A word of advice to the National Trust’s new Director-General: urbanise

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The shepherd’s hut at the entrance to Canons Ashby: all at once the National Trust is smug, patronising, and unbearably twee

It’s been an eventful six years for the National Trust’s Director-General Helen Ghosh, who’s announced she’ll be stepping down in April 2018. She’s been constantly bombarded with criticism from right-wing newspapers ever since her appointment  in 2012.  When she suggested that the Trust might soften its opposition to windfarms, the Daily Telegraph said she threatened to turn the Trust into a “Leftie pressure group”. When she said – incontrovertibly – in 2015 that there was a “perception” that the Trust was too middle class, she was accused of patronising supporters.

When she pointed out – correctly – that the NT had started life as a protector of open spaces as well as just buildings, and announced that the Trust would focus more on acquiring land, not stately homes, she was condemned as a politically-correct busybody (even though the Trust’s open spaces attract ten times more visitors than its houses). Other charges include spoiling country views with garish signage, scraping the barrel by buying up Agatha Christies’ former holiday home, ruining the interior of Ickworth House in Suffolk by taking out pieces of historic furniture and replacing them with brown leather beanbags, and intrusively asking volunteers to divulge their sexuality.

The Trust’s critics have even argued that the recent fire that devastated one of the Trust’s foremost eighteenth century mansions, Clandon Park in Surrey, was somehow the result of Ghosh’s lack of interest. “Is the National Trust to blame?” asked a nudge-nudge headline in the Daily Mail. Its reporter had tracked down Teresa Onslow, Auberon Waugh’s widow, who’d grown up in the house and now urged others not to hand over their stately homes to such a negligent custodian.

Then there were the Easter Eggs: last April the Trust was (falsely) accused of airbrushing the word ‘Easter’ from its annual chocolate hunt, prompting Theresa May to condemn the Trust as “absolutely ridiculous” (Kremlinologists pointed out that Ghosh – a former permanent secretary at the Home Office – is said not to have got along well with May when she was Home Secretary). And then this summer saw the rainbow lanyard saga. As part of a ‘Prejudice and Pride’ campaign – “political claptrap”, wrote Harry Mount in the Mail the Trust had ordered staff and volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk to wear Gay Pride lanyards or else “step back”, only to then perform a sudden U-turn and announce that the lanyards were voluntary. The Trust “has been hijacked by a lethal combination of catastrophic dumbing-down, social engineering, rampant politicisation and intolerance of opposing views,” fumed Mount. Continue reading

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Victoria’s secret: how a carbuncle got away with it

CIMG8888.JPGBuilding Design magazine’s awarding of its Carbuncle Cup for this year’s worst new building to Nova, a new office and retail development around the corner from London’s Victoria Station, sets off predictable reactions. How could it have been built? Who in their right mind would give it planning permission? And why didn’t someone do something to stop it?

I have some experience of the Carbuncle Cup: in 2014 it was given to the Woolwich Central development (a huge Tesco’s with flats on top, considerably dumbed-down by cost-cutting on the way from  drawing board to completion), whose planning permission was granted by a Greenwich planning committee I had chaired ten years ago. But Woolwich was – and arguably still is – an obscure corner of south-east London, while Nova is at the very heart of London. What is this development  – which unless you live or work in Victoria, few would have heard of until now – and how did it come about?

Rather than the Nova development as a whole, the Cup’s only been awarded to Nova North and Nova South, two 16-storey office blocks by PLP Architecture described by judges as “a hideous mess”, a “crass assault on all your senses”, and a “demented preening cockerel”.  A residential building to the west, by Benson & Forsyth (architects of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh), and to the east Lynch Architects’ L-shaped block containing a new public library, are rather better. But they’re not enough to redeem the rest. The whole of this huge 2.5-hectare development – bordered by Bressenden Place, Buckingham Palace Road and Victoria Street – is a shambles.

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Nova’s construction cranes above the Palace Theatre, 2016

On paper it’s great of course. Its marketing material says Nova is “a game changing 897,000 square feet mixed use scheme delivering 603,000 square feet of world class Grade A offices, 193,000 square feet of contemporary high quality apartments, 85,000 square feet of inventive and inspirational restaurants, eateries, bars, and retail”.

The developers once crowed that they would create a “covetable workspace for innovative global businesses, a destination for exciting, concept shopping, and a distinctive, ever-changing cultural space”. Nova is “More than a development… [it’s] a campus, a village, a district, a quarter, a landmark, a place to live, work and enjoy. Because it’s completely new. It’s Nova”. Some people, the blurb added, “think all the large scale, redefining, landmark developments in central London have already been done. We think differently… Nova is an architecturally daring development on a grand scale, creating a vibrant new link between Victoria Station and Buckingham Palace and the Royal Parks, and definitively crowning the recent reinvention of Victoria.”

