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August 13 2012

With new maps and apps, the case for open transit gets stronger

OpenTripPlanner logoEarlier this year, the news broke that Apple would be dropping default support for transit in iOS 6. For people (like me) who use the iPhone to check transit routes and times when they travel, that would mean losing a key feature. It also has the potential to decrease the demand for open transit data from cities, which has open government advocates like Clay Johnson concerned about public transportation and iOS 6.

This summer, New York City-based non-profit Open Plans launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new iPhone transit app to fill in the gap.

“From the public perspective, this campaign is about putting an important feature back on the iPhone,” wrote Kevin Webb, a principal at Open Plans, via email. “But for those of us in the open government community, this is about demonstrating why open data matters. There’s no reason why important civic infrastructure should get bound up in a fight between Apple and Google. And in communities with public GTFS, it won’t.”

Open Plans already had a head start in creating a patch for the problem: they’ve been working with transit agencies over the past few years to build OpenTripPlanner, an open source application that uses open transit data to help citizens make transit decisions.

“We were already working on the back-end to support this application but decided to pursue the app development when we heard about Apple’s plans with iOS,” explained Webb. “We were surprised by the public response around this issue (the tens of thousands who joined Walkscore’s petition and wanted to offer a constructive response).”

Crowdfunding digital city infrastructure?

That’s where Kickstarter and crowdfunding come into the picture. The Kickstarter campaign would help Open Plans make OpenTripPlanner a native iPhone app, followed by Android and HTML5 apps down the road. Open Plans’ developers have decided that given mobile browser limitations in iOS, particularly the speed of JavaScript apps, an HTML5 app isn’t a replacement for a native app.

Kickstarter has emerged as a platform for more than backing ideas for cool iPod watches or services. Increasingly, it’s looking like Kickstarter could be a new way for communities to collectively fund the creation of civic apps or services for their towns that government isn’t agile enough to deliver for them. While that’s sure to make some people in traditional positions of power uneasy, it also might be a way to do an end-around traditional procurement processes — contingent upon cities acting as platforms for civic startups to build upon.

“We get foundation and agency-based contract support for our work already,” wrote Webb. “However, we’ve discovered that foundations aren’t interested in these kinds of rider-facing tools, and most agencies don’t have the discretion or the budget to support the development of something universal. As a result, these kinds of projects require speculative investment. One of the awesome things about open data is that it lets folks respond directly and constructively by building something to solve a need, rather than waiting on others to fix it for them.

“Given our experience with transit and open data, we knew that this was a solvable problem; it just required someone to step up to the challenge. We were well positioned to take on that role. However, as a non-profit, we don’t have unlimited resources, so we’d ask for help. Kickstarter seems like the right fit, given the widespread public interest in the problem, and an interesting way to get the message out about our perspective. Not only do we get to raise a little money, but we’re also sharing the story about why open data and open source matter for public infrastructure with a new audience.”

Civic code in active re-use

Webb, who has previously staked out a position that iOS 6 will promote innovation in public transit, says that OpenTripPlanner is already a thriving open source project, with a recent open transit launch in New Orleans, a refresh in Portland and other betas soon to come.

In a welcome development for DC cyclists (including this writer), a version of OpenTripPlanner went live recently at BikePlanner.org. The web app, which notably uses OpenStreetMap as a base layer, lets users either plot a course for their own bike or tap into the Capital Bikeshare network in DC. BikePlanner is a responsive HTML5 app, which means that it looks good and works well on a laptop, iPad, iPhone or Android device.

Focusing on just open transit apps, however, would be to miss the larger picture of new opportunities to build improvements to digital city infrastructure.

There’s a lot more at stake than just rider-facing tools, in Webb’s view — from urban accessibility to extending the GTFS data ecosystem.

“There’s a real need to build a national (and eventually international) transit data infrastructure,” said Webb. “Right now, the USDOT has completely fallen down on the job. The GTFS support we see today is entirely organic, and there’s no clear guidance anywhere about making data public or even creating GTFS in the first place. That means building universal apps takes a lot of effort just wrangling data.”

August 09 2012

Buskers campaign against new policy in Liverpool

Rules that clamp down on street performers are causing concern that Merseyside's street culture is being needlessly regulated under the the banner of 'business improvement.' Christian Eriksson challenges its basis

Up and down the country, corporate bodies called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are increasingly administering urban centres, offering their paying members privileged access to unelected officials who are literally 'on call' to take their grievances directly to policy makers. In the case of Liverpool City Council's recent decision to regulate busking and street entertainment, we find a lesson in the pitfalls of charging unnaccountable bodies with directing democracy on the public's behalf.

Would-be performers in Liverpool city centre must now sign up to a mandatory licensing scheme and obtain a photo ID card before they can book a two hour slot to play in council-designated pitches. The scheme requires that entertainers be bound by a number of restrictive terms and conditions. These range from entertainers being forbidden to sit on the floor or occupy a pitch more than 1.5 metres in a diameter, to a clause granting council officials the right to stop a performance purely on the grounds of personal taste - turning enforcement officers into what one busker describes as "a poor man's Simon Cowell". Any person failing to comply with these terms and conditions will be issued with a letter threatening prosecution for trespass.

In essence, Liverpool's policy is an attempt to bring busking and street performance under the remit of the 2003 Licensing Act, despite clear statements published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2006 that busking is not a licensable activity under that legislation. The legally-questionable nature of Liverpool's policy does not end there, for it attempts to make it an offence for anybody under the age of 18 to busk, despite central government guidelines clearly stating that busking is permitted for anybody over the age of 14.

Accounts from buskers suggest that the policy was pushed through council meetings, with their recommendations flatly ignored. Jonny Walker, a Liverpool-born busker and singer-songwriter, was involved in the council's consultation process:

I was invited by officials to look at the proposed policy. I had major issues with it and was asked to prepare a report with suggestions for how to improve it. My report was ignored and no changes were made to the policy which was then rubber stamped at a council meeting.


Once he realized his views had not been taken into account in the finished policy, Walker started a petition which has garnered more than 3,000 signatures to date and launched a campaign to urge the council to rethink its policy. The campaign has gained the backing of the Musician's Union.

Diane Widdison, national organiser of the union, has said that Liverpool City Council did not consult them regarding the new policy:

The Musician's Union are happy to help the council put together a best practice guide for buskers. We would suggest a working party which includes street artists and performers so we can agree on a guide which is acceptable to both sides. We do not agree with making the process overly bureaucratic or too restrictive for no good reason.



Liverpool city council responds:

In essence, we are trying to balance the needs of all the people who use the city centre – shoppers, visitors, people who work there and buskers.

While there may be claims that there is a lot of opposition to the policy, it has also been welcomed by many people, especially on grounds of reducing noise and ending repetitive songs.

The council adds that the idea is also to be being fairer to all buskers and potential buskers by preventing the same ones hogging pitches for hours on end.

It is also important to note that the policy will be reviewed in three months and a panel including buskers, representatives from the musician unions and other interested parties will meet before the end of August to discuss the policy.

The council stresses that the regulations are not an attempt to stop busking, but to provide a balance between the different people using the city.

The elected member in charge of the policy, Coun Steve Munby, Liverpool's cabinet member for neighbourhoods, has claimed that the policy was crafted to deal with the many complaints the council receives
from businesses and shoppers about noise levels, repetitive performances and the number of buskers at certain times.

Munby says that buskers add "animation and colour to the centre" but on some Saturdays, there have been 12 performers in a short stretch of Church Street competing "in effect for limited cash." He added that having a regulated system for street entertainment is in the best interests of buskers, businesses, shoppers and other city centre users and brings Liverpool into line with other major cities.

Ged Gibbons, CEO of Liverpool's City Central BID and champion of the new policy, says:

This new busking policy is hugely welcome and will make a real difference to the vibrancy of the city centre


and has claimed to have received regular telephone complaints from the likes of M&S and Primark about troublesome buskers. In the same vein, minutes from the council Cabinet's agenda in which the policy's terms and conditions can be found, describe the policy as crafted to deal with long-standing "complaints from businesses, residents and others".

However, information acquired under Freedom of Information legislation shows that as of November 2011 the number of city shopkeepers who formally complained to the Council to regulate buskers/street performers was so low that the council themselves do not bother to record complaints:

[...] due to the immediate nature of the complaint the majority of complainants simply draw the matter to our street Nuisance Officers but do not formally complain. Subsequently the licensing department do not formally record the number of complaints they receive regarding buskers/street performers.

And why do affected retailers not formally complain? The answer, in short, is that they do not need to. That is what Liverpool's City Central BID is for.

