Friday, 28 March 2014

Who would live in a house like this?

A view of a planned garden

The banks of the Thames look likely soon to emerge as only occasionally broken terraces of luxury flats, complementing an array of developments across the capital aimed, almost exclusively, at the ultra-rich. Invariably, flats are sold off plan to foreign owners before anyone in London gets a chance for a view – if you can bear it, below is a video from a sales package for a block in East London aimed at prospective buyers in Hong Kong:

But the development in Battersea Power Station is supposed to be different. Back in February, the developers - Battersea Power Station Development Company - announced 254 apartments, from studios to £30million penthouses, would be marketed in the UK only.

At the time the chief executive of the company, Rob Tincknell, said:

'There has been a lot of comment recently about London's housing problems, and we believe the only way to try and solve this is to build great homes and create a community that people actually want to live in.'

Well, today the company offers a glimpse into these new homes, which go on sale on May 1, and while they are being marketed in the UK, Battersea looks set to be a pretty exclusive community.

Studio flats will start from £800,000, one bed apartments from £1m with two-bed apartments starting at £1.5m. For anyone wanting anything more substantial - families for example - for a three-bed house you would have to start with £2.7m spare and a four bedroom house will cost upwards of £4m. For the luxury apartments, the price is, well, if you have to ask you can't afford it.

The overall Rafael Vinoly masterplan apparently includes more than 500 affordable housing units, evidently these are not them. In fact they are not due until phase 5; this is phase 2.

There is little doubt that once completed these will be pretty special places to live and the developers boast they will be significantly larger than other comparable projects. Many will have spectacular views overlooking the Thames 'or back on to the famous Boiler House facade'. And all will have access to the rooftop, 1.5acre, garden.

A living room
To reach the entrance lobbies of two blocks away from Giles Gilbert Scott's building - Switch House East and West - residents will have to cross 'a static water pool that encircles the entire Power Station', a feature formerly known as a moat.

The developers dream of creating a 'vibrant community' apparently and at least they are going to efforts to attract UK buyers, but it looks destined to being just one of many luxury developments dotted across London, albeit distinguished by a 1930s architectural marvel. After all, who buys a studio flat for £800,000? Most likely by someone who doesn't intend on living there. Hardly a recipe for a vibrant community.

Let's hope I'll be proved wrong.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Will a penny off a pint save the British pub?

Despite strenuous efforts, I have yet to find a publican who has lopped off 1p from the price of a pint of beer following George Osborne’s announcement in the budget last week.

This is surely strange; after all, coalition ministers have been shouting quite a lot about this. Grant Shapps, in the poster of his now infamous tweet, boasted that ‘Cutting the Bingo Tax & Beer duty’ was helping ‘hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy’. And Conservative MP Andrew Griffiths – who represents, some believe with painful irony, Burton, the home of British brewing – has been especially excited, proclaiming the cut proves ‘this is the most beer and pub-friendly government we have seen in a generation’.

Mr Griffiths wrote effervescently about what the chancellor had done in the Publicans’ Morning Advertiser:

‘Last year’s decision to cut a penny off the price of a pint of beer was the first such decision by a chancellor since 1959. Yet it was the decision to scrap Labour’s hated beer-duty escalator that really made the difference to the industry.

‘Ending the year on year ratcheting up of a beer duty, a system which saw it rocket 48% between 2008 and 2012, ended the misery of a system which was bleeding the beer industry dry.

‘The more optimistic of us hoped and campaigned for a freeze in this year’s Budget, but not many expected an historic successive second cut. This of course was followed by scrapping of the alcohol duty escalator, and freezes for Scottish whisky and real cider.

'All in all, this was a beer and pub budget that the whole industry should be thrilled with.’

And Mr Griffiths hasn't held back on Twitter either.

And here he is below, clearly exemplifying responsible drinking:

Now let's not be churlish. It is of course welcome that the government has felt able to make any cut in the price of a pint of beer, especially as drinkers are increasingly lucky to get change from a fiver when buying a pint in the capital these days.

But for anyone to suggest this is the great rescue of the pub trade is, frankly, not taking the issue seriously.

