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The Frackers are Back

At the height of the fracking protest in Balcombe in 2013 I went to hear Mark Stevenson , author of ‘An Optimists Tour of the Future’ speak at Forest Row Village Hall.  Mark delivered a fascinating overview of future technology and the energy sector.  He had a very clear ‘take’ on fracking and the other extreme unconventional means of extraction of gas, oil and coal – such as deep water drilling, tar sands extraction and mountain top removal.  It is that these are the desperate and dying acts of an outdated technology that is rapidly being replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy.  Solar energy has the potential to re-order society because it can be home produced thus cutting out the ‘middle man’.

Balcombe 2013

Balcombe 2013

So it was surprising and disappointing to read a few weeks ago of the decision of the planning committee of North Yorkshire County Council to approve plans put forward by an outfit called Third Energy to frack for gas at a site near Kirby Misperton in Ryedale.  Yes the frackers are back like the undead from a Hammer Horror movie.  The councillors who voted in favour probably thought they were voting for the future when they were in fact voting for the past.  Fighting this polluting and dangerous industry, which is designed to make a few people a ‘fast buck’ at the expense of everybody else, before it is stopped is both a local and a national fight and the decision in Yorkshire could have implications here.

Hopefully the relentless and inevitable march of renewable technologies will squeeze out this nasty industry (which would industrialise our countryside and threaten our health, water supplies and wildlife) before it gets properly established in the UK.  Here’s a link to an article about how wind energy is becoming mainstream in the USA (and as we all know we’ve no shortage of wind in the UK)

Leave the hydrocarbons in the ground.  It’s where they belong.

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Neither Here Nor There

It was odd to read that after a competition, Heathrow airport has shortlisted four architects to develop designs for it’s expansion After further work a winner will be selected in July. Odd because the decision to allow Heathrow to expand has yet to be taken by the government. Perhaps they went ahead to apply psychological pressure on the government to choose Heathrow over Gatwick or perhaps it’s a done deal already.

Boeing 747 400 over Heathrow photo: Arpingstone

Boeing 747 400 over Heathrow photo: Arpingstone

But I think it could still be Gatwick if issues of noise, traffic and pollution at Heathrow make the decision so toxic that they trump the so called ‘business case’. The expansion of Gatwick would be a disaster of similar if not greater proportions. It would more than double in size turning East Grinstead and Crawley into another Slough with many flights flying in low over local villages.

I’m not convinced by the so called ‘hub’ argument or that the forecast passenger growth will materialise for economic, resource and technical reasons and even if it does there is more than enough capacity beyond Heathrow and Gatwick. Stansted airport, for example, is only at 50% capacity and regional airports could easily cope if only the government directed development in their direction for environmental reasons and the promotion of growth beyond London. It’s not enough just to bow to business and passenger preferences. We can’t squeeze everything into London and a bit of old fashioned government planning is called for.

It will be a sad state of affairs if the legitimate concerns about the expansion of Heathrow are addressed by creating a new problem for the communities around Gatwick.

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He Khan Stop It

Sadiq Khan, the new London Mayor, has lost no time in starting to investigate his predecessor Boris Johnson’s conduct over the procurement of the Thames Garden Bridge The ‘pipedream’ landscaped pedestrian bridge is intended to link Temple on the north of the Thames with the South Bank.

Khan is reportedly unlikely to sign off on a guarantee (that the GLA will act as guarantor of the bridge’s future upkeep in the event that the Garden Bridge Trust is unable to provide the funds) until the procurement process has been investigated further. The suggestion is that the process to select a designer was unfair because Johnson and his team met with the eventual winner of the competition on five occasions and Johnson expressed himself ‘keen’ to see their design selected – all before the competition started. My understanding of the law on this is that if the competition was unfair then the other competitors will have to be reimbursed the costs of preparing their entries. This would be another financial ‘hit’ to the public purse on account of a project which was supposed to be privately funded.

Hopefully Sadiq Khan, who has  previously described the scheme as ‘another one of Boris Johnson’s white elephant projects’, will go on to make good on his pledge to scrap the project completely.

