Monday, 27 January 2014

David and Jeremy really don't want 'your kids to die'

There are reports coming from North Korea suggesting Kim Jong-un has ordered the execution of every blood relative of his uncle – himself purged and killed last month – including women and children.

In November last year, the Oxford Research Group estimated more than 11,000 children had been killed in the conflict in Syria.

Across large parts of Africa, militias specialising in terror, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, abduct, drug and force children to fight, rape and pillage. The statistics are blood-chilling.  Reports suggest tens of thousands of children have been abducted by the LRA in countries including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

In too many conflicts, children are seen as disposable, cheap cannon fodder; expendable. And, in all the cases above, it can be argued that those responsible for these deaths genuinely do not care other people’s children are dying.
Now consider this headline:

David and Jeremy want your kids to die (unless you’re rich)

It appears above a blog by comedian Rufus Hound in which he talks about his decision to stand as an MEP for the National Health Action Party. Evidently, Hound feels passionately about the NHS and is furious about what the coalition is doing with it. He deserves credit for wanting to stand for election and actually try and do something about it, rather than being a chatshow-sofa and stage bound dilettante comedian like Russell Brand.

But it’s also very clear that while David [Cameron] and Jeremy [Hunt] may well be making an enormous hash of the NHS with their exceedingly top-down and bureaucratic reforms, they do not want anyone’s ‘kids to die’. I know it's hyperbole but it’s an absurd, ad hominem, attack which does Hound no credit at all and is unlikely to be the message the NHAP really wants communicating. 

Too often in political discourse, sensible debate gets sidelined and replaced by lazy stereotypes and cheap bribes. For example, it isn’t ‘class war’ to raise the top income tax band to 50p; voting for the Labour Party is not akin to supporting the gulags and terror of Stalin and supporting the Conservative Party does not equate to being a fascist. If Hound wants to command serious attention, he should let the details of his blog do the talking and not resort to such a crude, simplistic, headline. 

It’s well known that the prime minister lost his son Ivan back in 2009, after suffering from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. At the time, David Cameron paid very heartfelt tributes to the efforts of the NHS. Hound may profoundly disagree with the government’s reforms – and even the most generous critic can find much to question – but to suggest Cameron ‘wants’ other parents to suffer the heartache and pain he went through is particularly unpleasant. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The sanitisation of Soho

Walker's Court
Soho looks its best at night when it’s raining. The neon lights glisten with greater intensity; the corners become darker adding a hint of danger. Noise and laughter emanate from pubs; the flashy, drinkers, stragglers, queens and strays carouse through the narrow, low level streets, all hunting their next party. It can feel as though you are walking through a John Deakin photograph or witnessing a Julian McClaren-Ross story brought to life. Its romantic history becomes tangible; a rich legacy of immigration with bustling, vivid, delis and cafes, restaurants and bars, strip clubs and revue bars, basement clubs and drinking dens; all smells and steam and chatter and sweat, following the steps once walked by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, George Melly, Nina Hamnett, Henrietta Mories, Muriel Belcher, Soho Pam, Jeffrey Bernard, Dylan Thomas.

But the square mile of sin, already a shadow of what it was even ten years ago, is in very real danger of losing even more of its historic saucy charm, of being sanitised out of existence and becoming much like any other district of London. At the end of last year, Westminster Council gave the go-ahead to let bulldozers roll in and flatten much of the block surrounding Walker's Court, perhaps the seediest little backstreet in London, but one close to the heart of Soho’s reputation as London’s red light district.

There are good aspects of the application; the lights of the Raymond Revue Bar will be restored and an ‘off-Broadway’ theatre would open. But in almost every respect the redevelopment is an example of arrogant philistinism, showing utter disregard for the area’s history, architecture and spirit - and people.

The new buildings from Rupert Street

In its wisdom, Westminster Council thinks removing the ‘sex-related uses’ around the streets outweighs the cultural and social harm of demolishing these buildings. Robert Davis, the deputy leader of the council, even went so far as to welcome the new building’s use of glass for its transparent quality. No secret sex, there, then.

After telling members of the English Collective of Prostitutes, protesting at the planning meeting, to be quiet as it’s 'not the way we do things here’, Mr Davis voted in favour of the plan.

He said: 

’The new designs are very exciting. They are very open and I like the idea of a lot of glass because it does allow a great transparency in the area. I’ve no problems with the height, the design or the demolition of the new buildings.’

