Split Pediment

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

Category: Planning

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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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.

Why Plan?

Hi both. Sorry for the lack of posts. Two predictable excuses – the job, which means that when I come home, the last thing I want to do is write about planning; and the dissertation, whereby when I come home I have to write about planning. So unfortunately you’re both getting ignored. One other, less predictable, reason. My previous usual schtick was to talk about a new building in the vicinity and critique it. But since I work in the local authority planning department, this might be a little inappropriate. Fine for when I’m in different places, but not here in Brightonandhove.

So I thought for today’s post I’d take a step back from the specific, and look at some basics. A few weeks back, Ben Goldacre – a writer and man I otherwise admire – wrote some tweets that showed a (I think deliberatively) provocative attitude to planning. Goldacre was ostensibly praising the work of George Osborne, taking at face value the Chancellor’s claims to be getting rid of all sorts of unnecessary planning guidance. This isn’t going to be an analysis of Goldacre’s misreading of Osborne’s posturing – I’m no expert on the mind of either men. Rather, what I want to start to do is put together a basic, lay-person’s guide to why we plan (and why we plan in the way we do, in this country at least). I’m not sure whether this will be more of a myth-buster or more of a philosophy. Maybe bits of both.

Green Belts don’t protect the countryside

When trying to understand what planning is for, green belts are a great place to start. Green belts don’t protect the countryside. Well, they do – but that’s secondary. One thing people know about the greenbelt is that it’s land you cannot – must not – build on. That’s not strictly the case, but we’ll go with it for now. The more important thing about greenbelts is that they are a tool to curtail urban sprawl. They’re not just there to stop us building all over our green and pleasant land; they’re there to make sure that our cities remain cities.

The first green belt was introduced back in 1938 to deal with the enormous pressure on London to expand into endless suburbia and what were known as ribbon developments on its metropolitan periphery (Herbert Morrison‘s your man on this one). The act allowed local authorities to enter into covenants with landowners preventing development, or to buy land for the purpose, thus halting the sprawl. Other parts of the country got green belts later.

1947 – The Year Planners Saved the Nation from Itself

It’s worth noting that the local authorities had no right just to say no to development in the way they do now – that tool was only brought in with the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Basically everything before ’47 is considered (for planners) a sort of pre-history, a dangerous time when anyone could build anything; and there was a pressing fear that if we the heroic planners hadn’t intervened, then you idiotic capitalists would have smeared the nation in semis.

So. Back to green belts. They’re there to stop cities fractalling away into enless culs-de-sac. Why is that important? The sell was – and still is – protection of the contryside (not just protection of the greenbelt – there are many more important bits of countryside outside green belts than in them). But equally important is the need to maintain cities that are operable. With sprawl public transit becomes exponentially expensive so the relationship between employment sites (for cities this usually means city centre) and residential becomes untenable. Then there’s the other infrastructure – schools, fire stations, hospitals and so forth. Below certain housing densities these cease to be economically viable. The green belt, if you like, is a tool to stop your child walking seven miles to school.

Yeah, but there’s a housing crisis

The country is desperately short of housing. This is not the same, although is related to, the house price bubble; we simply don’t have enough places for people to live. Goldacre’s tweets suggests that the solution is to allow building in the countryside (of which he considers us to have plenty). I agree with him, and so would Herbert Morrison and Patrick Abercrombie (who wrote the County of London and Greater London Plans of 1943 and 44). The green belt is designed to prevent the sprawl of a city; but you need to build somewhere, and the tails to the heads of the greenbelt is the new town.

Basildon, Bracknell, Crawley, Harlow, Hemel Hempstead. (Arguably, of course, Milton Keynes is the most famous new town, although that wasn’t designated for another 20 years.) These were outside of the greenbelt, and designed to take the overspill from overcrowded London. This fantastic animation pretty much explains everything I’ve said but in a much more entertaining way:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:New_Town_COI.ogv

So that’s pretty much why we have greenbelts and new towns. Although we’ve not really had any new towns in 45 years.

Of course, it’s all much more complicated than this. So if you want to do further investigations, you may want to look at, and I might try to write about,:

  • New Labour’s ecotowns
  • Regional Spatial Strategies and the politicisation of housing targets
  • New Right planning theories, and letting the market control land
  • New towns as victims of the 1960s Modernist planner backlash

 

Birmingham: the unfinished revolution

Hello both. I’m meant to be writing a project about refitting an office building to the highest standards of sustainable energy excellence. But I’m not. I’m writing instead for your reading pleasure about a city I have a soft spot for, and how it was treated in the first decade of this century.

