Split Pediment

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

Category: Politics

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.

 

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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.

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 »

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.

Politics

You know me. You really do. I’m a Liberal. I’m also, with the usual Churchillian caveat, a Democrat and (with any luck this won’t confuse our American friends) a Republican. Not for me the bloody revolution, the quiet assassination, the miracle coup, the death-knell inheritance or the smoke signals. I believe in the rights of the individual and I believe in the social contract.

We’ve seen an astonishing election and an even more astonishing post-election period. I’ve never lived through the formation of a coalition government. It’s been really exciting. I really don’t give a hoot that these negotiations have been held privately; the votes came back with a hung parliament – what could the public then expect? It’s the job of our politicians to negotiate. If they can’t do that then they’re clearly rubbish.

And yes – I’m not a Tory. I’m very far from being a Tory. I don’t believe in the power of the free market, I don’t believe that government usually gets in the way, I don’t believe that the wealth of the country is best-served by increasing the wealth of the few.

But what we have seen come about, the coalition of the Liberal Democrats with the Conservatives, is something that I tentatively support. For Labour to continue, given the electoral outcome, would simply have not been feasible. Yes, yes – they probably could have done it on the numbers. It would have been a thrill ride of a Parliament, every vote a nail-biter, the Conservatives feasting on every compromise and minor disagreement, braying for the sunken-eyed carcass of Gordon Brown, or his replacement, at every turn. And of course you can never underestimate the power of Power. But Labour have had power for too long to have any clue as to how to share it. And they have taken such strides of illiberality that the Lib Dems would have been sullied by association.

I would love the Liberal Democrats to rule forever. But I must accept – here’s the Democrat part – that a fair chunk of my electoral peers disagree. The days are very, very early. But it seems to me that what we may have seen is the Tories significantly compromising on some of their policies. As have, by necessity, the Liberal Democrats. We will, if the reasonable words of Mr Cameron are anything to go by, see something like a Liberal Conservative government. And I believe that that corresponds with the strongest, most plausible reading of the electoral outcome.

Further, what we have seen has been, to my mind, the finest advertisement for something like proportional representation. Compromise in politics has been really rather pretty. It’s not something we British are used to. Normally it’s a cycle of proposal and rebuttal, success or humiliation, arm-twisting or climb-down. Maybe, though, we’ll start to get used to a more mature form of politics; disagreement leading to carefulness. And maybe the electorate will see that a more proportional system could work. Of course, it’s not going to happen – we’ll get AV at best, which is barely more proportional than what we have. But, you know – it’s nice to dream.

One last thought – my suspicion is that the person most pleased with this outcome is a certain David Cameron. Not for the obvious reason that he’s now PM, though I suspect that that gives him a little jolt of joy (“whoopee!” Codes for the nukes!”) but because he’ll now be able to be a fully-fledged compassionate Conservative (for want of a better term) – and blame the compassion on Nick Clegg. He ought to be able to keep even the fractious Conservative party together for the three or four years of this government – they are in charge now, after all. Ah. Actually, I suddenly feel a little unwell…

Coming to you LIVE AND HOT from the East Vill

Hello fair readers both! And mainly, you’ll be thrilled to hear, I’m sunning it up in NYC – East Sixth, to be fairly precise. What a treat! Sorry about the lack of a teaser but I didn’t want to give any game away to my fair Aunt, who has just celebrated a certain milestone of agedness and whom I was surprising with my visit. Anyway, it’s lovely here, as always, and I’ve enjoyed such architectural delights as the (nearly finished) new Cooper Union building and the demi-centurian Guggenheim. Pictures will be forthcoming just as soon as I can get the camera to plug into the computer and do the transferral and such.

