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June 13 2012

London 2012 legacy: the battle begins on a Newham estate

For some, the aftermath of the Olympic Games could bring eviction and disruption, for others, it is a chance to transform their lives and businesses

Competing views about East End life after London 2012 are sharply crystalised amid the public housing architecture of the Carpenters estate in Stratford, which stands on the fringe of the Olympic Park, overlooked by the red spirals of the Orbit tower.

The vision of the planners, led by Newham council's ebullient Labour executive mayor, Sir Robin Wales, is for the Carpenters to make way for a new campus for University College London (UCL), enhancing the life prospects of the neighbourhood and enriching hard-up Newham as a whole.

An estate resident, Mary Finch, takes a bleaker line: "I think that the Olympics has lost me my home." She has lived on the Carpenters for 40 years and is disinclined to depart quietly. "I think they're gonna have to come in here and drag me out. Why should somebody be able to force you out of your home? A home that's got nothing wrong with it, that's standing solid? I do not want to go."

Slow dispersal of the estate's residents, mostly to alternative dwellings nearby, has been in progress for some time. This has been justified for Wales by the need to embrace a host of development opportunities created not only by the draw of the Games and the park but also, just as importantly, by the economic arteries formed by the improved transport hub at Stratford station. Already, the giant Westfield Stratford City shopping centre has been a hit."It's always a balance if you want to do something for an area," Wales says. "What is the wider community getting at the expense of the inconvenience caused to local residents? People in Carpenters are concerned. I would be too. I completely understand that. But with UCL we would get an amazing, top university coming to the area. Our vision is for science and hi-tech providing jobs and skills. It would be such a good offer from the point of view of our kids."

Finch is not alone in being unenthusiastic. Two younger residents, Joe Alexander and Osita Madu, are driving forces in the campaign group Carp – Carpenters Against Regeneration Plan – which has been quarrelling with Wales's pledges to treat residents properly, bombarding him with questions at public meetings. They reason that the Carpenters works well as a community, so why dismantle it? "We're not some kind of social ill or blight on the landscape that needs help," says Maduu. "Somehow Newham council thinks we're a social problem that needs to be addressed."

"We voted for a mayor and got a dictator," adds Alexander.

It is, in many ways, an archetypal urban regeneration conflict between local authorities on a mission to improve, and those on their patch who fear they only stand to lose. Strife also marked the clearance of the Olympic Park site, when a twilit labyrinth of small industrial concerns was removed from the land on which the array of sports venues now awaits the world's athletic elite.

Among them was H Forman and Son, a family salmon-smoking business founded in east London by a Jewish migrant from Odessa in 1905. The proprietor, Harry Forman's great-grandson Lance, had his premises where the Olympic stadium now is. He fought a long compensation battle and celebrated victory with an email to the Games organiser Lord Coe, a former Olympic champion whom he'd been due to cross-examine at a public inquiry. The email said: "You can run, but you can't hide."

The upshot is a handsome, salmon-pink building on a bank of the river Lea, containing not only a smokery, but also a restaurant and an art gallery in a location long called, with glorious suitability, Fish Island. Olympic dignitaries and others now congregate there. The stadium looms across the water. Forman will soon erect a pop-up corporate hospitality venue on a piece of adjoining land he owns, complete with recreational beach volleyball court. Speedo was the first big name to take space in this Fish Island Riviera, and Forman is finalising discussions with others.

"We're going to have some luxury yachts along the riverfront," he enthuses. "Sixty palm trees are being shipped in. We're going to have this beach club that turns into a nightclub."

Forman hopes to emerge a winner from the Games, but says business is still recovering from the disruption caused by compulsory purchase. He hopes to be part of long-term rejuvenation by developing the land his Riviera will briefly occupy, perhaps with a mixture of homes and boutiques, and facilities for the arts community that has flourished in recent years in former warehouses along the towpath in Hackney Wick. Forging links, he invited a graffiti artist to enhance his restaurant's toilets. In the gents, fine silver fish leap skywards above the urinals.