For three delightful years, I studied Philosophy at Birmingham. I learnt a smattering of Nietzsche, a smattering more of Schopenhauer and had my first, tentative forays into somewhere that was beginning to describe itself as a “gay village”, with that post-QAF new sense of pride – and marketing potential – that was taking root in queer communities in English cities.

Whilst I was there – in 2000 – the Mailbox opened. This behemoth was noted amongst my Brummie friends as something of an ananchronism: it was due to house a Harvey Nicks, amongst other things. Jeez, this wasn’t what Birmingham was known for. Trashy hen weekends, yes; car manufacturing, sure; a strange round 60s tower called the Bull Ring, kind of. But high-end retail? Nah. I mean, that was what Rackham’s was for, right? And only your posh cousin Stanley’s grandma shopped there.

The Mailbox, in typical Birmingham style, was a building that fronted a busy A road and had a canal out the back. The site had previously housed an enormous sorting office (hence the referential name), built in 1970 with mechanised sorting and a tunnel link to the nearby New Street station; it had been the largest building in the city and its core steel structure was re-used in the new building.

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Know thy station; or, the various fates of three north London termini – part 2

Greetings one and both! I hope this finds you well. St Pancras was a Christian zealot, apparently decapitated at the behest of Diocletian in 303AD. He was fourteen years old. There are three¬†fine nineteenth century buildings that, directly or not, memorialise this headstrong lad. The station – of which more later; St Pancras new church (built, anachronistically, in the supposed Greek renaissance style, fashionable in the early 19th Century); and the old church (the fabric of which is mostly newer than the new church. Natch), in the churchyard of which stands Sir John Soane’s memorial to his wife and in which Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin plotted their elopement. And they say romance is dead. Or something.

Pancras means, literally, “the one that holds everything”, and the station that bears this martyr’s name tries to do precisely that. “fine” burgers, “natural” remedies, “authentic” fossil (apparently that’s a distinctive modern vintage global lifestyle company specialising in consumer fashion accessories). You can even go to somewhere that helps you to “transform daily routines into the special rituals they once were”; going to the toilet never sounded so appealing. You can see a giant statue of two people melodramatically kissing, a much smaller statue of that wonderful old curmudgeon Sir John Betjemen, and – presumably for the next year or so – some Olympic-sized rings. If you’re really unlucky you might get to hear someone as arse-crushingly anodyne as Ed Sheeran whipping a crowd of international commuters into a frenzy of bedraggled bemusement as part of the “station sessions” series of unfortunate concerts.

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The Brighton Astoria, or; Art Deco ain’t what it used to be

Hi both. What what, two posts in as many days? Cripes.

Yesterday afternoon, whilst you mere mortals were scrabbling around for an invite to Google+, the decider-actioners of the Brighton & Hove City Council Planning Committee were ringing the death-knell for one of the few remaining grand cinemas of our fair city.

“Eco-offices and jobs replease [sic] empty cinema” went the press release. (Which makes the classic press office mistake of not being able to spell overestimating the numbers – apparently the offices will bring “almost 200 jobs”. No, the actual estimate is 170 jobs. Is 170 almost 200? No. It’s exactly 170. Most of the populous can quite easily grasp the number 170. Perhaps if there were 192 jobs, you might call that almost 200. But 170 is nearer 150 than 200. Oh, OK are we rounding up to the nearest 50 now? So 151 is actually almost 200. *Sigh* I know a four year old that counts like that. Seriously. Grr. Calm down.)

Under different circumstances you might have found me rallying to the defence of a grade II listed building, if all they’re planning to replease replace it with is some rubbish offices. But in this case, the Councillors made exactly the right decision.

Let’s talk about planning policy. No! Sit down, Smithins! If you pay attention at the back you might actually learn something.

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Space Syntax, or; a little semantics goes a long way.

So there’s this slightly shady organisation called “Space Syntax” who’ve been a little bit silly.

I’ve not really talked about the riots on here. Though I’m not devoid of thoughts on the subject, this is mainly because I think that riots are an incredibly complex urban phenomenon and it’s not something that I feel particularly qualified to comment on. During the riots I was merrily commuting between leafy hove and a bit of lovely Frank Bridge at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m not saying that nice, side-parted middle class vicar’s sons can’t ever comment on matters that don’t concern their immediate experience. I’m merely saying that the impetus behind rioting and looting is so foreign to me, and the brew of complex and contradictory motivating factors – coupled with the inherent randomness of big cities – such a vast area to try and comprehend, that this subject seems a little above my proverbial pay grade.

Having put that thrilling caveat in, I do feel entirely qualified (by which I mean brain-between-the-ears qualified) to tear apart the analysis offered by Space Syntax. (Of course, you dear readers both don’t actually need telling any of this. You’ll read their work, scoff, chortle, roll your eyes and reach for the skittles. I do this for my own smug self-satisfaction.)

