Split Pediment

The musings of a Brighton-based architecture dweeb and town planner in training.

Brownfield when?

I don’t entirely agree with Daniel Knowles’s piece in the Economist, but I agree with the general thrust – that we shouldn’t let people like the CPRE bully us into fear of building on greenfied sites.

The New Labour approach of brownfield first was an impressive piece of policy-making. We saw a major increase in city-centre (re)development rather than loads of new suburbs (although we still saw plenty of those too), which was made viable largely due to the willingness – even the encouragement – to build with much higher densities than had been previously envisaged.

The bursting of the housing bubble seems to have stopped this glut of city-centre blocks (although I remember plenty of people at the time warning that people didn’t really want this sort of development). But what we must avoid is a rush back to unfettered countryside development and sprawl. The government make noises about garden cities (I’m more of a new town person myself, aesthetically-speaking at least) but don’t have a coherent plan for getting these in place. No county council are going to decide to turn a village into a town with 60,000 residents, let alone the sort of socialist joint-land-ownership utopia that Ebenezer Howard raved about. We would need a nation-wide campaign (hello TCPA?!) and a serious project led by government to make anything like this into a reality. Labour’s Eco Towns came close to this, but failed due to the lack of public support and the end of their tenure.

Actually, we’re also missing one of the major drivers behind the brownfield first policy: rebalancing the country. Besides London (specifically the Thames Gateway, much of which is pretty deprived) the cities that most benefited from the brownfield/high density policy were northern ones – Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle… you don’t need me to list northern cities for you… were all part of the urban renaissance, inspired by Richard Rogers. This was (from what I remember) not really admitted by Labour, though Prescott’s remit – which included other North-strengthening proposals, like city mayors, regional development agencies and regional assemblies – seemed to be pretty obvious in what it was seeking to do. Instead, we now get High Speed 2, which is somehow meant to strengthen the North by making it more reliant on being able to get quickly to the South.

If we are to build on greenfield sites (oh, and it’s worth saying that we never actually stopped doing so, we just re-prioritised. But speaking generally) if we are to build on greenfield sites, then we need to decide where we do this at a strategic level, given the apparent apathy of local communities to such development. This government has so far failed to show any willingness to tackle the problem, and their approach so far (some of which is commendable, other bits not so much) smacks of the do-as-little-as-possible attitude to governing that our leading parties share.

The housing crisis is too important to be left to the hope that, with a bit of a leg-up, developers will be able to magically provide. They won’t, and it won’t help either if we could manufacture another housing bubble through the government taking on directly the risk of high loan-to-value mortgages to people banks deem unworthy of credit. We either need massive public investment in council housing (ha!) and – if necessary – the infrastructure and decontamination works that brownfield redevelopment requires, or massive public investment in something like a new New Towns project. Or both. If someone wants to come up with that in their manifesto, I might be interested.

design.uk

Neither of you have likely noticed, as you are both – by my reckoning – not frequently involved in dealing with matters governmental, but the government’s website has changed. gov.uk is now the British government’s website, replacing (mainly) direct.gov.uk. And gov.uk has just won the Design of the Year award. We should all be a little bit sad about this.

Throughout my career in local government, one of my primary gripes has been about communication and how government both local and national have failed to appreciate the potential of using the internet for interacting and communicating with citizens. I don’t know when the last time was that you used a governmental website, but I’m fairly sure that it was clunky, flimsy, appallingly written, messy and confusing. And that’s probably a page I put together!

When I first heard about gov.uk maybe a year ago when it was still in beta, I was quite excited. This was mainly because they advertised their design principles at an early stage. You can still read these here: https://www.gov.uk/designprinciples. I still think these are generally good principles; except for number 2. Number 2 is this:

Do less.

Previous government websites tried to do everything. And this was a failing of them. If you were to look at local government websites, which don’t enjoy the resources of national governmental sites, these frequently take the old approach: put everything on there. EVERYTHING. Preferably twice. Given the massive range of services you get for your council tax, plus all the “back office” stuff that you might actually have some involvement with, that’s a hell of a lot of stuff. Replicated 326 times in the local authorities of England alone. So it’s understandable that the designers of the gov.uk website wanted to pare down the content to the essentials.

