Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Rape; an all too common weapon of war

The Central African Republic is the latest casualty. Sadly mentioned only in passing by the much of the media - with the very honourable exception of excellent work by Alex Thomson of Channel Four News - the country is disintegrating, verging on a genocidal disaster, continuing to pay for the crimes of colonialism, post-colonial excess, corruption and exploitation.

Seleka rebels

The country has been a desperate case for years of course and has been pretty much forgotten by the rest of the world. It suffered under the flamboyant, cartoonishly self-indulgent, grotesquely bloody, regime of ‘Emperor’ Bokassa and, as coup has followed coup, its government has barely improved since. A failed state, scarred by corruption, instability and violence - both within the country and overspill from neighbouring conflicts - with hundreds of thousands of people displaced. It has amongst the lowest healthcare professionals-to-population ratios in the world, with just three midwives to every 1,000 live births and 0.5 doctors to every 1,000 people.

Violence begets violence and the latest conflict sprung up in CAR last December. Séléka, a disparate coalition of rebel groups, took on and deposed François Bozizé's government, himself imposed by a French-backed coup. This coalition has now disintegrated and both the UN and the French - who have dispatched troops - warn the country is on the verge of genocide as Muslim and Christian militias confront one another.

With this violence comes a horribly ugly feature that seems to occur all too frequently; rape as a weapon of war. A Human Rights Watch study in May reported this:

‘I was in my house, where I live with my younger sister … when many Seleka fighters entered the quarter. I am 33 years old and my sister is 23. She was eight months pregnant when they raped us on March 25. They were shooting in the air in front of our house. Two armed men entered the house, threatened us, and forced us to get undressed and lay down on the ground. … They both raped us, one after the other. They were shouting bad words in Sango and in Arabic. One of them was shouting the Arabic word charmouta (prostitute in Arabic) while raping me. Then, they left the house. Our neighbor took us to the community hospital, where my sister lost her baby the day after.’

Another witness report read:

’I was at home with my children when a large number of armed men arrived in pick-up vehicles in front of my house. Three of them came into my house, pointed their rifles at me, tied me up in front of my children, and raped me. After they had raped me, they looted my house and left. I’m now alone with my children. My husband abandoned me the day after the rape. I feel pains in my body.’

It all sounds horrifically familiar. South of the Central African Republic is the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which has been raped and pillaged literally, figuratively, metaphorically and continually.

A study earlier this year found 12 per cent of Congo’s female population had been raped, with roughly 1,152 victims suffering every day - 48 victims every hour. Women are not the only targets; children, men, even babies, are not safe. To read the detailed reports by human rights’ observers is a glimpse into a level of violence one would hope had been left in mediaeval times. It's a dehumanised state; a country broken after two hundred years where excessive, gratuitous, tortuous, casually brutal violence has been a daily norm. Under the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, a slave who failed to collect sufficient levels of rubber would lose their hand; now militias threaten rape, disfigurement by machete and, what Anthony Burgess would call, ’ultraviolent’ death.

King Leopold II's violent legacy

Reports of rape as a weapon of war now emerge from most of the world’s war zones and violent hotspots; Syria, Afghanistan, Mexico, Egypt. 

The horrific attacks in India – it is in fact the anniversary of the fatal attack on the 23-year-old medical student who was targeted on a bus by a gang as she returned home – have focused attention on attitudes towards women there, only too late for too many victims.

Demonstrations in India calling for action to tackle rape

It is worth taking time, at this point, to pause and salute Foreign Secretary William Hague, who, with the high profile support of Angelina Jolie, is pressing the world’s governments and the UN to focus more on these horrors.

In The Times last year Mr Hague wrote (£):

’From Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo we have seen rape used as a terrifying weapon of war. Inflicted systematically and sometimes to order from the highest levels, it is as much a means of waging war as are bullets or tanks. And more often than not it is carried out not by invading armies but by one group against another: deliberately to destroy, degrade, humiliate and scar political opponents or entire ethnic and religious groups.

’The number of victims involved is utterly chilling. In Rwanda alone, up to 400,000 women are estimated to have been raped in the 100-day genocide of 1994. The vast majority of victims are women and children, but men are often targeted too.

‘Guilt lies with those who commit these crimes, but the shame falls on the whole world. For we have failed to act in a concerted way against this problem and have allowed a culture of impunity to develop. The shocking truth is that very few perpetrators have ever been put on trial for rape in conflict and even fewer have gone to prison. In wartime Bosnia, up to 50,000 women were raped, but only 30 men have ever been convicted. Given this record, the government forces and militia committing rape in Syria today probably expect they will simply get away with it.’

It's a thankless task. And it won't be an election winning issue but it’s the right thing to do and needs applauding and supporting. Certainly, Hague, as foreign secretary, has confirmed he is a thoughtful and able politician, with the gravitas of age and experience, a long way from the baseball cap of leadership.

Next year London will host a summit on this painful issue; the UN is throwing its weight behind the campaign. It won’t succeed. These awful crimes will tragically continue. But Hague and his campaign may start to make a difference, to send the message that such violation isn't an acceptable battlefield tactic of terror, to help start holding those committing these crimes responsible. We can but hope it becomes the exception rather than a normal aspect of war – or, indeed, a common feature of a destabilised state.

Friday, 6 December 2013

When Mandela came to Camden Town

Plaque unveilings to the great and the good are frequent enough occasions. If planners are lucky, a photographer from the local press might turn up to take a few quick shots of the curtain being pulled to gentle applause from a small gathering of friends and fans of a once famous comedian, writer or artist.