Recent figures from CAMRA suggested the number of pubs closing each week had risen to 28 per week and while many in the pub trade are pleased with the price cut, they have wasted no time in pointing out the government's inaction - despite repeated promises - in tackling pubco reform - offering tenants a chance for a fair rent and an end to the system which sees them hit by high rent costs and high beer costs. Posters such as the one below have quickly appeared:

Simply nothing has happened. There has been no response to the government's consultation on the issue (for more on this delay see here) and it seems likely such reform has been blocked at a high cabinet level and nothing will happen this side of an election. It's worth noting Andrew Griffiths, a self-styled champion of pubs, is curiously opposed to any such reform.

And, in a timely fashion, the latest figure to get involved in the issue is the not insubstantial figure of Tim Martin, the founder of the Wetherspoon's chain. In his company magazine, he writes: 'The main additional reason for pub distress is the high level of debt assumed by some pub companies in the years running up to the credit crunch.' And he names financiers Guy Hands and Hugh Osmond of being the architects of this 'unsustainable', damaging model.

'In essence, Hands and Osmond bought large tenanted pub estates of the major brewers, using borrowed money, and then hiked up the rents and the beer prices paid by the tenants. As a result of the increased income which they generated, they were able, in effect, to remortgage pubs, extracting tens of millions of "profit" for themselves.'

Companies like Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns were the successors to this and they continued using the same model. Tim Martin goes on:

'When the individual licensees/tenants started to suffer between the hammer of high rents and beer prices and the anvil of tax-subsidised supermarkets, unprecedented numbers of publicans went bankrupt - and the Enterprise and Punch shares plummeted on the stock market to a fraction of their former value.'

And while pub titans old and new, such as Hands, Osmond and Enterprise's former chief Ted Tuppen have showed little sympathy to the 'plight of the tenants', they have been vociferous in their complaints about high personal taxes, specifically Labour's plan to increase the top rate of income tax back up to 50 per cent should they regain power. He concludes, with restrained fury:

'There is a justifiable argument for a reasonable top rate of tax which encourages hard work - Britain did not benefit from the Rolling Stones hiding from the taxman in the south of France in the 1970s. However the disregard of the financial engineers for the plight of their tenants and their egocentric concentration on their own positions, dressed up as national concern, might even have caused Maggie Thatcher to side with Ed Balls.'

So while the government tinkers around the margins, fiddling ineffectively with beer prices, it continues to ignore the hugely damaging pubco model, something which all, but the most stubborn, now recognise needs tackling with urgency. Until the government belatedly takes action, their claims of being the publican's - and the beer drinker's  - friend will largely fall on sceptical and deaf ears.

Tim Martin's full article can be read here.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Will Britain ever be finished?

The sort of HS2 image backers don't want you to see these days
Assuming all goes to plan – and, yes, that is a very big assumption – the next twenty years in Britain is going to be marked by enormous infrastructure investment.

High Speed 2, Crossrail 2, trans-Pennine train links, new nuclear power plants and renewable projects, at least one new runway, massive house building projects including the creation of garden cities – such as the one re-announced today by George Osborne at Ebbsfleet – and bridges across the Thames are all in the pipeline and that’s before schemes not yet conceived emerge.

But, as a senior rail official told me last week, ‘it’s not a question of either or’ with these projectss; it can be argued all are needed.

Few, for example, would disagree that as North Sea oil stock dwindles, as Russia plays expansionist games in Crimea and Ukraine, Britain's fuel security is undermined further. Alternative means of power need to be found with nuclear power being an obvious source, while others will point at renewables and fracking as alternatives.

Similarly, once HS2 - subject of a major report tomorrow - is running, Euston station is set to be overrun with thousands of extra passengers a day leaving the Northern and Victoria lines unable to cope, hence the growing calls for Crossrail 2. In December last year, possible Labour Mayoral candidate Andrew Adonis warned that today’s ‘sardine conditions on central London’s Tube will be nothing compared with the congestion of the 2020s; the capital will grind to a halt’. Improving the capital’s infrastructure will be a major aspect of any campaign he runs.

After ditching the argument that HS2 was all about superfast bullet trains whizzing through an unrecognisable England, those behind the plan – inspired by the appointment of Sir David Higgins as boss – have, instead, sought to emphasize how the service will be reduce congestion south of Birmingham and be a catalyst to trans-Pennine rail links in the north.