My objection to the Thames Garden Bridge is that it will be an eyesore which will block an important open vista along the Thames. The viewpoints of the clever computer graphics produced to illustrate the design have been selected to hide this fact. The claims that it will ‘transform London’s landscape’ and add ‘greenery’ are spurious. Instead it will destroy an important view of the river. It will be a big incongruous lump that no amount of architectural form making or attention to detail will disguise.

Architects and engineers love to build things but sometimes it is better to leave well alone.

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Glass etc

The unseasonably hot weather took us down to Rye on the Sussex coast at the weekend. Once the haunt of smugglers and highwaymen Rye is within easy reach for a short break. There is a sense of living history amongst the old buildings, cobbled streets and passages and of course there are the other attractions such as sea breezes, fish and chips etc.

The Whitefriars Glass cabinet at 'Glass etc'

The Whitefriars Glass cabinet at ‘Glass etc’

‘Banjo’ mould-blown glass vase. Whitefriars glass designed by Geoffrey Baxter photo:Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

‘Banjo’ mould-blown glass vase. Whitefriars glass designed by Geoffrey Baxter photo:Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

We’ve visited quite regularly over the years and a visit isn’t complete without calling in to Helen and Andy McConnell’s antique glass shop ‘Glass etc’ on Rope Walk Andy is a renowned expert in glass perhaps most popularly known for his appearances on BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow.

I’ve picked up various ‘Whitefriars’ glass vases in ‘Glass etc’ over the years in different shapes, colours and sizes. James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars Glass) was a London based glassmaker and stained glass window manufacturer in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Pieces designed by Geoffrey Baxter, who was employed as a designer between 1954 and the closure of Whitefriars in 1980, are becoming increasingly popular.

Coloured, textured and stained glass have always held a fascination for architects on account of the way glass behaves in different lighting conditions. I enjoy cutting fresh flowers and foliage from the garden and arranging them in one of the Whitefriars glass vases on an internal window cill. The variety of expression is endless between the seasonal contents of the vase, the choice of window, the time of day and the month of the year. The glass can be quite special in the right light and the same vase can look very different in say evening Autumn light from how it looks in morning Winter light. The few tens of pounds that the vases have cost have been repaid many times over by the pleasure they give in use.

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Judicial Ping Pong
The Royal Courts of Justice

The Royal Courts of Justice

When the government introduced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as a means to a simplified planning system I bet they weren’t aware of where its simple directives could lead.

In a recent ‘landmark’ Court of Appeal ruling that could have wide ranging impact on this part of the country a developer, Richborough Estates, has won a legal battle with Cheshire East Council over plans to build almost 150 homes in a ‘green gap’ at Willaston.

At the original planning appeal the planning inspector had ruled that consent should be granted, saying that the council had not demonstrated a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites. Paragraph 49 of the NPPF says that ‘relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites’. Since the council was unable to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, the inspector decided that the council’s green gap policy could not be considered up to date and should be disapplied in accordance with paragraph 49 of the NPPF but at an appeal to the High Court the judge found that the planning inspector had been wrong to regard the green gap housing policy as one that was out of date.

However, in this latest ruling the Court of Appeal disagreed with the High Court judge and ruled that: ‘Our interpretation of the policy does not confine the concept of ‘policies for the supply of housing’ merely to policies in the development plan that provide positively for the delivery of new housing in terms of numbers and distribution or the allocation of sites. It recognises that the concept extends to plan policies whose effect is to influence the supply of housing land by restricting the locations where new housing may be developed – including, for example, policies for the green belt, policies for the general protection of the countryside, policies for conserving the landscape of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks, policies for the conservation of wildlife or cultural heritage, and various policies whose purpose is to protect the local environment in one way or another by preventing or limiting development. It reflects the reality that policies may serve to form the supply of housing land either by creating it or by constraining it – that policies of both kinds make the supply what it is.’

This decision will have national significance, with a direct impact on the decision making process of councils such as Wealden District Council and Mid Sussex District Council which currently do not have a five year supply of deliverable housing sites.

Whilst the Court of Appeal refused permission for Cheshire East Council to appeal to the Supreme Court the council has just made a direct approach to the Supreme Court for the right to appeal. So this game of judicial ‘ping pong’ (council decision / inspector’s decision / High Court decision / Court of Appeal decision) might yet go into a final set at the Supreme Court.