Rarely do they attract international statesmen, crowds of hundreds, singers and a paparazzi pack that wouldn’t be out of place at the Cannes Film Festival.

But early on a bright, warm July morning in 2003, Lyme Street, Camden Town, was the stage for this special English Heritage occasion. Nelson Mandela, in London ahead of this 85th birthday, rearranged his schedule so he could be there, to remove a curtain to reveal the plaque dedicated to anti-apartheid campaigners Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who lived in the terraced house between 1966 and 1978.

At the time I was working for the Camden New Journal*. It was a far bigger picture job than I was normally used to but when the editor, Eric Gordon, asked for a volunteer I jumped at the chance. Despite its being a press night the evening before, I was up before six and was in Camden Town just after 7am. I’d borrowed a step ladder from a colleague and found my way to Lyme Street.

Hardened paparazzi photographers were already there, but there was sufficient space for me to erect the stepladder and squeeze it along the front row by the railings, just a few yards from a little rectangular red drape, behind which was the plaque.

Several colleagues from the paper turned up, not to do any work but to experience something unique. Eric sauntered along, in a fedora, and chirpy despite the early hour; it wasn’t a time we often saw him. The accountant and the head of advertising had also made the short journey down the road. And while the unveiling hadn’t been widely publicised, it was clear the message of what was happening that Friday morning was echoing around the area; at first there were tens of people, soon there were hundreds.

Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm appears to have been among the crowds

Sash windows in houses on the other side of the road were open fully and in some people sat precariously on sills, legs dangling beneath them. Parents carried their children on their shoulders; people climbed on top of walls and up poles to try and get a glimpse of what was happening. Behind railings near the plaque dignitaries were arriving. Frank Dobson MP was joined by Loyd Grossman – his role was, remarkably, compere of the occasion. Doreen Lawrence was there. Somewhere around was Alastair Campbell, as I later discovered when we bumped into each as the crowd dispersed.

The young Camden mayor Nasim Ali arrived, resplendent in robes and adorned with the traditional gold chain. He was effervescent. He bounded over and asked me to get a good photograph of himself with Nelson Mandela; later, as he hugged the former president, I tried to get the shot but found too many heads in the way. I always regretted not supplying the perfect shot for him though looking at the pictures now there are several shots he would enjoy.

Mayor Nash Ali greeting Mandela, under the watchful eye of Zelda la Grange

Many in the crowd were getting a bit agitated; they could see little of what was about to happen with so many photographers on ladders. A cry went up 'get down, get out the way'. The photographers were unwilling to move, but such became the pressure eventually we all got to the ground.

Soon, police wearing hi-vis jackets appeared at the corner by Camden Road, a series of cars turned the corner and there, was Nelson Mandela, walking with a stick, accompanied by his reliable - and fearsomely protective aide Zelda la Grange. He was first greeted by Gillian Slovo, the writer and daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First.

Mandela's speech wasn't long, but it was witty, affectionate towards his old comrades in arms and full of cheek. Ruth First, he recalled, was a 'sharp lady' who didn't suffer fools gladly. He still had the 'scars' on his back to prove it.

When Mandela pulled the cord, to loud whoops and applause (had this noise ever happened at an English Heritage plaque unveiling before?), and, on stairs leading up to the front door of a neighbouring house, a South African choir, singing with gusto, all with broad smiles.

There was security of course. Hefty numbers of police marked the street, English Heritage officials stood by the railings and Mandela's own easily identifiable guards - hair hard cropped, sunglasses, all white - watched attentively. But it wasn't overbearing.  People danced and waved, jumped with joy, yelled out Mandela's name with glee. The former president himself smiled, waved and joined in with the merriment. He left to music, laughter and joy. He was probably on the scene for no longer than 20 minutes, but it was a moment no-one there would forget the occasion. I felt privileged just to see the man and take his photograph.

*The Camden New Journal's report of the day can be found here.

A final aside

While the majority of the photographers were in the pen with me, some, like The Guardian's David Sillitoe, looked for different angles. Below is the picture which ran in his paper:

Towards the left hand side, I'm one of the few members of the press pack who can be identified, with my long blonde hair, I'm captured just looking to my right.

For some reason, we got hold of an international edition of The Guardian that week and the same photograph ran. Except, there appears to have been a bit of a cropping error. While I can still be seen looking in the wrong direction, Nelson Mandela has been removed from the image almost entirely; just his right hand survived the chop.  Oops!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Pub closure figures; a brief return

‘Free-of-tie pubs are closing at a faster rate than tied pubs. That is evidence. It is real evidence. It comes out of a number of surveys taken over a whole period of years’

This is what Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, told the Business, Innovation and Skills committee in June earlier this year (see question 53). As I waded through the immense volume of information regarding pubcos and the campaign for reform, it was a claim which always struck me as slightly odd. I couldn’t work out how it quite added up. After all, the numbers of independent pubs reached more than 20,000 in 2012, up 1600 in ten years, as more than 10,000 pubs closed in the same period. How could the sector be growing while shrinking faster than pubcos?

Well, it turns out, the reason is quite clear; according to a new report published last week, it simply isn’t the case.

Pub Closures: the truth, published by the All Party Parliamentary Group last week, pretty compellingly shows how the leased/tenanted sector has seen many more pubs close than those of independent freehouses. It’s quite a significant detail as it counters what has been a core argument against pubco reform.

