Vague ramblings

Balkanisation: the shape of things to come?

Posted in Life, Musing, Regionalism, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 24 June, 2016

The trouble with economists and political scientists is that they do not understand space. While the notion of borders may seem clear to them, they are not properly trained to understand geography.

So forget the market turmoil and the potential threat to the UK’s dominance in key markets, especially financial. Forget that the UK has chosen to complete its transformation from global superpower to complete irrelevance.

Consider these two maps (you can click for larger versions, or follow the links to the source). The first, from the Guardian, shows the distribution of referendum results, adjusted for population. The source has some interesting graphs as well.

The second, from the BBC, shows the distribution of various immigrant groups (no Scotland because that’s how Census data is published).

In the context of a Leave campaign that was shamelessly (and shamefully) racist, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the areas where people have actually met migrants, day-to-day – worked with them, socialised with them, talked to them are the ones who voted most strongly for Remain – the main exception being Birmingham. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. UKIP’s heartland in the East of England is the part of the country with fewest immigrants (although farming relies a lot of migrant labour).

The big cities and the centres of knowledge voted Remain.

But the largely white, English (not British, English) working classes in areas that have been pretty well bankrolled by the EU voted for Leave and a truly impressive case of cut-off-nose-to-spite-faces.

This white son of a truck driver has written quite often (sometimes intemperately) on the capacity of the white English to find other people to blame for their woes. But, really, it is to do with the crushing of aspiration more than anything. They do not care that our kids will find it harder to travel for work to 27 countries. They (we) are no longer expected to aspire – indeed aspiration is actively discouraged, so when times get tough the fingers get pointed. Compare and contrast with the get-up-and-go of the stereotypical Polish brickie, who could be a poster child for Norman Tebbitt’s childish aphorisms.

When I graduated there was nobody in the room prouder than my Dad – left school at 13, Burma Star, drove all over the continent for Marconi, grafted his way to a senior position, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. He and Mum couldn’t afford the “parental contribution” to my grant, and I only once made the mistake of asking for it.

And, of course, that was in the days of a grant: even if the modern white English working classes could be persuaded to aspire, to lift their eyes and look around the World of opportunity, they would be discouraged by the prospect of a lifetime mountain of debt.

It is an ugly, ugly situation in a homeland that is becoming nastier by the day.

But look back at that map. It takes no imagination at all to see Scotland opting for independence. If I were Nicola Sturgeon I’d be seriously considered going for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence.  OK, probably not – but it is hard to see David Cameron as anything other than the PM whose hubris cost us the Union.

But what of those cities, and especially of London?

How well will England’s great centres of finance and knowledge respond to being asked to pick up the tab for regional policy that is, right now, 100% EU funded? Anything that is seen as moving resources out of the capital – financial or physical – will, history shows us, be seen as anti-London and resisted fiercely. Twitter jokes about a London Independence Party will remain just that, of course, but the underlying feeling will not go away. London, for better or worse, has kept the UK afloat since the days of Thatcher (and there is a very strong case for saying “the worse”, but that is entirely moot).

Add the Government’s (perfectly laudable) taste for city-regions exercising greater autonomy – and note that the main one, Manchester, voted Remain;  season with the thought that Plaid Cymru might see a nice anti-English stick to beat the campaign drums with, and division may not be limited to the exit of Scotland.

It’s called Balkanisation for reasons that history (not just recent) teaches us. It doesn’t need to be at all literal.

It will still be cancerous.

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Alright, I lied – yet more on coffee shops

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 9 May, 2014
Not exactly a misspent youth, is it?

Not exactly a misspent youth, is it?

So I ended up writing to the Herts Ad again, since St Albans Civic Society replied, and, well frankly showed contempt for a large chunk of the users of the City centre. At least this time there was common ground, albeit unrelated, on the issue of protecting employment land.

Anyway, per the letter below, I estimated that the City centre would find itself £4m a year short of that needed to sustain itself with the Maltings (at 1982 prices – about £10m a year in today’s prices)  – and that therefore the department store would not be viable.

I mistakenly thought that Sainsbury’s was playing hardball for the new centre, having not fully appreciated the extent to which it was abandoning town centres. I expected contraction at the edges of the City centre and for neighbourhood centres to suffer – this happened, but so many changes have happened to UK retail that I would not seek to attribute that to the Maltings. St Albans city centre, and many of its smaller centres, is struggling because all of the important stuff is better provided elsewhere – and it is far, far too late to fix that.

Anyway, this really is the last time – probably.