Around 650 businesses currently make up the BID, and each pays a levy on top of their business rates to fund it. Besides extra cleaning, care and security, this levy effectively grants businesses an amplified voice in local democracy. Like BIDs in other British cities, Liverpool's is a quasi-governmental corporate body which works with local authorities, but is not wholly accountable to them. Karen Lappin, Store Manager for Liverpool's Blacks, explains what you get with membership into Liverpool's City Central BID:

Ged [Gibbons] will come round, one of the team will come round, and they'll sit down and ask how they can help you.


Critics of the new busking policy argue that with its access to policymakers, Liverpool's City Central BID has hastily embarked upon the needless regulation of Liverpool's street performance culture under the banner of 'business improvement'.


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August 03 2012

Palo Alto looks to use open data to embrace ‘city as a platform’

In the 21st century, one of the strategies cities around the world are embracing to improve services, increase accountability and stimulate economic activity is to publish open data online. The vision for New York City as a data platform earned wider attention last year, when the Big Apple’s first chief digital officer, Rachel Sterne, pitched the idea to the public.

This week, the city of Palo Alto in California joined over a dozen cities around the United States and globe when it launched its own open data platform. The platform includes an application programming interface (API) which enables direct access through a RESTful interface to open government data published in a JSON format. Datasets can also be embedded like YouTube videos, as below:

“We’re excited to bring the value of Open Data to our community. It is a natural complement to our goal of becoming a leading digital city and a connected community,” said James Keene, Palo Alto City Manager, in a prepared statement. “By making valuable datasets easily available to our residents, we’re further removing the barriers to a more inclusive and transparent local government here in Palo Alto.”

The city initially published open datasets that include the 2010 census data, pavement condition, city tree locations, park locations, bicycle paths and hiking trails, creek water level, rainfall and utility data. Open data about Palo Alto budgets, campaign finance, government salaries, regulations, licensing, or performance — which would all offer more insight into traditional metrics for government accountability — were not part of this first release.

“We are delighted to work with a local, innovative Silicon Valley start-up,” said Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Palo Alto’s chief information officer, in a prepared statement. (Junar’s U.S. offices are in Palo Alto.) “Rather than just publishing lists of datasets, the cloud-based Junar platform has enhancement and visualization capabilities that make the data useful even before it is downloaded or consumed by a software application.”

Notably, the city chose to use Junar, a Chilean software company that raised $1.2 million dollars in funding in May 2012. Junar provides data access in the cloud through the software-as-a-service model. There’s now a more competitive marketplace for open data platforms than has existed in years past, with a new venture-backed startup joining the space.

“The City of Palo Alto joins a group of forward-thinking organizations that are using Open Data as a foundation for more efficient delivery of services, information, and enabling innovation,” said Diego May, CEO and co-founder of Junar, in a prepared statement. “By opening data with the Junar Platform, the City of Palo Alto is exposing and sharing valuable data assets and is also empowering citizens to use and create new applications and services.”

The success or failure of Palo Alto’s push to become a more digital city might be more fairly judged in a year, when measuring downstream consumption of its open data in applications and services by citizens — or by government in increasing productivity — will be possible.

In the meantime, Reichental (who may be familiar to Radar readers as O’Reilly Media’s former CIO) provided more perspective via email on what he’s up to in Palo Alto.

What does it mean for a “city to be a platform?”

Reichental: We think of this as both a broad metaphor and a practicality. Not only do our citizens want to be plugged in to our government operations — open data being one way to achieve this among others — but we want our community and other interested parties to build capability on top of our existing data and services. Recognizing the increasing limitations of local government means you have to find creative ways to extend it and engage with those that have the skills and resources to build a rich and seamless public-private partnership.

Why launch an open data initiative now? What success stories convinced you to make the investment?

Reichental: It’s a response to our community’s desire to easily access their data and our want as a City to unleash the data for better community decision-making and solution development.

We also believe that over time an open data portal will become a standard government offering. Palo Alto wants to be ahead of the curve and create a positive model for other communities.

Seldom does a week pass when a software engineer in our community doesn’t ask me for access to a large dataset to build an app. Earlier this year, the City participated in a hackathon at Stanford University that produced a prototype web application in less than 24 hours. We provided the data. They provided the skills. The results were so impressive, we were convinced then that we should scale this model.

How much work did it take to make your data more open? Is it machine-readable? What format? What cost was involved?

Reichental: We’re experimenting with running our IT department like a start-up, so we’re moving fast. We went from vendor selection to live in just a few weeks. The data in our platform can be exported as a CSV or to a Google Spreadsheet. In addition, we provide an API for direct access to the data. The bulk of the cost was internal staff time. The actual software, which is cloud-based, was under $5000 for the first year.

What are the best examples of open data initiatives delivering sustainable services to citizens?

Reichental: Too many to mention. I really like what they’re doing in San Francisco (http://apps.sfgov.org/showcase/) but there are amazing things happening on data.gov and in New York City. Lots of other cities in the US doing neat things. The UK has done some high-quality budget accountability work.

Are you consuming your own open data?

Reichental: You bet we are.

Why does having an API matter?

Reichental: We believe the main advantage of having an API is for app development. Of course, there will be other use cases that we can’t even think of right now.

Why did you choose Junar instead of Socrata, CKAN or the OGPL from the U.S. federal government?

Reichental: We did review most of the products in the marketplace including some open source solutions. Each had merits. We ultimately decided on Junar for a 1-year commitment, as it seemed to strike the right balance of features, cost, and vision alignment.

Palo Alto has a couple developers in it. How are you engaging them to work with your data?

Reichental: That’s quite the understatement! The buzz already in the developer community is palpable. We’ve been swamped with requests and ideas already. We think one of the first places we’ll see good usage is in the myriad of hackathons/code jams held in the area.

What are the conditions for using your data or making apps?

Reichental: Our terms and conditions are straightforward. The data can be freely used by anyone for almost any purpose, but the condition of use is that the City has no liability or relationship with the use of the data or any derivative.

You told Mashable that you’re trying to acting like a “lean startup.” What does that mean, in practice?

Reichental: This initiative is a good example. Rather than spend time making the go-live product perfect, we went for speed-to-market with the minimally viable solution to get community feedback. We’ll use that feedback to quickly improve on the solution.

With the recent go-live of our redesigned public website, we launched it initially as a beta site; warts and all. We received lots of valuable feedback, made many of the suggested changes, and then cutover from the beta to production. We ended up with a better product.

Our intent is to get more useful capability out to our community and City staff in shorter time. We want to function as close as we can with the community that we serve. And that’s a lot of amazing start-ups.

June 13 2012

Annie Lennox: why I'm against Aberdeen's City Gardens project

The same deluded vision that razed huge swaths of the historic city in the 1960s is being applied again today

The City Gardens project is something I took up arms against a couple of years ago, but in the end I put them down again, because I felt – and stated – that it is ultimately down to the citizens of Aberdeen to take the final decision.

But when I went back up to Aberdeen a few weeks ago and saw the state of the streets, I had never seen the city look so dejected. I felt very saddened by that. I had never thought I would see Aberdeen look like this.

Experience shows that city councillors, planners and developers, come together and offer a bright vision of the future, as they did in Aberdeen in the 1960s when they razed huge swaths of the historic city. They thought that would be their modernity. What we got was a ruination of history, and something put in its place which was cheap, crap and concrete. I knew at the time, when I was a teenager, that this was going to be pretty disastrous.

I have nothing whatsoever against modern architecture, but when it is cheap and crappy you usually look back at it in a few years time and say: "What a monstrosity." I think they are applying the same sort of deluded vision with Union Terrace Gardens. Instead we should look at what really needs to be done there: it needs a collective civic response.

What I see in Aberdeen is that there has been a lot of money made, but that money has not trickled through. You see strata of wealth in Aberdeen; there are expensive cars and glitzy restaurants but I don't see that reflected in the general civic state of the city. I feel the oil industry lives separately to the town.

My father and grandfather worked in the shipyards and shipbuilding industries; people built up wealth and then people who made their money put it back into Aberdeen, building the art gallery, the music hall etc and it served the community very well. It was beautiful. But walking around Union Street today you get a sense of a broken place. It is kind of degraded. It seems to me Aberdeen thinks in terms of a consumerist society, where the solution is: "Well, put more shops in and get more business." I think it's a mistake; the same mistake they made back in the 60s.

I think this phenomenon can be found through the whole of the country. It has wrecked the towns of Great Britain. I think it is a symptom; we used to have different types of flourishing industry, people had skills and crafts, they had a work ethic and were proud of their cities. But now it is very different. In some places generations have lived with unemployment for decades. We have a recession and we have imported American corporate chains on our high streets, creating a consumerist society in which we've lost a lot of our culture and a lot of our skills.