"I think the area was regenerating anyway," Forman says, looking across at the stadium. "But the existence of the park ought to help. I think when people come here they're amazed at how impressive it already is and how easy to get to."

London's outgoing Olympic legacy chief, Margaret Ford, also gives an upbeat assessment of the post-Games future of the 200-hectare park and its immediate surroundings, although she warns that expecting it to be "the catalyst for the regeneration of the whole of east London", has "never been entirely realistic". Citing prior experience with renewing England's coalfield communities, she stressed the need for "continued investment and belief over a long period".

Ford steps down as chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) this month, having led it and its predecessor, the Olympic Park Legacy Company, since May 2009. She says the park should be an example of how you "change the psychology" about an area. "You're hoping that the whole view of investing in east London changes by persuading people that it is a fabulous place to come to and do business and invest."

She accepts that a great fear with large regeneration projects is that the wealth they attract fails to benefit existing residents, many of whom are in pressing need. Canary Wharf, whose glass towers pierce the skyline a short distance away, is often condemned as the ultimate example. "The concern is that the park will become a sort of golden city on a hill surrounded by a sea of poverty," says John Biggs, a former City analyst and senior Labour member of the London Assembly, who represents three of the six Olympic boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking and Dagenham.

Ford, a Labour peer held in high regard across the political spectrum, says she and her board have been "utterly preoccupied from day one" with ensuring that local people derive the maximum value from the post-Games plans, and with facilitating the Olympic boroughs' goal of economic convergence with the richer west and centre of London. She is proud of creating training and schemes and close links with local schools. "The big game-changers will be jobs and changes in educational attainment and aspiration for a lot of families in east London," she says.

Ford will depart with most of the arrangements made for putting the permanent sporting venues and other attractions to post-Games community use, and with decisions in the pipeline for the three big jigsaw pieces not yet in place:

• The commercial occupants, either a fashion hub or digital "innovation city", for the two buildings the media will use during the Games.

• The long-running search for tenants for the main stadium, very likely to include a football club.

• The determination of planning applications for the future development of the park as a residential area and visitor destination.

Five neighbourhoods will form within the boundaries of the park over the next 20 years, with the first, Chobham Manor, due to be completed at the end of 2014. Ford emphasised the importance of including sufficient genuinely affordable housing. "I think we need to remember there was quite a big promise made to the communities in east London about the houses being affordable – either affordable to rent or affordable to buy. I think it's one they are not going to forget."

While pointing out that the LLDC remains committed to 35% of the up to 8,000 homes it plans to see built on the park being affordable – in addition to 3,000 that the Athletes' Village will be converted into – she felt it was a matter for regret for London as a whole that the government's new funding approach means "affordable" rent can now be up to 80% of local market rates, which even in poorer parts of London are high compared with the rest of the country.

"I think Londoners are desperately short of affordable housing. It's definitely short of good-quality social housing [which has far lower rents]. If we mean what we say about needing to house all of our key workers, we need to house lots of people in lower-paid jobs who make this city work then, yes, I would say moving to 80% of market rents will cause some of those people not to be able to afford properties."

Another Olympic borough mayor, Tower Hamlets' independent Lutfur Rahman, who, like Wales, is a member of the LLDC board, has called for more homes for social rent among the 800 housing units proposed for the Olympic Park neighbourhood to be called Sweetwater, which will fall within his boundaries.

Ford, who has 33 years' experience of delivering regeneration programmes under both Labour and Conservative governments, is to be replaced by the Conservative politician Daniel Moylan, the appointee of London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to whom the LLDC is accountable. The selection of Moylan, an experienced councillor in Royal Kensington and Chelsea whom Johnson made his deputy as chair of Transport for London two years ago, has caused some disquiet among political opponents.

