Stevenage

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The prospect of an expedition to Stevenage stimulated great excitement in the Urban Repairs Club.  This Hertfordshire town, population 84,000, is either maligned or disregarded by most normal civilians, but among a select corps of town planners and urbanists, it is a legend: Britain’s first post-second world war New Town (with a capital “N” and a capital “T”), so designated by the Labour Government’s Ministry of Town & Country Planning in 1947 – the first of the eight new towns conceived by the 1943 Abercrombie Plan to accommodate London’s growth and to reduce overcrowding in its slum districts.

For 1940s town planners, this was their big chance:  the putting into practice of the concepts they had been advocating for decades.  Stevenage was not to be a mere peripheral overspill estate or banlieue: it was to be an entire self-contained town, providing the full suite of employment opportunities, social and civic facilities and amenities, as well as modern housing in a healthy environment – all actively planned to avoid the evils of the unplanned city.

For town planners now (especially those of the baby boom generation), the question of how the town is getting on at 65 years old is quite an emotional one.  How well is it living up to the ideals of its wartime generation parents?  What lessons and wisdom has it acquired to pass on to the next generation?

Also, as the Club’s first trip to the great soft South East of England, it promised our first engagement with the big urban planning issues of the South today.  In particular, the chance to consider the contrast between 1947 and today’s response to the same problem: how to decently accommodate a fast-growing population.

Therefore a strong Club turnout was expected.  However, the usual backsliding soon kicked in and the numbers diminished down to three.

Great Northern

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For two of the three, the expedition began at London’s splendid new £250m Kings Cross station (the third arrived by epic trans-Home Counties coach journey, but that’s another story).

Kings Cross has rightly been celebrated as both a superb architectural restoration and an excellent demonstration of high-tech architectural capability at its best.  In the year of the London Olympics it didn’t get that much hype, but is probably the best single architectural legacy of 2012.

It sits at the heart of the emerging Kings Cross railway lands development, the centrepiece of which is the excellent conversion of the old goods station into the new home of Central St Martins Art College.  Now is the best time to visit the new Kings Cross, with the good renovation stuff completed and open, whilst the dross of the massively overdeveloped newbuild, which will both pay for it all and spoil it, is yet to come.

This genuinely exciting new piece of central London is significant to the Stevenage question, because in the evening rush hour up to 8 trains leave Kings Cross for Stevenage, the fastest of which takes just 20 minutes.  Although London commuting had no part in the original conception of Stevenage New Town, it seems likely to be a key factor in its 21st century renaissance.

We joined the returning commuters on the Great Northern train;  their adventures for the day drawing to a close, ours about to begin.

Arrival – Stevenage station

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We arrived at around 6.30pm on a fine August evening.  As the commuters strode off home, we lingered a little longer to get our bearings, alongside a small gang of football fans raucously singing out their allegiance to Stevenage Town FC, who were kicking off their season that evening.

Stevenage station is a purely functional building, very much of its era of British public sector architecture, when the bare concrete of brutalism was being eschewed for red brick cladding, but its forms were still being followed – albeit in a low cost way.  An original plaque in the ticketing hall records its opening by Shirley Williams, MP for Stevenage, in October 1973.

lytton wayWe walked out onto the elevated footbridge which links the station to the town centre, crossing the railway lines and the busy dual carriageway (A602 Lytton Way), and passing through the middle of the adjacent 1975 Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre en route.

The opening of the new station and the arts & leisure centre marked a coming of age for the New Town, and was a matter for considerable civic pride.  The old station was half a mile to the north, and served what is now known as Stevenage Old Town.  Famously, when the Minister of Planning Lewis Silkin came up to unveil the New Town plans, its station signs were replaced by protesting residents to read “Silkingrad”.  26 years later, the New Town centre finally got its own station.  Now, a major redevelopment of the station and its environs remains awaited.

The trajectory of the history of Stevenage New Town so far can be conjured up from the view from the footbridge.

The view north, down the railway line, towards the site of the old station, represents the post-war pioneer years of the new town.  As well as remembering this as a heroic age of the “spirit of 45”, the enduring dislike of conservative Hertfordshire for this socialist incubus must also be understood.

leisure centreThe view east, to the arts & leisure centre and the town centre’s office blocks and shopping precinct, represents the heyday of the social democratic New Town project.

The view west, to the dire sheds of Stevenage Leisure Park (containing Cineworld, Hollywood Bowling, Nandos, McDonalds), represents the ditching of social democracy in the 1980s and its replacement by privatisation, hyper-consumerism and car-dependent development.

Today’s mores are represented by what you can’t see.  An urban extension onto greenfield land west of the A1(M) (“West Stevenage”), which sparked a bitter 10 year-long planning fight, scrapped following the abolition of regional plans, and not a single new home built.  A major privately-financed redevelopment of Stevenage town centre, put on ice after the 2007 crash, also now scrapped altogether with apparently nothing achieved.

The footbridge is in itself a period piece.  It is a good and useful idea, allowing pedestrians to move between the station and town centre without having to cross a busy road or negotiate steps.  Its rather spartan, low budget functionality is leavened by a dash of socialist design flair, with exciting glimpses down into the leisure centre sports hall.  It’s free to use, and nobody is trying to sell you anything as you stroll along it.  Nevertheless, most people would call it a failure.  It looks and feels rather bleak, whilst some of the windows allowing free spectating of the activities in the leisure centre have been whitewashed out – to prevent perverts from loitering, we were later told.

The Town Centre Precinct

svg precinctWe pressed on into the town centre, past the old Locarno ballroom (now Mecca bingo) and the bus station.  Whilst loitering (and giving every impression of being, if not perverts, then certainly strangers), we met local man Michael Jackson, who very kindly joined our party impromptu to become our genial and expert native guide.

The town centre is a classic post-war modernist design, with a “precinct” of fully pedestrian streets and town square with no vehicle access at all, all servicing and car parking being to the rear.  The buildings are pure modernist in style, concrete-framed with big single-glazed windows, shop fronts at the ground floor level, 2 storeys of offices or flats above.

The centrepiece is the central town square, with fountains and clocktower, with stone plaque proudly proclaiming its opening by the Queen in 1959: perhaps the most photographed and remembered day in the history of the town.

clocktowerThe precinct is so familiar in style, and so dated-looking now, it is amazing to imagine how utterly new and futuristic it must have seemed when originally built.  The design completely reflects the “spirit of 45” ideal of a completely fresh start, leaving behind the legacy of exploitation, poverty, overcrowding, pollution, ill health, economic depression and war for a new peaceful future of shared endeavour and social welfare.

Although Michael Jackson and select other Stevenagers keep the dream – or, more accurately, the memory of the post-war dream – alive, it is important not to underestimate how utterly rejected and forgotten it feels on the ground.  The town centre looks profoundly run down and unloved.  The neglect of serious maintenance of the buildings – possibly the result of blight from the long expected redevelopment – gives it a very shoddy look.

At a guess, most Stevenagers and probably 99 out of 100 outsiders would say they hate it.  Classic modernist architecture remains resolutely unpopular with the people.  Most people would likely pigeonhole it as a “60s concrete jungle”, despite it being designed in the 40s and built in the 50s.  For Hertfordshire’s aspirational classes, Stevenage precinct is chav-ville, everything you’ve left behind and want nothing more to do with.

But the Urban Repairs Club’s Stevenage enthusiast faction has unusual tastes.  Their mission was to persuade the rest of the club that this environment had real qualities and virtues that were being misunderstood and undervalued.

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One might have expected a concrete pedestrian shopping precinct to feel unsafe and threatening in the evening, but in fact the mood on this pleasant August evening was rather mellow and relaxing, we were told.  The fountain played and the square’s mature trees were adding greenery and softening the geometry in exactly the way the original designers intended.  People were around, with no anti-social behaviour in evidence.  The lack of vehicular traffic – supposedly a design problem after close of business in a pedestrianised shopping area – was a real and rare plus.

The architectural ensemble is a perfect period piece: it is as iconic of its era as St Pancras station (also left to rack and ruin, and nearly demolished at the nadir of the popularity of its architectural style), is of its own.  Its very British modernism is in fact very humane.

clutterIt is nonsense to say that the precinct’s buildings are incapable of being restored (the enthusiast faction continued), they are being left to rot because their owners want rid of them.  The biggest culprits for the pervasive air of shoddiness are the faded sticking plasters of sporadic projects to spruce it up dating from the nineties and noughties – spruce ups appearing to consist solely of another round of pointless signage and other clutter, of a variety of styles but all failing to respect the original modernist design.