The figures upon which the BBPA rely are, it seems, CGA figures, which don’t actually track the closure of pubs at all but seek to ‘provide brand owners (and other suppliers to the on trade) with an up-to-date and accurate database of all currently trading on trade outlets’.

But according to those figures, the numbers of independent, free-of-tie pubs which closed between December 2005 and March 2014 is 2,131 pubs, while 5,117 'non-managed pubs' (mainly leased and tenanted) closed in the same period. 

The figures also omit the numbers of pubs which temporarily close following the failure of a licensee, but subsequently reopen under new management within a couple of weeks. This process is known as 'churn' and it simply isn't acknowledged in the CGA figures. So, for example, had The Alma reopened under new management, the failure of Kirsty Valentine's tenureship there simply wouldn't be acknowledged.

According to the report, in leaked figures from Punch Taverns, 'around a third of their pubs would churn in a year'. The report quotes a similar figure for Enterprise Inns.

And, oddly, the figures I quote at the top about the proportion of oubs which are free and independent or tied and managed are from the BBPA itself. So quite how does Brigid Simmonds justifies her statements to the BIS committee, I'm not really clear. 

The MP's report is unsurprisingly scathing in its conclusions:

'It is clear that the reality of trends in the pub sector, particularly where the main problem lies, has been misinterpreted by, or misrepresented to, a succession of government and parliamentary bodies, the Office of Fair Trading, select committees and Business, Innovations and Skills department have regularly quote, and relied upon, data which purports to represent the picture of pub closures.'

And the report ends with a plea to Vince Cable, who has been noticeable by his silence on this issue recently:

'Not only the BBPA myth based on misrepresentation of the CGA figures no longer a reason not to introduce the much needed statutory code with the all important market rent only option in it - but the clear and real evidence of pub ownership trends, pubco disposal figures and documented churn are all key reasons why BIS MUST (the report's emphasis) now do this.'

It is no surprise to see the BBPA are reacting rigorously against the report, eager to refute any suggestion they are spinning the figures or misleading the committee.

A piece in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser published this morning (November 26) said the BBPA was trying to correct ‘false and misleading’ statements about their interpretation of pub closure figures, adding that they would write to the BIS committee to ‘set out the facts’. Their rebuttal includes the lines: 'The accusation that the BBPA claims the free-of-tie sector has seen many more net closures is false' and 'Tied pubs are closing in larger numbers than free-of-tie pubs'. The full piece can be found here.

Meanwhile, I've noticed a new Twitter handle has appeared for The Alma. @TheAlma_N1 appeared over the last few days and has announced that the Stoke Newington pub will be reopening soon. Inevitably, the supporters of the previous landlady will have mixed feelings about this development. But, the new tenant is blameless for the situation in which Kirsty Valentine finds herself and an open pub is better than a closed pub.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The new United Nations Human Rights Council

The world can rest easy. Overnight the United Nations elected a new Human Rights Council which is 'responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe'. It's just as well they all have such personal experience and knowledge:

South Africa

Prisoners suffer abuse by prison guards - employed by outsourcing favourite G4S - including forced injections and electric shocks.


The Algerian government's own human rights authority published a report earlier this year detailing bribery and corruption allegations, as well as failures in children's education and state muzzling of the press.


There is much concern over the Moroccan government's treatment of the Saharawi territories, whose people have campaigned for self-determination. Earlier this year mass graves of Saharawis were found, including children, dating back to 1976, but the persecution continues. And in June, Human Rights Watch called on Moroccan judges to stop jailing people who had confessed, apparently after torture  


Nowhere near the worst offender, but Namibia continues to worry human rights organisations because of continuing discrimination against minorities, violence against women, prison conditions and the rights of peaceful assembly.


Just a couple of weeks ago a campaigner was jailed after calling for his brother to be released on Facebook. Dinh Nhat Uy called for the release of Dinh Nguyen Kha on the social network site; he is currently serving four years for 'propaganda against the state'. Dinh Nhat Uy has promptly been jailed for 15 months for his trouble.


One of the several global human rights abuse specialists to have been elected to this UN committee. Blimey, the list of abuses is endless:

Amnesty International estimates 500,000 are locked up in punitive detention, yet to face any charge and in August, The Guardian reported that Chinese police were to get extra powers to detain people for up to six months without charge and without telling their families where they were.

It is estimated as many as 3,000 people are executed every year in China, more than the rest of the planet combined.

Uighurs and Tibetans are among the many ethnic minorities who have suffered persecution lasting decades.

And of course this is before we get to the totalitarian nature of the Chinese state, the lack of freedom of speech, the lack of voting, etc. etc.

China is the world class expert in human rights abuse.


This honeymoon idyll captured the headlines in February when a court ruled a 15-year-old girl should be flogged for having extra-marital sex. The extra-marital sex in question was being raped by her stepfather. Thankfully, in August, after an international outcry, the sentence was annulled. But the Minivan News reports about the culture of flogging in the Maldives and here you can watch a 17-year-old girl being flogged with a wooden paddle in March this year.

Saudi Arabia

Probably the world's second leading human rights abuser behind China.

There are the obvious crimes, the public executions and crucifixions, with bodies subsequently hanged from lampposts as warnings to all.

Human Rights Watch's world report on Saudi Arabia is very long. The arbitrary arrests of anyone, including children, the routine torture, the horrendous abuses against alleged criminals and the lack of rights for migrant workers are all listed.

And then of course is the lack of rights for women. HRW write:

'Under the discriminatory Saudi guardianship system, girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducing official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.'

And this Reuters article gives harrowing insight into the sort of abuses women regularly suffer in the country.