Biggs says that although he likes the urbane Moylan – "he's fun to talk to" – he worries that he is not equipped to follow someone with Ford's track record. "The truth is, he doesn't know anything about regeneration." There's an ideological issue too. "The point of bodies like the development corporation is to do the things the market can't or won't, and Daniel is the sort of politician who thinks red-in-tooth-and-claw market forces will take care of everything."

Ford, though, says she's confident Johnson has made a good choice and praises him for allowing her and her chief executive, Andrew Altman, to produce a new masterplan for the park. The one she'd inherited, she says, "pretty much had the place populated by high rise buildings. Why would you stuff it full of flats when it's an obvious family housing neighbourhood, given the green space and the venues? We didn't want to create some pastiche of the Old Curiosity Shop, but a place that had squares and crescents and little pocket parks – the kinds of things that make London quite higgledy piggledy but recognisably London. Boris was hugely encouraging."

She gathered intelligence for the masterplan on "mystery shopping" excursions – chatting to people in cafes and the old Stratford shopping centre. "They wanted front gardens, back gardens for their kids to play in, really good lighting, lots of storage space, nice green spaces, somewhere they can afford and a decent school – it's not bloody rocket science."

When the park begins to reopen for the public next July, its name will change to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Ford believes the royal touch will enhance local attachment: "It's about creating a different feel about the place. It's about people having a pride in it."

Even so, while Olympic borough schools gear up for the excitement of the summer, renaming their classes Helsinki, Tokyo and Beijing, parents express a mix of views about the value of the changes underway. Martin Sadler, a resident of Hackney who works in education and lives with his wife and two daughters not far from the park, foresees a good and a bad side.

"I think this part of Hackney will start feeling a bit more like central London and less like east London," he says. "I've lived here for over 20 years, and it's always been a traditional East End sort of place – a real mixture of people, plenty of cheap accommodation. It's already becoming more affluent, partly because the schools have improved. That brings good things with it, but there are worries too. I think London could be getting more like Paris – that doughnut effect, with the poorer people having to move out of the centre."

That is not the outcome legacy idealists say they have in mind. Time will tell if they manage to avoid it.


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August 12 2011

London riots: lessons for urban policy

At architecture journal bdonline, Wouter Vanstiphout's piece about the planning and related political implications of the riots begins in urban France:

In November 2005 French President Jacques Chirac welcomed back normality, after weeks of riots in the French banlieues. Instead of 1,000 to 1,500 vehicles being burnt every night, it went back to 163, and then kept to the normal 50 to 150. Every night of the year dozens of cars are being set on fire in the French banlieues and this had been going on for years on end.

What is normality to a French banlieue? It can mean that in the morning the elderly, women and children – and sometimes architects and historians looking for modernist housing projects from the sixties – can freely roam between the slabs and blocks, shop, play and look around.

After that the unemployed young men appear from their bedrooms and take up their positions near the entrances of the apartment blocks and on street corners. The elderly, women and children scuttle back home and the tourists leave altogether. The young men whistle and sign to each other, taunt and threaten the belated visitors and the semi-militarised police that buzz by in vans.

In many French banlieues, day turns into night around noon. Once, in one of these places, we approached a group of heavily armed policemen to ask for directions on the central square of a French housing estate.

They looked around nervously and said we shouldn't stand still for too long, because one of the gangs could start throwing rocks. They then said that we should really really be back in the historic city centre within the hour; it was 3pm. They themselves would be out of there at dusk, at the latest. This was between riots, this was normality.

I know of nowhere in London that matches that description, but can we rule such scenarios out of the capital's future? The comparison is inexact: "banlieue" means the urban outskirts, not the inner city areas where our riots began and mostly occurred. However, some fear that the effect of the government's housing and other benefit reforms will be to foster banlieue-type concentrations of social marginalisation in London's poorer suburbs, making the capital's current situation even worse.