The Court of Appeal decision will be of great interest to all those seeking to deliver housing in locations which were previously thought to be constrained by ‘plan policies whose effect is to influence the supply of housing land by restricting the locations where new housing may be developed’. All the usual caveats apply. If this decision is of interest, read the full decision and take professional advice.

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We’re now into the EU Referendum campaign that culminates in the referendum on 23 June. The opinion polls suggest 55% stay / 45% leave but I think it will be more of a close run thing. Those who intend to vote ‘no’ appear to be clear about why they want to leave but less clear about how things will look if we do whereas those who intend to vote ‘yes’ appear to be less clear about why they want to stay but quite clear about how things will look if we do stay (a version of the status quo).

The economic arguments seem to cut both ways – Vote Leave say we’d save £35 million each week in payments made to the EU that could be spent on the NHS and schools. Britain Stronger in Europe say that for every £1 we put into the EU we get almost £10 back through increased trade, investment, jobs, growth and low prices.

Amongst all the many areas of debate (sovereignty, jobs, trade, investment, security, immigration etc) little is heard of the argument that the European Union has helped avert war in Europe. Perhaps it’s taken for granted that we won’t go to war with our European neighbours but it shouldn’t be if European history prior to the formation of the European Union is anything to go by.

Soviet soldiers hosting the Soviet flag in Berlin May 1945 German Federal Archives

Soviet soldiers hosting the Soviet flag in Berlin May 1945 German Federal Archives

When our daughter was in Germany for a two week training course recently we met her in Berlin for the weekend. I’d never visited Berlin before and I was shocked to see the evidence of the destruction wrought during the Second World War. British, American, French and Russian bombers carried out 363 air raids during the course of the war and in the final weeks of the war what remained of the city was flattened by shelling by the Red Army as it made its final assault.

The ‘fabric’ of the city has long since been ‘stitched’ together by buildings of varying quality but what is jaw dropping is the amount of post war infill. There is a ghostly sense of what was once there in the form of the layout and scale of the city but it is now just ‘peppered’ with historic landmarks.

Thankfully Berlin is nowadays a ‘happening’ place full of young people from all over Europe with business start-ups, restaurants, bars, museums, galleries, clubs and music. They take the EU and the peace that has existing during their lifetimes for granted. Along with the majority of young people in the UK I’ll be voting to remain to maintain the status quo – warts and all.

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Painting the Modern Garden

We wanted to catch the exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy before it closes on Wednesday and we managed to get there today. The problem was that many others had the same idea so it was very busy with a crowd of art lovers as colourful as the flowers in the paintings on the walls.

The exhibition includes paintings by a group of artist–gardeners produced during Monet’s lifetime – impressionists, post impressionists and members of the early 20th century avant garde. Lots of gardens full of paths, shadows, foliage, dappled sunshine, broad brimmed hats and parasols.

Claude Monet The Rose Walk, Giverny

Claude Monet The Rose Walk, Giverny

The impressionist movement coincided with the ‘great horticultural movement’ which was driven by access to new varieties of plants from the Far East and the Americas and the emergence of various larger, more showy and more colourful hybrid flowers. The artist–gardeners were depicting a romantic impressionistic ‘earthly paradise’ – a fusion of art and nature that was in contrast to urban and industrial expansion. Of course the paintings don’t depict the ‘natural’ world. They are twice removed with the gardens being a man made assemblage of elements and the paintings a specially selected picturesque view at a particular time of day and season – usually with the sun high in the sky and the flowers in full bloom.

The design process for a garden has similarities with that of a building – the need for a strong conceptual idea, a clear circulation system, a sequence of ‘events’, the need for contrast in colour and texture, scale, light and shade etc. For me the best gardens work in tandem with the buildings or garden structures that they contain – walls that continue from the house to the garden to retain soil and enclose and define space, inside–outside space and a variety of spaces that function as external ‘rooms’.

Gardens offer a place for the imagination to roam to create something special that can in return offer beauty and inspiration. A still point away from the hustle and bustle of life that is probably even more necessary now than it was 100 years or more ago in the time of Monet.