It's endemic and downgrading, and I don't think Aberdeen is much different to many other places that have lost their heart and soul. I don't think that oil money has brought a tremendous civic pride back to the citizens of the city. It's the fast buck: there's money being made but it's just floating on the top, separated from the rest of Aberdeen's citizens.

If Sir Ian Wood wants to invest £50m into the centre of Aberdeen, that is fundamentally good, but I disagree with the way he's going about it. It is not because I'm a reactionary, it is not because I'm against modernity or change. It is the way that this was done; it is short-termism, it is short-sighted.

From what I am gathering, he is not saying: "I have £50m, I want to talk to you, I want to hear what you guys want." He's telling the city this is what he will do with it. I think it's very imperious. I think it is very, very important to listen to more people, the people who are living there, the citizens of the town.

I don't have a great respect for the aesthetic values or vision of city planners or city councillors; I don't think that they've often got it right. Building a concrete piazza across Union Terrace Gardens, in a city that knows rain very well, I don't quite get that. It's not Italy. They don't get tourists coming to Aberdeen, and if they did, wouldn't they want to see something more real and authentic?


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May 22 2012

On the white bus to Wythenshawe – council housing by design | Owen Hatherley

A tour of the UK's second-largest estate, in Manchester, offers up some architectural gems and a few lessons on garden cities

In 1966, Salford playwright Shelagh Delaney and Cheltenham director Lindsay Anderson worked together on the film The White Bus. The titular vehicle, a white-painted Leyland bus with "SEE YOUR CITY" written across it, transports a strange retinue – local dignitaries, foreign diplomats, wistful office workers – around the lesser-known sights of Manchester, from newbuild estates and cleared slums to the industrial ensembles of Trafford Park.

Last week, I found myself in an inadvertent re-enactment of that film. A group of local residents, school and FE students, journalists and local councillors were taken on a coach trip around the Manchester suburb of Wythenshawe, led by writer and broadcaster Phil Griffin (who lives there), taking in everything from modernist churches to recycling plants. Uncannily, even the bus was white but, unlike in the film, you could see the reactions of passersby, who often stopped on the street corner, baffled.

As well they might be, as Wythenshawe's reputation precedes it. The second-largest council estate in the country, after Becontree in East London, it's best known of late for three media appearances – Sarah Ferguson's The Duchess on the Estate; Shameless, for which it provided many of the sets; and a photograph of David Cameron on the stump, with a hooded youth making gun signs behind him.

In appearance, though, Wythenshawe doesn't correspond much to stereotype. There's little in the way of concrete, and few flats – most of it is family houses with front and back gardens, and large green verges planted with trees create one of the few places where the phrase "garden city" doesn't feel entirely absurd. It was largely planned in the 1930s by Barry Parker, who had designed the first garden city at Letchworth. Due to the lobbying of Welwyn Garden City MP and housing minister Grant Shapps, garden cities have been held up as an alternative to "the big estates of the 60s", but they mostly catered for the affluent or at least the active. Wythenshawe, though, was real public housing – getting people out of inhuman conditions in the centre of Manchester and into a smokeless, verdant new landscape.

The difficulties in this were obvious in the tour's starting point – Wythenshawe Hall, a Cheshire stately home annexed to the new Manchester garden city. A public park was built around it, the lushness of which spills out into the area around. Our host informs us that Manchester city council fought a grinding battle with landed interests in Cheshire to get Wythenshawe built, and it's even harder now to imagine few in the shires countenancing a giant estate built around a manor house and its grounds. From there, the bus trundles round some of the original 30s houses – simple but exceedingly folksy, in red brick and tile, built around courts and greens – to the first of several modernist churches. Wythenshawe was heavily criticised for lack of amenities, but the spiritual needs of the population were hardly neglected.

St Michael and All Angels Church was designed by the architect Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day in the mid-30s, and is a piece of German expressionism come to Cottonopolis, with raw red brickwork wrapped around a plan forming an eight-pointed star. Inside, it's a strange and beautiful place, decorative and modernist, austere and lush. Later, we stop outside a derelict church by Coventry cathedral architect Basil Spence, and the group steps through the weeds to crowd round the locked door, peering inside at the wall paintings.

But the most remarkable of them is saved till last, the William Temple Memorial Church, designed by GG Pace in 1965. A collective intake of breath is audible on entering. Its small size hides the surprise of an incredible, wholly original interior, somewhere between the high-tech of early Richard Rogers and redbrick industrial gothic. It's not used for services, and our guide points out "this place has amazing architecture and no folk; the Forum has mediocre architecture but is always full of folk".

The Forum is just opposite, the town centre that was lacking for 30 years of the place's existence. A long concrete car park to the main road, but a dense, pedestrianised series of public spaces when entered, its central "Leningrad Square" (St Petersburg is twinned with Manchester) is busy and bustling. Outside the Forum library, people are queuing for something called "job gym". The level of unemployment is the only aspect of the place that really conforms to stereotype. The white bus takes us around one place of (often former) employment, though – Sharston, one of several light industrial estates which were meant to provide local work for Wythenshawe's tenants. Along here runs a railway line, to which Wythenshawe was never connected; only now, after 75 years, is it being properly connected to the city centre, via a Metrolink tram extension. Wythenshawe looks like it was built for the car, but even now it only has 40% car ownership.

The houses in Wythenshawe are mostly traditionalist, with no experiments – with the exception of the "Tin Town" in Newall Green, a mini-estate of impeccably kept, neat steel-framed prefabs, designed in 1946 by Frederick Gibberd, another cathedral designer (Liverpool, this time). We got a tour around one, home to former Durutti Column drummer Bruce Mitchell. The space standards and architectural quality are, as Griffin points out, way above those of contemporary central Manchester luxury loft living. "Seriously, sod Urban Splash."

Then, after a tour of an art deco cinema (now owned by Jehovah's Witnesses, who have restored it impeccably) and another Cheshire stately home (owned for years by Manchester city council and then English Heritage, who let it rot), the bus discharges its passengers and everyone goes home, some with longer journeys back than others.

What did we learn on the white bus? Griffin tells the passengers near the end that "I think I've shown you everything except Wythenshawe", well aware that a tour of its architectural monuments isn't enough to explain a place. Anyone who began with the assumption that "the state" or "the public sector" can only create inhumane environments would hardly be able to maintain it by the end. The bus went through a place with some astonishing public buildings, most of them derelict or seldom used, and looped between the iconic sites through pretty greens, disused wastelands and retail parks. "It works, and it doesn't work," our guide says, which sounds about right; a place with deep poverty, but where poverty might have been made more bearable through light, air and decent housing. It shouldn't need a bus and a guide to point out the seriousness and care with which places like Wythenshawe were built, but it's a start, to begin a long effort of reassessing and – hopefully – building them anew.

• More photographs of Owen Hatherley's trip around Wythenshawe are available on his Flickr page


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May 08 2012

Sea Odyssey's vast puppets bring more to Liverpool than the Grand National

Merseyside's recent spectacular show illustrates how street theatre and public art can attract vast crowds. The north west's industrial heritage is doing the same. Alan Sykes reports

Two new reports highlight the value of cultural tourism to the economy of the north west of England. Last month's 'Sea Odyssey' street theatre jamboree in Liverpool is reckoned to have brought in £12m in extra spending by the vast crowds which thronged the city streets. Meanwhile, an estimated £11m was spent in the last year by people visiting industrial heritage attractions throughout the region.

For 'Sea Odyssey', the city's Business Improvement District managers estimate that their core area of the city centre alone saw a footfall just shy of 1,000,000 people over that weekend – 53% more than for the Grand National a week earlier. As well as those watching the event itself, visitors poured into shops, restaurants and other attractions which saw significant rises in custom – the Walker Art Gallery was 145% up on the previous year, the Maritime Museum was up 130% and Merseytravel, who laid on an extra ferry for people wanting to watch the giants sail down the Mersey, handled an extra 143% of passengers.

Councillor Wendy Simon, Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism at Liverpool City Council, says:

"We always knew this would be a huge weekend for the city, but 'Sea Odyssey' exceeded our expectations in terms of the crowd numbers and their reaction to the show. An independent report on the impact of Sea Odyssey is now being put together with final figures available within the next couple of months."


The city council certainly believes it got value for money for the £1.5m it cost to commission the French street theatre outfit Royale de Luxe to put on the event.


Meanwhile, a similar contribution to the region's economy, albeit in a more widespread and low key way, is claimed for the industrial heritage attractions spread throughout the area.