Vanstiphout continues:

In many ways, the [French] riots were "just" spectacular worsenings of a chronic condition, extrapolations on a permanent crisis lived by millions, but neglected by tens of millions. Something became visible for a moment, and then disappeared again, as a bad dream. Behind the scenes however a mechanism is in place that contains the badness, that keeps it from spilling over again, while making it inevitable that it will...the banlieues and their inhabitants have been effectively abandoned...

One person did well out of it, though: Nicolas Sarkozy, who as a minister of the interior fanned the flames by going on television, standing shoulder to shoulder with the riot police and calling the rioters scum (racaille) who would be wiped away; then rode the wave of popular fear all the way to the presidency, from where he invited a battalion of international architects to give back France its glory, by designing futures of the French capital, "Le Grand Paris"....

Right now it has become very difficult to think of an urban politics, let alone an urban planning or design approach that would be able to take on the underlying problems of riots like the ones in the UK in a serious way.

I do not think that the reason is that politics and planning have realised their limitations to shape society. I think that the reason is that urban politics and hence planning and urban design are too often treating the city with ulterior motives, instead of actually working for the city itself. The city has become a tool to achieve goals, political, cultural, economic or even environmental [my emphasis].

Treating the city in this way means that we are constantly passing judgment on what the city should be, and who should be there, and what they should be doing, instead of trying to understand what the city actually is, who really lives there and what they are doing. This produces a dangerous process of idealisation, denying whole areas, whole groups, their place in the urban community, because they do not fit the picture.

Something there for politicians of all persuasions to reflect on. And there's more:

It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities.

The first would be to work against the ever sharpening inequality of London, making it one of the unfairest cities in Europe, in poverty levels, education, crime and other indicators.

But then the reality of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and citizens looking away even further.

After a riot, your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. Back to normal.

A "normal" that is unacceptable.

Wouter Vanstiphout is a partner at Crimson Architectural Historians in Rotterdam and professor of Design & Politics at the Technical University Delft. He is currently researching the relationship between urban riots and urban planning. I'm very grateful to @amarkodio for bringing Vanstiphout's article to my attention.


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July 26 2011

London 2012: Olympic flame will be lit in one year's time, but still much to do

IOC hail progress as Tom Daley dives into Aquatics Centre pool, completed on time and budget

With 366 days to go, 2012 being a leap year, until the Olympic flame is lit in east London, organisers, the government and the International Olympic Committee are queuing up to hail progress to date.

Wednesday's events to mark the milestone, which will see the £269m Zaha Hadid designed Aquatics Centre formally handed over to organisers by the Olympic Delivery Authority and Tom Daley diving into the pool, will have an air of celebration.

"Marking one year to go, by diving in the Aquatics Centre is an incredible honour. Only a few years ago, this was a distant dream," said Daley, who finished fifth at the world championships in Shanghai on Sunday. "I can't wait for next year and the honour of representing Team GB." But although world class athletes are beginning to test the venues, there remains much to do.

Venues

The Aquatics Centre is the sixth and final permanent venue to be handed over to organisers by the ODA, which has spent £7.25bn of public money building them. Chairman John Armitt said the successful completion of the venues had helped boost the image of British contractors around the world.

"It's very satisfying to be handing it over on time and keeping within the budget. It's a great tribute to everybody that has played a part in this," he told the Guardian. "It is something that as a country and an industry we should be proud of and we should try to maximise opportunities in other parts of the world while memories are still fresh about what the industry can do."

Some venues, especially the velodrome that has already been nominated for the Stirling Prize, have garnered more plaudits than others. The clean lines and simplicity of the stadium have also been praised but there has been criticism of the ugly temporary "water wings" that have been attached to the aquatics centre to boost the capacity to 17,500 for the Games. When it was designed, the high cost was justified by the signature design, which will be obscured by the temporary stands. "When you're inside it, it's fabulous," says Armitt, diplomatically.