Sirs,

Two things: it is a funny old world when praise for past success and criticism of sadly misguided current thinking is a “diatribe” (Tim Boatswain, last week). Hey ho. It would be funny, if it were not so sad, that the secretary of the Civic Society so contemptuously dismissed the mums, the workers and the students of St Albans as insufficiently motived. Sorry if they are too busy raising families, earning a living or writing essays and don’t meet your exacting standards of engagement. The clue is in the word “busy”.

Secondly, it is 32 years since, in my undergraduate dissertation, I modelled the then under construction Maltings and predicted that it would never find a taker for the proposed department store. Hardly surprising since we had lost three in the previous 15 years, I suppose, but the competition was just too intense even in prosperous Hertfordshire.

And that was before Sainsbury’s on Griffiths Way, Savacentre (as was) at London Colney, and before the Ballito site became Prestos (now Morrisons), before stonking great Tesco stores in Hatfield and Watford, and when Waitrose on King Harry Lane was a fresh-faced harbinger of things to come.

Getting snotty about cafes that – manifestly – a lot of people actually use and for which there is – equally manifestly – a viable market, and arguing against one that not a single person has proposed, is to fight the wrong battle, at the wrong end of the City centre and well over 25 years too late. Even the burger bars have left town. Clinging by bloodied fingernails to a fantasy town centre that died years ago and is never coming back helps nobody.

Given the choice between cafe culture and the unholy trinity of pound stores, betting shops and travel agents, I know where I stand. And that is the real choice, as anyone who has studied the small towns around the M25 can tell you.

Oh, and just to show there are no hard feelings, I actually have some sympathy with the Society’s views of office-to-residential. Once employment land is lost, it never comes back. It is a genuine and difficult challenge. Snobbery over coffee shops is not.

Incidentally, I made a small error of memory – Presto had already been bought by Safeway by the time it took over the Fleetville supermarket which, previously, had been a Co-op.

 

Showbiz, do-gooders and perking up High Street UK

Posted in Business, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 23 April, 2014

Taken on the day the Olympic Torch came throughSmall town centres are under the cosh. Outflanked by out-of-town retail, inflexible and expensive, they are in deep, deep trouble.

What does it take to bring life to a struggling town centre? I’ve argued in the past that an “executive” rather that “committee” approach is best, because committees are where things go to die.

I also think that goals need to be clearly defined and measurable and set out in a contract, in order for accountability to work.

If we are to entrust accountability to such a contract – legal or social – we would do well to think carefully about what it is we are contracting for. If we don’t we end up with box ticking, and that would rather defeat the object.

Box ticking builds in fear of failure.

Given that goals need to be realistic and measurable, the temptation is to reduce this to “rent-roll” or some proxy of that. Has the unit on the High Street been let? Are the streets swept? Did the rent review get sorted? Even where town centre managers have direct control over such matters, they are hardly the cutting edge. I am wary of characterising all town centre managers as train-spottery geeks, obsessed with vacancy rates. So please grasp that I am stretching my point for the sake of contrast.

So what, exactly, am I asking of anyone charged with care of our small town centres?

Think, if you will, about that term: ‘town centre manager’. It doesn’t exactly smack of “sexy” does it? It immediately brings to my mind a similar term: “operations manager”. Now, let’s be clear, a good ops manager is a joy to have. But it doesn’t really make you think of, say, setting out a vision, does it?

But I am also very wary of town-clerk-to-chief-executive style name changes, where the role remains unchanged but with a fancy new label.

I am talking about a wholly new role.

Enter the Suburban Impresario. (more…)

Wrong battle, 25 years too late (Coffee shops ad caffeinium).

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 10 April, 2014
French Row, St Albans

The Millets building on French Row, looking exactly like a building on a medieval street shouldn’t.

So I ended up writing to the Herts Ad again.  (Herts Ad link, as a courtesy). This will be the last (at least on this topic) I promise.

Going to a spectacular length to condemn something that nobody is proposing, while ignoring the important bit of the story – a chance to rectify a terrible bit of out-of-character architecture, really does take the biscuit.

Whether it will happen like that, who knows? But you might think this opportunity is what should be at the core of the Civic Society’s thinking.

Sirs,

Oh Dear Lord, not content showing contempt for young mums, busy professionals, students, the self-employed and all of their needs and desires, St Albans Civic Society has now taken to tilting at windmills.

It is one thing rabble rousing about Caffe Nero, but quite a spectacular display of hubris to object to a coffee shop that nobody – absolutely nobody – has proposed. Presumably the Society is delighted that the old Harringtons unit is now a travel agent.