So why is “do less” a problem? Let’s see what gov.uk says:

Government should only do what only government can do. If someone else is doing it — link to it. If we can provide resources (like APIs) that will help other people build things — do that. We should concentrate on the irreducible core.

The irreducible core of government? Hell, that’s fightin’ talk! Or at least part of an undergrad political philosophy essay question. In fact, this whole paragraph is tantamount to an astonishing small-state retreat and a capitulation that the civil service really are running scared. They even link to a comedy example of the old direct.gov.uk site about keeping bees. The problem here is not that government should be telling us how to keep bees and now they aren’t; it’s that government should have the balls to say: yes, we know that someone else is doing this, but we’re going to do it better. Maybe not bees, but maybe, well – discovering the Higgs Boson or inventing the World Wide Web.

Let’s look at one particular area of gov.uk to see what impact this has had. Let’s choose… oh, I don’t know… planning! Big surprise there for you. Firstly, you have to know to click on the Housing and Local Services link, under which it says “owning or renting or council services”, which doesn’t really sound like “I want to build a conservatory” to me. But whatevs. Then three clicks later (fine) you get to the Planning Permission guide, which basically tells you the absolute bare minumum about what getting planning permission might be, whilst linking to the Planning Portal website, which has adverts on it and therefore feels untrustworthy, even though the information on it is sound. There’s nothing on what urban planning is, why it might be a Good Thing that governments do, how it’s come about, nothing on listed buildings, nothing on the government’s changes to planning.

This is poor design. It pretends that the organisation (in this case, the government) that makes the rules has no interest in them. It pretends that there is no flow or change to systems and processes, that the operations of government are as ancient as the black and white livery of their fancy new website. And by trying to do as little as possible, gov.uk undermines its own worth.

Of course, the real culprits here are the judges of this award, who have failed to realise this. I went to the Design Museum exhibition that features all of the so-called designs of the year. I was really disappointed; so few of them have any serious merit above looking pretty (and lots of them didn’t). Sadly it seems that, with gov.uk, the award has been given for the triumph of simplicity over content, of rebranding over passion, of cool disinterest over messy but honest helpfulness. Oh, and it really doesn’t look that pretty.

 

This is a conspiracy

Hello. Both of you were no doubt as saddened to learn of the death of Margaret Thatcher as I was. The absolutely very latest most up-to-date latest recent latest news on her death and its aftermath is that there’s been a campaign to raise funds for a memorial library. Which has been running since 2009. As well as portraying this as sudden and surprising, our thoroughly partisan news sources have slathered over this not-really-news their inevitable sheen of invisibly veiled distaste or celebration.

But it is interesting. The library is claimed to be inspired in particular by Reagan’s presidential library; not surprising, perhaps, although I think it’s salient to understand a little more about the US presidential libraries before we decide whether this library is A Good Thing.

It wasn’t until toward the end of watching all of the West Wing that I became curious about US presidential libraries; at the start of season 7, we are saccharinely tantalised with a reunion of some of the main players at the opening of Josiah Bartlet’s Presidential Library. Chortles are exchanged, elbows are meaningfully gripped, rueful glances shared, as we and Martin Sheen’s teeth wait for the arrival of the sitting president, Bartlet’s successor. Of course, at this stage we still have a whole season to wait to find out whether [oh cripes, how shall we play this…?] Senator Ralph Owen Brewster is victorious over Senator Bail Organa [yep, I think that went well]. Spoiler: OBAMA TOTALLY PWNED THE OTHER GUY!!!

Read the rest of this entry »

Modern Colour

Modern Colour

There’s probably an awful lot to be written about colour photography and its relationship to what we consider the Modern or perhaps current world. There’s also a fair amount to say about monochrome photography of supposedly Modern buildings, about how this is used to denote timelessness and how it has influenced the colour pallettes of architects in the 20th century. I’ve not got time right now to explore any of that. These early colour photographs of Paris in the early 20th century, however, are a valuable antidote to the too-easily accepted dichotomy between colour=modern/monochrome=old. Here we see a Paris that is remarkably, incredibly, polychromatically similar to the Paris we know and – more importantly – represent today.

This year’s listening

I don’t frequently write here about music, although it’s very important to me. Prompted partially by a tweet from a pal (more on whom anon) I thought I’d give you a taste of my year’s listening. (As I don’t keep notes, this will be a partial and skewed list, bending towards what I can remember and what I’m generally listening to now).

