Thursday, 13 June 2013

Boris' bridge of whimsy

The Evening Standard today splashed with ’Floating Garden for New Thames Bridge’. It elaborated the only mysterious aspect of Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s otherwise tedious 2020 Vision unveiled last week, a 'garden bridge'.

Then no further details, other than it would be a bridge across the Thames lined with trees, were given. And now we see why.

Apparently, the plan, conceived by Thomas Heatherwick - he of the petal torch at the Olympics and the considerably less successful B of the Bang in Manchester - has won a Transport for London contest to ’improve pedestrian access across the Thames’. A fine idea, I'm sure we can agree, but the proposed location linking Covent Garden to the Southbank is possibly the worst spot they could have chosen.

For that area of the Thames possibly has among most generous provision of bridges, pedestrian and otherwise, anywhere along the river. Only in 2003, I was one of several journalists who covered the opening of the two, excellent Golden Jubilee Bridge. Flanking Hungerford Bridge, the two link from the Embankment, by Covent Garden, directly with the Southbank.

And disregarding the crossing at Blackfriars, the Millennium Bridge is only a 20 minute walk away, so peaceful pedestrian crossing is not hard to find.

According to the Standard piece, mayoral advisers believe the new bridge ’would bring to life the quiet stretches around Temple and the east of the Southbank Centre’. 

Firstly, I'm not sure where this quiet spot on the Southbank is as it's a hive of activity from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge and beyond. Secondly, the peace around Temple offers a welcome respite. The gardens of the Inns of Court sit there as well as several small, but well-tended and used public parks. And the peace of this spot is questionable anyway considering the traffic of the Embankment roars by ferociously.

The other great problem, which the Standard fails to mention and Boris perpetually does his best to avoid, is the concept of building a new bridge in the relatively well-catered for West End would be an enormous two fingers to the poor people of East London who are desperately in need of a new river crossing.

Beyond Tower Bridge crossings are dreadful and despite the growing population one of Boris' first acts as mayor was to cancel a planned new bridge. No new provision has been made, though there was talk of a new tunnel which has got nowhere. Though there is, of course, Boris’ ludicrous, increasingly costly cable car, going from nowhere to nowhere.

The excellent blogger MayorWatch has charted the increasingly sorry story of the #dangleway: the foolish ambition; the misguided planning and strategy; the obfuscation; the swallowing of public money despite promises otherwise; and now, the pathetic decline in numbers and it’s horrible unreliability. It was and will ever be a vanity project, one which the next mayor will have no choice but to firmly wash of their hands.
The whole bridge scheme remains very flimsy - theoretically, not practically of course. Though, I should say, the concept of a garden bridge, in another location, remains very appealing.

But this plan apparently has Boris’ support, though the Standard has no supporting comment from the blonde, shaggy one. Boris, today described by Nick Clegg as a slacker’, obviously enjoys these flights of whimsy as it seems to make him think he’s doing his job. And as the piece makes clear no money is in the offing from either his office or TfL, it would be no surprise if it was right up his alley.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Getting down with the kids

It didn't look like it was going to be a successful evening. Full of cold, my sneezing, wheezing and hacking was driving my fellow Tube passengers as far from me in the carriage as they could humanly manage. In my pocket I had a crumpled invite to an event which promised to be a memorable occasion only I couldn't find the venue (this happened not to be my fault thankfully).

But when I eventually pitched up, after 10.30pm, it turned out it was the launch of  the One foundation's #agit8 campaign, their fantastic two day event at Tate Modern featuring a host of pop stars playing protest songs, aimed at the leaders due to gather at the G8 in Northern Ireland in a few days.

Quite coincidentally, I happened to have booked today off work and it provided a great opportunity for Lovely Wife and I to take Dear Little Girl to her very first music gig. It was also a bit of an eye-opener for me; while I recognised the names of a few of their artists I didn't know their music. And I wasn't going to hear much either as mainly they were playing the likes of Woodie Guthrie, Radiohead and Bob Dylan.

So Paloma Faith opened the afternoon with a rendition of Bob Marley's Redemption Song:

Jamie Cullum did Radiohead's High and Dry:

Omid Djalili made an excellent joke about dickheads in a Nelson Mandela voice as well as a rendition of 'Iranian Men, Hallelujah, Iranian Men' (just sing it):

And KT Tunstall performed a moving Woodie Guthrie poem which was later set to music:

It was all rather good fun. It was how I imagine music festivals should be; without the people, drunks, drugs, mud and people. I was feeling quite hip for pitching up at these impromptu secret gigs by modern pop stars, quite a departure from my usual choice of music which generally requires the artist to be long dead. This feeling was somewhat punctured when a colleague pointed out only I could describe KT Tunstall and Jamie Cullum were 'radical'. For the record, I don't, but I get the point.