The Society is completely out of touch with the often brutal realities of the modern high street, and wholly indifferent to the needs of a large chunk of the population.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is time for St Albans Civic Society to lay up its colours. 

And what a shame that the Herts Ad let a potentially interesting story about an attempt to revamp an important corner of the City centre to be derailed by a group rapidly degenerating into a collection of one-track obsessives travelling the road to irrelevance. Milletts has been there as long as I can remember, and its hideous and out-of-character building is long overdue for redevelopment. So how about focussing on the real story?

If you want to talk to me, or my business partners in our about regeneration, pop over to the Ramidus Consulting website (the view expressed here and in the Herts Advertiser are, obviously, mine and not necessarily those of Ramidus). Our opinion goes where the evidence, not assumption, leads us and I am proud to be associated with Ramidus.

Cloud Cuckoo Land over coffee shops

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 3 April, 2014

So, I had this published in my local paper this week (online version here). I am dreadfully disappointed that St Albans Civic Society, an organisation that did awesome work in the 1970s to save the City from a monstrous retail scheme (that would certainly have become a white elephant by now), has left its thinking in those by-gone days. Anyone who works around the M25 knows that smaller towns have real difficulty maintaining any form of vibrancy. Given the choice between cafe culture and the unholy trinity of pound stores, betting shops and travel agents, I know where I stand.

And that is the real choice.

Sirs,

What a pity that the Civic Society and a sadly predictable group of worthies have decided on such an utterly wrong-headed attitude towards Caffe Nero’s planning application.

The Society that fought so valiantly over the future of Chequer Street back in the 1970s and early 80s unfortunately seems to be stuck in those days. Let’s be very clear: there is no future for St Albans city centre as a major shopping centre. The moment passed a long time ago and only the lunacy of the pre-credit crunch era gave false hope. Its units are mostly too small and the nearby competition too fierce.

Look at the evidence to see our real choices: PoundWorld and 99p Stores at the top of St Peter’s Street and Poundland in The Maltings. I’ve nothing against any of these stores – they fill an economic need – but let’s not pretend they are a sign of vitality in a town centre. We have even seen a loss of retail to a new hotel and there’s a pawn broker next to The Boot.

Is that what you want?

Or St Albans can move to encourage things that let people hang around a bit. Coffee shops are where young mums meet up for a chinwag, where self-employed people (like me) go for a bit of a break or for informal meetings, or where professionals go for to get free of the distractions of the office, taking advantage of the WiFi ; where we can catch up with friends without being surrounded by booze (that really matters to some of us); they are where students like to sit and write essays. And then there are those who just like coffee, or the assortment of snacks they also sell.

The landlords of the old Monsoon unit tried to let it to a retailer – which had outbid Caffe Nero – but the deal fell through. Sorry, but landlords are as entitled to a viable business as anyone else.

It is a little unseemly see an organisation with the heritage of the Civic Society rabble-rousing against a company going about its lawful business. The business world has never been more brutal, and St Albans is too small to be big and too big to be Berkhamsted-style small.

An outbreak of cafe culture would do the power of good – yes, let it spill out onto the streets, let them play music, hold poetry readings, host local arts groups, and more. It may not be the only viable option to pound stores and betting shops, but it is the one on the table and there is no-one else coming over the hill to save us. We don’t have time to stand on past glories, because the past is where they are.

So instead of trying to preserve it is aspic, perhaps the Civic Society could start thinking how to exploit its coffee shops – and all the other eateries – to bring people to spend time our beautiful city.

Nightlife and Nimbys: Biting the hand that bites the hand that feeds

Posted in Irritants, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 6 March, 2014

In the interest of recycling, here is a simple – but I think devastatingly effective – reform of the planning system, proposed 4 years ago on UK Regeneration, that would do more to revitalise tired town centres than any other change. Frankly, I’m amazed it hasn’t been taken up yet.

Biting the hand that bites the hand that feeds

I’m going to propose a change to planning regulations that, I am quietly confident, will have a truly beneficial impact on the vibrancy of town centres.

It isn’t a huge change, and it is a tad counter-intuitive, so bear with me while I explain.

The idea rests on a simple posit: that people (that is, resident populations) are bad for the vibrancy of town centres. I know, I know. Bear with me.

There are exceptions, of course, but generally these are close to the centres of large cities – Clerkenwell springs to mind. But there is a reason for these exceptions: put simply, no-one in their right mind would expect peace and quiet in Clerkenwell, with the result that Clerkenwell and Holborn are a lot livelier than when I was at LSE.