For the last year, Visit Manchester, working with the other tourist boards in the North West, has been managing a project called Modern History, an ERDF-funded project aimed at promoting around 100 of the North West's industrial heritage attractions, including Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry, Cumbria's Honister Slate Mine and the Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire. The research shows that mines, mills and transport systems that have been converted into visitor attractions are increasing the tourism revenue of the region. Honister, for example, which continues to produce the Westmorland green slate that was probably mined there in Roman times, now offers a via ferrata climbing path – giddily strung from a cliff-face and shortlisted for this year's Enjoy England awards - to go with the mine tours and slate sales.


The report shows that an extra 24,000 day visits and over 5000 overnight stays throughout the North West were generated by the campaign. Lisa Houghton, marketing manager for Modern History, is quoted in the Manchester Evening News saying:

The north west was instrumental in moving the world into the industrial age and the rich stories that surround this period are still relevant today – as the high visitor levels reflect. The research proves what a hard-working campaign Modern History has been and we are confident that even though the project has come to an end, it leaves a strong legacy that will continue to drive footfall to our wonderful attractions and museums for years to come.


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June 24 2011

The shape of things to come?

Westminster's Chelsea Barracks planning decision is the latest in a series of victories for the heritage school of HRH. And there are signs that his views are falling on friendly ears in government

Not so long ago it seemed that Prince Charles, architecture guru and scourge of modernists, was safely shut up in his box. He seemed finally to have listened to shadowy advisers telling him that it would be inappropriate to get involved in public wrangles. The public and political mood had shifted in favour of the new. Contemporary buildings – the Gherkin, for example – were popular. The Prince's old adversary Lord (Richard) Rogers had the ear first of Tony Blair and then of Ken Livingstone, and some version of his theories influenced the planning system.

Furious letters would still spew from the prince's desk, urging developers to sack architects he did not like, or ministers to save an old building that he did, but these were private, and often ignored. The days when he could have multi-million pound developments ripped up and redesigned were seemingly consigned to the era of Wham! and Brideshead Revisited.

Now, however, he is enjoying his greatest influence in two decades. Last week Westminster city council approved prince-backed plans for redeveloping Chelsea Barracks in London, two years after his intervention led to a previous plan, by Rogers, being abandoned. The classicist architects the prince favours are quietly busy producing new country houses for the rich, "urban extensions" to country towns, and rural and suburban housing developments. The government is paying the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment to advise local groups on planning their neighbourhoods. The government's localism bill, currently winding through parliament, is supposed to empower villages and small communities to draw up their own development plans. If it works as intended, the future built environment of Britain, outside the big cities, could be prince-flavoured.

The first version of the architectural prince was launched in 1984 when, invited to mouth platitudes to a dinner celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he shocked his hosts by denouncing them. He famously called a proposed extension to the National Gallery a "monstrous carbuncle", though its architects Ahrends Burton and Koralek were then up-and-coming and, as it happened, noted for their skill with building in historic settings such as Keble College, Oxford. The prince's words dealt them a blow from which they never fully recovered. In further speeches he attacked other projects, and jumpy developers would then install architects, regardless of their ability or experience, blessed by the prince for their use of a classical style.

These architects would not always last the distance, being themselves replaced in due course by practices better able to deliver commercial projects. Often the effect of the Prince's actions was to delay development by many years, while developers worked the planning system to get the most they could out of the site. At Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, he had objected to an initial scheme partly on the grounds that it was too big and greedy. What was eventually built, much later, had a classical look but was even bigger. At London Bridge City, next to Tower Bridge, a prince-friendly, mock-Venetian proposal transmogrified into Norman Foster-designed grey glass blocks around what is now City Hall.

With the National Gallery, however, and some other sites, he got his way, while the mere thought of him could drive developers into a pre-emptive cringe, dressing up their blocks in columns and pediments in case they attracted his displeasure. Not that they were unhappy to do this – the prince captured a common mood, in the Thatcher years, of yearning for past glories and returning to supposedly traditional values. Architects, meanwhile, were still widely reviled for their actual and alleged failures in the 1960s, so their complaints at the prince's highhandedness got short shrift from the press. They objected that his actions were an abuse of his position, that he was ignorant and petulant, and that, while he was only too happy to launch attacks on others, he resolutely refused to engage in any kind of debate himself. But these objections did not get very far.

The prince had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, a book, a TV programme. He founded an architecture school based on the premise that there was an untapped hunger for learning architecture in the traditional way, and in 1994 he launched a magazine, Perspectives, promoting his views. In 1988 he commissioned the visionary urban theorist Leon Krier to produce a plan for developing Poundbury, an area of land outside Dorchester, Dorset, belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. Krier had famously declared ,"I am an architect, therefore I do not build", meaning that the modern world was too benighted to produce good architecture. The prince managed to persuade him otherwise.

There were separate strands to his philosophy, not wholly intertwining. One was populist, arguing that most people liked old-looking buildings, so experts should not impose modernism against their wishes. Another was nostalgic, with a preference for English classical architecture of about 300 years ago. Another was mystical, arguing that there are deep harmonies in the universe which are reflected in the sort of buildings he liked.

Perspectives did not thrill the masses, and closed. Nor did students flock to the architecture school, which was restructured as the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, with a reduced emphasis on education. Meanwhile the prince's architectural court was subject to intrigues that would have delighted the Borgias. Fashion changed, architects became less hated, and a few more people than embittered professionals began to see that there was something wrong with the prince using his fame and status to intervene in debates which he possibly did not understand. Apart from Poundbury, the prince's influence seemed to shrink to the area around Buckingham Palace, where one of his pet architects, John Simpson, rebuilt the Queen's Gallery, and another, Liam O'Connor, designed the Commonwealth Memorial Gates as a reduced-scale version of Lutyens's monuments in New Delhi.

But Poundbury was his lifeline, and his biggest success. Here he was doing what he wanted with his own land rather than meddling in the affairs of others. Although Poundbury got the look – it is a medley of Georgian, Dorset cottage and pointy, Gothicky bits – it also embodied principles which went beyond his stylistic taste, and which were not so different from those of adversaries like Richard Rogers. It mixes uses, putting offices and workshops in among houses, rather than in separate zones. It mixes affordable housing with market housing, such that it is hard to tell the difference. It is built at higher density than typical suburbs, so that it consumes less land and encourages neighbourliness. It promotes pedestrian movement over driving.

Buyers liked it. It achieved above-average values, and properties appreciated. Its periphery is now a whirr of construction, as more and more homes are built to meet the demand to live there. Personally, it makes my flesh creep, with its winsome, confected quality, and with its paranoid insistence on conjuring a bygone world that never existed, which illusion is painfully punctured by the appearance of modern steel frames in the half-built buildings. As even one of the Prince's allies says: "You can't claim it is traditionally Dorset by any stretch of the imagination."

But I wouldn't live in Dorchester anyway, and I can see that it works, and that it is much better than the average housebuilders' wares. I can even see some charm in the winding lanes, now softened by well-established planting.

Similar ideas were applied on other Duchy of Cornwall properties, in places like Shepton Mallet and Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Meanwhile the foundation, repurposed as an advisory, thinktank sort of body, made itself more credible. Its chief executive, Hank Dittmar, was formerly a leading light of the American New Urbanism movement, which has been pumping out walkable, compact residential developments for some time. Its most famous work is Seaside, the holiday town in Florida where The Truman Show was shot. Under Labour the foundation talked the government-approved talk of sustainability, regeneration and public participation. It developed something called Enquiry by Design, where local residents and experts come together in workshops before plans for new development are completed: the idea is that local knowledge and wishes are incorporated into the final designs. The foundation won the attention of John Prescott, and advised on the planning of Upton, an extension of Northampton, on Poundbury-esque principles. Now, in Sunderland, Ayrshire, Swansea, Burnley and elsewhere, there are foundation-led plans in various stages of completion. The foundation has even been hired by the developers First Base, usually known for their use of contemporary design, to advise on a classical-looking development in a conservation area in Highbury, north London.

It has published a book called Tradition and Sustainability, and is building a prototype, called the Natural House, which aims to demonstrate that energy efficiency does not require modern-looking gadgets but can be achieved with something that looks like an approximation of an 1840s villa. The foundation has gone international, with projects in China, the Galapagos, and Haiti, the latter a plan in the heart of Port au Prince, which looks wildly optimistic in its serene orderliness.

The foundation apart, architects from the princely fold are doing well. Robert Adam, of Adam Architecture, has long been the most business-like of traditionalist architects and, having designed some projects for the Duchy of Cornwall, is now masterplanning an extension to Dover with a whopping 5,750 homes, and residential developments in Waterlooville and Aldershot. He also has a nice line in huge, brand new country houses, which he says reflects the fact that "London is a global city". His clients are "Russians, Indians, Middle Eastern: they want the English dream but they want to be able to do what they like with their house, which they can't do if it's old". Adam recently lost a planning inquiry into his enormous £20m Athlone House proposal in Hampstead, but has plenty more opportunities of a similar kind.