The lack of architectural, cultural and historical knowledge on display is quite extraordinary - let alone the apparent glossing-over of what happens to the current denizens of the area. The idea that Walker's Court will become a ’transparent’ area with ’a lot of glass’ seems both perfunctory and inappropriate.

Permission was granted to the application despite failing planning guidelines in a number of ways. In their report, planning officers acknowledged the excess height of the proposed buildings, the failure to replace buildings of merit with anything worthy in the design of the new buildings and the lack of mix in the residential plans. Only the ultra-rich need apply, even for studio flats.

How Walker's Court will look

The council report describes many of the current buildings as lacking architectural merit, though it recognises the character of two unlisted blocks. One of the few great legacies of Paul Raymond is he did little to alter the fabric of Soho streets. Individual buildings themselves may not, strictly speaking, have ’architectural merit’, but collectively, the retention of a mainly seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century streetscape is of huge significance. Soho derives much of its character and vitality from its architecture and of, course, from the historic pattern of its warren of streets; the collective is of huge architectural significance. English Heritage acknowledged this but its objection to the scheme was overlooked.

The view of the new plan from Berwick Street

The green light to the plan has more intense, individual implications. Earlier this month, police raided brothels around the area, insisting this had nothing to do with emptying the buildings after the planning application was passed. Well, they would say that wouldn't they? One of curious aspects of Soho is the solidarity shown by local residents with the women who work in the brothels. Indeed, many of the more than 50 letters of objection to the redevelopment plan worried about the consequences of forcing these women on to the streets, where they are more at risk of violence and exploitation. Rupert Everett wrote movingly about this in The Observer on Sunday.

Elizabeth Valad

Take the case of Elizabeth Valad, for example. She worked in a Soho brothel, on Windmill Street according to a friend, but was forced on to the streets after Westminster Council ’enforced closure orders on premises used as brothels’. Tragically, she later became one of serial killer Anthony - the Camden Ripper - Hardy’s victims; her dismembered body found stuffed in bin bags, discarded in bins after Christmas, 2002, reportedly found by a homeless man in a cowboy hat. The implications for these women seems to be blithely ignored.

This isn't a plea for no renovation, redevelopment or refurbishment, much as shabby chic - at which Soho excels - is in. But developers and the council must show knowledge, sympathy, intelligence.

Soho has long posed a problem for such an officious organisation as Westminster Council. The area's determinedly relaxed individuality is a counterpoint to the council's ruthless desire for efficiency and squeezing as much as it can from the city, a geographically tight - but extraordinarily valuable - area. Paul Raymond certainly allowed aspects of Soho's fabric to decay, yet his resistance to redevelopment protected its character. But, despite at one stage being Britain's richest man, it doesn't appear his granddaughter Fawn James intends to follow his example. 


There's a pertinent little passage by Piloti in this fortnight's Private Eye. While refereeing to Oxford, it remains relevant:

'To Oxford - and yet another example of the ineptitude of so many modern architects when having to deal with an older building.

'Faced with a problem, all they can do is introduce large sheets of glass. In fact, they almost seem to worship glass as they drivel on about "light" and "space". They do this partly because they have no understanding of historical languages of form and are uncomfortable handling traditional materials; but also because they fall for the delusion that glass is invisible. It isn't. It reflects, and it gets scratched and dirty.'

Monday, 20 January 2014

A brief chat with the pubs minister

The government's consultation on pubco reform ended on June 14th. The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) at first insisted it would respond in the autumn, but as autumn turned into winter, there was nothing but silence. In December, Jo Swinson insisted a response would come 'very soon' but claimed the volume of responses had been 'staggering' and they needed more time to plough through them.

There were more than 8,100 responses in the consultation; being generous let's say 8,200. The consultation closed exactly 220 days (as of January 20). This means BIS has to go through just over 37 responses a day. As of March 2013, BIS employed 3,112 civil servants, but this is apparently not enough to tackle this task of studying with sufficient efficiency to ensure legislation can pass through the Houses of Parliament before the next election. Time is running out.

Pubs minister Brandon Lewis, who has been very quiet on the whole issue of pubco reform, has given an interview to the Publican's Morning Advertiser and manages to devote one line to the subject. He says he can see the 'logic' of the delay but in the article doesn't expand on this.