So the human rights of women world wide are evidently now in safe hands. 


'Macedonia is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour'. 

So says the US Department of State 'Trafficking in Persons Report 2013', published in June this year. To be fair Macedonia has been lauded in its efforts to stamp out this hideous trade but it remains an intractable problem.

Amnesty International highlights homophobic abuse that is still widespread in the country. 


Like China and Saudi Arabia, Russia is excellent at abusing human rights, regardless of international concern.

Greenpeace activists, and an accompanying journalist, are currently locked up awaiting trial, charged with hooliganism and face seven years in jail. 

Their treatment follows the jailing of Pussy Riot, one of whose members just showed up in a Siberian prison camp several thousand miles away from Moscow and her home and family.

Recently, anti-propaganda laws have been introduced against homosexuality, despite the impending Sochi games. Putin says homosexuals are welcome, but presumably as long as they don't tell anyone or, horror, kiss their partners. 

And dare one mention Georgia and Chechnya, on whose soil the most appalling atrocities have been carried out with either Russia's connivance or knowledge.


HRW's world report on Cuba begins

'Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. In 2012, the government of Raul Castro continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, travel restrictions and forced exile.'

It may be the darling of some on the left, with Fidel Castro a hero, but its human rights record continues to be woeful.


Few countries in the world have suffered more as a consequence of the misguided and counterproductive 'war on drugs'. As part of the security services' campaign to tackle narcotics, thousands of people have gone missing, been tortured or have been killed.

HRW reports that between January 2007 until mid-November 2012, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission issued reports on '109 cases in which it found that members of the army had committed serious human rights violations, and received complaints of 7,350 military abuses'. Soldiers who commit such abuses 'are virtually never brought to justice'.


Despite its membership of the EU and civilisation, it doesn't escape criticism from bodies including Amnesty International. In its 2013 report, it highlights the problems of deaths in custody, particularly amongst ethnic minorities, it questions its stance against torture in custody and says there is discrimination against ethnic minorities and LGBTI people.

Amnesty also criticises France's eviction of Roma camps:

'Camps and makeshift homes inhabited by Roma continued to be dismantled in forced evictions throughout the year. According to NGO estimates, 9,040 Roma were forcibly evicted throughout France in the first three quarters of 2012.'

United Kingdom

And before we give ourselves a pat on the back, and with relief exclaim 'well, we're not as bad as that lot', well no, we may not be, but then Britain is not an angel either. Since 2011, at least 61 journalists have been arrested in connection with payments to public officials. At least 12 have been cleared of any wrong doing, 23 remain on bail - some for more than a year, a disgraceful amount of time. None of these arrests are strictly human rights abuses but it remains extraordinary.

Oh, and Britain has a long and proud record of selling arms to China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, it's quite a surprise Iran has failed to be elected to this august body.


It's not the first time the UN Human Rights Council has been a joke and it won't be the last. To make way for many of these countries places like Angola, Libya and Malaysia have left the council.  These countries join, for a three-year term, and 33 others states like India, the US, Brazil, Congo, Kazakhstan continue on the council.  But is it any wonder human rights abuses continue with such vigour when the body tasked with monitoring and protecting rights is packed full of countries guilty of such atrocities?

Friday, 8 November 2013

The last moments of The Alma

Kirsty Valentine outside The Alma on eviction day

It’s 9.20am on a Friday morning and the Alma pub, recently crowned as North London Cider pub of the year by Camra, is busy. It isn’t open. The only drinks being consumed are tea and coffee. Everyone there, locals, friends and supporters, local MP Jeremy Corbyn, writer Pete Brown, are not there to toast landlady’s Kirsty Valentine’s success, but to be with her and offer support as bailiffs are expected at any moment to turf her out.

It’s the culmination of four years of fighting with owners, Enterprise Inns, the pub company (pubco) which own the pub. Kirsty has vigorously campaigned to reduce the rent, claiming it was impossible for her to make decent standard of living; conversely Enterprise claim they have tried to help find a solution.

But the time for negotiation ended on Thursday when Kirsty lost in court.

At 9.30, a representative from Enterprise is standing outside the locked doors of the pub with a man in a hi-vis jacket; he’s the man who will fix shutters to the doors and windows when the bailiff arrives.
Enterprise representative, plus 'shutters man' arrive

A locksmith appears. He looks somewhat surprised at the sight inside. ‘I was told this was a non-confrontational job, look at ‘em. There’s dozens in there. No one wants to lose their local.’ He speaks in a friendly manner, with an energetic, north-London ‘geezer’ accent.

When he does arrive, the bailiff is quiet, evidently keen not to be drawn into a confrontation. Still, two police officers pull up in a marked car, there to ensure there is no breach of the peace. Inside the pub, Kirsty is locked in conversations with lawyers trying desperately to come up with a last minute offer which might satisfy Enterprise’s demands. I’m told that Enterprise have said they will not accept any offer and just want her out (Enterprise dispute this).

Just after ten, the bailiff and Kirsty go to a back room of the pub to discuss matters. It’s agreed that they will leave the pub; there is no need for police, and bags of possessions, heaped on the floor start to be taken out.

With tears welling up, Kirsty goes behind the bar one final time and beckons her supporters to come and join her. They line up and hug; one final act of defiance before becoming a statistic, one of the 26 pubs which shut every week. The Alma is now closed.
Kirsty goes behind the bar one final time


Enterprise insist they are very keen to reopen The Alma as soon as possible, countering fears that it could become a block of flats or a supermarket. In a statement, the company describe the Newington Green site as ‘a great pub with a fantastic community spirit and we want it to continue to thrive’. They also claim that the dispute actually is ‘a clear example where the tied pub model…. has provided extraordinary levels of support, flexibility and ultimately direct financial assistance to a tenant'.