Walk the moon

Still my current favourite band, I saw them twice this year in London and will probably do so again in February. They provide a distilled, electro-tinged version of guitar pop, the sort that so many bands attempt to do. What sets these guys apart is their seeming wide-eyed incredulity with the whole business, a genuine joie de vivre and some almightily wondrous songs. This is casual but heartfelt pop music that never fails to lift my mood.

Or this for schmaltz:

Luke Sital Singh

Luke I’ve seen twice, both times at The Hope in Brighton. Again, he’s not reinventing any wheels: he sings, he plays guitar, he looks slightly awkward. We’ve all seen this before. Again, though, it’s the quality of the songwriting that comes through. And live, the raw edge to his voice provides a depth to the tonal range that hasn’t yet been captured on record (his studio work, I think produced largely by the excellent Paul Steel, uses lush harmonies that are equally as compelling). There’s a spiritual dimension to his work, and at both gigs a quasi-reverential silence was present – rare for a Brighton crowd.

Owen Pallett

Earlier this year I went to the Barbican to see Owen Pallett’s violin concerto and Nico Muhly’s cello concerto. Both were excellent, adventurous works for these composers. But it’s Owen’s work writing pop music that I’ve got to know, both his Hearland album and his earlier works under the Final Fantasy moniker. Whilst I first started listening to these last year, they’ve remained firm favourites throughout 2012. Owen’s complex songs utilise an imaginative tonal spectrum, frequently dragging the mournful pastoral colours of the orchestra into the sweltering Arizona sun.

Stuart Warwick

Stuart hates two things most of all in life: being compared vocally to Thom Yorke and the fact that John Barrowman (surely an alien life form) continues to refuse to be mawled to death by a billion howling sea monkeys. Whilst not a close personal friend of mine, we did once stop to talk to each other on North Street whilst my left foot was bleeding into my shoe. His new album – The Butcher’s Voice – is excellent; eschewing the bombastic layering that most loop-based songwriters collapse into, his are genuine songs with an unrivalled poignancy. He’s also one of the few queer (as opposed to mainstream gay) artists living in Brighton, by which I mean that he is political and grossly ignored.

Ben Folds Five

The reformation of all three of the Five was something I consider a near-personal favour. Little did I realise, upon attending their gig in Birmingham earlier this year, that a thousand thirty five year old women and their boyfriends also know every word of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Still, that didn’t stop me from singing as loud as possible all the complex harmonic improvements that fifteen years of listening to these songs has gifted me. Their new album is (let’s be kind) a grower, with a couple of stand-out tracks. But just hearing them play live was a treat. It’s like what people who love metal say – you go for the mosh pit, but it’s the musicianship that blows you away. OK, there was no moshpit, but hot smokin dang these guys can PLAY.

The John Wilson Orchestra

The year has not been a particularly fruitful one for “classical” music for me. I singularly failed to see any of the proper proms – from whence I get my usual fix – but I did manage to make the campest of the Albert Hall’s offerings over the summer: John Wilson’s orchestra’s Broadway sounds prom. It did indeed sound fantastic (even allowing for the cavernous are-you-sure-the-orchestra-are-in-the-same-room acoustics), and the highlights included Seth MacFarlane’s exuberant glee, the ballet from On the Town [which I think really stands up to repeated listenings. Concert programmers could consider swapping the rather over-used Candide overture for arrangements of the On The Town ballet sequences] and this monster reprise performed by the wonderful Anna-Jane Casey:

Parade

Whilst we’re on the musicals theme, the best show I saw this year was the Rose Bruford school’s performance of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. This is a cheery little show concerning the apparently wrongful conviction of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, using this sorry episode as a study of wider anti-semitism and notions of Southern identity in early 20th century America. Through song. The show is a tour de force. For those of you unfamiliar with Jason Robert Brown’s work, he is the pre-eminent composer of musical theatre (let’s admit that Sondheim’s finest hour is past. And that JRB might – *might* – actually be better). Mark Newnham – the aforementioned pal of mine – played the lead (brilliantly, but I would say that) and the whole cast, who were on stage throughout, forming the orchestra as well as singing and acting, were astounding. I’ve listened to the Donmar cast recording (Rose Bruford weren’t recorded, though they were better) on so many train journeys that I’m convinced there’s a clipped-voiced lady announcing the imminent arrival at Haywards Heath half way through the second act.