Sir David Higgins
Materially there is nothing in HS2 which will cut journey times between Liverpool and Leeds, Manchester and Hull. But planners are adamant that the connection itself, the stage two link from Manchester and Liverpool to Birmingham and the South, will inspire northern cities to press for their own infrastructure. While many local northern authorities support HS2, there is frustration within the HS2 team that in the past these bodies have acted with too much isolation, failing to capitalise sufficiently on their geographical proximity. This, it is believed, is partly to blame for infrastructure spending per head being so much higher in the south-east than in the north.

And it is a major incentive as to why the HS2 chairman is so keen to press with the northern section of the line as fast as he is able. There is no chance, as some would like, of the line being constructed from north to south – phase two of HS2 is at least three years behind phase one in parliamentary terms alone – but the second phase could still be brought forward.

Planners also want to cut the current price tag of £50billion but the Higgins report published tomorrow will not offer any headline cut simply for easy headlines. The contingency will remain as large as it is at the moment. They know that the only way for any savings to be delivered is for the scheme to get political support from all sides in government - regardless of who is in power as the process will cover several administrations - and from local authorities across the country.

With such commitment, they hope for momentum, which will stimulate northern investment. For much of the last decade Network Rail funds have been largely diverted south to projects such as Crossrail 1. During the construction phase of HS2, fresh Network Rail funds could be invested on these northern projects, though they could still face competition from the likes of Crossrail 2, if it gets the go-ahead.

Tomorrow, Higgins will try to focus and reinforce the HS2 vision and urge politicians, and especially a twitchy Labour Party - currently the most likely to withdraw their support - to stay the course. 

HS2 planners seem to have finally honed their vision but they know success, and savings, will only come from political certainty. With so many huge infrastructure projects at the starting gates - billions of pounds waiting to be committed, spent, invested, wasted, lost or delivered - their backers will be watching closely, trying to gauge the cost of political will.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Celebs take on HS2

Now I'm not saying I endorse the sentiments expressed by comedian John Bishop in the film above, but the HS2 Action Alliance have done a terrific job here; witty, nicely animated and with a whiff of nostalgia.

It's one of several anti-HS2 films which have appeared on YouTube, featuring actors and public figures who evidently personally feel strongly about the issue, and thankfully they don't all include Stanley Johnson. Below is the marvellous Geoffrey Palmer, in his familiar grumpy, hangdog, role, poetically pleading with the prime minister, asking what would it take for him to change his mind.

Of course, currently, HS2 is looking more likely to get the go-ahead at not but perhaps campaigners will have been given greater hope after Patrick McLoughlin admitted paving legislation would not get through the Houses of Parliament before the next general election. Supporters of HS2 believe the vast majority of MPs support the scheme but this backing has never been properly tested so it could be soft. And, given our uncertain political times, it wouldn't take much for MPs - or indeed one of the major parties - to switch sides and throw the high speed line back into doubt.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Boris questioned on Crystal Palace plans

*This is really just an update on the previous entry.

Several London Assembly members have tabled a series of questions to Mayor Boris Johnson about the proposed £500million redevelopment plan for Crystal Palace Park and today I received all of the answers.

Readers will notice a disappointing number of responses are simply 'Officers are drafting a response which will be sent shortly'.

The questions, from Green member Darren Johnson and abour's Val Shawcross and Fiona Twycross, range from issues over the London Plan to the failings of the consultation process, which Boris now believes have mainly been resolved.

The highlights are below, responses in italics. (If anyone wants the full responses, contact me on Twitter and I'll respond)

Darren Johnson

Further Alterations to the London Plan 
You are proposing to designate Crystal Palace as a Strategic Outer London Development Centre. Is this in relation to the proposal to build on the top site?

Officers are drafting a response which will be sent shortly.

You are proposing to designate Crystal Palace as a Strategic Outer London Development Centre. Does this encompass (a) the park, (b) the National Sports Centre, (c) the Crystal Palace "town centre" and (d) other neighbouring town centres such as Penge?

Officers are drafting a response which will be sent shortly.

You are proposing to designate Crystal Palace as a Strategic Outer London Development Centre. Is this area identified for exogenous growth, to create new significant growth opportunities, or endogenous, to enhance existing growth trends?

Officers are drafting a response which will be sent shortly.

Val Shawcross

Crystal Palace Park - MOU
Please publish the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the GLA, LB Bromley and ZRG in March 2013 concerning the development on the top site of Crystal Palace Park.