At Chelsea Barracks the prince had written a personal letter to the ruler of Qatar, as his family's property company Qatari Diar were owners of the site, urging him to abandon Richard Rogers's plans. His "heart sank" at the sight of what he called "a gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city". He punted an alternative scheme by Quinlan Terry, the doyen of modern classicists, and his son Francis. Ultimately the Terrys did not get the job, but Rogers was fired and a collaboration of Squire and Partners, Dixon Jones and the landscape architect Kim Wilkie, produced designs which aim to reproduce the virtues of Georgian and Victorian terraces and squares. This was a turning point, a moment of regime change. Lord Rogers's project would, if built, have been the fulfilment of years of campaigning and building influence with the likes of Ken Livingstone in order to realise his vision of the city. Its dumping, supported by Tories like the deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, marked the end of that particular era.

The Chelsea Barracks Action Group, made up of local residents, were vociferous opponents of the Rogers scheme, and were delighted with the prince's actions. Now, however, they are disappointed that a change of style has not changed the fact that the proposed housing blocks are up to 100 feet high. "They will be regarded in history as the beginning of the end of our gracious English city," says the chair of the group, Georgine Thorburn, using prince-like language. She also says that the Qataris have "duped" the council. Alas for the group, unless Boris Johnson can be persuaded to intervene, her words come too late. In the latest version of prince-ism, the pragmatists have won over the mystics and true believers, which means that, as the prince himself inclines to the latter camp, his own input is diluted. His recent contribution to the mystic cause, a book called Harmony, failed to set the world on fire. Quinlan Terry, always the purest of the classicists, is doing perfectly well with country houses, buildings for Downing College, Cambridge, and occasional commercial work, but he is not shaping whole towns.

The Prince's Foundation, according to Elliot Lipton of developers First Base, "is very flexible. It has no preconceptions, which isn't what you might expect if you listened to their leader. They're very good at understanding real world trade-offs."

The foundation gets into bed with developers such as Wimpey in Westoe, South Shields, with the result that they achieve an arguably better version of usual Wimpey fare, rather than a radical alternative. Upton, the extension to Northampton, as Hank Dittmar acknowledges, is a partly compromised version of the original intentions. By being more pragmatic, the foundation gets less distinctive: plenty of others have put forward energy-efficient houses, and public consultation, and walkable, high-density communities. These ideas are "sort of the norm, mainstream", says Robert Adam. Works outside the princely sphere, like the Greenwich Millennium Village, and the Accordia development in Cambridge, put them into practice.

What remains distinctive is the look, the preference for a randomised variety of traditional styles, with Georgian and Country Cottage foremost among them. This is a source of strength, as a lot of people like this – according to Robert Adam, 70% prefer old-looking buildings to new. The competition, in the form of volume housebuilders' standard product, is largely poor. In combination, these factors are effective when it comes to reducing outrage at controversial plans, which, with continuous pressure of development in town and country, will continue to appear. Poundbury itself is the expansion of Dorchester into green fields, and many locals still object to it on those grounds. The Dover expansion, as Adam recognises, met strong opposition on the grounds of its size. The switch of styles got Chelsea Barracks through the planning system, to Georgine Thorburn's dismay.

Under the localism bill, communities and villages will have the power to draw up their own plans for development, in ways that benefit them. There is scepticism as to whether this will really happen, but if it does, communities will face the central problem of rural planning: how to reconcile the pressures for new development, the high values that housing can yield, the need for affordable new homes, and the preservation of villages. The models offered by the Prince's Foundation, with a combination of public consultation, and a style that tries to disguise that change has happened, will be attractive. Even if localised planning does not work, the palliative effect of traditionalist design will still be in demand.

I have long believed that the prince should keep his mouth shut rather than use his inherited status to give weight to views greater than his wisdom alone would merit. He should not change policies, lives and careers with the force of his name. Sometimes he might be right, sometimes wrong, but that is not the point. In 2009 the RIBA, ever masochists, invited him back for their 175th birthday. Sitting through his talk I felt growing rage at his tendentious nonsense – the demonstrably untrue statement that modernist architects were nature-haters, for example – and at the fact that no one was allowed to challenge him directly. He sallies forth to attack others then immediately takes shelter behind the dignity of his position. I also find depressing the idea that a modern house can be no better than a half-convincing photocopy of an old one, or that, as we live in a time when large windows are easy to achieve, we should build small, mean ones, as in Poundbury, just because they look old.

Yet he is entitled to do what he likes, within the constraints applied to any landowner, with his own property, and he and his associates have come up with ways of building new rural developments that have a certain logic. The range of alternative models is not abundant, and architects and developers who would do better should study the reasons for the appeal of the prince's way. As things stand, Poundbury is a glimpse of the future.


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March 08 2011

Letters: Diverse mix makes for real communities

I was disappointed to read the scepticism towards the potential for "pepperpotting" in plans for the redevelopment of the Heygate estate (Homes under the hammer, G2, 4 March). Having lived on a Southwark council estate for three years as a private tenant, and served as an active member of the Tenants and Residents Association, I experienced the richness that a diverse estate community can bring. With tenants both private and council as well as homeowners working together to improve their communities, a wide range of interests and expertise can be drawn on to tackle local issues, support neighbours and lobby the council for change. Without a mix of residents, an estate may risk perceived "ghettoism" and development of social stigmas towards council housing. I hope that once the regeneration project is complete, relocated people will return to Heygate and take a role in building a new community in the area.

Elle Perry

London

• The reason Utopia on Trial is, as Stephen Moss says, influential – it continues to sell 26 years after we first published it – is because its evidence-based recommendations for changes in the design of housing estates, when put into practice, have improved residents' living conditions. Demolition is avoidable. The polemical extract quoted in the article is from Professor Alice Coleman's summing up, but her conclusions are based on a survey of over 100,000 dwellings, mainly in Southwark and Tower Hamlets, and not on a political view.

Hilary Macaskill and Michael Shipman

Hilary Shipman Limited


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February 07 2011

Demise of 1970s housing estate

Residents of Elephant and Castle's Heygate complain they were 'picked off' to make way for £1.5bn regeneration scheme

Preliminary demolition is due to begin next week of the vast Heygate estate in south-east London as part of a tortuous £1.5bn regeneration project which has angered many of its former residents and triggered political rows.

After a month of preparation by the demolition company, the serious work of dismantling the estate begins in mid-March, part of a plan to transform the Elephant and Castle, considered one of the city's architectural eyesores, into a "new town centre".

For months the Heygate, once home to 1,200 families, has been a virtual ghost town, with only a few people holding out. The water and heating have been switched off, passageways blocked and steel shutters placed on the windows.

Former inhabitants of the six huge apartment blocks have accused Southwark council, which signed a regeneration deal with Australian developer Lend Lease in July, of going back on promises to put local working class people at the heart of the redevelopment.

Progress on the scheme comes amid tough times for regeneration projects in the UK. More than 3,000 new homes planned for London are on hold because of restrictions on development finance, according to real estate services firm CB Richard Ellis. Elsewhere, there are early signs of progress with plans for regeneration schemes in Salford, Greater Manchester, Basildon, Essex, and the Longbridge area of Birmingham being submitted this month.

Despite the Heygate's unlovely grey concrete exterior and its reputation as a crime-ridden estate – undeserved say some of its former residents – critics acknowledge that the flats themselves were well-designed and spacious with fine views of London.

"It was well above average postwar housing but it suffered from a lack of maintenance and good management," said Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, an architecture conservation group. "It doesn't look pretty and it is architecture of a type that has a real stigma – incredibly repetitive and monolithic. But as a way of housing a lot of people, it has an elegance and simplicity."

Some who lived there speak glowingly about the estate, at least at its inception.

Terry Redpath, who moved in when the Heygate was built in 1974, said: "People took pride in the place and there was a community spirit. It wasn't badly designed and there was plenty of open space."

Redpath says he and the other 130 leaseholders were offered less than a fair price for their properties, but felt they had little alternative but to accept as the estate was being run down in preparation for demolition.

"We were picked off one by one," he said, "In the last four to five years things weren't being fixed, and people did not want to be the last ones out."

One of the last remaining residents, Oner Baduna, who has finally accepted alternative accommodation, said the estate began going downhill as more short-term residents moved in, conditions deteriorated and petty crime rose.

For Jerry Flynn, a Heygarth resident between 1974 and 1981, Southwark council failed to fulfil a key pledge of the Elephant and Castle regeneration programme. "We were told that we were going to be at the heart of regeneration, but local people are not benefitting," he said.