The worst thing Stevenage could do is to reject and demolish that which makes it special, and replace it with some dreadful privately-financed commercial development that will be infinitely worse.  Instead, it should be declared an Area of Outstanding British Urbanism, cherished, protected, and lovingly restored.

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Were we buying this outrageous sales pitch?  Michael Jackson certainly wasn’t immediately convinced.

We checked in to the Holiday Inn and then went to the town centre’s JD Wetherspoon in search of dinner, to discuss matters further and hear more about the history of Stevenage.

Stevenage – a family’s industrial history

Michael Jackson was born and bred in Stevenage, in the Chells neighbourhood.  His parents had come up from Hackney in 1962, having been offered a house by the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation.  They hadn’t been meant to get a house in the slightly more upmarket Chells area, as the rents were higher than his manual worker parents were considered to be able to afford.  But his Mum had jumped off the bus that had been laid on from Hackney for migrants and bagged one anyway.  As a result, the next door neighbours were the school headmaster, the local doctor, and the like.

Stevenage in the 1970s was a solid working class community – or in fact, a series of working class neighbourhood communities.  All Stevenagers were very conscious of where their neighbourhood stood in the pecking order from respectable to disreputable.  Some of the incomers had brought North East London ways with them, and drugs, gangsters and other dodgy behaviour were all well known in the town.  But the town was fully functioning in pretty much the way it had been planned to do – happy, healthy and increasingly prosperous.

As a post-war baby, Stevenage was also a product of the cold war era and its military-industrial complex.  Among its biggest employers were De Havilland and English Electric (steered to Stevenage by Planning Ministry mandarins from their first choice of Luton), which later became Hawker Siddeley and the British Aircraft Corporation respectively, then in the 1970s merged to become British Aerospace.  Among Stevenage’s products were the Thunderbird guided missile in the 1950s, and later in the 1970s, the Rapier guided missile.  It was also part of the original doomed independent British space programme, and Stevenage still makes high tech systems used on spacecraft, including the Mars rover.

It seems the whole bewildering industrial history of post war Britain can be told through Stevenage’s story.  Other big 1960s/70s employers included Bowaters paper, Avery weights, Kodak instamatic cameras.  ESA, makers of wooden school desks, had been a big Stevenage employer, but government regional policy had enticed them away to Glasgow, to create jobs there.  Government jobs were important, with the Inland Revenue and the Land Registry having offices in the town, providing sought-after steady jobs.  In the 1980s, the big manufacturing employers left vacant sites in the industrial zone to the west of the railway line, and one of these was redeveloped into the Stevenage Leisure Park.

Michael left Bedwell School, Stevenage, with four Grade 1 CSEs and, with his sights set on the aerospace industry, went to study applied metalwork (milling and turning), with an evening class in O-level physics.  His application to British Aerospace was blacklisted because his Dad had been a key player in a strike at the factory.  Instead he joined the RAF and spent seven years as a technician on helicopters in St Athan, Wales – happy years with an active social life, including in the Theatre Club.  His post-RAF career had been in retail, with notches on his belt including Allders in Lincoln, Rumbelows in Spalding, Tesco in Milton Keynes and Flitwick.  He had completed a Masters degree in retailing studies, his masters’ dissertation being on the saturation level for supermarket floorspace in Stevenage.  He had also recently done factory work, including fairly brutal spells in the Fens overseeing fruit and vegetable packing for the supermarkets by Eastern European immigrants.

Stevenage remains a working working-class town, and has not experienced anything like the trauma of mass unemployment like its new town contemporaries in the North, such as Skelmersdale.  If you can travel, there are jobs out there in the buoyant economies of Hertfordshire and London.  However, high tempo employers like suppliers to Tesco have little to offer skilled and willing workers such as Michael Jackson as they hit their late 40s.

Although Stevenage through and through, Michael’s own perspective was that Stevenage was pretty much finished as a suitable town for him and his now ageing parents, and was moving with them to hopefully greener pastures in Bramley, Hants.

As Michael expounded in JD Wetherspoons on Australian economist Steve Keen’s plan for getting the economy out of depression, it felt tremendously poignant that the British economy could find no role for a man with a far keener grasp of its realities, and better ideas for its improvement, than the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself.

We left (actually, were ejected from) JD Wetherspoons and then went on a late night roam around the town centre and the 24 hour Tesco megastore, having both places pretty much to ourselves, before retiring.

Stevenage by night – a gallery

Southgate House

Southgate House

Subway under St George's Way

Subway under St George’s Way

The Parish Church

The Parish Church

Queensway

Queensway

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The Clocktower

Day 2:  the residential areas

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The plan for Day 2 was a simple one: to inspect the residential neighbourhoods of Stevenage of differing vintages – ideally one each from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, and to see what we felt each one could teach us.  Then, to return to the town centre to visit the Stevenage Museum before it closed.  However, as we had done no research, and had no information other than an OS map, the execution was rather more hit and miss.  In the end we sampled Chells (1960s), The Poplars (1980s/90s) and Bedwell (1950s).

The day started off with subterfuge.  The doveish faction within the club felt it was important to see Old Stevenage, in order to get context, whereas the hardline faction deemed the place anathema, and out of bounds.  The doveish faction therefore crept off to Old Stevenage under cover of going off to get breakfast.  The hardline faction had the camera, and therefore the next section is unillustrated.

Old Stevenage

Old Stevenage is a short walk from the town centre, across a footbridge over the fearsome-looking A1155 Fairlands Way, but is – in the cliché – a different world.  We had only been in Stevenage for 15 hours, but the sight of the old red brickwork of a Victorian villa was a welcome one.

Old Stevenage sits astride the historic old Great North Road and has the classic wide street flanked by coaching inns of the turnpike road era.  It no longer carries heavy traffic, that role being covered by the nearby A1(M) which forms the western by-pass and boundary of the town.  It is therefore quite pleasant, with a range of independent shops.  Some of the coaching inns have been turned into branded upmarket eateries, in the Home Counties style.  Old Stevenage is not posh (it is, after all, in Stevenage), but it passes as “nice”.  It’s Daily Mail rather than Daily Star, but it’s not Daily Telegraph.

We breakfasted at TJ’s Café, which had taken advantage of the available street width to provide outdoor seating.  Breakfast was excellent and good value; served efficiently and without fuss.  We reflected over a cigar.  This was an 18th and 19th century built environment proving far more popular in the 21st century than the 20th century one.  This was the Home Counties proper, with a place for everyone, and everyone in their place.  This was Churchill’s sturdy carthorse of English free enterprise, giving the people what they actually want (that may have been the cigar).  We slunk back to New Stevenage in disgrace.

Chells

IMG_4053We headed for the bus station and took route SB1 (short for Stevenage Super Bus 1, a 1970 experiment with “turn up and go” frequency services) towards the residential slopes of East Stevenage.

Six Hills Way

Six Hills Way

The bus set off up the verdant parkway road of Six Hills Way, past the oldest (1950s) neighbourhood of Bedwell and across the aptly-named Fairlands Valley Park, with impressive views south.  The generous verges of the road contain a continuous segregated cycle path and footpath, each enjoying their own underpasses of roundabout junctions.

These rolling hills were selected for the residential area of the new town because they were a prime site, with clean air and uplifting views – not (as would happen today) because they were the least valued, worst available landscape.  In this spirit, it resembles Canberra more than it resembles the Thames Gateway or Didcot.

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Chells

We turned into Chells, developed in the early 1960s, and alighted at The Glebe neighbourhood centre.  Chells mostly contains two-storey family houses, some terraced, some semi-detached, with gardens at front and back.  They were built and let by the New Town Development Corporation.  The vast majority of the houses were sold off to their tenants in the 1980s under the Thatcher Government’s right to buy legislation.

IMG_4077On some houses little reminders of the New Town Development Corporation remain, such as surviving doors painted in its eggshell blue colours and numbered in its distinctive font. There’s nothing particularly special about Chells – in many ways it’s an absolutely bog standard post-war suburb.  However, its era perhaps marked the historical high point in the amount of living space (mostly outdoor space, the houses are quite small) offered in new developments in the South East to people on an ordinary worker’s wage.  Every decade since has seen a deterioration.

The Glebe

The Glebe

The neighbourhood centre at The Glebe contains a mini-shopping precinct with flats above, a health centre and a pub.  The shops include an ironmonger, a pharmacy, a newsagent, a cycle shop, a café, a charity shop, a chip shop, a Chinese takeaway, and a new Tesco Metro.  It was the very model of a thriving suburban shopping parade – quite rare these days – and, above all, the public space was in an exemplary state of repair.  We then noticed a plaque: it had been done up with a government grant and reopened only one month earlier.

It was good to see a walk-to suburban parade of independent shops working well, and getting the right backing from its public, and its council.  Perhaps there’s even a place for Tesco Metro in that, on the right terms.