They add: ‘Regrettably therefore, we have been left with no alternative but to revoke her tenancy and will seek to put in place a new operator as soon as possible.’

As for Kirsty, she has lost her home – she lived above the pub – her business and livelihood – ‘they’ve wiped me out in 12 hours’ she says. Friends have rallied round and offered her places to stay while she continues her next move.

‘I can’t even begin to consider anything much because I’m just so, I’m just in shock. It’s a mixture of shock and relief that it’s finally all over.'

As for whether she will return to the pub trade, she is very unsure.

'I need to go away and sit in the corner for a very long time and contemplate things.'

But considering the tumultuous events of the day, she sounds remarkably chipper and stoical; buoyed by the impressive support during her final moments at the pub.

'I was so thrilled, it's made it so much easier to deal with. For many many months, I have wondered what his moment would feel like that and it's nothing like my greatest fears.I don't feel ashamed and I don't feel embarrassed. I feel extremely proud and honoured that everyone stuck by my side. I'm extremely proud I'm going out with my head held high. My staff are very loyal and are extremely upset. It's a very sad day, but at the same token it's made it very much easier to know I'm very loved and respected.'

For more background on the argument between publicans and pubcos, and the campaign for pubco reform, visit here.

Note - for legal reasons any comments left under this piece will be treated with particular caution. Thanks

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Pulling their last pint?

One night the barman at the pub at the bottom of my road was still pulling pints; the next morning he had gone.
Steel shutters were stapled securely to windows and doors, each pinned with notices warning any would-be trespassers to stay clear. A few weeks later the site has been sold, to whom no one knows. and what will happen to this once thriving community pub remains a mystery. Read more

Friday, 18 October 2013

What if Lord Adonis ran for mayor?

A map from the Abercrombie plan for London

Thus far, the only person to have publicly declared his desire to be Labour’s next London mayoral candidate is the eminent transport writer Christian Wolmar.

Disappointingly, in the first poll assessing the chances of the candidates, Wolmar was not included. While he is a long way from being the favourite, his work on trains is constantly interesting and informed and such is the importance of transport in the London Mayor’s brief he deserves to be taken more seriously.

The poll, published in the Evening Standard, found comedian Eddie Izzard favourite amongst the public, followed by Tessa Jowell, Diane Abbott, David Lammy, Andrew Adonis and Sadiq Khan. Izzard is unlikely to stand, Jowell is a strong candidate, especially after her performance during the Olympics while Abbott has a high profile and has a reputation for outspokenness, which hasn’t proved a political obstacle thus far, in the short existence of the London mayoralty.

While not commanding such a prominent media presence amongst this group, Lord Adonis is perhaps the most interesting potential candidate. Closely linked with Tony Blair, Adonis was the architect of academy schools and HighSpeed 2 (HS2): all these factors might be regarded as politically damaging. But they also reveal a man keen on promoting large, transformative projects, thoughtful and unwilling to play safe.

A few weeks ago, Adonis gave a few hints as to what his ambitions might be, as Mayor, in the annual lecture to the Vauxhall Labour Party. He began:

‘London needs a plan – a plan to become both a bigger world city and also a better working city for Londoners.’

And he continued, highlighting the problems which undeniably face the city. London has five of the 20 local authorities with the highest levels of income deprivation in England, youth unemployment is at 24 per cent, it boasts amongst the lowest apprenticeship take-up rates in the country, a 20-year difference in life expectancy between Oxford Circus and some distant stops on the Docklands Light Railway, as well as housing costs and transport problems.

‘Looming behind all this is a population explosion – caused by London’s success, but making all these problems steadily worse and more urgent.’

Adonis was scathing about Boris’ vapid 2020 Vision:

‘It is a blowing of London’s trumpet and a collection of suggestions to support London’s growth, but with little coherence, or assessment of priorities, timescales or deliverability.

‘We have a Vision without a plan. We have a succession of documents called plans which aren’t plans, some of which promise real plans at some point in the future. Then, depending on which mayoral non-plan you read, there are anything from 19 to 43 areas for priority development across the capital, but only 10 have an actual development plan. And there is a Plan Implementation Plan which promises further work on the key components of what should be included in the plan it is supposed to be implementing.’

‘Well, that’s all clear then,’ he added witheringly.

He compared it with the ‘inspirational’ Abercrombie plan, the first volume published in 1943, the second in 1944. (For more information on this ambitious, but largely unimplemented, project see this excellent piece.)

Sir Patrick Abercrombie
With the air of a philatelist who has stumbled across a particularly spectacular collection of stamps, he continues:

‘In 400 pages, plus dozens of maps, charts and photos, it surveys the historic development of London. Its analysis and recommendations are incisive and panoramic…. the tone throughout is of expertise and passion, tempered by urgency and practicality, summed up by Abercrombie’s opening words “All things are read if our minds be so”.’

He went on:

'London needs a plan for a population of 10 million. Boris hasn't got one. In practical policy, Boris has essentially been implementing parts of Ken Livingstone's unfinished programme - the parts, like Crossrail, that don't offend Tory boroughs - without developing a credible successor plan for a population of 10 million.'

So were he to stand for mayor, what post-Boris plan would Lord Adonis develop? He identified five priorities.