The problem is that many people look for a little bit of that “metropolitan” lifestyle, without that pesky “metropolitan price tag” – and more to the point without the presence of advertising executives carousing at all hours.

So instead of going to Clerkenwell, they go to a suburb and or small town centre near you, hoping to have their cake and eat it.

The trouble with town centres is that they tend to have pubs and restaurants and even the odd late store. So those moving into their bijou townhouse/ apartments/ lofts discover that town centre living is not always conducive to a good night’s sleep.

So when one of the pubs tries to – oooh, I dunno – stay in business by having music nights or longer hours or new kitchens built, or anything that might pull more customers through the doors, guess who objects?

It turns out that “vibrancy” is not so neat after all.

So here is my proposed draft of the Dealing With NIMBY Objections (Pubs and Miscellaneous Noisy Stuff) Order, 2010. It will read, in its entirety:

Objections from residents to alterations of licensing and related terms affecting town centre pubs and similar business shall always be met with the following notice: “You moved in next to a pub. What the hell did you expect?”.

Once firmly in place, this regulation should drive the sleepers out to Acacia Avenue where they belong, and leave town centres to those who want to have fun.

I’m quite serious about this: I know of one pub, the manager of which has been driven to her wit’s end by a stroppy neighbour for whom no amount of bending over backwards is good enough. The neighbour is new, the pub at least 400 years old. Town centres are supposed to be noisy and messy. That’s what “vibrancy” means.

I’m aware that the British (especially the English) have a problem with responsible drinking. But it is not like this is new: Rotterdam dock-masters 400 years ago wrote of their dread of English ships coming in.

That problem won’t be solved by shoving it somewhere else – and trying to do so strangles town centres. 

Semi-arid suburbia revisited

Posted in St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 4 March, 2014

Back in 2010 I wrote the following for UK Regeneration (original here):

Take a look around your local town centre – whether in a suburban area or smaller town doesn’t matter, the essence will remain the same. What do you see? The chances are that it will include some or all of the following:

  • Vacant or under-utilised offices, or at the very least offices that have not seen a decent refurbishment in a decade or more;
  • A Tesco of some kind, but most likely with either “Metro” or “Express” appended;
  • A pound store which will probably have replaced a Sainsbury’s or a Woolworth;
  • A shopping precinct that has never quite worked;
  • Pervasive parking controls that make “quick trip” shopping barely tenable;
  • Congestion OR pedestrianisation, or congestion displaced by pedestrianisation;
  • Outside London, busses of many colours, with routes that are scarcely comprehensible;
  • Noticeably fewer local enterprises occupying shops than in past years;
  • A Waterstones.
  • Some high-value town centre “apartment” schemes;
  • A least one decent-sized site that will have been subject to development proposals for as long as you can remember, but on which nothing has happened.

In your local paper there will be at least a couple of stories showing that local authorities have absolutely no grasp of the pressures faced by smaller businesses.

It won’t all be bad.

  • There is a reasonable chance that a local civic group or entrepreneur is leading efforts to revive a much-loved building (most likely a cinema, perhaps a theatre).
  • You may be lucky enough to have a town centre manager who takes his or her job way beyond mere management.

But these will all-to-often feel like efforts to push water up hill. Even in relatively successful town centres, the overall feeling is of a place that is less important than it was 20 years ago – less alive. And certainly less loved.

I call it Semi-Arid Suburbia. I always knew my geography degree would prompt a handy metaphor one day.

It isn’t an arid place, a desert – there is still life in suburban town centres. But it is less diverse, less exciting and less intense than it once was. It is semi-arid.

Partly this is related to the rise of out-of-town and edge-of-town retail and this is reasonably well understood.

But partly – and this is much less well understood – it is to do with those under-used offices, the silent neglect in our suburban landscape. There has been negligible rental growth, outside of central London and one or two other hot spots, for the fat end of two decades, not even enough to prompt decent refurbishment.

It is the legacy of the B1 use-class, that office-to-light industrial catch-all, a sign of a dreadful lack of imagination, and it is a cancer on our town centres.

And something needs to be done.

I revisit this because some Important People have finally caught up, in the shape of the Future Spaces Foundation (see here). There is a hint of apple pie thinking  – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but it is bang on about the obsession with protecting retail. The brutal truth is that most medium-sized towns have no future as significant retail centres: I concur with the thrust of FSF’s thesis. But think about those under-utilised offices have a role to play too, not just dead shops and Eric Pickles’s “one size fits all” solution of allowing unfettered conversion to residential is not the way to go. I’ll show why in a future blog.

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were communities of work and leisure in our smaller town centres?

 

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