The Poplars

We reboarded the SB1 bus and headed for the Poplars area, developed in the 1980s (we think).  It was built by private developers in a quite different era, and a quite different place has resulted.  Here we see an example of the beginning of the “town cramming” of new suburbs, so characteristic of the past three decades.

Chells has a nice mix of private space and public space, with its generous verges – recognisably on the classic English garden city format (as delivered by a post-war quango).  At Poplars, we see private developers simply selling a private space for a house with a private garden and a private parking space – a defensible postage stamp.

Unlike Chells, where the houses face the distributor roads (though set back from them behind verges, trees and gardens), in Poplars the housing is in culs-de-sac which turn their back on the road.  The view from the bus is of a row of back fences.  The layout is geared for car-dependency – the expectation that every trip, even short ones, will be made by car.  The Poplars neighbourhood centre has a standard out of town Sainsburys with a large surface car park.

IMG_4083Some classic 1980s/90s post-modern design touches amused us.  The supermarket is brick-clad, with a tiled roof and fake gable ends – a very characteristic mock vernacular, reacting to the excesses of brutalism.  Whilst the car park gets prime access to the supermarket’s front door, the SB1 bus is directed to the tradesmen’s entrance at the rear, where it has to turn round in a confined space by the loading bay.  The bus passenger is absolutely the second-class citizen.

IMG_4085The health centre and scout hut are built in what could be called planning gain agreement mock-rustic, around a cobbled public courtyard.  The space looked little used.  We lunched at Poplars Fish Bar and caught the SB1 back towards town, alighting at Bedwell.

Bedwell

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Bedwell, built out in the 50s, is different again.  It feels unambiguously like a council estate.  It’s a bit run down and needs maintenance, but, with its mature trees and lawns, it fundamentally looks rather good.  At Abbots Grove, the houses (each with their own private front and back garden), are built around a communal green space with trees.  Great for kids, who can just run straight out of the front gate and play, with no risk from traffic whatsoever.

On a summer afternoon, it felt like Hobbiton, with a few added devil dogs and dodgy geezers.  There’s clearly both a fear and a reality of antisocial neighbours in a place like this – but on our flying visit, it felt like a successfully functioning place to live.

Friends Meeting House

Friends Meeting House

The most pleasing building we saw in Bedwell was the Friends Meeting House on the slope back down to the town centre.  Humane architecture exemplified – and another treasure trove for our collection of classic lettering fonts.

The dreadful brutalist 1960s telephone exchange building was in the running for the worst place we saw, but it was outdone by Trefoil Lodge, a block of nineties or noughties in-fill flats at the corner of Cuttys Lane and Homestead Moat.

Trefoil Lodge

Trefoil Lodge

Built closer to the street than its neighbours, but with no front doors opening on to it, it’s a very familiar-looking cheap and nasty effort.  There are no back or front gardens for older hobbits to tend, or for young hobbits to play in;  instead every square inch of the rear courtyard is given over to car parking, defended by a rather absurd barrier.  Trefoil Lodge feels like a mini-epitome of the social bankruptcy of today’s housebuilding and placemaking model compared to that of the New Town Development Corporation.  However, supposedly it is “sought after” – its selling point presumably being that, by having no relationship with the public space at all, it can pretend it’s not in Bedwell.

Stevenage Museum and Market Hall

We returned to the town centre and dropped in on the excellent Stevenage Museum, in the crypt of the remarkable Stevenage Parish Church (1956-60), “the largest post-war parish church in England”.  The museum has good, clear displays explaining the history of the new town.  The 1947 cartoon “Charley New Town”, put out to advertise the new town to potential migrants, is a particular gem.

We then returned to the town centre precinct.  We put one of our number on the bus to Hatfield and went to visit the market hall, another public facility delivered straightforwardly and well by Stevenage Borough Council.  It has a good range of excellent and knowledgeable traders and is a great advert for this rather unfashionable retail format, which may in fact now be on the rise – it certainly seems to have more life in it than the more conventional retail offerings of the precinct.  Afternoon tea was taken at Snack Shack in the market hall.

A final review of shop units for rent in the precinct, and we retired to the Holiday Inn to take stock and consider the Urban Repairs Club’s verdict on Stevenage.

Conclusions

[to follow]

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Frome Independence Day

frome market

A gloomy November Saturday morning in London, and a new type of outing for the Urban Repairs Club: a day trip to the Independence Day conference in Frome, Somerset.

Organised by The Guardian’s roving reporter John Harris (a Frome resident) and the Keep Frome Local campaign, the objective of the day in the promoters’ own words was:

What kind of places do we want to live and work in?  Is there an alternative to so-called “big box” retailing?  How do we ensure that regeneration and redevelopment include a central role for independent business and the interests of local communities?

With debate raging about the future of the High Street, the increasing dominance of the big four supermarkets, and the nature of our villages, towns and cities, this is a perfect time to discuss such issues. 

For many of us, these subjects are matters of great urgency: in Frome, as in so many places, there are plans to redevelop part of the town, which sparked the founding of the pressure group Keep Frome Local, pledged to resist proposals for a giant town centre supermarket.

Now, after a vibrant and successful first two years, we want to bring to bring together – from our town and region and beyond – to share their experiences of campaigning, using the planning system, and lobbying local government; and to discuss the bigger picture. 

This was the call to arms the Urban Repairs Club had been waiting for.  Fired up by John Harris’s Guardian article the Club threw caution to the wind and invested literally pounds in a new full colour printing of our revised manifesto and a stall at the event. 

As the train left Newbury (Home of Vodafone), finally leaving behind the London metropolitan economic area and heading into the West Country proper, the gloomy clouds blew over, the sun came out and a bright new day for British urban living felt promised.  Like the special train to Glastonbury Festival, this was Great Western Trains heading out into the semi-mythical Wessex heartland, delivering us to The Big One. 

Holding a national conference outside London or one of the main regional capitals is a brave but risky venture.  A mini-coach had been laid on to transport delegates from the intercity railhead at Westbury to the venue.  The initial numbers didn’t look promising.  On the mini-coach, five of us delegates from London, with some no-shows.  Harris later admitted at the conference that he had been “bricking it” at the low level of ticket sales with just a few weeks to go. 

But in fact the conference was sold out completely, packed to the fire regulations limit with over 200 people, and the London delegates on the mini-coach quickly showed that what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality. 

Frome

cheap st frome

Frome (pronounced Froom, if you pronounce “oo” as in “oo Betty”, rather than as in “foot” (unless you are Scottish) – yes, it is a complete minefield), is one of those handsome, stone-built towns you get in the Cotswolds and Somerset.

Built on a steep Mendip hillside, the town grew wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries as one of the main centres of the English woollens textiles industry.  Like the Pennine villages such as Heptonstall visited in Expedition No.3, production was in the hands of independent hand loom weavers working at home in distinctive high-windowed upper rooms.  Independent, nonconformist religion was also very strong.

Then, steam power came and Frome was completely eclipsed by the Midlands and North.  Though it remained an industrial town throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with a mix of industries including a major book printing works, without much local coal, no giant factories were ever built.  The population remained between 11 and 12,000 for 140 years between 1831 and 1971. 

This heritage means that the town has a fabulous architectural heritage of 17th and 18th century buildings, with a much greater proportion of the town having missed redevelopment in the Victorian and Edwardian eras than is usually seen in English towns.  Symptomatic of this lack of 19th century improvement, an open sewer still runs down the middle of the street in Cheap Street.  But now it is seen as a quaint and enticing feature of a picture postcard-perfect street (and so its perfectly clean babbling brook is).  

Today, Frome is very evidently not just any old conventional well-to-do country town of the Tory shires, it’s a much richer mix.

There’s a strong flavour of the green, funky town.  The resource of lots of interesting (and originally cheap to buy) old cottages has been attractive to arty and new ager types, and there is a thriving colony.

Meanwhile the working class West Country portrayed in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem is also present.  It’s a town that retains a few rough edges on a Saturday evening, and where the young single Mums pushing their buggies speak like Pam Ayres.

Thirdly, it’s been attractive to incomers seeking small town living within commuting distance of Bath/Bristol, and some gentrification has taken place. 

It’s the kind of place, one imagines, where the real ale revival was easy to get going because real ale had never really ever gone away, and where the farmers’ market wasn’t hard to set up, because the local growers had always been around. 

Crucially, it’s a town where, miraculously, the ordinary traditional independent traders and retailers survived long enough to start to become appreciated again, and to be actively defended by its community – natives and incomers – against the sudden and peremptory destruction of this proud heritage and rich present day mix by the supermarket giants.  Channelling the independent spirit of their forebears, the electorate threw out the old town council because of the battle over a major supermarket development, and is now in the hands of a Frome Independents’ collective. 