Despite outward appearances, the London organising committee still has a huge task. Each venue must be "fitted out", a task that includes the laying of the track in the main stadium, and several major temporary venues must be built from scratch. They include a 15,000 capacity hockey stadium, a 23,000 capacity arena for the equestrian events at Greenwich Park and a 15,000 seat bowl on Horseguard's Parade for the beach volleyball.

Tickets

London organising committee chief executive Paul Deighton has confirmed the last batch of 1.2m tickets that will go on sale from December will first be made available exclusively to those who took part in the initial ballot in April and have yet to get a ticket. Around 6m tickets have already been sold, considered unprecedented with a year to go, with only around 1.5m for football matches around the country and those final 1.2m across all sports – to be made available when the final seating configurations are decided – remaining. Next year, Locog also plans to sell "non-event tickets" which will allow entry to the park but not the venues.

Later this year, millions of free tickets for the live sites, with big screens and concerts in Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Potter's Fields will also be made available on a first come, first served basis. The mantra from Locog chairman Lord Coe and other organisers has been that while they understand the "disappointment" created by the huge demand, which saw 22m applications in the initial rush for tickets, they stand by the controversial process.

Transport

Ever since London was awarded the Games in 2005, transport has been considered a potential achilles heel. The ODA passed responsibility for operational matters to Transport for London last year, but retains an overall co-ordination role. The first stirrings of a backlash have already been felt about the so-called "Olympic lanes" that will whisk 18,000 athletes and officials around the capital during the Games.

They make up roughly a third of the 109-mile Olympic Route Network and have already sparked loud protests from London's black cab drivers. Meanwhile, much will rest on the ability of organisers to persuade businesses and individuals to modify their behaviour during the Games.

"The message must be business as unusual," said Armitt. They take some comfort from the variety of routes into Stratford, including the Jubilee Line and the new Javelin train from St Pancras, but will be desperate to avoid a millennium eve style meltdown.

On the nine busiest days of the Games there will be more than 1m Olympics-related journeys, with a report earlier this year warning of "extreme" conditions on a system already "creaking at the seams".

Security

Olympics minister Hugh Robertson said that security plans needed rethinking when the coalition came to power. Before she quit, Lady Neville-Jones led a government review that resulted in the government predicting security at Games time could be delivered for £475m, though the overall £600m envelope will be retained.

Ministers and organisers have sought to play down the significance of the resignation of Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, but he said in his own statement that a key reason for it was to allow time to get someone new in place for the Olympics. Locog will spend £282m on security within the venues, chiefly through contractor G4S, but there will also need to call on several thousand non-uniformed military personnel.

'Look and feel'

For all the operational challenges Coe's organising committee will face, in many ways the bigger challenge is building public enthusiasm for the Games to reach a crescendo around 27 July next year when the flame is lit. Coe has talked of Britain being a "slow burn" nation. He hopes the torch relay, which will begin at Land's End on 19 May and visit 74 locations in 70 days via 8,000 runners, will be the point at which cynicism is cast aside and enthusiasm ignites.

Part of the task will be to keep those without tickets engaged, through the big screens planned for cities throughout the country and cultural events that will culminate in Festival 2012. London mayor Boris Johnson has a budget to "dress" key areas of the city, including placing Olympic rings on the capital's landmarks. The BBC, which has promised to broadcast every event from every venue live, will also have a big role to play.

Legacy

Given the relatively smooth progress of organisers to date, much of the controversy has centred on the legacy claims that helped secure the Games in the first place. The Olympic Park Legacy Company has taken on responsibility for the park after the Games and must prove it can make a commercial success of it while meeting the needs of local residents.

The fate of the stadium, the object of a furious row between Spurs and West Ham, is mired in high court litigation and it will face searching scrutiny over the affordability of thousands of homes that will be left behind, partly the athletes village.

One of the biggest challenges for the OPLC will be finding a tenant for the cavernous media centre, although there are renewed hopes that a major broadcaster may take an interest.