But, in a brief chat on Twitter, he did a go a little further on the issue.

And, like Jo Swinson, he blames the volume of responses:

More than 8,000 responses is a big consultation - though, by way of comparison, the equal marriage consultation received a record 228,000 replies and, comparatively, these were considered with much greater speed than the pubco reform study. Perfectly reasonably, Mr Lewis also explains he isn't responsible for the editing of the story. 

And, despite being pubs minister, it wasn't his consultation anyway, as he is a minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Sadly though, as of yet, there has been no response to either the point above, about the lack of time, or the questions below:

The government is in very great danger of giving the responses so much 'consideration' that they end up doing nothing, which may well now be the intention. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Time running out for pubco reform

The Alexandra in Penge; now closed but locals hope it will reopen

It is just over a year ago since Vince Cable unveiled his reform plans for large pub companies (pubcos), broadly along the lines for which campaigners had spent years lobbying.

After repeated select committee reviews, the business secretary said: 

‘We gave pub companies every chance to get their house in order, but despite four select committee reports over almost a decade highlighting the problems faced by publicans, it is clear the voluntary approach isn't working.

‘Pubs are small businesses under a great deal of pressure, many of which have had to close. Much of that pressure has come from the powerful pub companies and our plans are designed to rebalance this relationship.’

Under Mr Cable’s plans an independent adjudicator was to be appointed to study unfair practices in the industry, as well a statutory code introduced (for those unfamiliar to the topic, background on the pubco reform campaign can be found here). Many publicans celebrated; finally, they hoped, the pressures coming from the likes of Enterprise and Punch Taverns, would be relieved.

A consultation process began in Spring last year and the government gave every impression legislation would be published by the end of 2013 or early 2014.  

But what has happened? Er, nothing. Barely a word. The results of the consultation have not yet been published  - minister Jo Swinson blames a greater number of responses than they expected - and the government is rapidly running out of time to get any proposed legislation on the statute books; it would be left to a successive government to decide what to do, no doubt setting any reform back by several more years.

It’s no surprise to see a petition has been launched to try and get the issue moving against in parliament. Already, more than 12,000 people have signed their name to the call for the government to legislate; it can be seen here.

But, considering pubco reform has such wide support from across all parties in Parliament - a quick glance at Early Day Motions on the subject and this is clear - why the delay?

There is no doubt pubcos have lobbied hard against any reform and campaigners have highlighted a core of politicians who they claim have blocked the reform moving forward; pubs minister Brandon Lewis and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne the favourite suspects. It sounds plausible enough. Lewis has been very quiet on the topic and, as Vince Cable was initially pushing for reform, his Tory coalition colleagues might well stymie what they may view as Lib Dem legislation.

Labour are trying to seize on this inaction and have tabled an Opposition Day Debate on the proposed reforms, set to take place on January 21st. When the debate was announced, Toby Perkins MP, the shadow pubs minister, said this: 

'It is becoming an annual event that Parliament debates the issue of pubs in January.  In January 2012 the House voted unanimously for a statutory code to regulate large pub companies as recommended by the BIS Select Committee.  In January 2013 after Labour called another debate on the subject, the Tory-led government agreed to introduce a statutory code.

'Twelve months on, despite a lengthy consultation, nothing has changed in legal terms to help struggling pubs and publicans.'

What impact the debate will have is open to speculation. I fear it may already be too late and senior figures have vetoed pubco reform in this parliament. I wait to be pleasantly surprised.

Final point

While this is not strictly lobbying - as it claims to be an independent report - the financial consultancy group London Economics published a report at the end of last year on what might happen to jobs in the sector were the pubco reforms enacted. Such were its findings that it could have been commissioned by pubcos - it wasn't, the Department for Business ordered the study.

In a worst case scenario, it warned that introduction of reform could lead to the closure of more than 6,000 pubs, taking with them up to 40,000 jobs. Its conclusions were in stark contrast to earlier studies - such as this from the Federation of Small Business - which indicated publicans planned to expand if they were freed from the tie.

However, the London Economics report seems to me to be somewhat hampered by some major flaws. The most significant failing was that it failed to take into account the financial stability, or otherwise, of the pubcos (only yesterday the perilous position of Punch Taverns was exposed yet again as warned it could default on its debt if its latest restructure is blocked by bondholders). The debts of pubcos appears not to be mentioned anywhere in the document's 34 pages. And it fails to take into account a pubco may deliberately run down a pub to sell on simply to service its debts. Pubcos may deny such a practice occurs but it is a very familiar story.