I'd like to tell who else will be performing there later tonight and tomorrow but I can't. You'll just have to pitch up and hope for the best. And it's all in a tremendous cause too, calling on the G8 to do more to tackle poverty around the world. For more info on the campaign go to

And, I'm pleased to report, Dear Little Girl loved her first live concert experience. I'll try and post a photo later of her grinning. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Only 'lazy council tenants' get pests

Andrew Parkes, the editor of News Shopper, the paper which drops through letter boxes around Bromley every Thursday, may be a very charming man, brimming with generosity of spirit and forgiveness. But if he is, he certainly keeps it well hidden from view. For his weekly editorials portray a cantankerous, brooding, chippie chap, determinedly convinced the world is plotting against him.

This week, like most others, Mr Parkes has decided to round on council tenants as he is convinced pest infestations only occur in council and rental properties as the inhabitants live in idle squalor.

He writes:

'Is it just me or is it the case whenever there's a "horror" story about an infestation of nasties or fungus breeding from damp it just about always involves people in council or housing association properties.

What can't these people scrub down a wall or put down a few traps like the rest of us?

'Of course anyone seriously wishing to rid themselves of a mouse infestation knows poison is the only real answer, but why doesn't this information filter through to people in rental property?

'It seems to me this feeling that everything is someone else' problem has infected them worse than damp or mice ever could.'

There is probably barely a Victorian property throughout the land which doesn't suffer from damp and few stately homes without an issue with mice. But hey ho, what does that matter? It's much more fun having a pop at those feral, feckless council tenants, with fridges in their gardens and paint peeling from the walls.

Of course, it's not the first time - nor will it be the last - Andrew Parkes uses stereotype and anecdote to casually stir resentment towards 'lazy tenants' or seeks controversy.

In April he pondered whether some people should be neutered 'for the general good of society'. One was a mother who helped her two killer sons, the other was a mother who spent £1,200 on a baby buggy.

And it's clear he enjoys the notoriety and to an extent it's fun to read his frothing prose. Elsewhere in this week's comment he rails against the 'ever-more nannying state' which tried to prevent the annual cheese rolling event in Gloucestershire. 'The race has been run since the early 19th Century,' he wails, 'and die-hard runners refused to give in to this politically-correct nonsense'. At which point he presumably wants us to roundly cheer.

In fact, the more I read his comment pieces, the more he reminds me of professional pub politician Nigel Farage. It would be no surprise if Mr Parkes was soon to be using his editorials to cheer lead for UKIP; they seem a perfect fit.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Time for a Fair Deal for your local

For those who love pubs, it has been described as a ‘last call to arms’.

Today publicans from across the country, with their loyal supporters and locals behind them, will descend on parliament to demand a Fair Deal for Your Local, an impassioned plea for the government to act to help save them.

For pubcos – combined with a series of poor short-sighted measures introduced by a series of governments, the smoking ban and the bargain-basement prices supermarkets charge for cheap, nasty lager –  threaten to make the sight of your familiar, welcoming local a thing of the past.

The all-too-frequently exploitative relationship between large pub companies – organisations like Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns and Green King – and their tenants is something which has been allowed to fester for far too long.

About 20,000 pub tenants across the country have to purchase their beers, wines and spirits exclusively from their pubcos, and in exchange, they are supposed to benefit from lower rents.

Instead, far too frequently tenants are hit with above market-level rents, making their costs crippling forcing them out of business. A good recent example is the Chequers Inn in Whitney, the Prime Minister’s constituency. After twelve years landlord Simon Moore called it a day in May. While his annual turnover averaged around £230,000 a year, his rent to Enterprise Inns amounted to almost 40 per cent of this.

The reasons for these sky-high rents are various but a key factor is pubcos realised the inherent value of their property stock during the boom years and leveraged absurdly to expand their portfolios. When the credit crunch hit they were left with huge debts to manage.

But it is not just high rents which has heaped pressure on pubs. Selling pubs is frequently seen as a way out by pubcos. Tales of pubs being allowed to decay, driving away punters, until they are no longer financially viable, are legion. And the sector keenest to take advantage of this fire sale have been supermarkets.

It is not the fault of the likes of Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s. Why wouldn’t they be keen to get hold of prominent landmark buildings, well known locally and crowbar in a convenience store?