But even more of a challenge is the "soft legacy", with figures showing that the number of people playing sport is resolutely refusing to budge and ongoing debate about whether the predicted opportunity to get more young people engaged in sport, build links between clubs and schools and raise the profile and quality of coaching, is really being seized. They were famously planting the trees in Athens the day before the opening ceremony, but the landscaping on the Olympic Park is starting to take shape.

More than 4,000 new trees are planned, with 1,500 already planted. Over 300,000 wetland plants have been planted and there are bold claims for the Park that will be left behind. Eventually, there will be up to 11,000 new homes on the site, in the heart of an area that the Olympic Park Legacy Company hopes will be resurgent. Westfield, the giant shopping mall at the entrance to the Park and on which politicians are relying for many of their legacy claims about jobs and regeneration, opens for business in September.


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July 27 2010

How Boris let Barclays brand London

The mayor's deal has smothered London's public spaces with what may be the largest piece of corporate branding in existence

London's long-awaited cycle-hire scheme is launched this week. While there's no doubt it's a valuable addition to the capital's public transport options, it strikes yet another blow to the idea of London as a dignified city. First of all, there's the name. Paris has the Velib, Montreal has the Bixi; what does London get? Barclays Cycle Hire. Clearly the good people at Barclays marketing thought long and hard about that one.

Maybe it's not worth getting too wound up about the name – selling the rights to popular institutions is unlikely to make anyone who watches, say, the Barclays Premier League or the Npower Championship even blink. What is new, however, is the prospect of more than a hundred kilometres of the capital's road surface being branded with corporate livery. The city's new dedicated cycle lanes – two of which recently opened, with another ten to come before the Olympics – are called "Barclays Cycle Superhighways" and painted Barclays blue.

London can now claim the dubious honour of hosting what is surely the largest piece of corporate branding in existence. It's not just the scale, the mind-blowing square footage, that is shocking about this – it's the principle. We're not talking about some supersized billboard here: we're talking about the mayor selling off the very road beneath our wheels – one of the few parts of a city that counts indisputably as public space. Whether they realise it or not, whether or not they even care, from now on thousands of cyclists are doomed to commute on a giant Barclays ad.

The sponsorship deal, worth £25m, has been presented as a coup for Boris Johnson. It has enabled him to recover some of the £140m Transport for London spent on the cycle-hire scheme and has even been presented as "payback" for the mayor's support of the banks during the credit crunch. Surely, however, £25m is a small price to pay for such an invasive piece of branding? If a city of the global stature of London can't afford to provide rental bikes without turning its urban fabric into a massive endorsement, we're in trouble.

There is something, too, in the gibes suggesting this is not just Barclays blue but Tory blue. Neither New Labour nor former mayor Ken Livingstone did anything to prevent the growing privatisation of the city, but it is hard to imagine Livingstone selling off a chunk of the public realm in such brazen fashion. Johnson seemingly lacks any sensitivity to the ethical or aesthetic side-effects of his deal-making – this is, after all, the man who condemned the Stratford Olympics site to a hideous 115m-high sculpture – precisely the kind of vainglorious ego trip the Olympics can do without – based on a 45-second chat with Britain's richest man in the cloakroom at Davos. We must be careful not to assume a loss of innocence; private ownership and interests have held sway in this city for centuries, and often cooperation between private and public bodies is the best way to meet the city's needs. However, the public realm that the Victorians handed over to municipal authorities to manage in the public good – including streets and pavements, squares, and infrastructure such as transport and sewage networks – has been under steady assault since the privatisation of the Thatcher years.