Sadly no one at Westminster Council had their bullshit detectors on when this guff was written. Why not? Victoria is often seen merely as a transport interchange, through which passengers pass as quickly as they can, or at best a transitional area between Belgravia, St James’, Pimlico and Westminster.  Continue reading

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Peterborough: how an ancient city became a New Town

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. Having started with Bedford and Northampton I now turn to a cathedral city to the east: Peterborough.

CIMG3897Don’t be put off by the industrial estates and roundabouts that girdle the place: Peterborough is, at heart, an ancient cathedral city, albeit much expanded since it was designated as a New Town in the 1960s.

And its cathedral is something very special indeed. Its nave is as impressive as Wells or Durham, its perpendicular fan vaulting is as impressive as Westminster Abbey, and its west front is as impressive as Lincoln or York.

It started life as the abbey of Medeshamstede in 655: it’s an accident that the city’s modern name didn’t end up as Medhampstead. The abbey soon became one of the most important Christian centres amidst the upheavals of Dark Ages England. It was burnt, and all its monks massacred, by the Danes in 870, but it was rebuilt by 972 and dedicated to St Peter. Thus the town began to be known not as Medeshamstede but as St Peter’s Burgh: Peterborough has exactly the same etymological roots as St Petersburg.

In about 1070 the abbey and its outbuildings were burnt again by Hereward the Wake and a force of Danes, who hauled off its treasure. After yet another fire in 1116 the abbey was rebuilt once more and much of this Norman cathedral, with an Early English west front of about 1210, survives today. Next year marks the 900th anniversary of its founding in 1118.

Peterborough is thus one of the greatest medieval cathedrals, and arguably one of the most important 12th-century buildings, in England. Despite Cromwell’s soldiers’ vandalism in the civil war, its still remarkably intact. It has many of the features of a showstopping cathedral: a Norman gatehouse, cloisters, a pretty (if small) close with fine limestone buildings (one contains an exemplary new visitor centre). Continue reading

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Northampton, a town that needs to grow up and become a city

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. I started with Bedford and my second outing is to another county town 20 miles away: Northampton.

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It feels a bit like London’s West End did back in the 80s: there’s a lot of downmarket employment and letting agencies, and a lot of takeaways, sticky pavements and pigeon droppings.

Northampton’s many things – a county town for almost 1,100 years, a boot and shoe capital, a 1970s boomtown – but chic it is not. Historically it’s been ignored rather than ridiculed; it hasn’t been the butt of jokes as Slough, Blackpool or Milton Keynes have. But that may be changing. The 2015 Channel 4 comedy series Not Safe for Work centred on a civil servant, played by Zawe Ashton, who’s forcibly relocated from London to Northampton (“Not Northampton….” sighs Ashton in the show’s trailer). In the latest series of Line of Duty a character cited “A work function in Northampton” as an alibi (“sounds amusingly tedious”, wrote the Telegraph’s TV reviewer).

“Is Northampton rubbish?” asked Ross Noble in an episode of his Freewheeling series last year. The answer from locals was a qualified yes. A Northamptonian’s DIY documentary on YouTube tells a similar story: “Northampton’s not what it was”, ”Too many kebab shops,” “An OK cinema,” “Lots of good bars and clubs,” “Too many charity shops” and “When you see the lift tower you know you’ve come home” are the most complimentary vox pops. If Northampton ain’t rubbish it’s certainly dull, average and ordinary, these answers suggest.

You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the real gripes: “Too many immigrants”, ”You hardly ever hear English spoken on the street any more”, and so on.  Northampton’s always been a cosmopolitan place (it had one of England’s largest communities of Jews until their expulsion in 1290) but the arrival of tens of thousands of non-white immigrants since the 1960s is still resented by some. Because of its central location and proximity to the M1, the town has many warehouses, distribution centres and “logistics hubs” which depend on cheap migrant labour. More eastern Europeans have arrived in Northampton in the last decade than almost any other English town, causing some tensions (in 2012 the Daily Mail reported on a “shanty town” of homeless migrants just off the A45).