In the meantime, I would very much like to talk about the PM. Oh cripes, he’s dreadful. Can’t string a sentence together, can’t even think properly. No ideas that man. Heartless, uncompassionate, unfunny. He’s a walking disaster.  Clarkson has it spot on. We might as well have elected (or rather not elected) a walrus with tusk-ache. Etc. Oh, hang on…

So OK. I don’t agree with everything he says (I’m not so much a passionate advocate for global organisations) but this video goes to show that there’s more to GB than we’re getting. I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter, but I suspect that there’s a fascinating essay to be written on how this Premier came to be seen as such a rotten failure. Here we have a decent speaker, with interesting, well-presented ideas; yet what we get on our screens is a useless dullard. Where did this come from? Whilst GB can’t escape responsibility, surely we must look to the peculiarities of our media and the wider political landscape for a full explanation. But I think we also must try to understand how we’ve come to a point in our national politics where listening to this sort of speech from (arguably) the most powerful man in the land becomes far, far less important than arguing over the ex-Home Secretary’s plugs and porn movies.

Anyway, that’s today’s ranting lament over. Now I’m going to listen to Seth MacFarlane at the Proms. I could literally not have any more of my boxes ticked right now.

Much love,

RTC

Commander in Teeth?

So y’all know that I’m like a SUPER BIG fan of the American election and the hours of joy it has given me are endless. And the latest twist and turn is the surprise entrance of a certain former beauty queen and gun-toting mooseburger-eating capital-punishment-endorsing hockey mom with amazing teeth.

None of the pundits really thought it would happen; they thought it would be Mitt or, in their wildest dreams, Lieberman. So now, naturally, they’re all saying with one voice that This Was The Biggest Veep-pick Cock-up EVER.

So, okay, let’s be mildly serious for a moment and take a moment to recognise the minor breakthrough that is (a) the second ever woman on a ticket for one of the two major US political parties; (b) the first one for the GOP and (c) … sorry, can’t remember c – too distracted by those teeth.

Some mileage in the past has been made of the Obama/McCain contest bearing some vague resemblance to that depicted in series 7 of the West Wing. I’d like to posit a similar similarity – between Mrs Palin and a certain, fictional, Mackenzie Allen.

Back in 2005 when a female President seemed like a reasonable possibility, some bright spark in tellyland decided to out-West Wing the West Wing and make a drama about the first female VP who ascends to the throne after the death of the incumbent (old, populist, party grandee) president following a stroke. President Allen is played in all her cardboard finery by a certain Geena Davis. You remember – she was in Thelma & Louise. No? Alright then, she was in the Stuart Little films with that mouse that just keeps on not dying. Yes, all three of them. Here she is, on the left:

Anyway, so I hate it when this happens, but in “researching” this post i discovered my point has been beaten to. So hats off to the good folk at the Miami Herald. The gits.

Let’s take a minor side-step here then and pretend that I haven’t in any way lost my train of thought. Our stunned pundits are all very concerned that Mrs Palin has hardly a jot of foreign policy exerience and that she could actually become president if John “two consecutive Cs in my surname” McCain (a) gets elected and (b) dies before 2013. What are the chances? Well, (a) about 42% (possibly) and (b) I’d say about 21%.

You see, nine US Presidents have been Veeps who’ve taken over following the death or resignation of the incumbent. (Four of those incumbents were assassinated (a twix to the first person who tells me the full names of the other two, i.e. not Abe or JFK); four died of more natural causes and Tricky Dicky resigned.) So nine as a percentage of 43 is about 21%. There is, in other words, half as much chance of Palin becoming President as there is of McCain doing so.

Actually, that’s not true because the latter relies on the former. So there’s about 9% chance of her doing so. Damn, that doesn’t sound as good. Hang on, there’s one thing I’m forgetting that may just tip the balance…

On the separation of state and subject

So according to the Graun, those venerable leaders of ours have decided that we’ll like them again just as soon as they start penalising us for not deciding precisely which one of them we likes bestest of all. And then when we do decide that we really really like one candidate, we then have to decide which other candidate we also kind of like but not enough to actually say we like them better than the rest.

Read the rest of this entry »