So, what next? 

Report of Independence Day

inside wesley church

The conference was held in the beautiful surroundings of the Wesley Methodist Church, Frome (great pics of the event here).  Built in 1812, and restored and tastefully modernised in the 1980s, it is an exceptional example of Georgian church architecture.  Seating two hundred, the venue was 100% full to hear the welcome from the Mayor of Frome and the keynote speeches from the first three of the galaxy of stars of the green/soft left assembled by John Harris:  Andrew Simms, Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and author of Tescopoly, Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass and author of All Consuming: how shopping got us into this mess, and how we find our way out, and Rob Hopkins, founder and lead guru of the Transition Towns movement. 

You would be hard pushed to assemble three people with a more well-informed or creative view of potential alternatives to the current neoliberal consensus – it would certainly be hard to do so from amongst elected politicians. 

Over the past 25 years Simms’s NEF has put out a larger number of useful and interesting policy reports than probably every other political think tank combined;  meanwhile, Lawson’s Compass is the only show in town for anyone on the left hoping to exert influence on a future Miliband Labour government.  They have both paid their dues and are in the political game, but are very far from being establishment figures.  Yet they have a kind of metropolitan gloss and speak the insiders’ language they need to use to be heard within the mainstream political/media complex.  One sensed that this was a mild turn off for at least some of this grassroots audience. 

By contrast, it was the mild mannered and unassuming, non-metropolitan Rob Hopkins who received a hero’s welcome from the crowd.  Based first in Kinsale, Eire and latterly in Totnes, Devon, Hopkins’s Transition Town movement has achieved a remarkable grassroots take-off in only six years, almost entirely under the radar of the mainstream media.  There are now over a thousand transition town initiatives, with a large and committed activist base rooted in their communities, that would in previous decades have been the bedrock of local party political activism.  

Andrew Simms spoke first.  Simms coined the terms “Tescopoly” and “clone town” to describe the outcome of the process during the boom years whereby the retail chains took over the English High Street.  Now, he reported, many clone towns are becoming ghost towns: 1 in 7 High Street shops stand empty. 

He described the “social glue” that independent shops provide for their local community: for example, in looking out for the elderly, and giving them a friendly word.  With the massacre of local shops now in progress, NEF research shows that society will pay the price with lonelier, unhappier people.  The Big Four supermarkets deliberately design their processes to make their staff so busy that they are afraid or unable to make time to have a chat to older customers;  market economists call this a productivity efficiency. 

He argued that the current crisis, which the establishment believes is deeper seated it likes to let on in public, is also an opportunity for positive change.  He ended with a call to re-imagine the High Street as a place to be and do, and get together. 

Neal Lawson spoke of how we have built an economy dependent on over-consumption by creating a people who find their freedom and wellbeing in shopping.  He described the army of psychologists, marketeers, data-miners and lobbyists deployed by the retail giants to make this so (buying local and national government along the way), but admitted that ultimately we have conspired in letting it all happen, because over-consumption as freedom is seductive.  But the Achilles Heel of this model is its need for continuous, endless growth, which is obviously unsustainable.  Post-crash, it’s foolish to have no greater ambition than to restore the pre-crash economy.  He was no revolutionary, he insisted, all he wanted was to restore some balance to our lifestyles. 

Rob Hopkins brought news of a recent victory:  Costa Coffee had been dissuaded from opening a shop in his home town of Totnes.  He described Totnes’s resilience model for its local economy, and how opening up to the chains would undermine that.  Totnes’s economic plan is to carefully and deliberately reduce its dependence on giant outsiders;  this made the quote about the episode by the chairman of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership particularly risible: “Totnes should think of the signal it is sending to the marketplace”.  Two fingers is precisely the signal that Totnes is trying to send to the City of London!    

Last Shop Standing

Last shop Standing - a documentary

The first streamed workshop session offered the choice of “The Future of Our Food Supply”, “Transition Towns: lessons from the leaders”; “Campaigning against Big Retail”; and “Local Business Fights Back”. 

The Urban Repairs Club attended the latter, and was rewarded by three really excellent presentations from Nigel Dowdney of the Association of Convenience Stores, Catherine Conway of Unpackaged, and Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing: whatever happened to record shops?

Nigel Dowdney, a straightforward, slightly lugubrious Norfolk small businessman, told the story of the impact of a large Tesco on the little town of Stalham in the Norfolk Broads.  Built on the site of the old open market in 2002, it was sold through the planning approval process as a scheme that would strengthen the existing town centre.  Instead, footfall in the High Street fell by 54%, and 30 shops in the town closed in following 4 years, including the Co-op and Somerfield.  Dowdney saw turnover at his convenience store, the Stalham Shopper, fall by 60%. 

However, he decided that the business would have to survive, and so made it happen.  Ten years later, he has adapted.  He has built up Red Orange Ltd, giving convenience stores a chance to pool their buying power, and has become involved in Norfolk’s Buy Local accreditation scheme.  He was one of a number of people at Independence Day who argued that independent stores could beat Tesco on price much of the time.  Without putting words in his mouth, the essential argument was that once they have driven the competition out in a town, Tesco exploits its monopoly by putting prices back up. 

Catherine Conway had a different story.  In 2006, she set up Unpackaged, an organic grocery in Islington devoted to selling foodstuffs without packaging (customers bringing their own containers to be filled).  She described how the original concept of the shop – about creating an alternative to packaging waste – had morphed over time into a wider concept of the role of an independent grocery in providing some of that social glue to its community described by Andrew Simms. 

Every inch the highly talented and effective activist turned businesswoman, Conway described some of the skullduggery encountered as she worked to move her business into bigger premises in Hackney.  Turned down for credit from the major banks, she described how she had crowdfunded some of the capital requirements of the move by borrowing from her own regular customers – a very hip business stratagem that had Nigel Dowdney boggling at the thought of trying that in Stalham.

Last-Shop-StandingGraham Jones showed a clip from the film of his book Last Shop Standing: the rise, fall and rebirth of the independent record shop.  An engaging Scouser, Jones was a sales rep for a record company from the eighties through to the noughties.  As such, he well knew the fascinating network of indie record stores across the country, each a legend to the young people of its own town.  In the 1980s, there were over 2,200 indies across the country; by 2009 this had shrunk to 269.  Jones expected this to rapidly diminish to zero, and decided to write his book to capture some of the great stories from the many interesting characters in the trade, before it was all gone. 

Although the downloading revolution is widely discussed in the media, the main attrition actually took place in the era of the CD.  It was the big supermarkets who destroyed the independent record shops, by piling high then selling cheap the chart topping hits of the day, at a price the independent stores simply couldn’t match.  Several owners described how their local superstore was selling hits cheaper than they could buy them from the record labels themselves, leading to farcical situations where the shops were restocking by buying from Tesco, and being banned by store managers for their pains. 

The record companies foolishly conspired in their own demise by supplying the Big Four at prices ruinous to their usual outlets, because for the supermarkets, CDs and music were only ever a minor sideshow.  Cheap CDs, like cheap booze, were a loss leader designed to attract customers into the store.  In music, building a local monopoly by driving out the competition was probably a secondary consideration. 

With the downloading revolution and the “low value consignment VAT relief” mail order scam of recent years (where CDs were imported and then immediately re-exported from Jersey and similar offshore locations), the supermarkets have now virtually abandoned the field, maintaining only the thinnest selection of CDs in most stores.  This is of course ruinous to the industry’s traditional means of developing new stars.

But recorded music, as the first retail sector to be hammered by the internet, is also showing signs of being the first to adapt to it as well.  Independent record shops are staging a small comeback, as analogue vinyl comes back into fashion, and musos decide that they need the community and knowledge that the independents can provide. 

So the story has something of a happy ending, and that suits Graham Jones’s sunny personality well.  He’s now on tour with showings of the movie at independent cinemas and village halls across the country, introducing the film with a few stories and building the fast developing new indie record store community in places such as Frome. 

The future of the town centre

independence day saucer over nyc

Lunch was provided by local youth group Edventure in the church hall.  Excellent information stalls had been set up by Keep Frome Local and its equivalents from Ulverston, Lancs/Cumbria and Ledbury, Herefordshire.  The Urban Repairs Club stall did a reasonable trade with the manifesto featuring the nude cyclists being more popular than the Mr Pickwick one by some margin – notably, it has to be said, among women of a certain age. 

The afternoon’s workshop choice comprised a teach-in by David Babbs of 38 Degrees on  Campaigning, an interactive session on “The planning system: friend or foe?”, and the Club’s choice, a seminar on “Town Centres in 2050 and the future of shopping”, featuring Andrew Simms, Finlay McNab of Sustrans and Dominic Swords, Professor of Economics at Henley Business School. 