Retro Stefson

This year’s standout act from the Great Escape festival, Retro Stefson are a samba-tinged Icelandic septet of what appear to be the bounciest teenagers known to trampolines. Their tambourine player/lead dancer is one enthustiastic fellow, who instantly whipped the sullen Brighton crowd into a morass of embarrassed near-frenzy.

Joshua James, Admiral Fallow

Whilst these haven’t been at the top of my year’s listening, they have recently acquired a place on the “investigate further” list – Joshua James through giving away a download of his Build Me This 2009 album; Admiral Fallow through an excellent set at the Green Door Store recently (as well as the lead singer’s solo slot at the same venue as part of a previous Great Escape).

So, I hope that gives you a flavour of my year’s listening. I’m off to investigate Mark’s recommendation of the Syd Arthur Band. 

Do send me any musical recommendations you may have, and if you’ve been to any decent gigs with me that I was too inebriated to remember, send me a little reminder.

The ups and downs of seaside towns

Hi both. This short piece in the Economist is interesting if somewhat light. It makes various claims – that poverty in seaside towns is due largely to the decline of Victorian industry; that better rail connections to London would make them better places; that New Labour art-regen projects don’t do enough to turn around a failing economy.

The piece is – perhaps unsurprisingly – London-centric. It is the towns in the south east of England (Hastings, Margate) that really trouble the author – not those northern seaside resorts which, presumably, one would expect to be a bit shit anyway. And it’s Folkestone’s new speedy rail link to London that has halted its decline – by making it a place more Londoners might want to go. And it’s Brighton’s connectivity to the big smoke that means that it’s buzzy and swish – the old Camden-by-Sea truism again.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Hastings and its near-neighbour Bexhill are indeed places that have suffered serious deprivation. Like most Victorian seaside resorts, there never was industry here; these were instead places that cleverly, over time figured out how to cater for the leisure needs of a wide variety of society.

St Leonard’s was originally laid out by James Burton, and later his son Decimus, in a whimsical style in the first half of the nineteenth century, a place for the wealthy to retire or write or have a holiday home in. They arrived by sea. Then, with the arrival of the railways, we get working people arriving – daytrippers and holidaymakers coming for the beaches, fine weather, piers and so forth. Bexhill’s Victorian industry was actually education; this was where the officers of the Raj sent their sons and daughters to the many boarding schools that became the town’s primary raison d’etre. Hence the still-ridiculously long railway platforms for the school trains that steamed their way from London each term. In the 1930s we get attempts by local government to regenerate. The outdoor pool in St Leonards, whilst large, was not unusual for a seaside town; Bexhill’s De La Warr pavilion is perhaps a more idiosyncratic intervention, and arguably the finest public building of that decade. Then we get the War, the collapse of Empire and the British class system, more access to overseas travel, Thatcher’s Britain and the decimation of local government. Seaside towns are now officially dead.

Brighton got by on the racecourse, murder, dirty weekends, saucy seaside postcards, mods, rockers, fish ‘n’ chips, gays. The rise of grunge music in Seattle in the 1990s saved Brighton and youth culture everywhere by making it cool to wear moth-eaten knitwear and mumble into a microphone. Or maybe it was the long-term investment in education – Sussex University in the 1960s, the gradual and commendable rise of Brighton Poly (now also a university) – that allowed the town to flourish late in the last century.

If seaside towns are poorly connected to London, it is a problem for Londoners or people who like London-things. Which is to say, people like me. Eastbourne folk don’t complain about not being able to get to London in under an hour because they actually rather like their gentle touring farces and going to church and watching women’s tennis. Bournemouth has an internationally-reknowned symphony orchestra. Connections to the big city for better-paying jobs are good for individuals and the tax man, but it doesn’t bring employment to the town. No-one thinks that Brighton’s a wonderful place because of its commuters. Indeed, they also have a nasty habit of forcing up house prices, so locally-employed people are forced to rent from private landlords.