Three new East Thames road crossings: the Thames Gateway bridge; the Silvertown Tunnel; the new lower Thames Crossing.

Facilitating the development of London Gateway Port, which opens next year, helping it become a 'world class logistics centre. He noted that already Marks and Spencer are building a 900,000 square foot distribution centre at the site; and 'impediments stopping others from following suit - including infrastructure, skills and housing' need to be overcome to enable other firms to follow suit.

As well as 'significantly expanding Basildon', Adonis has a vision for another 'successful new town'. Already with good transport links - just 17 minutes from St Pancras via HS1 -  'Ebbsfleet is an obvious candidate.'

'It was, in effect, supposed to be a private-sector new-town but it hasn't happened because the private sector hasn't been able to put in the required infrastructure up front and take on the associated risks.'

Then, Adonis lists the Lower Lea Valley, Stratford, the Royal Docks, London Riverside, Woolwich, the Greenwich peninsula and Canada Water as 'priority areas for substantial housing and community development'.

And finally, he wants to emulate the Victorians and endow London boroughs with 'great parks and cultural attractions'. He mentions a 'serious proposal' of a £2billion Paramount theme park at Ebbsfleet, to rival Paris' Disneyland, and, (perhaps more my cup of tea), 'a kind of new national park covering the wetlands and associated habitats in the Estuary'.

It may well prove to be the case that Lord Adonis lacks the public profile and acknowledgement to carry him to the London mayoralty; too much technocrat, not enough showman. His closeness to the Blairite project may prove to be a hindrance within his own party (it shouldn't but it could). But he displays a knowledge of the capital, of its ways and means, its history and cultures, successes and challenges, to be an invaluable ally and source of inspiration to whomever Labour select as their candidate

In just one speech, Lord Adonis presents a plan for London of much more focus and significance - and much more human and celebratory - than anything Boris has proposed in his six years of office. All that is missing is a clown on a bike.

Note - Further pieces on potential mayoral candidates will appear as and when their vision for the job becomes clearer.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

'Piloti' backs the new Crystal Palace

Private Eye's architectural writer, Piloti, doesn't often praise a scheme preferring to target nefarious, crude, developers, but in this fortnight's edition he is effusive about the prospect of a new Crystal Palace, invoking John Betjeman. He writes:

The site of the Crystal Palace on top of Sydenham Hill must be the most desolate and sad in Britain. 
    Proposals to build there ahve been unsatisfactory and come to nothing. but now, surprisingly, a Chinese billionaire, Ni Zhaoxing, of the developer ZhongRong holdings, proposes to recreate Paxton's iron and glass creation on the site (with a modern interior). Opposition has already emerged, both from ideologues who disapprove of replicas and from people who think the present rubbish on the site is worth retaining. But surely this is a wonderful idea - provided the 1854 structure is rebuilt accurately and in its entirety.
    'Let's Build Another One!' wrote John Betjeman, sainted founder of this column, in 1936 after the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace. 'It is an emblem of all that was best in the great Victorian age, when England was prosperous and full of hope; when she was bolder than she is now...There would be nothing sentimental in rebuilding this greatest of Victorian cathedrals.' Quite so.

Piloti's voice is not just a lonely shout from the wilderness. These plans do have local support, and plenty of detractors, as I have found speaking to locals and also peaking at  forums such as this. Here's a few examples:

The white flag is quickly raised: 'Time to emigrate' was an early cry but others quickly issued a call to action, 'Time to fight', seemingly winning the argument as the first worrier replied 'wouldn't emigrate without fighting.'

Some are prepared for it to be given a chance:

'I think people are too quick off the mark to condemn this project, without knowing exactly what the plans are.
'Crystal Palace today (as well as the name) would not be anything like it is today without the 'delapitedated' (sic) palace mentioned.
The traffic concerns are completely without evidence. How many people drive to museums in London? Really.
I think this would be miles better than any other scenario, no housing, check. No need for funding for upkeep of the park, check. Keeping to the original footprint, check.
Crystal Palace IS the Crystal Palace. If well done, we should not stand in the way of good progress.
Wait and see before poo pooing it. It's not a cinema, a flying saucer or a 'Westfield'. Be careful what you wish for.'

While another said:

'As long as it's done with consideration and minimal disruption, then it should be supported. Will have a good effect on the house prices too, and good for tackling crime; they would have to bring in more police and security. More money in the local economy is a good thing overall. They should have rebuilt it before. If the only bit they're gonna rebuild is on the old Palace footprint, then that's great. If they improve public transport, that's great. Don't torpedo the idea. Help to shape it and make sure it serves local interests.

But there's a hefty dose of scepticism:

'We need to see what are these plans for CP. If the financial model (occupancy/returns etc) make sense. The impact on the community (traffic pollution, jobs etc). Then we can draw some conclusions.
At the moment I can only see some shady way to present this project to the media as if it was a done deal, no local consultation and sketchy information about the structure itself.... on the basis of current (limited) information the building makes very little sense.....'

And local councillor John Getgood falls into this category:

'There are so many unanswered questions. I am just musing at the moment, trying to put it all together. Anyone who remembers the debate on the Master Plan will know that once I have adopted a position, I will argue firmly for it but we cannot be said to be at the stage here yet. I have asked for clarification from the council on the ownership issues. They are not clear.'