This will be made available on the Bromley Council website.

Crystal Palace Park. Transport impact
When is it planned to undertake a transport impact assessment on the proposal to redevelop the top site on Crystal Place Park? How many car journeys would be generated by the Crystal Palace Park Development each day if the development were to go ahead?

I acknowledge this is a priority for local people having listened to feedback from the consultation sessions.

The consultant team will identify transport issues raised by the scheme early on and have already begun initial discussions with TfL and Tramlink. A Transport Assessment will be prepared alongside all the planning application documents after an architect has been appointed in Summer 2014. It will rely on detailed information on uses and activities within the building and therefore it will evolve as the proposals develop.

The new Crystal Palace should not have unacceptable impacts on the transport network and the potential impact on both the local highway network and the public transport network will be a key consideration throughout the design process.

Crystal Palace Park - Overseas Government Investment
Are you concerned that LB Bromley are allegedly proposing to let a large part of Crystal Palace Park's public Metropolitan Open Lane to an overseas private developer for 125 years?  What scrutiny and public oversight will be in place to ensure the interests of the local community and public access to the park is protected for the entire length of this proposed lease period?

Crystal Palace Park is owned by the London Borough of Bromley and therefore the details of any land transaction related to the park is a matter for Bromley.  Any impact on Metropolitan Open Land will be fully and carefully considered in detail as part of the planning process.

Crystal Palace Park - Potential Uses of Development
What commercial usages are being considered for the buildings at Crystal Palace Park top site? How are potential conflicts between what is planned and the planning restrictions currently imposed on this land going to be resolved?

It is very early days in the process, but suggested commercial uses could include a hotel and conference facilities, studios, galleries and other commercial space. These will be subject to a full, detailed planning process.

Fiona Twycross 

Crystal Palace Park 
Have you read the results of the first questionnaire carried out by Arup at its consultation event? They are available on the London Crystal Palace website and show a majority favouring a museum, art gallery or visitor attraction rather than hotels and retail. What do you think of the findings of this initial consultation meeting?

Yes, I have read the results, and am extremely encouraged that people are engaging so actively with the ongoing consultation process. I’m keen to see something that balances public appeal, facilities and attractions with the need to ensure the ongoing commercial sustainability of the building, and my officers are working closely with Bromley and Arup to ensure this is the case. I assure you that we want to attract and deliver in Crystal Palace a cultural attraction that will be of national significance and add to and not compete with London’s existing cultural offer.

Despite your own personal enthusiasm for the plans to build of a replica of Crystal Palace in Crystal Palace Park the findings of the consultation show respondents top three priorities were restoring the park, attracting locals and protecting heritage. Will you listen to these views even if they are different to your own stated view?

There is no reason why the views of local constituents and the aims for the renovated park should be being mutually exclusive. Restoring the park, attracting locals and protecting heritage are three of our long-stated goals for this project. However, the cost of renovating the park is rising and currently estimated to be £80 million. Therefore, significant investment needs to be generated to deliver the priorities of the public, and the findings of the consultation process, and we will keep this in mind as developments continue to progress.

Are you aware of concerns raised about the initial consultation meeting about Crystal Palace Park in December, and what is your office's involvement in the consultation process?

I am aware of the concerns that were raised. A team from Arup is leading on engagement activity on behalf of the developer and is being supported by my officers. I understand that the second consultation meeting on 1st February addressed many of the concerns around communication and presentation.

Approximately 350 people attended this meeting, with around 320 copies of the questionnaire completed online and on the day. There was representation from my officers at the event, as there will be at the next event on 1st March.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

We need to talk about Crystal Palace

It would appear that those behind plans to 'rebuild' Crystal Palace have underestimated levels of interest. The Mayor of London's office, Bromley Council and consultants Arup hosted a day long 'drop-in' event for local communities to hear an update on plans to redevelop the top terraces of the park, on the site of Joseph Paxton's original building. But, with a talk scheduled for 11.30am, the doors of the meeting room at the Lodge - inside a modern tower within the park - had to be closed as it was already bursting with at least a couple of hundred people (indeed, I only managed to squeeze in waving a toy to give to my wife to keep our daughter entertained!). 