Seaside towns are naturally constrained. The centre of town is never that – it’s always on the wet edge of the country. The centre of Brighton, geographically-speaking, is perhaps the unloved Withdean stadium, from which the Seagulls have recently, poetically, flown. Seaside cities, or – as I like to call them – ports, at least have useful shorelines unlike the gentle fronts of Eastbourne or Herne Bay or Deal or Worthing. At best the town can sprawl into the countryside behind or unspool along the coast, swallowing up retirement villages and fishing settlements and farming communities as they go, creating commuters of us all. Seaside towns have nowhere useful to go, hence the arguments over where to put things like new art galleries. The Bilbao-effect may be derided by every urban theorist (bar the indefatigable Richard Florida), but people are generally fine about having a new theatre or whatever – it’s the question of where it goes that causes the problems. Not on my beach.

The much-vaunted cultural regeneration donkey is a fun one to kick. But in truth it isn’t the only peg that New Labour tried to hang the hat of investment on: the Sea Space project in Hastings has seen 10 years of serious investment (a lot of it European funding. Just, you know. Worth saying) at a much less controversial level. Things like education buildings, offices, making the station usable for people with pushchairs and walking sticks. Which is to say normal people.Now the funding has dried up. No more European cash – that’s all gone to shore up the banks in Greece. Actually, it’s worse. The breath-taking cuts to housing benefit, local government funding, disability benefit, the NHS and every other decent thing we ever thought of mean that the impoverished won’t even be able to afford shelter in the dilapidated Victorian hotels of Warrior Square that we recently considered shit enough to house Albanian refugees during a glorious, shining decade when we disguised our meanness as a nation with leftover trinkets stolen from the future poor by a housing bubble that enriched only the already wealthy.

Our seaside towns are not laid low by their temporal distance from the wonder of London, or the dubious draw of minor galleries hoping to seduce the middle-class, or the collapse of the industrial economy of the century before last. It’s, of course, vastly more complicated than that. But what’s crippled so many attempts is the failure of political will to invest in education and employment for everyone. Or rather the success of a political will to take from those who have little left to give. And our complacency that means we’ve done next to fuck all about it.

 

On the sharing of space

Hi both. There’s a trend in transport planning towards something called “shared space”. As you know, I’m no expert in traffic design and transport infrastructure, and I have a lot of respect for people working in that field. And I think we in the planning/streetscape/regen/urban renewal/urban design business need to take some of the flak for the criticisms I’m about to set out, for reasons that will hopefully become clear.

Hans Monderman is generally seen as the guru for shared space thinking. This was a man with a great breadth of experience and expertise, and I’m sure that his work in the Netherlands is exemplary. But the way it’s been implemented in this country seems to be the stuff of muddle and fad, the appropriation of “radical” design for the sake of leveraging funds and garnering awards.

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100

Not that anyone’s been counting, or that there’s anything inherently significant about the number 100 to the contents of this here blog, but this is my 100th post. Cripes, some people do that in a week! Anyway, you already both know what you’re getting for this.

This rather fine pediment covers the grand entrance to Southover Manor, which was apparently built in the 1840s for a William Verrell (hence the “V”, obvs). The Verrells were serious stuff in Lewes (owning the still-impressive White Hart Inn) more about whom can be found out in this rather interesting blog.

Public/private space and the monopolies of fun and violence

Hi both. The Graun are doing an interesting series on a serious topic – the privatisation of apparently public spaces. You can follow this here. The basic situation is this: private developers want total control over the appearance of and behaviour in their spaces – and usually we’re talking shopping areas or office developments. I don’t mean to imply that the developers are seeking anything sinister, merely that they want to make sure that they can guarantee security for shops or a well-planted environment environment for hard-working clerks. The local authorities see the benefit – they don’t have to pay for the upkeep of the fancy shiny paving.

Why is this a problem? Well, the Anna Minton line is that this is undemocratic. Which it is: there is a long history of struggle to allow for public access to open spaces which appears to be being undone. But there are two further complaints I would add.

Who pays for stuff?

In his glowing (and marginally incoherent) report on the Liverpool One development, Martin Wainwright speaks to Chris Bliss, the head of estates for the site. Bliss believes that, when it comes to flashmobs and street pianos, merrily hosted by the good lords of Liverpool One:

“It would be much harder for the city council to lay on that sort of thing,” says Bliss. “People would start saying: ‘Huh, so that’s how you’re spending our council tax.'”

