put some stakes in the ground. They won\’t be quickly forgiven.

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…

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.