While the planners may have the best of intentions, the event didn't seem to satisfy most attendees. There wasn't an enormous amount to update as there remains a lack of information and detail as to what is really intended. And, significantly, there was not, as far as I was aware, a representative from the Zhong Rong group, the Chinese firm who are eager to pay for the £500million redevelopment.

As soon as James Lough, associate director of Arup, began his speech, he was interrupted by challenging questions:

'Where is the brief for this? There is no brief that says, we want this. You don't have a brief you don't have a concept. You have got six disparate firms of architects, how can they come with a concept for Crystal Palace?

'A lot of us were under the impression that the Chinese organisation were going to rebuild Crystal Palace. A lot of us thought this would be according to Paxton's own design and now it seems that this in fact something completely different.'

Another lady exclaimed: 'We don't buy it, it's a sham and it's shameful.'

Mr Lough did his best to respond. The brief 'is being developed for the competition and the project'. Yet, it is clear the six short-listed firms have not been set any parameters within which to work. This is their opportunity to show off with flamboyant designs that will never be built.

The new building, Mr Lough admitted, 'isn't going to be a slavish adherence' to Paxton's design as that was of its time and the new building will have to conform modern building regulations.

An ambitious timetable was laid out. From the six firms, three will be selected later in Spring to submit more detailed - and presumably realistic - proposals, with the winner chosen in the Summer. Assuming all goes smoothly in planning (!), work would commence in winter 2015 with the final building opening in 2018.

There is nothing firm about what might be in the new palace, though the questionnaire they have distributed gives an interesting insight into what the local community thinks.

Would you like to see a new Crystal Palace developed in Crystal Palace Park?

Yes - 54% No - 19% Not sure - 28%

What uses would you like to see in the new Palace?

                                           Yes          No
Hotel                                    32            45
Cinema                                 52            31
Museum                               86              7
Art Gallery                           85              8
Shops                                    25            52
Artist studios                        72            12
Restaurant/cafes                  81            13
Conference facilities            44            33
Viewing platform                  85              7
(The above figures are estimates. The only precise percentage given was for the 'yes/no' question, all the other figures are my interpretation of block graphs. I'm happy to be corrected)

A world class hotel is a crucial aspect to any development of this scale so the hostility to this is already striking. There is also strong opposition against the venue hosting shops. The backers say they will not compete with what is already available in Crystal Palace, but it's hard to imagine this project going ahead without shops, bars and restaurants.

The Q&A afterwards developed something of theme. There were repeated complaints about the failure to alert people about the exhibition, though I did wonder if this was perhaps a bit unfair; while I only found out the night before, the event was packed and I gather the later, similar, meeting was heaving too.

Were other councils being involved? Yes, but none were there at this session. They are being kept updated apparently. It is significant that, while Bromley Council control the park, those most affected do not live in the borough.

Concerns were raised over the funding of the project; how could it be guaranteed that the Zhong Rong Group would be committed to the project for the entire course? And what about the potential sale - the 'privatisation' - of a significant proportion of the park? A representative from the council said lawyers were already looking to securing funding and they would ensure open access to land is guaranteed for the future.

I don't want to give the impression there was only opposition to the scheme. It clearly has robust support. One man described it as the 'most exciting' of the various schemes he had seen over the 30 years he had lived in the area. Another called for prominent water features to be part of any new development, reminding the gathering how the park's fountains had once been the size of Nelson's Column.

The fountains of Crystal Palace
But overwhelmingly, there was a feeling of frustration at the lack of detail. Labour London Assembly Member Val Shawcross asked about the footprint of the planned building, saying it appeared to be way beyond was what allowed - presumably based on the current artist's impression which sees the an enormous structure covering spots like the bus station. The answer was no limits had been given to the architects to give them as much freedom as they needed to come up with their design. When Ms Shawcross begged for consultation to 'be cranked up' she was met with a round of applause.

The redevelopment of Crystal Palace has been dogged for decades by politics at all levels; local, council level, regional and in government. Indeed, I have heard the various Crystal Palace groups compared with the People's Front of Judea. Consultation so far has been dogged by a lack of information. Arup made no guarantee that the planning brief will be made public but they are looking at opening a shop in the Crystal Palace Triangle to try and keep people more directly informed. Perhaps that will help.

Those behind the project will surely hope so. The scheme will only have a successful outcome with careful negotiation. There is a vocal body of opposition which will only get stronger and louder if the current inadequate state of affairs continues.