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.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Listless Cameron looking for answers

It is a measure of what trouble the Conservative Party is in that its leader must reassure his most fervent supporters, gathered at the annual conference, that he wants to secure a majority government at the next election.

But that was one of David Cameron’s most heartfelt passages in his oddly flat conference speech today, vowing to fight ‘heart and soul’ at the next election, scotching any rumours that talks with Nick Clegg about continuing the coalition have amounted to anything significant.

At the last election, the Tories got a 36 per cent share of the vote and to win in 2015 it is very likely they will need their vote share to rise. It’s not impossible, of course; Cameron is their best asset – he remains more popular than his party – and incumbent party ratings tend to improve closer to an election. But, being split on the right by bumptious Nigel Farage and UKIP together with the Liberal Democrats’ decision not to support boundary changes, this remains a very tall order.

To win, Cameron has to try and control the centre ground and broaden the Conservatives’ appeal. Much of the last year the party has spent probably too much time shoring up its core support to try and stop the haemorrhage to UKIP; in this, it has probably succeeded but it has done little to improve its poll ratings, which remain stubbornly in the low thirties.

Given Ed Miliband’s supposed leap to the left, there should have been a fair swathe of centre ground into which David Cameron could have jumped this afternoon - yet it was ignored. In fact, not very much was said at all. Backed up by the vapid and schizophrenically-hyphenated slogan ‘For hardworking people’ (I got bored of counting the numbers of press releases from the Tory press office which included both ‘hardworking’ and ‘hard-working’), the prime minister ticked all the right Tory boxes, but did little else. Cameron can deliver a rousing speech but this wasn’t one of them. It felt forced; even the slivers of anger towards Labour, most noticeably on the NHS, sounded too scripted and rehearsed.

The key phrase of ‘land of opportunity’ is decent enough, so decent in fact it was used by Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 conference speech. And indeed by Harold Wilson back in 1965, who claimed that the 1964 election of a Labour government was a decision that ‘the old closed circle of opportunity based on family connections and school connections should go and should yield place to a land of opportunity for every boy and girl’.

Worse of all was the dearth of ideas. Cameron presented no new policies whatsoever. Some on the right have cheered this, satisfied that ’big’ government is taking a back seat, replaced by steady-as-she goes, a firm hand on the tiller. But around the country people can see that things need to be done: schools and homes to built; roads to mend; train tracks to be laid; services improved. By this measure, George Osborne’s speech was by far the more significant.

The nearest hint of a new policy was ‘everyone under 25 – earning or learning’. Halting benefits for the under 25s – particularly housing benefit – has been hinted at before and Downing Street sources, recognising the lack of much else to talk about, suddenly became eager to brief a few crumbs of detail. Housing benefit and job seekers’ allowance could both be affected and single parents could be included; this ‘land of opportunity’ Cameron spoke so much about will look an awful long way off for the children of the 166,002 single women on housing benefit, if it ever comes about. It all seemed very back-of-a-fag-packet stuff; it certainly won’t be a coalition policy and it will do little to broaden the party’s appeal.

Ed Miliband’s populist – and popular – targeting of the big six energy companies was inevitably rubbished; it may be economically illiterate but the prime minister didn’t explain why and he certainly didn’t present an alternative strategy to break the energy firms’ cartel; a problem all parties now acknowledge.

For well over a year now, Ed Miliband and Labour have threatened to win the next election without having to bother coming up with any policies. Now they have some and they remain unanswered. Obviously, next year’s conferences are to be the crucial clarion calls ahead of the 2015 election, but Cameron’s listless, uninspiring performance today gave little indication he has any idea how to respond.