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More than a Structural Defect

The news that seventeen schools in Edinburgh have been closed as a result of structural defects comes as no surprise to me given that the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) / Public – Private Partnership (PPP) under which they were constructed was a conceptual disaster from the outset.

The traditional approach to procuring a building involves establishing a brief, selecting the best design to meet the brief and then identifying the builder. In PFI the process is more or less reversed. Private sector consortia finance, design, build and operate projects through long term concessions in return for a regular income stream over the life of the concession. Bids are evaluated primarily on price. The architectural input is often minimal by architects selected for their low fees alone and the role of the architect on site is removed to cut costs with the ‘architecture’ consisting of meeting the brief at the lowest cost leading to a kind of PFI aesthetic – cheap, ‘boxy’, bland.

It shouldn’t be like this. Creating good buildings is a primary cultural act. It is too important to be the secondary outcome of a complex financial and contractual process that places insufficient emphasis on high quality design and construction.

I don’t know more than is in the press about the Edinburgh case but it simply isn’t possible to overlook something as fundamental as external cavity wall ties and internal masonry wall head ties. It looks like a clear cut case of ‘cutting corners’ in a hidden area where the saving will not be detected (until a wall falls down and kills someone).

No doubt some of those responsible for the defects in the Edinburgh schools will be called to account but the politicians, bankers, investors, lawyers and bean counters who dreamt up this defective ‘back to front’ way of building won’t be amongst them.

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An Account of Change

I’ve just changed my accountant from a reputable ‘traditional’ accountancy firm to an accountant some distance away who will access all my data via an online ‘cloud hosted’ software package. I should have done it years ago and saved the money that this approach allows.

Tea anybody?

Tea anybody?

It’s not just accountancy that is facing technological change. The practice of architecture has changed enormously in the years that I’ve been in the profession. When I first came to London in the 1980’s the big offices who handled the big jobs were for the most part based in the West End. So were the structural engineers, building services engineers and quantity surveyors as well as many of the clients. I worked on one big project where we alternated the design team meetings between the team members (rather than at the architect’s office) as all were within walking distance. The big offices carried out the big jobs because they had sufficient numbers of technical staff to complete the technical design stage which is the labour intensive part of any project. Big offices also had their own prized office specifications and large ‘hard copy’ technical libraries with at least one full time librarian. This all changed on account of architectural computing. Desktop computers have so much power and save so much time (especially when it comes to repetition or making changes) that they did away with the need for large teams allowing small practices to carry out large projects. The online national building specification did away with specifications that were the property of one practice and online technical data did away with ‘hard copy’ technical libraries which are often frowned upon nowadays as they are likely to carry out of date material.

Location is no longer a factor either in winning work. With emails and online communications project design teams can be assembled from all over the UK. In my practice it is sufficient simply to be within a train ride of central London and within a short drive of the M25.

The good news for clients is that constant competitive pressure has ensured that the efficiencies brought about by technological change have all been passed on to clients in the form of reduced fees and I expect my saved accountancy fees to be reflected in my own fees as a reduced overhead.

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Port Talbot

It’s excruciating to watch government ministers squirming in order not to state the obvious and what they believe with regard to the future of the Tata steel making plant in Port Talbot which is that there is no long term prospect of the profitable manufacture of bulk steel in the UK. It may be possible for the government to offer short term support and even broker a deal with a buyer leading on to long term support in the form of training and support for new businesses but Tata is a private company which, having done its sums, is reportedly prepared to give the blast furnaces away. Tragic though it is for the steel workers, their families and the communities whose lives depend on the Port Talbot plant the future of steelmaking in the UK must be in speciality steels and the specialised rolling and milling of already-manufactured steel.

Take a look at the automotive industry in the UK. When the infamous government owned British Leyland motor company fell apart from the 1970’s onwards it was generally held to be the end for the industry in the UK but this turned out not to be the case. By concentrating on adding value in niche markets and specialisation it became what is now a thriving industrial sector known for premium and sports cars (as well as volume production). It is a centre of excellence for engine manufacturing and motor sports. So let’s be realistic about the present circumstances and plan for a bright ‘value added’ future for steelmaking in the UK.