Finlay McNab’s message was that taming traffic in the town centre is good business sense.  His message that physical schemes that are cheap and cheerful, and done quickly, can still work exceptionally well, was illustrated with examples from New York City.  The message got a bit lost in a packed room of feisty campaigners, who struggled a little to relate the Lower East Side to their own town centres.  

Prof. Dominic Swords brought a jolt of realism to the proceedings, with a message to naturally enthusiastic activists from the dismal science:  don’t be complacent that, just because its prescriptions cratered the economy, neoliberalist thinking will necessarily come to an end.  The orthodoxy remains for more deregulation and “freeing up of the market” to get us out of recession – meaning, even freer rein for the big predators. 

With a Business School futurologist’s eye he identified the three drivers of changes impacting on 2050’s High Street as being: the ageing population, more information technology, and a working population even more cash and time-strapped than today’s.  His forecasts for IT sounded more like nightmares to this moderate Luddite. 

Deliberately setting out to lay out home truths about the real world to an idealistic crowd, one wondered whether the Business Schools ever scenario-test flat rejection by the people of the dystopian futures they forecast for us.

Andrew Simms developed his argument from the morning session.  The High Street clone town/ghost town we see today is the physical manifestation of the demands of a financial sector become too powerful and too greedy.  But the wreck we are left with is a moment of opportunity for us to come in and create the communities we want – a new High Street not just where we passively consume, but a place to be and to do, and – literally and metaphorically – swap the tools we need to make useful things happen.  He spoke of the NEF’s idea for “National Gardening Leave” – a new national four day working week, with people spending the fifth day working on community-building projects.

In the lively discussion session, the debate tended to focus on the themes of the parallel workshop sessions:  what campaign tactics work, and, the local council, friend or foe?  There were compelling contributions from those reporting back from the front line of live anti-supermarket battles.  A faultline was apparent between those arguing for a strategy of working within political parties/the local electoral system, and campaigning to take control of the council, and those who have lost faith in conventional local politics.  

A delegate from Mirfield, West Yorkshire brought a quick taste of the fighting spirit of Arthur’s Army to Frome.  He argued trenchantly that fighting supermarkets through the planning system was a waste of time: the thing that worked was a consumer boycott.  Picketing of the branch of Tesco that had opened in the former premises of the Black Bull, Mirfield, had meant that it was trading at 30% of its break-even level.  It will close soon, and we will get our pub back, he promised. 

Militant Foodies

The final plenary session featured John Harris, first chatting to Scottish food journalist Joanna Blythman, and then pondering the wider question of harnessing the energy of local supermarket campaigns to form a wider campaigning movement. 

The interview with Joanna Blythman drove home the point that so many people come to the supermarket issue not primarily from a town planning or sense of place perspective, but from a “we are what we eat” food culture perspective.  

There is a huge food activist scene composed of people coming from a number of points of entry: as consumers they may be gastronomes, environmentalists, defenders of traditional regional cuisines or diet faddists.  Then there are the producers, who may be motivated by the love of good food and good husbandry, or of keeping their family farms and rural communities going, or may simply be trying to make a living. 

They all form an avant-garde for a food revolution in Britain that has been genuinely mega.  It’s a game that anyone can play, and which has percolated deeply through the aspirational classes.  The power and reach of the celebrity chefs is quite some phenomenon. 

Joanna Blythman’s bibliography shows how a food journey can become a political journey: her titles include The Food We Eat, The Food Our Children Eat, How to Avoid GM Food, and then(2004) Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets.  After a bit of shtick with Harris about seasonal soups, Blythman got down to some serious political comment, including her remarkable advice to any up-and-coming food producer: never, ever supply Tesco, because in the end they will always screw you. 

A UK Town Centres Movement?

John Harris then moved to summing up, and floated his own concept of harnessing the energy of food activism, and “defend my local shops” anti-supermarket campaigns in different places across the country, and widening it out into a wider people’s movement for the rethinking and remaking of Britain’s town centres.  His question: is it time for a UK Town Centres Movement, and, if so, what would it look like and do?

The packed church was treated to an electrifying intervention from Dave Chapple, socialist and trades unionist from Bridgwater Forward.  Using oratorical skills both high and low that must have cheered all the ghosts of West Country preachers past dwelling in the church, he made a passionate case for widening out the campaign from retail to the defence of all manner of civic facilities and spaces.  Bridgwater, a historic working class Somerset town, was being hollowed out, not just by the depredations of the supermarkets, but by the decisions of the police, the magistrates court and the local hospital to abandon the town centre and move to out-of-town sites on the by-pass.  Centuries of civic history were being destroyed overnight for the most banal of reasons.  It must be stopped.  Any UK Town Centres Movement must be for the Bridgewaters of Britain as well as its Fromes.  He sat down to the most spontaneous, thunderous ovation of the day. 

Urban Repairs Club reflections on Independence Day

Keep Frome Local campaigners

The discussions of the day’s themes continued at the George Hotel, Market Place, Frome and the Cornerhouse, Christchurch St East, Frome with the day’s organisers and leading lights.  Dinner was enjoyed at UK Kebab of Bath Street, Frome.  Then the Urban Repairs Club repaired to the Great Western Railway Staff Association clubhouse, Westbury, to ponder the full import of the day’s events, with the following conclusions: 

The energy of the day proved beyond doubt that John Harris is on to something. 

The logic of the City of London’s version of the free market is that the big four must relentlessly grow, acquiring those they cannot wipe out, until they each take broadly 25p of every retail pound spent in the country.  They will merrily buy up the political system, dismantle the planning system, destroy historic towns, exploit the workforce and ransack the planet in pursuit of this necessary growth, and no doubt great damage will be done.  But ultimately the project is doomed, because it is such an utterly bleak vision. 

Deep down, people don’t want it, and if a standard is raised in opposition to it, people will flock to it.  John Harris has raised the standard, in Frome.  His next step must be to carry his message around the country, rally his support, and then march upon the capital.  Aux armes, citoyens!  In practical terms this means putting together a grassroots movement with political demands on all parties.  Going further, it probably means putting a bet on a future Ed Miliband government, and trading some kind of grassroots support for Miliband at the next election in return for pledges of action from them after it. 

A town planner would tend to say that if the big four are prepared to compromise on store format – replacing out of town monsters with High Street-based Metro or Local stores, for example – then the battle is won.  The mood of Independence Day seemed to be pointing towards going somewhat further – perhaps a system similar to the alcohol off-sales licencing system, whereby the supermarkets would need a separate licence from the council for its various loss leaders aimed at putting local independent shops out of business, whether it be mags, fags, freshly-baked bread or CDs. 

NEF and Compass have the political brains to make this possible.  At Independence Day, Neal Lawson had expressed genuine disgust at the way Blair’s New Labour was bought by the big supermarkets.  If the supermarkets scent a Labour victory at the next election, they and their lobbyists will be back, aiming to ensure that Labour’s policies benefit their interests.  This time, it would be good if at least the takeover was contested. 

The wonderful activists and entrepreneurs so evident at Independence Day will continue to do the amazing creative things that they do.  They won’t wait for a political campaign to get started.  However, they would do well to develop some kind of collective political umbrella, to protect and promote what they create. 

The crisis in town centres genuinely is, in the old Chinese cliché, both a danger and an opportunity.  The vision of a new British town centre is in place, and so are the working examples.  Now is the time to spread the word. 

As it is Christmas Eve, it seems appropriate to quote Johnny Mathis:

It’s all a dream, an illusion now/But it must come true, sometime soon somehow/All across the land, dawns a brand new morn/This comes to pass when a child is born.

child is born

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Birmingham CBD, Westside and Jewellery Quarter

Expedition No.2 saw the Urban Repairs Club departing the City of Birmingham promising we would return;  six months later, on the summer solstice 2012, we did.  The plan: to check out a few more of the Birmingham Big City Plan’s six defined quarters for the outward growth of Birmingham city centre.

Our December 2011 trip incorporated a brief dig into Digbeth and swift sojourn in Southside;  on this trip (20-21 June 2012) we headed for the north-west side of the city centre.  Basing ourselves in the Colmore Business District, we took a walk on the Westside, and put the Jewellery Quarter under the magnifying glass.

Our aim to make a fuller tour of Digbeth was timed out for a second time, and so will have to wait for another trip.  And why not?  Birmingham is well worth many a return visit – and the large area covered by the Big City Plan (800 hectares, divided into seven quarters: the city core plus six areas for expansion), means that they will be needed.  So, hopefully, not so much a game of two halves, as one of many quarters.