Others have made their minds up:

'Trouble is, it's not just going to be a museum, the plans include shopping, a hotel, eateries of various types, I really do think traffic is going to be a problem. 
Also the original footprint includes some the current bus station, so I wonder what they'll do about that.
I'm not being a nimby, and I'm certainly not a pointless poopooer (is that even a word? - Ed), but I work in the construction industry, and I know how much of an environmental impact this will have on the park, as it's built, and I also know what much plans change between the 'pretty CGI pictures' stage, and the 'bog standard piece of shit' eventuality, I've see it happen.
Personally, I'd like to see a good clean up and reforestry sort of thing on the top terraces, keep it green, basically.'

And there are some who really hope it will all help the local football club:

'The devil is in the detail I guess but generally I think I'm for it in principle - that part of the park has been left to rot for a long time and lot of it hasn't been accessible to the public for many years....think overall it will be good for the local economy and put South London a bit more on the map. Maybe he will double up and Buy CPFC aswell!

Note:  Today Bromley Council gave exclusive rights for 16 months to the developers to give them an opportunity to move on with their plans. This means, they will have until February 2015 to amplify their ideas and consult with the community, before they submit a planning application. There's more information here.

Friday, 11 October 2013

All parties to blame for England's educational failings

There was understandable consternation and concern when the OECD published a report this week which showed 16 to 24-year-olds in England have amongst the worst numeracy and literacy skills in Europe.
The study placed England 21st for numeracy and 22nd for literacy out of 24 countries. This is undeniably damning and poses a serious threat to the long term health of Britain's economy and social fabric.
But the following comment from the fiercely tribal education minister Matthew Hancock was palpably stupid and unhelpful:
‘These are Labour's children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations.’
The simple fact is that it is far too soon to say what long term impact Labour had on the education system. Any child born in 1998 and after, therefore not starting full-time schooling until 2003, is not covered at all by this survey. And children born as far back as 1989, starting their schooling during the crucially formative early years in 1994, are included.
It is quite true that, between 1997 and 2010, Labour introduced a dizzying number of educational reforms. Please bear with me, this is a bit of a long list. 

  • Their first Education Act gained Royal Assent in 1997. It abolished the Assisted Places Scheme.  
  • Beacon Schools were introduced in 1998, Ofsted inspections of education authorities began, national targets for key stages 1-4 established.
  • In 1999, National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies started. 
  •  In 2000 we had the Learning and Skills Act in which the concept of Academy Schools emerged, the first opening in 2002.
  • Another Education Act passed in 2002 with vocational GCSEs replacing GNVQs and Ofsted was given enhanced powers.
  • In 2003, we saw the National Agreement on Raising Standards and in 2004 a five-year-strategy for children and learners. The Tomlinson Review of 14-19 year-olds’ education and skills was published and Building Schools for the Future started.
  • And another Education Act followed in 2005. This reformed teacher training and gave the Secretary of State greater powers of intervention in failing schools.
  • Not yet done, in 2006 the Education and Inspections Act passed. Ofsted got more powers and LEAs greater statutory responsibility for ensuring standards.
  • The following year was relatively quiet but in 2008 the Education and Skills Act passed. This major piece of legislation raised the school leaving age from 16 to 18 by 2015, A* grades for A Level was introduced and 16-18 year-olds were required to be in work, education or training.
  • The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act passed in 2009.
  •  - and in 2010, well, Labour lost power
 Phew! It's exhausting just listing the highlights of their activities.

Labour suffered legislative diarrhoea when it came to education in the 13 years they held office, though perhaps this is not surprising considering their ‘education, education, education’ mantra. And it would be perfectly reasonable to argue that their meddling was counterproductive and hindered teachers’ ability to teach. 
But Labour, of course, was not the first or the last government to tinker enthusiastically with education. During the previous 18 years of Conservative rule we saw the introduction of the National Curriculum, the replacement of O-levels with GCSEs, the emergence of the Assisted Places Scheme and National Vocational Qualifications. All significant, but it is fair to say the Tories during these years were less zealous than their New Labour successors.
The other major detail in the OECD report is that young people were no better at the tests used in the survey than people aged between 55 and 65. England was the only country in the survey where the older age category did better than the younger. This indicates standards have been falling for several decades, under governments of all parties.
Even as I did my GCSEs, more than 20 years ago, many critics argued they lacked the rigour and challenge of the O-levels they replaced. Subsequent grade inflation - which really must be acknowledged and not foolishly denied - has not improved the situation. Lifelong learning provision in this country is inadequate. And, most concerning of all, poverty and social background is far too great an indicator of later educational achievement. 

With the expansion of academies under this government, what is now emerging is a very erratic pattern of education, where the notion of a National Curriculum - and with it, perhaps, the communication of a coherent cultural and social understanding - no longer needs to apply. Some of these academies will be outstanding while others will be narrow and fail. Just watching the problems at the Al Madinah free school recently highlights the dangers. 

And while there are now 3,364 academies in England, with a rising birth rate we still face the prosepct of too few schools for too many children; this could mean that we could fare even worse in a future, similar, OECD, study.
Rather than resort to the sort of cheap, shallow, remarks displayed by Matthew Hancock, parties of all colours need honestly to accept their mistakes, study how those countries at the top of the tables maintain such high standards and do their best to emulate their models. At the same time, they should also bear in mind the damaging impact of perpetual change. Education is just too important an issue for political point scoring.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Can Paxton's Crystal Palace be rebuilt?

Over the years, plans to restore the site of the Crystal Palace have come and gone, stymied by local agendas, politics, planning and a lack of funds. I have seen sympathetic butterfly houses suggested, trees mapping out the template of the original palace, a car park, houses, a shopping complex and a huge private scheme which envisaged hotels, shops, a conference centre and the inclusion of an Olympic sized swimming pool  alongside restoration of the enormous fountains. All have been conceived, some with greater detail than others, but they have fallen by the wayside.