The council said its plans gave former Heygate residents the opportunity to return to 16 "early housing sites" or the Heygate site itself once the new homes were built. However, only three of those sites have been completed and the new homes on the Heygate are stillyears away.

In effect, the community brought together by the Heygate estate has been scattered throughout the borough and elsewhere because of the lag between the start and end of the regeneration programme.

"That community has been decimated. It was so callous and I'm truly disgusted," said Jackie Rokotnitz, a local activist and initial backer of the regeneration plan, who has since become a vociferous critic of Southwark council's handling of the project.

The Elephant's regeneration saga, dating back to 1999, began when the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives were in power in the borough. It has rumbled on for a decade and the on-off deal with Lend Lease has been highly contentious. Lend Lease, an Australian developer, was selected by the Lib Dem council as the preferred partner in 2007, but final agreement was delayed, partly due to the recession and partly because of disagreement with Transport for London over the costs of rebuilding the local Northern line station and the remodelling of the roundabout system.

A deal was reached with Lend Lease only last July, after Labour won control of the council in May.

The new council insists that it's all systems go now that it has signed a contract with Lend Lease and claims that everybody in the area will benefit.

Councillor Fiona Colley, cabinet member for regeneration, said: "Local people will benefit not just from the creation of new affordable homes – which former Heygate tenants will have the opportunity to move into, but also from a new school, a new leisure centre, better transport infrastructure, jobs and training as part of the development, new shops, improved parks and possibly a new community centre."

The Lib Dems say Labour has lost tens of millions of pounds as a result of "incompetent renegotiation", but key sections of the agreement are confidential because of "sensitive commercial information" so the figures are hard to pin down.

One of the sore points is how much affordable housing will be included. Critics assert the commitment to make 25% of new homes affordable falls short of the original 35% target.

Flynn points out that affordable housing is still beyond the means of those who lived at the Heygate, most of whom were in social rented housing, paying rents below the market rate. He argues that the most telling comparison will be the loss of social rented units: under a revamped Heygate, including the off-site replacement housing, he calculates there will be 725 social rented units when the scheme is completed against the 1,080 of the original estate.

For now, the desolate estate looks like something out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but a hardcore of about two dozen people are refusing to leave because they feel they are not being offered a fair price for their properties or adequate replacements for the homes they are renting.

Teacher Adrian Glasspool, who livesin the centre of the estate, says he has been offered £168,000 for his three-bedroom maisonette, measuring 93 square meteres (1,000 sq ft) and argues he cannot buy anything similar in central London for that kind of money.

He said: "People went along with the regeneration plans on the promise they would be coming back to shiny new homes." But he feels let down and is a member of the Heygate & Aylesbury leaseholders action group, which is trying to get a better deal from the council.

Mickey Brooks, another holdout, has to lug water up 11 flights of stairs to his one-bedroom flat because the lifts are no longer working and the water has been turned off. He says he is hanging on until the police come to evict him and will be waiting with a video camera when they do.

The controversy over the demolition of the Heygate has echoes of the now defunct Pathfinder schemes that were supposed to regenerate rundown areas in northern England. The schemes were public-private partnerships in cities and conurbations from Birmingham northwards, that involved the demolition and, in theory, replacement of housing in working-class areas.

In reality, their residents moved elsewhere or were bought off, and, in many cases, the new homes were designated for sale to "aspirational" incomers, in attempts – which have mostly failed – to gentrify neighbourhoods.

With its close proximity to the City and central London, Lend Lease is unlikely to have trouble finding buyers for the new homes on the Heygate, but those who lived there originally will have long gone. "What sticks in my throat is that when redevelopment has happened 1,200 local residents will have made way for people paying £400,000 on the footprint of the estate," said Redpath.

Elephant and Castle regeneration

Elephant and Castle's £1.5bn redevelopment will include the creation of a pedestrianised town centre, a market square, green spaces and thousands of new homes by 2014. It will also involve a comprehensive tree planting programme and measures to reduce pollution from its roundabout system.

Southwark council says the Elephant will become a "thriving urban centre" once the shopping centre – nominated as London's ugliest building – and the six 12-storey blocks that comprise the Heygate are replaced. In 2009 former US president Bill Clinton praised the regeneration plan as among 16 worldwide projects which will release less carbon dioxide than they use.


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January 06 2011

Prefabs out

The Excalibur prefab estate in south London may be scruffy, but it's a precious chapter in the nation's story worth preserving

As history, south London's Catford lacks pzazz. It has none of the raw brutalism of its neighbour, Lewisham, or the old world charm of Peckham. Sandwiched between Hither Green cemetery and the Ravensbourne ditch, it is one long aesthetic groan. But it nurtures in its bosom the largest surviving 1940s prefab estate in Britain, admirably named Excalibur. Lewisham council wants to throw it, like the fabled sword, into the lake of oblivion. This week Excalibur was declared fit only for demolition.

If this was Camden or Kensington or Islington such demolition would be unthinkable. Conservationist armies would rally round this eccentric enclave of 187 houses, complete with dig-for-victory outhouses and a curious tin-roofed church. But then if there were prefabs in those boroughs, they would have been demolished years ago. So is their surviving anywhere into the 21st century a vice or a virtue?

Prefabs were a blind alley of postwar rehousing. Churchill thought it a bright idea to use Spitfire factories to make components for mass-produced houses for people bombed out of their homes. They were bungalows of four rooms around a central service core, put down wherever a site was free, including if necessary a graveyard.

The project was a typical Whitehall cock-up. Five ministries were involved, delays mounted and costs soared. Originally priced at £500 each, which was already more than suburban semis had cost before the war, the prefabs cost £1,300. This meant they rented at 13 shillings, against a local council house at five shillings. Private and civic builders – who in France, Germany and Poland were busily restoring old homes – in Britain were starved of permits and resources, while Londoners squatted in ruins and slept in the underground.

Only 156,000 prefabs were eventually built, but they proved remarkably popular. They were not flats but "a home of our own". And they lasted. Though most were barely insulated wood frames, occupants were able to maintain them and keep them standing long after their official 10-year lives. Excalibur is the largest complete estate to survive, built by PoWs of Rommel's Afrika Korps before they returned to Germany.

This is today an extraordinary place. The demure terraces of south London give way to what might be a shack estate on Canvey Island. Both council tenants and owner-occupiers have decked their facades in fanlights, coaching lanterns and fake rustication. Gardens are crammed with gnomes and some have smart cars parked in front. The estate's champion, Jim Blackender, whose website is a model of community action, has bedecked his home as if expecting the England football team to arrive.

The whole enclave is an anarchic contrast to the anonymity of the system-built deck-access slabs that usually supplanted the prefabs, now being demolished as uninhabitable and impossible to maintain. The tenants of the vast Aylesbury estate across south London scream, "Get us out of here", but their salvation is expensive and endlessly postponed. Yet no ideologues are so dyed-in-the-wool as Britain's public housing officials, who have long regarded the chaotic individualism manifest in the prefab as intolerably antisocial and to be "designed out".

Lewisham council wants Excalibur gone. Residents were recently offered Hobson's choice, of agreeing to demolition and rehousing or the estate being sold to a private developer – and demolished. Even under such pressure only 56% opted for the first choice. The government has meekly listed six of the 187 for preservation, but none is worth preserving on its own. It would be like listing six houses in Belgrave Square. English Heritage has also refused to introduce conservation area control, on the strange grounds that "this would be imposing our view from above". Surely that is its job.

What to preserve is always a balance. This week a more celebrated prefab was in the news, Captain Scott's hut in the Antarctic. The appeal to preserve it in situ has raised more than £3m. Hardly anyone can ever see it. It could have been lifted, lock, stock and barrel, to the Science Museum. But it must be right to protect it where history and circumstance put it, a memorial to an extraordinary moment in world exploration.

So why not Catford? Conservation is enveloped in class. Labour housing ministers such as Yvette Cooper spent millions on consultants trying to demolish 19th-century streets in Merseyside and elsewhere, on the patronising grounds that old buildings were too good for working-class northerners. Much of London's housing was likewise declared unfit for human habitation after the war. From Chelsea through Camden and Shoreditch to the docks, there are terraces, mews and warehouses saved in the nick of time from the bulldozer, offering acceptable homes for rich and poor. Every property, even a prefab, has its price, as those who bought houses in Excalibur attest. Lewisham, like Cooper, is using a bulldozer where a chisel and screwdriver would do.

All historic buildings might be moved to museums to make way for something more profitable, or merely new. We could move old theatres, pubs, council chambers, even Shakespeare's birthplace. The whole of historic Britain could be dumped in a museum. Prefabs have already been moved to the Chiltern Open Air Museum and Avoncroft Museum in Worcestershire, where they look most odd.