Why is this nonsense? Not only because the city council did indeed spend public money on extravagent (I mean that positively) public art, and not even because the flashmob – inevitably organised by a mobile phone company – is the epitome of the apparently public but actually private performance (organised jollity! Control of public space! Ephemeral expression of the will to purchase through song and dance!). Really the problem is this constant sniping of public spending as if private companies’ money isn’t paid for by us, and can be frittered away on trifles with no objection. It is of course the shoppers who pay for the private security and the street pianos. Do they want them? Maybe. Do they get a say about their shopping environment and how their money is spent on it? Of course not. Why shouldn’t the city council pay for street pianos and flashmobs and giant puppets and urban zorbing and discus fights and zebras on ice? Sometimes they do, and people generally like it, but that’s not my point. My point is this: At least people would be able to say “Huh, so that’s how you’re spending our council tax”.

Privatising the threat of violence

Of course, public space doesn’t need to be privatised to be privately policed. In my fair city of Brighton, you’ll regularly see fake police persons trotting around the North Laine Business Improvement District, hoiking scalliwags off the pavement for nicking a pack of opal fruit starburst. But in private spaces the problem is worse, with the behaviour of visitors regulated. We saw this, of course, most obviously with the Occupy movement’s attempt to protest in Paternoster Square last year. But similar issues arise closer to home: Churchill Square in Brighton has a slightly sinister sign reminding people that the land that stands before them, open and unblocked, to all intents public, in fact is not.

It reads:

Churchill Square Shopping Centre Is Private Property. This Includes The Paved Area At The Front Known As The Piazza. This Area Runs From The Prince Of Wales Public House On The West, The Top Of Cranbourne Street On The East And To The Bollards That Border Western Road On The North.

This sign is insulting for a number of reasons:

  1. It is bordering on illegible. The idiot that comissioned it believed, as an eight year old believes, that because it was a sign Every Word Needed To Be Capitalised. Pro tip: this person should not be given the job of comissioning signs.
  2. There is no obvious purpose to it. In this information-saturated world, there is no room for signs the end of which is not apparent. Adverts I can stand, because they are trying to sell me something. Road signs I don’t mind, because they are trying to save my life. This is a corporately sanctioned graffiti tag. There are only two reasons the general public could possibly need to know this information: if they want to campaign to change the facts that it purports to express, or if they want to blog about it.
  3. It is placed not on the explicitly dilineated land, but on a lamppost on Western Road. That is, public land. Our land.
  4. It is not known – by anyone, not a soul, not even the people who work there – as “The Piazza”.
  5. It does not say who put it there and what authority they have to make this claim. It merely asserts its own facts in its own world, thereby reasserting the facelessness of the corporate realm.

Anyway, a lot of that is secondary to my main point. Which follows.

I don’t know when this sign went up, although I did first notice it shortly after the hard left/anarchist kids from the no cuts lobby were clambering on roofs and supergluing themselves to Vodafone. That could easily be me reading a narrative of my own construction into my noticings. Or it could be someone at Churchill Square trying to reassert their claim over this place and the supposed rights of their security guardians to drag people away, whether they’re committing acts of civil disobediance or shooting kittens in the window of British Home Stores.

And even nice shiny residential streets can ban the most innocuous behaviour. Here, in the New England Quarter, residents – or presumably, the juvenile ones – are mandated not to skateboard or play ball games:

It is the implicit threat that I find disconcerting. What will happen to me if I skateboard around here? Most likely a broken neck, given my co-ordination skills. But would I then be accosted by a ear-pieced phantom? Can he restrain me, or just move me on? Under what powers? Can he call the police? To whom can I complain if he flicks my ear?

There’s a reason that we have the police. They are (largely) accountable, and they are given the monopoly on violence (unless you count the armed forces. Which I don’t, on British streets at least. For now. At the moment. Unless you go to London in July.) That is right and proper. Now we’ve started farming this out to any thick necked Jimmy with a smirk, and we’re the poorer for it.

This week in Homophobia

Hi both. Of course, the big gay story this week is the Church of England’s dire warnings of impending de-facto disestablishment in their response to the government’s same-sex marriage consultation. Read the rest of this entry »

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