Like its near-neighbour Bedford (with which I started this series back in April) Northampton has an image problem. The place constantly talks itself down: when I first visited All Saints, the town’s main church, the churchwarden lamented the town’s “dreadful modern buildings” rather than proselytise about the church and the town’s other ancient buildings. This town wears its antiquity lightly, and takes a lot for granted. Continue reading

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To win next time, Labour must overcome its Midland problem

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The 2016 Christmas market in Birmingham. The city’s benefitted from huge investment but too little of it has reached the rest of the Midlands

Theresa May is utterly humiliated, forced to rely on the Democratic Unionists for a majority. Jeremy Corbyn has exceeded all expectations. Far from losing ground, Labour made a net gain of 30 seats – not just in the north and Wales but in London, the south-east, south-west and Scotland. Corbyn’s critics have been silenced and his position as leader is now in no doubt. Theresa May, by contrast, is on borrowed time, as is her government. The prospect of another general election, either later this year or early in 2018, looms large.

I was on the doorstep in Bedford – one of the seats that Labour unexpectedly gained – on election day and it was clear that something was afoot. To my surprise, no doors were slammed in our faces: instead Labour voters were turning out in their droves, as were former Tory and UKIP voters and those who’d never voted before.

But it’s easy to forget, amidst all the jubilation on the centre-left, that Labour lost this election. Badly. Labour won 262 seats, nine fewer than Kinnock did in 1992, and only three more than Gordon Brown in 2010. Given that both 1992 and 2010 are remembered as catastrophic defeats for Labour, it’s difficult to see the 2017 result as a triumphant success.

Like most observers my predictions were way out: in a blogpost on the eve of the election I predicted a Tory majority of 55. But the gist of my argument – that Theresa May would do better than she deserved to, and that Labour had no chance of winning – still held true. Exceeding expectations is not the same as winning. Continue reading

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The big surprise of this election campaign? Not how badly Theresa May has fared, but how well

CaptureA screeching U-turn on long-term care bills. Uninspiring, robotic TV appearances – and several non-appearances at leadership debates and Today programme interviews. An inability to think on her feet, answer unscripted questions from the public, show herself as a team player, or display a smidgeon of humour, courage, imagination or even humanity.

The charge sheet against Theresa May is long, and no matter how well the Conservatives do at the ballot box tomorrow her flaws have been brutally exposed during this campaign. Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, Michael Howard and even William Hague were all far better on the campaign trail.

It’s often been pointed out that the Tories have fallen from a 18-point opinion poll lead at the start of the campaign to an average lead of just 5.7% in the last seven days. But a 12% fall in the Tories’ lead does not mean a fall of 12 points in Tory support. In fact, the Tories have been in the high to mid forties in almost every poll, and have only fallen by about 3-4% since the campaign started. Even after a poor election campaign fronted by the increasingly wooden Theresa May, this BBC graphic shows the Conservatives are, on average, still well ahead of their standing in almost every poll in the last year of Cameron’s premiership. Continue reading

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If Macron wins it proves that despite five years of terror, France can resist the siren calls of fascism. I’m not sure Britain could

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Candidates’ posters outside the Mairie in Beziers: by French law, every commune must display posters in an identity parade like this in the run-up to a presidential election

Imagine that a terrorist had shot dead four police officers, in two daylight attacks on the streets of Winchester and Southampton, a few months before the 2012 Olympics. After a few days at large he attacks the playground of a Jewish school in north London, killing a teacher and three children aged three, six and eight (the latter, a girl, is grabbed by the hair before being shot in the head).

A few days before Christmas 2014 vans run over shoppers in Bristol and Liverpool, injuring dozens but miraculously killing no-one. But just three weeks later, masked gunmen attack the London offices of Private Eye, killing a police officer, a receptionist and 11 journalists and cartoonists. In August 2015, a massacre on a Eurostar train speeding through Kent is only narrowly averted when an American tourist wrestles an automatic weapon from a terrorist’s hands. That November, gunmen and suicide bombers attack a music gig at the Brixton Academy and nearby restaurants and bars, killing 130 young Londoners and wounding dozens more.

Worse is to follow in 2016. After a couple of foiled attacks on police stations in Cardiff and Edinburgh in January, in June a police commander and his wife are stabbed to death by a so-called Islamic State terrorist at their home in Essex, in front of their three-year-old son. The following month a terrorist drives a lorry through a crowd of spectators at a  midsummer firework display in Torquay, killing 84 and injuring hundreds more. Ten days later, a vicar has his throat cut while celebrating holy communion at a village church in Yorkshire.

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I’ve Anglicised the locations but in all other respects this is precisely what France has suffered in the last five years. It’s difficult to overstate the collective trauma, the soul-searching, and the racial tension that such an onslaught has caused. Had Britain faced such a sequence of terrorist attacks, try to imagine the fear, anger and confusion. How would voters react? Would they turn to established political leaders to guide Britain through the turmoil, or look in a new direction? Continue reading

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