Space Syntax claim that “the spatial configuration of large post-war housing estates is the key influence” behind the riots. Yup. Uh huh. Why? Well, according to Bill Hillier of Space Syntax, large post-war housing estates are full of “over complex” spaces, where the kids can hang all on their lonesome and come up with nasty plans to steal dvd players from cash converters, unsupervised by adults. The hanging about that is, not the stealing. Moreover, “this pattern of activity … is not found in non-estate street networks.” Huh. So kids never hang around unsupervised on, I don’t know, street corners. Or in car parks. Or playgrounds. Or at school. Or at home, ffs.

Look, I’m not a romantic for “post-war” housing estates (by the way, it’s been 65 years, when do we stop using that term please?). I’ve read my Lynsey Hanley, and I’ve walked around enough housing to know that some housing estates are shit holes, some are poorly designed, some are interesting and stimulating, some are great. And I’m not going to pretend that the design of places doesn’t influence people’s behaviour. Of course it does; I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it didn’t. But this sort of “research”, that tries to hitch its flimsy waggon to the runaway cargo ship of the latest public catastrophe, this futile attempt to posit a singular, subjective, pseudo-quantifiable constant as the catalyst for the most random of urban events, is demeaning to all involved.

Right, well done for getting to the end of that. Have a pretty picture.

 

Wonky policy; or, why you should care about the NPPF

Hi both. Hope you’re exceeding well. Well, isn’t it exciting?! No, not simply to be young on such a night as this. I am, of course, discussing the furore – nay, the incredulity – with which our sainted government’s latest wheeze has been welcomed. You will no doubt have heard of the National Planning Policy Framework, and will eagerly have submitted your responses to the consultation. What do you mean, you’ve been too busy alphabetising your Morrissey back-catalogue?!

Yeah, OK. I know it’s not the most thrilling of subjects. I mean, what fool would actually consider working in planning? I ask you. No really. And I realise that our beatific overlords are responsible for some other – how to put this politely? – execrably malodourous behaviour, but if you have a passing care for our environment (natural, built, or otherwise) then I would suggest that this NPPF is something that ought to concern you.

The background. Currently, the country has a lot of planning policy. A lot less than it used to, but quite a lot none the less. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (though my views on this aren’t the same as a lot of planners’); our government, however, believe that it is, and have basically replaced a whole load of respected planning policy with 60-odd pages of astonishingly light-touch regulation. Which worked well for the banking industry, I think we can all agree.

Planning, it is deemed, is now basically in existence to encourage growth. No longer is it a tool to, er, plan. It is there so that we get growth. What is growth? Development. Apparently. “Development means growth“. Wha?!?! Is it growth when you knock down a school to build houses? Is it growth when you build an Asda on previously agricultural land? Is it growth when you, I don’t know, stick in double glazing? Planners, if the NPPF becomes policy, will be people you have to ask nicely to say yes to you. They won’t be able to say no, except in the most unusual circumstances. (By the way, planners say yes to about 85% of all applications at the moment. So we’re not talking about planners needing their wings clipped, we’re talking about removing their ability to say no to the 15% of rubbish that comes in.)

The National Trust and the Telegraph have both dug in their heels, mainly concerned about the threat to the countryside – and they’re not wrong. However, being an urbanite I’m particularly concerned with the diminishing of the reasons planners will be able to reject development on design grounds – only “obviously poor design” can be refused. Whilst I don’t claim that the last fifteen years have been salad days for architecture, at least planners were able to say no to the mediocre and unsuitable, the crass and the jarring; no longer will we strive for good design. If the NPPF goes through, we will see a decade of cheap, tacky, boorish buildings in nasty spaces. That’s a promise.

Sinister Saltdean

So I took a stroll today*, it being a nice day and everything, from where I live in nice, normal, safe Kemptown. I went East. I tell you, it’s strange out East. West is usually fine. Go West, in the high manner of the Pet Shop Boys, and you will inevitably hit Brighton – a perfectly proper seaside resort with wholesome entertainments and fine, upstanding citizens. But no; I went East.

Until I came to Saltdean. You’ll know Saltdean for two things. Bungalows and the Lido. And you’re not wrong:

There they are. The bungalows, and the Lido. One of them (I’m not telling which) has the words “Saltdean Lido” on it in big letters, so that you know that that’s definitely one of those two things. (Oh, alright, it’s this one:)

You say Lido and I say Lido… But hang on, what’s that totalitarian monstrosity – as The Automatic profoundly enquire – coming over the hill? And well may you ask. More of that to come.

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