An edition of the London Drinker last year, the CAMRA magazine which can be found in many of the capital’s good pubs, highlighted this problem. The piece, by Roger Warhurst, began by saying: ‘Fifty London pubs have been converted or redeveloped for supermarket convenience stores since 2010, generally without the need for owners to seek planning permission for change of use.’

A pub’s licences are the real beauty for supermarkets. Large pubs frequently have all that is required – especially alcohol licences.

A recent victim of this loophole is the beautiful George IV pub in Brixton which Lambeth Council’s planning committee narrowly voted in favour of allowing to be turned into a Tesco Metro in May.

The only aspect of the application councillors could really object to was the installation of a disabled ramp – described by one as ‘zigzagging across the front of the building like a mark of Zorro' – and whether it was in keeping with a fine Victorian building. Of course it wasn’t, but as a pub is currently not viewed as viable the committee was left with the choice of an empty building or a shop. That the pub had been registered as a community asset as part of the government’s risible ‘localism’ agenda was of little import.

Today CAMRA have published research providing more evidence how pubcos are squeezing the life out of publicans. As many as 60 per cent of licensees tied to the big pub companies earn less than £10,000 a year, compared to only 25 per cent of the free of tie lessees. And at the other end of the scale, only one in a hundred tied pub licensees earn a salary of more than £45,000 a year, compared with one in five who run free of tie pubs.

So today, the pub trade gather. The government proposes reforms which could ensure tied lessees would be no worse off than those not tied, applying to all pub firms that have more than 500 pubs. It could be the start of a revival. With their parliamentary champions, like Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland and indefatigable campaigners like @Lifelandlady , we should stand beside them and make sure the coalition delivers on its promises.

Afghan interpreters deal a shabby cop-out

Nick Clegg said today that Britain had a ‘moral duty’ to provide resettlement assistance to Afghan interpreters who had put the lives of themselves and their families at risk to work for British forces as they battled against the Taliban.

Less than an hour later, the details of the resettlement deal became apparent and only those who were employed by the British government on December 19, 2012, would be eligible for resettlement to the UK. (Metro link) 

This means that about 600 of the 1,200 who assisted British forces will be excluded from escaping the country, regardless of what current danger they may face.

The deal unveiled in a written statement to the House of Commons - the preferred method to release anything slightly dishonourable – by defence secretary Philip Hammond is not much use to ‘Mohammed’, a 35-year-old man who spent three years working for British forces in Helmand province between 2006 and 2009 and has not left his Kabul home in months due to threats to his life.

My colleague interviewed him last week and he told how his seven-year-old daughter was stopped by a man on a motorcycle who handed her a threat vowing to kill her ‘infidel’ father. ‘Even in the presence of British and US troops we don’t feel safe,’ he told Metro. ‘Next year, when they’re gone, will be much worse. We and our families are all in danger.

‘David Cameron has talked about our safety but all the interpreters are really worried. We feel we’re being abandoned to the Taliban.’

It is known that 21 translators who worked with British forces have been killed since 2001 and Mohammed quit after his friend vanished, kidnapped by the Taliban.

It’s a fine sentiment from Mr Hammond that these clearly capable people should be encouraged to remain in Afghanistan to help rebuild the country after decades of conflict. And where it is possible it should of course be done and the package assembled by the government is pretty generous. But it’s clear in many cases this simply won’t be possible. They will be trapped, threatened by those who will inevitably occupy the power vacuum when Western forces leave, and abandoned by those whom they once served.

By way of comparison, after the Iraq War interpreters were offered far more generous terms. They could either receive one-off financial aid or exceptional indefinite leave to remain in the UK with help to relocate. Or they had the opportunity to resettle through Britain’s Gateway programme, run with the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees.

Quite why the government is refusing to do its duty by these brave individuals and offer the same terms is unclear. Tim Farron, president of the Liberal democrats, who raised the issue in parliament this morning, told me there is ‘some resistance within the MoD’. He added: ‘They saw this differently to Iraq and wanted a different outcome.’ He has said he will continue pressing the matter.

And the campaign group Avaaz, which has been at the forefront of the interpreter’s campaign, described Hammond’s announcement as ‘half-baked’. Alex Wilks, the campaign director, said: ‘This deal may sound great in London but could be lethal in Kabul.

‘Today’s Afghan proposal remains half-baked and does not offer the escape route that Iraqi translators received.’

But truly, it’s worse than half-baked. It’s a shabby failure by a government which is refusing to live up to its responsibilities.