A decade ago, Naomi Klein argued in her book No Logo that we had reached a point where it seemed nothing could happen anymore without a corporate sponsor. The inevitable upshot of their growing social power was that brands wanted an expanded visual presence. T-shirt logos and media advertisements were no longer enough: branding had to be a fully immersive experience. As the superhighways prove, there is no amount of space a brand will not happily fill, with public bodies all too willing to hand it over. TfL is becoming ever more imaginative about the bits of Tube stations it will sell off to advertisers – including, now, the space between escalators and the gates of the exit barriers. Every year the Regent Street Christmas lights, once a public gesture organised by the Regent Street Association, turn a major thoroughfare into a 3D advert for some fashion label or blockbuster movie.

Increasingly entire pieces of London have become brands in their own right, a process that began in the 1980s with the privately owned Canary Wharf development. Since then, so-called "business improvement districts" have been popping up all over the capital under the banner of regeneration: Broadgate in the City, Paddington Basin, Kings Cross Central, the new Spitalfields Market, the More London development near Tower Bridge. It's a national phenomenon, too, exemplified by "malls without walls" such as Liverpool ONE or Brindleyplace in Birmingham. They might look like other parts of the city, but they are very different. Stroll through Broadgate and you'll notice the logo of developer British Land studding the pavements. These are privately owned developments, policed by private security guards who can throw you out for the slightest misdemeanour or – if you happen to be sleeping rough, say – simply for disrupting the projection of affluence. In the case of More London – a series of sterile glass blocks set amid some rather uptight landscaping on the South Bank – the very name is a deliberate deception. The developers are trying to claim this is just an ordinary piece of the city. Don't believe it.

Anyone who wants to find out more about the insidious privatisation of British cities should read Anna Minton's latest book, Ground Control. The point is that we are in danger or running out of unbranded space. Though it may seem innocuous, the branding of cycle lanes sets an all-too-exploitable precedent. As citizens we have a communal birthright, which includes the public realm. Our representatives are supposed to protect that – not sell it off to corporations who are neither responsible nor accountable for the spaces of which they claim symbolic ownership. Politicians seem only too ready to turn our cities into horizontal billboards. If we're not vigilant, the urban landscape is going to become a brandscape.


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May 05 2010

Barking and Dagenham: signs of hope

Reports from the borough and its two seats are variously nervy and tentatively optimistic. Jon Cruddas, fighting both a Tory and a BNP challenge in the marginal Dagenham and Rainham, told me a few days back that the situation there is "very tight." On yesterday's Today programme Andrew Hoskens reported that in Barking constituency the BNP is being rivalled by the Lib Dems as a repository for protest votes.

A split in anti-Labour sentiment should increase Margaret Hodge's lead over Weird Nick. Please listen again to hear Richard Barnbrook self-importantly refuse the BBC access to The Great Leader. "I'm in charge," he announces, bumptiously. Bliss. As watchers of the London Mayor's question time sessions known, Mr Brownsuit is barely in charge of himself.

As for the borough, Prospect brings some encouraging news:

Searchlight, the anti-fascist organisation, has relocated to the borough for the election, and is working with church and community groups to combat the BNP in the Hope not Hate coalition. They draw attention to the BNP's many failing - many BNP councillors are both lazy and greedy, drawing full allowances for attending just a few meetings, and a number of senior members also have serious convictions related to race hatred. And they praise what's good about the area and about diversity generally, as they work the phones, employing Obama Big Schlep tactics to get out the vote and leaflet in a desperate attempt to keep the BNP from winning the council. The word is that canvass returns are looking much more positive for Labour, both in the two parliamentary seats and in the council.

Read the whole piece and also Cruddas appeal to angry Labour deserters in today's Mirror:

Labour's made mistakes, and we need to make amends. But let's not let our anger leave Griffin smiling.

Can't improve on that.


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December 03 2009

Boris Johnson held back information over Veronica Wadley appointment

Leaked emails challenge mayor of London's insistence that he had delivered 'very full disclosure' in Arts Council row

Boris Johnson held back information that showed his staff discussed a strategy to put the culture secretary "under more pressure to let our appointment stand" after the mayor of London recommended Veronica Wadley for a top London arts job.