Several local pressure groups have their own, competing ideas and have been known to take consultants on site, show them around and then, one by one, take the expert aside to whisper that the others had little idea what they were talking about. It is no surprise nothing significant has happened.

But yesterday Mayor of London Boris Johnson was joined by Mr Ni Zhaoxing, the chairman of the ZhongRong Group. Mr Zhaoxing – worth $1.25 billion and 76th on the China Rich List according to Forbes – has a dream of restoring Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace to its former glory (a video of their scheme is below). It wouldn't be the same as Paxton’s original, which sadly burned down in 1936, but will update the ‘innovative, translucent and delicate structure of the original along with its size and scale’, about 50 metres high and 500 metres long.

The palace would be a ‘culture-led exhibition and employment space’, the Italian terraces restored, a central tree lined boulevard running through much of the park created, the concert bowl renovated and the dinosaurs given new lighting (they were only recently restored in 2002). Sadly, no mention of the magnificent fountains which came with the original building but you never know.

They anticipate it would feature a hotel and conference facilities, studios, galleries and other commercial space. Not altogether too dissimilar from the scheme I mentioned above. Currently it remains all a bit vague. Detailed plans are, we are assured, ‘to be developed’. But if they want to stick with their timetable, they had better get cracking. A figure of £500million has been mooted for the project and they hope an application could be submitted as early as Autumn 2014, with building starting in winter 2015. And all of that includes the minefield of consultation, with the myriad of interests bickering for attention.

Paxton's original Crystal Palace

Leader of Bromley Council Stephen Carr describes it as a ‘visionary proposal’ but admits it is at an ‘early stage’. ‘It has to be worthy of serious consideration,’ he believes. They claim up to 2,000 jobs could be created.

On its website Bromley Council says the park needs ‘significant financial investment to its infrastructure to ensure that it can be enjoyed by generations to come,’ and this plan boasts that it would not need housing to be built. But it does mean handing over a large swathe of the park to a private, Chinese investment company. We know that: ‘The investor has submitted a request for an exclusivity agreement from Bromley Council.'

And already there are concerns about the project. In a letter to Bromley Council in August, the Crystal Palace Community Stakeholder Group (CSG), after they got wind of the scheme following a private reception at the Houses of Parliament, said the ‘proposal threatens the growth of community engagement and enthusiasm for a new sustainable future for the park’. They fear the park would be ‘under threat from commercial developers’. And they are particularly worried the scheme may jeopardise the Masterplan for the park, which has spent years working its way through the planning system, as well as scuppering chances for a Heritage Lottery Fund bid.

And in the London Assembly, the Green Party are already against it. Assembly member Darren Johnson said:

‘While I’m sure many people would love to see the Crystal Palace raised from the ashes, this precious parkland isn’t the right place for it. When the palace was moved there in the 1850s the newly laid out park was near countryside, but today it’s an urban park with a lot of space already taken up by the national sports centre, car parks, road and the caravan site.

‘The Mayor and the council need to concentrate on enhancing the park and backing the community groups who are doing their best to restore heritage features without losing green space.’

And as with the CSG, he raised the prospect losing the chance for an HLF bid.

One does not want to be too negative as it may be an interesting scheme and it is certainly ambitious. There are serious people on board, such as the co-founder of the Eden Project, Sir Tim Smit, who will sit on an advisory panel, chaired by Boris Johnson, which will have the challenging task of steering a path through the minefields ahead. But, at the moment, it feels it was too early to announce, such are the scant details. Details need to be urgently fleshed out and meetings with local community group need to be held within weeks. 


It only seemed sensible to go up to Crystal Palace, from our little Penge cottage, to see what locals made of the idea. A prominent local businessman, who has been involved in previous restoration plans, was very keen.

'I think it's fantastic. Brilliant. It's definitely going to happen. The government are behind it, Boris is behind it; it's inevitable. They'll be a few people round here who won't like. They'll say it's like a Westfield, but it won't be. It will be great. I've been involved in plans before and I've had poison pen letters. But the vast majority of people will be right behind it. Great for the area'

A woman at the Westow pub, however, was a bit more circumspect.

'Oh no, it won't be a replica, it will be an ugly, horrible thing and they'll fill it with Caffe Nero's. We'll lose green space, and they better restore the park properly.'

Not scientific, or comprehensive, survey; just a bit of local anecdote.

Meanwhile, the egregious Stephen Bayley, writing for the Telegraph, says a new Crystal Palace will 'shame Britain'. In an absurd, pompous article, he thinks a new palace will be a 'convention centre for the lanyard-festooned suits with the inevitable yawn-inducing hotel' and calls it 'architectural debauchery'. yes, there are plenty of hurdles and issues ahead, but this is written before he has seen any plans, architectural drawings, even before an architect has been appointed. In fact, his biggest concern appears to be that such a building might appear in south east London. He writes:

'The legacy of 1851 was Albertopolis, the extraordinary collection of colleges and museums that make South Kensington one of the intellectual centres of the worlds. That's not going to happen in Penge.'

This is true. Penge is never going to compete with South Kensington, with its palace, museums and conspicuous wealth. But if he ever bothered to come to Penge he would find plenty of links with old Prince Albert, who, despite his regal bearing, wasn't such an insufferable snob; such as a beautiful estate of workers' cottages, which, if not based on his designs, were certainly inspired by them.