Moreover, while London Economics received much of its data from the pubcos themselves, it seems not to have spoken to any pub reform campaigners, or studied their literature; I certainly didn't find any reference to either. 

The study also makes claims which appear not to be the case, such as pubcos being 'responsible for capital costs ie maintenance'. It only takes a brief conversation with tied publicans to discover they can be liable for a whole range of capital costs. And it makes the completely unfounded assumption that 60 per cent of drinkers whose pub shots move to another pub; there is no evidence to support this figure and for drinkers in cities it seems extraordinarily low.

There are at least two sides to every debate, of course, but in this case asking for the contributions of a wide range of voices, would seem to be a prerequisite for any worthwhile, 'independent' report. 

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Reward Offered!

A notice has been taped to trees and lamp posts around where I live in recent days, headlined with the familiar cry ’Reward Offered’. This time, though, it is not there in the hope that a helpful neighbour will successfully find a much-loved family dog or cat, or recover expensive lost valuables, or as a promise of some kind of get-rich-quick scam. This reward is offered for anyone who sells the leafleteer a home.

The advert reads:

’Reward offered!
Do you think of selling your property?
But without the hazzle (sic) that comes with the viewings?
Get a reward instead of paying the agent’s fees?
And take the kudos for helping a local family on the property ladder.
Then please contact us! We are a family of four, looking to buy a 2+ bedroom property in this area for up to £150,000. If the flat needs refurbishment it's not a problem!
We are first time buyers and have a mortgage pre-agreement, so transfer will be quick and easy.
As little “Thank You” we will pay for a lovely weekend away for two of you!’

A mobile phone number is then given below.

It's an endearing appeal, if somewhat naive. And it seems highly likely to be borne out of desperation. The posters have been placed in Penge, south east London, in zone four, which, despite notable improvements, has proved to be stubbornly resistant to mass gentrification. One presumes the desire to live in the area is due to work reasons, perhaps schools. Yet, £150,000 will buy very little.

A quick look on Rightmove shows there are just five properties going for under £150,000 in the SE20 area and all of them are one-bedroom only. A bit cramped for a family of four. In an ideal world, at least a three-bed house would be appropriate but property prices in Penge have, as in the rest of London, rocketed over the last 15 years.

Back in 1999, £116,000 would have enabled a family to buy a modest three-bedroom house in the area. By 2002, it was £159,000, and by 2006, £232,000. After the crash, prices stagnated somewhat but in the last 12 months have soared once more, with prices ranging from £360,000 and even breaching the £400,000 mark.

So, while the money this family has may no longer be enough to buy a decent property, perhaps it is enough to access ’affordable housing’?

Affordable housing covers a range of options (a definition can be found here) but while rental options are available there is not much to buy in the area. Affinity Sutton have two houses for sale but both are well clear of £200,000. There may well be other properties available but the choice is clearly not huge. A working couple would need a combined income of at least £50,000 to secure a decent mortgage, and that's assuming a reasonably hefty deposit. For all too many, buying an 'affordable' house is way beyond their means. Perhaps this is just the sort of family who might benefit from the coalition government's controversial Help to Buy scheme; though, judging by their tactics, they are perhaps unaware of any assistance it might be able to provide.

Completely unrelated to this tale, but by way of contrast, eight minutes on the train line towards London is Herne Hill. Obviously, it's a much smarter place, blessed - Thames Water floods permitting - with a plethora of decent shops, some lovely pubs and restaurants and a thriving community. A farmers' market has prospered in Herne Hill since launching a year or so ago; the one in Penge sadly only survived a few weeks.

Yet, Herne Hill is part of Brixton and still has problems. For several months it has the most obvious and active drugs dealing den I've ever seen in London and until recently while property prices were high, there was a level of accessibility.

Like Penge, however, in the last couple of years house prices have soared. And it's hard to sum this up better than with an advert which appeared at Winkworth estate agents towards the end of last year. Displaying a £799,500 property, equipped with five bedrooms, three shower rooms, three reception rooms and two kitchens (?!) it was described, with all the sincerity an estate agent can muster, as a family house apparently 'ideal for first time buyers':

Obviously not for our very hopeful first time buyers of Penge.