“Westside” was previously known as “the Convention Quarter”, and we spoke last time of the City Council’s shrewd policy to develop Birmingham as Britain’s second city for professional conferences, which dates back to 1987.  We arrived in some respects as the fulfilment of the Economic Development Department’s original dream:  two out-of-towners coming up to a three-day national conference, with money to burn and a thirst to sample the city’s cultural and leisure offer for a long, balmy midsummer evening.

As we dodged the blustery showers and the addicts receiving paramedic attention in St Philip’s Cathedral yard, and then struggled with the giant self-check in screens, security pass-operated doors and Silk Cut cigarette-themed décor of the City Centre Premier Inn, it was fun to reflect on how we were indeed living 1987’s dream of what 2012 Birmingham could be like, and yet how the future always turns out to be somewhat more mundane than originally expected.

The city’s strategy for transformation set out on the late 80s/early 90s was bold, and has been largely successful.  Indeed, in many different ways the Birmingham of 2012 has seen changes that far exceed anything that the planners of that period could have dared imagine in their wildest dreams.  Yet the fundamental dream of Birmingham transforming to an elegant, modern European city at ease with herself, feels somewhat unfulfilled.  Digging in to why that should be is, in retrospect, one of the things this expedition was all about.

1.            Arrival in the CBD

The expedition commenced at Birmingham Snow Hill station, which was described in Expedition No.2.  This time we had more time to inspect the new Snow Hill development on railway land adjacent to the station, and the wider area around it that has been branded “the CBD”, or Colmore Business District.

Colmore Row is one of Birmingham’s finest streets and leads from Snow Hill to the Town Hall, forming en route the north side of the cathedral square, Birmingham City Centre’s largest green space.  The CBD is the city centre’s traditional premium office quarter, and stands apart from the main shopping streets.  It has recently been restored to the top of the premium office heap by the giant Snowhill office development, on the far side of the station, which is part-finished.

One Snowhill

“One Snowhill” is a rather gross and overbearing glass fortress, squashed onto its site.  Built by Irish developer Ballymore and funded by the insanely reckless Anglo-Irish Bank, it is hard to find out if One Snowhill is one of the lunatic investments that led to that bank’s downfall/bail out and the penury of the Irish people.  However, it does appear to have been sold at a loss to the German Commerzbank Group.

Kings of the castle are accountants KPMG, who have taken it as a suitably prestigious base for such leading lights of the Birmingham corporate social scene (see “reflections on the Birmingham Post” below).  The next phases (Two Snowhill, etc) are under construction, and Birmingham’s first five star hotel and a new Midlands HQ for Barclays Bank are promised.

St Philip’s Cathedral yard

The cathedral square is a perfect contrast.  It and Colmore Row were laid out in the 18th century by the fast-growing industrial town as a new district, away from the medieval muddle of the Bull Ring.  St Philip’s Cathedral, which is a lovely example of English baroque, was completed in 1715 and replaced St Martin’s in the Bull Ring as Birmingham’s parish church.  It was elevated to cathedral status in 1905.

Today it provides a welcome civilising influence on the central business district, with its churchyard a rare green space free to enjoy.  It provides a useful downtown meeting place for young unemployed Brummies, who would be chased out of the private “public spaces” of Snowhill by CBD’s private security guards.  They appear to use it as a good place to drink al fresco until you pass out.  We passed two casualties, who were being attended to by paramedics.  Despite this, the space was pleasant, not at all threatening and was clearly being enjoyed by all walks of Birmingham life.

2.            Evening in the Jewellery Quarter

Our evening tour began with what it is becoming the Urban Repairs Club’s traditional fruitless quest round the newsagents of Birmingham for an A-Z, or any street map of the city.   For some reason they are impossible to find.  However, the shop assistants of Birmingham are so generous with their time, and so solicitous of your wellbeing, that the doomed quest is almost a pleasure anyway.  It’s a way of re-introducing yourself to the West Midlands:  a gentler, kinder place than London – although not necessarily one where you can get your business done quickly.  A young Asian-British Brummie disappeared off for ten minutes and came back trying to give us his own personal copy of a Great Britain road atlas, as his best shot at helping us out.  We retreated, without the map, but with a copy of the weekly Birmingham Post.

We decided to navigate by the sun, the stars, and the city council’s numerous 1990s-vintage cast iron pedestrian route signs, and set off for the Jewellery Quarter anyway.

Great Charles St Queensway

The Quarter is separated from the city centre/CBD by the inner ring road, city centre’s notorious “concrete collar”.  On Expedition No.2 we inspected the city’s attempts to loosen its collar at Moor Street and the Bull Ring.  But at Snow Hill you can see the collar (at this point the A38 Great Charles Street Queensway) in its original untamed form – and it is indeed formidable.  On this part of the Queensway there are emphatically no surface pedestrian crossings, and so we went under it via the claustrophobic, classically 1960s subway at Livery Street.

Welcome to the Jewellery Quarter

And so we emerged into the Jewellery Quarter at about quarter to seven on a June evening.  Hometime had clearly been and gone, and barely anyone was around.  A couple of unhinged-looking young men passed by and, fresh from the narrow subway, the thought suddenly struck:  is it necessary to worry about mugging risk around here?  Then, hang on – are those two girls stood on the corner waiting for a bus, or streetwalkers?  Hey (came the thought), what kind of nickel and dime joint is this quarter?

This is precisely the kind of user reaction that the Big City Plan is anxious to prevent, by improving the walking route from the city centre.  An at-grade pedestrian crossing of Queensway is promised “in the long term”, as soon as “an innovative design solution” is found.  Meanwhile, a new Jewellery Quarter exit from Snow Hill station has already been introduced, and this is a very welcome improvement.

However, it had already closed for the evening by the time we arrived.  In fact most things on Livery Street were shut, except for Lituanica, a Lithuanian grocery.  A nice little business, purveyors of a wide range of pickled vegetables, but, no, they did not sell a Birmingham A-Z.

Water Street

Onward, and things started to look up very quickly.  Any sense of threat soon evaporated as it became clear that the Jewellery Quarter is a perfectly safe place to walk around, and the feeling transformed into an increasing sense of delight, as the evidence mounted up that the Quarter is a very special place indeed.

The area that is now the Jewellery Quarter played a big part in Birmingham’s transformation from nondescript Midlands village to wonder-city of the Industrial Revolution.  The area was gradually developed in the Georgian era on land belonging to the Colmore family.  The area’s specialism was not so much precious stones and jewellery, it was fine metalwork and metal-bashing.  The key products were brass buttons, cap badges, medals, and – at Matthew Boulton’s steam-powered Soho Mint in nearby Handsworth – coins of the realm for Great Britain, and for export to many other realms worldwide.

Taylor & Challen’s, Water St

The key to understanding Birmingham and the Jewellery Quarter’s heritage is not to see it as a place which was ever based on the exquisite hand-craftsmanship of luxury items à la Paris, but rather as the place where the mass production of affordable products for the mass market was invented.  Nathaniel Winkle’s self-designed Pickwick Club coat button embossed “P.C.” was a typical Brummagem product (the button responsible for him being challenged to a duel in Chatham by Dr. Slammer of the 97th Regiment, in a case of mistaken identity).

The quintessential Jewellery Quarter architecture is not only that of the townhouse-cum-workshop (although very many excellent examples of these exist), but also that of the medium-sized factory.  Some of factories are Victorian masterpieces, like the 1863 Albert Works (now the Argent Centre), but others are 20th century, such as Taylor and Challen’s on Water Street, currently being used as a car park.

Ludgate Hill

We followed Water Street, running parallel to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, to Ludgate Hill, the Quarter’s main restaurant drag.  A number of café-bars and restaurants have built wooden decks out into the street for outdoor seating and pot plants, which successfully create a continental feel.  Sadly though, even on the eve of the longest day, it wasn’t really warm enough to sit out on them in great comfort, and virtually nobody was.  Slightly more disconcertingly, a number of the restaurants and bars were pretty quiet on the inside as well.  We chose Locanta, an Italian-Turkish restaurant, which did seem to have a buzz going on inside.

Locanta

Locanta is in a typical Jewellery Quarter townhouse with a typical Jewellery Quarter history:  we were told that it had been a thimble factory, a jewellery workshop, then a tailoring business (which had done work for the Queen), before being left empty in 1996.  Locanta’s owner, a cartographer from Izmir who had come to Birmingham in 1990 to study, had bought the place in 2002 and converted it himself into a restaurant.  It had good food and the relaxed but efficient atmosphere of a well-run independent family business.