Emails have emerged that challenge the mayor's insistence earlier this week that he had delivered "very full disclosure" of correspondence relating to the appointment of the chair of the London Arts Council to give "as full a picture as possible" of events.

Correspondence sent in September between Johnson's private secretary, Roisha Hughes, his cultural adviser, Munira Mirza, and Tom Middleton, a City Hall officer, show a flurry of exchanges while the mayor was waiting to hear whether Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, would back his recommendation to appoint Veronica Wadley, the former editor of the London Evening Standard, to the job.

Johnson rejected the view of the chair of the Arts Council for England, Liz Forgan, and an independent member of the panel that held the first round of interviews, who claimed Wadley lacked arts credibility – and recommended Wadley for the post at the end of July – just after the parliamentary recess had begun.

In September, Mirza, who is also a member of the board of the London Arts Council, wrote to discuss interim arrangements because the incumbent chair, Lady Hollick, was about to step down from the post after completing two terms and Bradshaw had still not given a verdict on Johnson's recommendation.

In comments that suggest Johnson's team was braced for a veto – which was confirmed in early October – Hughes wrote back to say: "Is it imperative there is a chair in place? We may prefer to keep the pressure up by keeping the position empty."

Mirza replied: "Fair point. Let's see what happens." A further contribution was made by Middleton: "I agree with Roisha that not having a chair in place will put the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] under more pressure to let our appointment stand."

The next month, Bradshaw wrote to Johnson to say he had rejected the recommendations on the grounds that the selection process was believed to have breached two of the Nolan principles which protect public appointments from political interference – prompting charges of cronyism against Johnson.

The leaked emails sent by Johnson's staff were not included in either bundles of documentation published at two intervals by the mayor following a request from Len Duvall, the Labour group leader on the London assembly, for "all GLA correspondence (written and digital) relating to the appointment of chair of the arts council in London", on 9 October.

Johnson told Duvall on 30 October that his request was being treated as a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Hundreds of pages were released under the FoI at the end of last week. Duvall then asked the mayor to clarify what information had been excluded. He also requested "as an assembly member ... information I am entitled to in order to carry out my [scrutiny] function as an elected member of the assembly".

The mayor replied, saying that "in due course it will need to be determined whether or not there is any confidential information you are entitled to see in private in this basis".

He included the release of further correspondence to "provide as full a picture as possible" to the London assembly, which is the cross-party elected scrutiny body which holds the mayor to account.

Johnson explained: "I have gone further than I implied in my letter of 27 November in that I have, in the public interest, released correspondence from the Arts Council and the DCMS so as to provide you and your fellow assembly members with as full a picture as possible. I am sure you will agree that a response of 580 sides of A4 indicates very full disclosure."

Johnson went on to bullet-point five criteria for exemption, including "a very limited number of email exchanges and drafts of documents whose disclosure I have deemed would have been prejudicial to the effective conductive of public affairs".

The probe over events that led to Johnson choosing Wadley for the role continues, with two letters due to be dispatched to seek clarification around the selection process due to differing accounts issued to date.

Dee Doocey, chair of the assembly's economic development, culture, sports and tourism committee, is set to seek clarification from Mirza over evidence she gave to the committee in October.

Doocey will also write to City Hall's chief executive, Leo Boland, to ask him to clarify how the second process will be run, following Johnson's decision to readvertise the post rather than select one of the three candidates who were put on the final shortlist.

The timetable for interviews outlined by Johnson now means that he is unlikely to make a recommendation to the culture secretary until late March at the earliest, just weeks before the general election.

It is unclear whether Wadley intends to apply again. The Guardian has approached her for comment.

Liz Forgan is also the chair of the Scott Trust, the parent body that controls Guardian News and Media.

Read more on this issue on Dave Hill's London blog

Veronica Wadley - yet more mail

Veronica Wadley: Six days in July


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