We save buildings not just for their beauty. We save them for their visual variety and the memories they evoke in individuals and communities. I suppose the back alleys of Mayfair and the City of London, its churches, parks and squares, all get in the way of development. They serve no profitable purpose that cannot be supplied by a gherkin, a shard or a piazza. Yet we preserve them because we know they enrich the life of the city. They relieve its monotony and protect qualities of surprise and repose that modern design can no longer supply. There are no curved alleys or intimate lanes in today's architecture.

Excalibur is scruffy and working class. It probably offends a Niagara of government regulations. It costs someone's money to maintain and can, I am sure, evoke a pundit to say it is a reminder of a bad past. These arguments were used in the 1970s to fill in Southwark's Grand Surrey Canal with rubble, wiping out a slice of its people's history and an invaluable future amenity. The people of north London apparently merited a canal, but that was too dangerous for south Londoners.

We still find it hard to move forward without snapping the chains of the past. The prefab estate is a small piece of working-class history, no less worthy for not being conventionally beautiful. It is a chapter in the nation's story, when misguided, utopian bureaucrats came face to face with their own incompetence. Yet the result was a building that curiously struck a chord with a group of men and women who had been traumatised. They had lost the castles of their dreams, and now found them again. To walk around Excalibur today is to know this is still true. Like Scott's hut, it is a passing moment made permanent. It should not be demolished.


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Letters: Prefabs, Fabs and mass demolition

The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage are barking up the wrong tree in trying to "save" the prefab Excalibur estate in Lewisham (Anger over plans to demolish historic prefab estate, 3 January). The Excalibur residents' long struggle is a lesson about how people want to live together. It is not about preserving the fabric of damp, decaying homes well past their habitable lifetimes.

It is not a miracle that these homes have survived for so long. It is almost wholly due to hard work by the tenants and their management organisation. Stability and a supportive community at Excalibur grew from a feeling of "being in control", living in homes which are compact and easy to run, providing dignity and independence at an affordable rent.

Sadly, the pressures on housing in inner London don't encourage building detached bungalows. This has been taken on board by Excalibur residents, who for years have been developing plans to translate their ideals into achievable new homes, fit and decent, as they deserve.

Yes, let's study and respect the prefab history. A few examples to demonstrate one short-term solution, fitted to its time in the immediate devastation of war, would be better placed in a museum.

Caroline Mayow

London

• The campaign to save 9 Madryn Street is as much about stopping the council erasing an entire neighbourhood as about preserving Ringo Starr's birthplace (Comment, 4 January). The Ringo connection is important, and useful – as it grabs headlines – but the real story is the battle to stop a deluded council pursuing a regressive policy of mass demolition.

William Palin

Secretary, Save Britain's Heritage


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November 09 2010

Graffiti art divides councils' opinion

Is graffiti a renegade art form or a public nuisance? Hackney council is demanding a giant rabbit be whitewashed while Brighton is using graffiti as advertising

The subject of graffiti has always provoked comment, criticism and controversy. Local authorities and their cleaning teams have struggled to contain the perceived urban scourge of "tagging" (quickly executed stylised signatures) on any hoarding or derelict space that may lend itself to decoration.

Now it appears Brighton and Hackney councils have taken different approaches to the problem. While the south coast council has won plaudits for its actions, its east London counterpart is facing a public backlash for its decision to order the owners of a recording studio to "remove or obliterate" a giant rabbit painted on to its wall.

Secretive Belgian street artist ROA was granted permission last year to create the 12ft rabbit by the owners of The Premises music studio and cafe. Supporters claim that street art is of great benefit to the borough, attracting tourists and helping to overturn negative stereotypes of gang culture and gun crime. But the council policy is to paint over all graffiti and street art.

"It is not the council's position to make a judgment call on whether graffiti is art or not, our task is to keep Hackney's streets clean," it said in a statement.

As well as considerable local support, the online petition to Save the Rabbit has already attracted more than 2,000 signatures.

Last year, the council was criticised for erasing a cartoon from a block of flats by international renowned street artist, Banksy. Its latest attempt to get rid of a public artwork has created such opposition that The Premises' directors Julia Craik and Viv Broughton – who will be charged by the council for a contractor to paint over the rabbit – have issued a formal request to the council to debate its policy on street art removal. The council says that in order to trigger a debate at a full council meeting more than 750 people who live, work or study in the borough need to sign its own e-petition which is due to go live on 1 December.

In contrast to Hackney's approach, Brighton council has employed an innovative approach to graffiti in its successful collaboration with the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership. Graffiti artist Aroe has handpainted the logo of a seatbelt campaign, Embrace Life, on to 10 sites around the city to a height of 20ft in some locations. The sites for the logo were a mix of council-owned and private properties; selected by SSRP's communication manager, Neil Hopkins, the graffiti officer at Brighton council's clean team, Sarah Leach, and Aroe, with permission being given by each property owner.

Using derelict spaces for mural art, or in this case to promote a socially responsible campaign, deters taggers who, having seen the signature on the artwork, will leave the site alone in deference to accepted hierarchies in the world of graffiti art.

"From our point of view this initiative has deterred a significant numbers of taggers in the city, reducing our cleaning bill by an estimated £1,000 so far. However, an even greater value is improved public perception, reduced fear of crime and an improved local environment. These outcomes are very important and the project has been a resounding success for the council," says Leach.

Good advertising

Ken Seymour, SSRP partnership manager, adds: "With this campaign we have managed to help the council reduce its operating costs and improve the local environment, creating a high-visibility campaign at a fraction of normal advertising rates. In this time of fiscal austerity, such partnerships are vital in delivering best value while still maintaining innovation and quality."

Latest available figures show that councils across the UK spend an estimated £1bn a year on graffiti removal.

The success of Brighton's policy is reflected not just in reduced costs and fear of crime but in the phenomenal interest in Embrace Life which has gone from a county-wide initiative to outstanding international success. Its online film advertisement won a gold award at the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards (digital and interactive category), has had more than 18m online views and is a contender for YouTube's Ad of the Year award, which will be announced later this month.

Of the original 10 Embrace Life sites installed in Brighton in January, eight are still painted with the logo and generating ongoing savings for the city clean team. Leach says she would welcome involvement in another project of this kind.

The debate over good or bad graffiti will continue, but Brighton's experience shows that this art form has the power to inform, inspire and transform.


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May 20 2010

Fragile state

It would be ironic if we lost these outstanding treasures as the Staffordshire hoard is saved

Your editorial in praise of the Wedgwood Museum (17 May) drew attention to the way in which this outstanding museum "risks being dragged down by a legal quirk". The museum is owned and managed by an independent trust set up precisely to prevent its collections being sold off in the event of the parent company facing bankruptcy. Now that Wedgwood has gone the way of so many other ceramic companies, the museum has, unbelievably, "found itself liable for funding the pensions of 7,000 ex-Wedgwood factory employees and a £134m deficit, an impossible task".

Indeed, Stoke-on-Trent has an alarming history when it comes to demonstrating the legal vulnerability of museum collections held in trust. When the Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum went into administration in 1991, its collections were judged to be disposable assets that should be sold off to repay creditors. Donors were alarmed to discover that items that they had given in the assumption that they would be held in perpetuity were now lost to the public. To prevent a similar fate overtaking the Gladstone Pottery Museum, the local authority stepped in to assume control. More recently, as the ceramic industry has declined, the city has seen the loss of a number of company-owned historic collections that have enormous local resonance.

The most iconic of these was the Minton Museum collection, which had passed into the hands of Royal Doulton. Like the Wedgwood Museum's own collection, this encapsulated the history and productivity of a globally important manufacturer. It held many unique examples of high Victorian design, including exquisite pâte sur pâte work by Louis Solon, unusual examples of Parian ware, designs attributed to Christopher Dresser and monumental pieces shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition and the international exhibitions that followed.

When Royal Doulton decided to dispose of the Minton Museum in 2002, the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery attempted to negotiate a private treaty sale in order to keep this important historic collection together. Although funding was secured in record time, Doulton withdrew from the negotiations and decided to sell the collection as individual lots at auction. Most notoriously, a dessert service commissioned by the Victorian explorer Lord Milton to commemorate an expedition to the Canadian Rockies was broken up into 22 separate lots; many pieces went overseas.

While we managed to acquire some significant examples of Minton craftsmanship, including a Sevres-style vase shown at the Great Exhibition, a monumental Bacchus vase and a rare life-sized majolica peacock, many major items were lost from the public arena. Royal Doulton then offloaded the contents of its own museum at auction, to offset a small proportion of its debt.

The Wedgwood Museum must not be allowed to go down a similar route. It would be both tragic and ironic if we were to lose its extraordinary collection just as the Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold has been saved for the region.