We discussed the state of trade with the owner.  His perception was that the recession had dented weekday evening trade, as people pulled in their horns and restricted their going out to the weekend.  But he also was strongly of the view that, as a place for dining out within Birmingham, the Jewellery Quarter was, if not exactly failing, in need of a boost to give it a greater critical mass as an evening out destination.

Later, we spoke to Jamie and Katie, a young Brummie couple resident in the Quarter and working in the city centre hotel trade;  they were among the few enjoying a bottle of wine al fresco on the decking.  They had only praise for the Jewellery Quarter, which they thought was great for them, with reasonably priced rents, and an atmosphere and flavour that were a big change in the right direction from the Birmingham council estate where they had grown up.  They were so kind and delightful that you just wanted to give them a big hug.

St Paul’s Church by night

After dinner we went to admire St Paul’s Square, another wonderful Georgian square with church and churchyard in the middle (1771, spire added 1821), on the same model as the cathedral square.  The church looked quiet, so we broke in and ascended up the back stairs to the balcony, only to find that a full orchestra and choir were in the full flow of some kind of modern classical music/dance fusion performance downstairs.  Despite there having been no indication on the outside that anything was going on inside, the downstairs pews were almost full.  We assumed we had stumbled in on some kind of diabolical secret society, and crept out, unnoticed.

The Rope Walk

We escaped to the Rope Walk pub on St Paul’s Square, and staked the place out from the outdoor balcony seats.  We tucked in to a pint of bitter and a packet of Q Scratchings (a local Black Country delicacy), and waited for clues.  The congregation eventually emerged, jumping into cars and melting into the night.  Not one came into the Rope Walk, proving beyond reasonable doubt to us that some kind of black Mass had been going on.  (We later discovered it was a dress rehearsal for an event at the Symphony Hall the following night.)

Bloc Hotel, Caroline St

Nothing in our subsequent nocturnal ramble to check out estate agents windows, factory to residential conversions (“Maxim”, “Aqua@20 Lionel St”), creative industry business premises (Radio Kerrang! 105.2FM) and boutique hotel developments (Bloc hotel, Caroline Street) could match this level of excitement, and so we retired back to the CBD.

3.            Day 2:  Westside, Brindleyplace

We breakfasted at Fumo on the cathedral square, and then went to our conference in a hotel on Broad Street, in the area the Big City Plan calls “Westside”, and which had previously been dubbed The Convention Quarter, containing as it does the International Convention Centre on Centenary Square and numerous large hotels.

Centenary Square and Broad Street

Pedestrian bridge to Centenary Sq

Centenary Square (1988) was one of the first city council-led big splash redevelopments that followed its bold decision to remake the city and bust out of the 1960s concrete collar.  At this location on the collar (the big Paradise Circus/Queensway junction), the concept was to create a chain of civic squares in a line from the city centre: Victoria Square, Chamberlain Square, Centenary Square.  In moving between the three, you would hardly notice you were crossing the concrete collar.

Birmingham Central Library

This was achieved by means of a new footbridge and a glazed atrium (“Paradise Forum”), forming an addition to the 1974 brutalist Central Library building.  Undoubtedly the 1988 scheme is now tired and the link between the three squares should be improved;  however, there is great controversy about how.

The city council’s solution is to demolish the 1974 Central Library and redevelop the whole of Paradise Circus.  The library itself is being replaced by the enormous new Library of Birmingham building on Centenary Square, which is currently in construction.  This has provoked an architectural preservation debate, with modernists  attempting to save the old library building as a classic of its brutal genre, whilst also deploring the vacuous design of the new library.

It’s a fascinating scrap, no doubt provoking wry smiles from the original Betjeman generation of preservationists, who had to do battle with the brutalists back in the 1960s.  It’s not the Urban Repairs Club’s job to get too involved with this kind of architectural fight (or, we might say, circus).  We would just say that the democratic ideals of brutalist architecture are already coming back into fashion, and one can easily see the argument that demolishing the old library now would be looked back upon from the future as a mistake.

Paradise Forum

Could it be possible to do a similar job on the old library as has been done on the National Theatre in London?  If the clutter of concrete walkways could be cleared out, and the dire Paradise Mall removed, the building could be given a bit of a space.  And maybe then it would come to be appreciated at last, as the once hated “nuclear power station” National Theatre now is.  However, in practical terms, it may well be that a new use for the building is impossible.  Which is a shame, because certainly one has zero confidence that its replacement is likely to be any better as architecture.

As for the new library, it may well be an impressive building inside when finished.  Outside it appears to be a very big box with fancy cladding, very much from today’s dominant “they said they wanted iconic and it was easy to do in the CAD package, so we built it” school of architecture.  Without question, it will totally dominate Centenary Square when finished.  Looking on the bright side, it will at least be a public library.

Broad St

On the south side of Centenary Square runs Broad Street, a historic commercial street which found itself rather cut off following the construction of the concrete collar.  The architectural approach to the revitalisation of Broad Street has allowed a lot of new build, in addition to conservation and restoration.  It clearly has been a commercial success, with a number of significant investments by major business hotels.  We had mixed views on its success in aesthetic and architectural terms, which broadly can be summarised as not too bad considering what it had been, but some missed opportunities and plenty of room for further improvement.

POTUS at Gas Street Basin

Contemporaneous with Centenary Square was Birmingham’s celebrated rediscovery and regeneration of its extensive canal network and canalside (more miles of canal than Venice etc), centred on the Gas Street Basin.  The junction of the Birmingham Mainline, Birmingham & Fazeley and Birmingham & Worcester Canals forms an irresistibly charming focus for any re-use you might have cared to imagine.  Even the pretty mundane shed architecture of the 1991 National Indoor Arena and Sir Norman Foster’s 1996 National Sea Life Centre or the can’t dent the charm of the waterside, the narrowboats and Matthew Brindley and Thomas Telford’s ironwork and canal engineering features.

Brindleyplace

We then entered the 1995-2000 Brindleyplace development (masterplanned by Sir Terry Farrell).  Of all the things we saw in Westside, it was the place we decided we liked the least, right down to its absurd and already dated running of two words together.

Brindleyplace

Were we being unreasonable?  Of the many “new ruins of Great Britain” dating to the Blair era, it is not the worst.  The main square could be seen as a decent-enough effort, surrounded by modern office buildings of inoffensive design (which happen to be among the most prestigious in the city).  The square itself is of reasonable proportions; it has a well-tended lawn, informal seating, a “percent for art” sculpture, a health and safety compliant water feature and pavement cafés with outdoor seating galore: every box ticked.

We decided it was a soulless hell, and that the contrast with the cathedral square bequeathed by the city’s founding fathers 200-250 years ago could not be more shaming to our own era.

Four Brindleyplace

In the upper floor of the offices of Deloitte Touche and Tohmatsu Ltd, accountants, shone a neon sign, another modern artwork, which said: “Love is a…”.  This small feature seemed to sum up all the awful examples of attempts to garnish a big money property development with silly bits of this, that and the other, and it became the focus of our dislike for Brindleyplace.  Whatever love is, we decided, it is not “percent for art” and it is not Deloitte’s in Brindleyplace.

4.            The Jewellery Quarter (north)

Returning to the Jewellery Quarter along the towpath of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, the happy flowerbeds of Groundwork UK’s offices by Cambrian Wharf marked the boundary where we felt a soul started to return to the cityscape.  The 1980s era flats along the canal, unusually, looked to be aging gracefully, and appeared lived-in and cosy.

We re-entered the Jewellery Quarter at Charlotte Street, with the aim of visiting its northern part, along Frederick Street and Vyse Street.

The Pen Room, Argent Centre

Our first call was the Argent Centre, originally the Albert Works pen factory, built in the style of a Lombardian palazzo, and home of the truly delightful Pen Room museum.  The real charm of the museum is found in the volunteer staff (old chaps in overalls, who look like they may have once worked in the factory), and in the displays by the Birmingham Calligraphy Society, really showing what can be done with a good old fashioned nib and ink.

The rest of the factory is let out as business space by its owners, the Midlands Industrial Association, who had displayed this admirable mission statement on their noticeboard:  “The Midland Industrial Association Ltd’s aim is to promote employment and fight dereliction through the encouragement of the small firms sector, by providing suitable workspace through the refurbishment of redundant buildings”.  We can only applaud.

Frederick Street

Frederick Street and Vyse Street are the centre of the modern day jewellery and precious metals trade.  There are a number of manufacturing jewellers, many of whom have entered into the retail trade with enthusiasm (it is worth remembering that the Jewellery Quarter was exclusively a manufacturing district right up to the late 1970s; before that, there were no retail jewellery shops at all in the Quarter).  There is a thrilling atmosphere of real trade being done, bargains to be had and deals to be struck, with the possibility of blags and ram raids not too far away.