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May 05 2010

'This town has been sold to Tesco'

Are towns built by the UK's leading supermarket the future of urban development?

Imagine living in a Tesco house, sending your child to a Tesco school, swimming in a Tesco pool and, of course, shopping at the local Tesco superstore. According to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), the government's adviser on architecture and design, this collective monopoly is not an imaginary dystopia. "Tesco Towns" on this model are already being planned across the UK, from Inverness in Scotland to Seaton in Devon.

While the economic downturn has hit many parts of the development industry hard, Tesco recorded profits of nearly £3.4bn last year. Its plans for expansion are reflected by a growing tide of what are described as "supermarket-led mixed-use development proposals" – entire districts of homes, schools and public places built by the company.

Cabe is aware of plans for 3,656 new Tesco homes, an increase of 1,300% on the 283 homes built by the supermarket giant between 1996 and 2009. This huge rise – which represents only nine new schemes – is a fraction of the total planned, as Cabe does not see every scheme. Indeed, Tesco recently announced it aims to ramp up its superstore expansion by 40%, largely as a result of the mixed-use development.

Yet when house building is at its lowest level since 1923, more than 4.5 million people are on waiting lists for social housing and the number of families in temporary accommodation are up by a third in the last decade, shouldn't we welcome anyone building new homes, especially when a percentage will be earmarked as affordable housing?

Sir John Sorrell, the outgoing chair of Cabe, however, questions the quality of the proposed developments. "Retailers don't just want to build a new supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing and shopping streets," he warned in his valedictory speech at the end of last year. "Our concern is not only the quality of this kind of development – which is generally very poor – but the way in which architecture and places are created in the image of the retailer."

In Bromley-by-Bow, east London, a Tesco superstore, shops, primary school and hundreds of homes are planned. In Trafford, Manchester, a 168,000 sq ft Tesco will dominate a 50-acre site. Love Lane, Woolwich, and the Streatham Hub development, both in south London, and Queen's Square in West Bromwich are all home to similar proposed Tesco developments that are in partnership with the local authority. And in Seaton, a small seaside town in east Devon, a superstore, hundreds of homes and a hotel recently received planning permission.

Sandra Semple, the mayor of Seaton, is one of eight independent councillors elected on a platform opposing the proposals. Seaton, she says, is a traditional seaside town of 7,500 people on a World Heritage coast. "It's an old-fashioned town on a gorgeous bay, with nothing but individual shops, and no chainstores. Every other store is an individual trader," she says.

She points out that there are already 15 Tescos within 25 miles of Seaton, and says: "The town has always been against this, but the Tory-run district council completely refused to hear our arguments and says Tesco is the only company capable of regenerating our town. This will be an entire place. It's about 20 hectares – an enormous piece of land.

"This town has been sold to Tesco. We are not at the moment a 'Tesco Town', but this will make us one. We've lost our individuality, our identity – the very things that make this place special."

The irony is that there is little evidence that the superstores themselves want to create entire communities. Instead, policy is pushing them in that direction, with local authorities prepared to grant permission for superstores they may have previously refused, as long as they are accompanied by the sweetener of housing, schools and sports facilities, which the councils don't have the funds to provide.

This is what happened in Trafford in March, when a 168,000 sq ft store and accompanying development was granted planning permission, although an application for an 89,000 sq ft store on the same site was refused in 2006. The difference is that this time the redevelopment of Lancashire county cricket club is part of the scheme.

Friends of the Earth says the council's desire to develop the cricket ground "has been used as an excuse to back a superstore development which would otherwise be ruled out for its unacceptable negative impact".

It's a similar story in St Helens, Greater Merseyside, where Tesco is building a stadium for St Helens rugby league club, but the new superstore and massive car park will dominate, relegating the stadium to round the back of the site.

Cabe has attacked Tesco's plans, in partnership with the Thames Gateway Development Corporation, for a new district centre, including hundreds of homes and a school, in Bromley-by-Bow, pointing out that the housing overlooks either the motorway or the superstore, and that Tesco lorries heading for the servicing entrance would cut across the children's route to the primary school.

In this instance, Tesco has gone back to the drawing board, but Cabe is critical that a new district centre should be created on the site at all. Hans van der Heijden, a Dutch architect who also works in Britain, explains why: "It is slightly absurd to make private enterprises responsible for things that are, in the end, public. The interesting comparison is with other private enterprises that created places such as the garden cities, but in those instances there was an element of charity at work related to some form of emancipation and public interest. That seems to be absent here. It's a money machine."

How has this absurd approach to development – an anathema in mainland Europe – been allowed to take root? One reason is the bartering culture that developed between councils and developers as a result of the introduction of "planning gain" – or section 106, as it is known – by the Conservatives in the early 1990s. Since then, it has been customary for local authorities to negotiate with developers over the amount of community infrastructure they are willing to provide to accompany a development, including affordable housing, new roads and sports facilities.

For supermarkets wishing to build very large stores in towns and cities, offering such infrastructure, including schools, has seemed like a natural extension of this policy.

Another key factor is changes to planning policy made in 2004, when the benchmark test that a new development should be in line with "public benefit" was quietly dropped in favour of "economic benefit".

The Conservatives have voiced unease about Tesco Towns. Bob Neill, shadow minister for local government and planning, says: "I am concerned that the rise of so-called supermarket towns will lead to developments where small retailers have no place or face uncompetitive rents. Planning rules must be amended to allow councils to take into account the benefits of greater competition and the need to protect small business."

The party has pledged to introduce greater local participation in planning through its "open source" proposals if it wins tomorrow's general election.

But Neil Sinden, director of policy at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says the aspiration to return planning decisions to the local level is in contrast to the opening section of the Conservative manifesto, which emphasises that the planning system is a barrier to economic development. With the Tory planning proposals also including financial incentives for councils to provide more housing and development, Sinden believes they are unlikely to halt the onward march of Tesco Towns.

It is possible that Liberal Democrat plans for a third-party right of appeal for local interest groups would support struggles in places such as Seaton, but the detail is unavailable, while Labour is wholly behind the current approach, confirming that it allows councils to generate growth.

Sinden fears that, whatever the outcome of the election, Tesco Towns are the face of future urban development: "I don't see this going away. It's not featuring in any of the parties' thinking when it comes to reform of the planning system."

What strikes him is that although there is "huge public engagement", in policy terms "it's an issue which at the moment is being swept under the carpet".

Semple, who challenged the local authority head on, felt that every effort was made to muzzle her. "A regeneration board was set up, and I was one of the members, but I was told that my presence was no longer desired because I had the wrong attitude. I was asked to resign."

Tesco denies that its developments are poor quality and that the scale of development is new. A spokesman for the company says Tesco has been providing much-needed mixed use development since 1997 in deprived areas. "These are urban areas which have not received investment for a number of years. We are willing to invest, and that kind of investment has to be applauded and welcomed. We're looking at providing more than 2,000 jobs in these areas that can benefit the community for years to come. He adds: "Councils are very welcoming because we are bringing in jobs and investment."

• Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City, published by Penguin, £9.99. To order a copy for £8.99, including UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.


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January 20 2010

England's most hated building to be demolished

Bournemouth council to spend £7.5m razing leisure complex which topped poll of buildings in need of demolition

A seaside building that won a poll as the most hated in England is to be bought by a local authority and razed.

Bournemouth borough council is to spend around £7.5m to rid the Dorset resort of the Waterfront leisure complex. Featuring dark glass and a wavy roof designed to represent the sea, the development, also known as the Imax building, caused an outcry when it was opened in 1998 owing to both its looks and the fact that it blocked a beloved view across the water to the Purbeck Hills.

The cinema, the centrepiece of the complex, did not open for almost three years, closed again soon afterwards and was not re-opened.

In 2005 the Channel 4 programme Demolition asked people which building they would like knocked down and the Imax was judged first in line in England.

Bournemouth council leader, Stephen MacLoughlin, said: "We have listened to Bournemouth's residents who want to see the seafront rid of the detested Imax building. We have given the existing occupiers enough time to deliver on this site and will not wait for action any longer. The time is right for the council to seize the initiative."

Contracts have been exchanged and the purchase will be completed on 1 February.

Councillor Ron Whittaker, an independent, said: "I think the people of Bournemouth will say thank God it is going. We have to hold our hands up and say we got it wrong all those years ago when it was given permission.

"It has been the biggest talking point in the town for years, and not just among residents but also visitors. It is a hideous and ugly building and whatever happens now it must be demolished so that the glorious views are restored."

A resident of the resort, John Baker, said: "This is tremendous news. No one wanted it before it was built and no one wanted it after it was built. It was a vanity project for the councillors and officers who gave permission and it simply does not fit in along the front."


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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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