Vyse Street

Along Frederick Street we spotted Thomas Fattorini Ltd’s badge and medal works, Purefine Assayer and Refiners, Bullion Store, Dealers Refiners and Pawnbrokers.  On Vyse Street, British Clockcase Ltd – the home of quality barometers, GL Bicknell & Sons  manufacturing jewellers, Weston Beamor Ltd Jewellery Services Group.  This active commerce is mixed in with traditional pubs and vaguely upmarket new café-bars and restaurants in various types of premises:  we spotted Vertu Bar, Frederick’s Lounge & Bar and the Portofino Bar.  On Hockley Street, the Jewellers Arms and the Drop Forge Restaurant & Bar.

Chamberlain Clock

The junction of Vyse St, Frederick St and Warstone Lane, which has the 1903 “Chamberlain Clock” as its centrepiece, has more the look and feel of a normal Birmingham suburban centre than does the unique St Paul’s Square.  It has busy car traffic – all going far too fast – and a Tesco Express.  It also has “the Big Peg”, a 1971 tower or “flatted factory” that was built to modernise the workshop premises available to Jewellery Quarter businesses.  It still provides business space and has the Jewellery Quarter visitor information booth in front of it.

Unfortunately we were unable to ask how the current recession/depression was affecting the jewellery and precious metals trade – the information booth was closed.  But it looked to us like the trade will survive;  indeed those in the scrap gold business may even thrive.

We actually worried more for the yuppie-orientated independent café-bars and restaurants that had sprung up on the streets around the Chamberlain Clock:  are there too many such places now for the age of austerity?  Too late to ask: it was time for us to return to London, and, passing the 18th-19th century Pitsford Street graveyard, we left by train from Jewellery Quarter station, back to the city centre and, from there, London Marylebone.

5.      Reflections on the Jewellery Quarter

Although it is fun to go to Westside and take the opportunity to slag off the likes of Terry Farrell or Norman Foster, or to wade into rows between the 20th Century Society and Birmingham City Council, the mission of the Urban Repairs Club is to try to understand the delicate ecosystem of places like the Jewellery Quarter, to ask what lessons it has for other places interested in organic urban regeneration – and to dare to venture a few modest ideas for urban repairs we would like to offer to make the place even better.

Therefore, as we headed back to London, we tried to put our finger on what it was that made us like the Jewellery Quarter so much, and what the best response to the current recession – which is no doubt hurting those who have invested in the Jewellery Quarter quite badly – might be.  Only then did we allow ourselves to reflect on Birmingham more widely, and have that go at One Snowhill, Brindleyplace, KPMG, Deloitte, Terry Farrell and all their ilk, through the means of a rumination on the Birmingham Post.

Unquestionably the Jewellery Quarter is a very special place.  The first special ingredient is the raw material of the inheritance of buildings and townscape.  The quarter was laid out in the early industrial revolution, in the Georgian and Regency era, before the high Victorian mix of pomp and utilitarianism took over.  The surviving buildings, streets and squares of this era have an elegance lacking in high Victorian, more reminiscent of the Hope Street area of Liverpool than anything Manchester has to work with.  St Paul’s Square epitomises this, and is a real gem.

Birmingham was a cradle of the factory system, but the badges and buttons metal bashing trades did not require enormous fortresses.  So, from the high Victorian Lombardian palazzi right through to the early 20th century factories and the 1971 Big Peg, all fitted into the fine grained street pattern – meaning that regeneration when it came needed to be done on a building by building, block by block basis, rather than on the giant blank canvas of a razed ex-heavy industrial or docks site, on which so many of the “new ruins of Great Britain” have been built.

Newhall Place

The area did not require a Daniel Libeskind-style arsehole starchitect, it required a good, old-fashioned Gavin Stamp-style conservation officer.  This appears to be what it got, and the City Council and English Heritage deserve much credit for showing this wisdom.  A fair balance has been struck, allowing admirable small entrepreneurs, such as Locanta’s owner, to get ahead with building conversion and re-use, whilst restraining them enough within a framework of conservation rules to ensure that the unique spirit of the townscape has been retained.  The odd error has been made, but in general, the new build (of which there has been quite a lot) fits in with the townscape.  The names of the heroes of this process remain unknown to us, which is a shame, but also somehow fitting to the successful guiding philosophy of modesty.

The second special thing about the regeneration of the Jewellery Quarter – setting it utterly apart from so many other regeneration projects in the industrial cities – is that its raison d’etre still exists.  Although the Jewellery Quarter has done a good job of the conventional urban regeneration pitch – the conversion of former industrial space to bars, cafes, restaurants, yuppie flats, start-up space for creative industries and so on – the fact that it remains a genuine centre for jewellery manufacturing adds immeasurably to its charm.

We would love to believe that in the new Jewellery Quarter there is room not only for the cheap end volume trade (the area’s traditional strength), but increasingly a shift towards the craft and designer end of the market.  The Quarter already tries (but could perhaps do even more) to develop the concept that for your significant purchase, be it a wedding ring or a quality barometer, provenance matters.  So, not only can you get a good range of choice and a good price in the Jewellery Quarter, you can seek out the designer and craftsman of your piece, perhaps even see it being made.  It’s a pitch that gives the area an almost unique chance to defy the seemingly inevitable outsourcing of virtually all manufacturing production to China.

The stroke of genius in giving an important continuing role for manufacturing in the area’s regeneration is that the conventional mix of yuppie regeneration isn’t carrying all the burden of making the area feel special.  The Jewellery Quarter seemed to us mostly to avoid giving off the feeling (which one often gets in Manchester and Liverpool) that the whole “trendy area” regeneration thing is all rather brittle.  Because it has quality, and seems at ease with itself, the Jewellery Quarter isn’t plastered with public art and interpretation boards telling the visitor that the area is unique and fascinating; it just is unique and fascinating.

Which brings up the third special thing we felt about the Jewellery Quarter, which is that it is a success, but mercifully not too much of a success.  It has been saved, but it hasn’t been ruined.

Our cartographer restauranteur at Locanta identified that the area has not achieved what he described as critical mass.  To which we say, in a reply which may seem rather harsh to small businesses hard-pressed by the recession:  good.  The Jewellery Quarter is currently full of small independent businesses, and the best of them, such as Saint Caffe on St Paul’s Square, set a tone of quiet quality.  In physics the effect of achieving critical mass is a chain reaction, and we fear the same thing could happen to the Quarter:  all the landlords jacking up the rents and replacing today’s preponderance of independents with Caffe Nero, All Bar One, Giraffe and all the usual suspects.

For us the Jewellery Quarter is perhaps – and we would welcome local expert views on this – one of the quintessential battlegrounds in England between two fundamentally different views of what urban regeneration is and is for.

We guess there are two tribes of investor in the Jewellery Quarter:  those who are committed to Birmingham’s heritage and its regeneration, and want to experiment with creating a genuine urbane Birmingham for the 21st century, and those who want a quick return – to pump up and surf a real estate phenomenon, then sell out to the big boys and get their profits out quick to the surrounding shires, where they really want their personal investment and lifestyle to be.

And then there are the big boys themselves, the funds and their professional advisers who create and inhabit the Snowhills and the Brindleyplaces, corporate giants whose blundering greed and myopia cannot help but ruin every place they touch.

The future path of the Jewellery Quarter feels like a tightrope.  On one side lies too much success (financially measured):  achievement of critical mass and the “chain reaction” – leading to sell out and blandification.  On the other, too little success and the loss of too many of the brave and exciting small businesses to austerity and impatient creditors, and the area’s special flame could go out.

We think the secret to the Quarter safely staying on the tightrope is commitment to the place itself.  What we would hope to see, and think the Quarter deserves, is a type of resident and business who love the place and want to put down roots and stay there for the long haul.  It sounds almost ludicrous in a Birmingham context (though it would be second nature in Germany or Italy), but we would love to see young dinkies like Jamie and Katie, when the time comes and they have kids, decide that they are simply refusing to leave for the suburbs or shires, and instead insist on the Quarter maturing into a proper urban village where you can raise a family.

The good news is that those committed to an urbane, organic Birmingham appear to be doing as good job of starting to organise themselves.  The Jewellery Quarter Neighbourhood Forum is a residents’ association.  Coffee Birmingham is an interesting-looking project, aimed at “celebrating all things independent”.  Its activists are encouraging small businesses and their customers to sign its “Declaration of Independents”, “to show their support to Birmingham’s indie scene”.  The bad news is that the financial forces ranged against Coffee Birmingham are powerful.

Perhaps Coffee Birmingham will shortly be organising a network of minutemen to provide an armed defence, as and when the corporate redcoats march into the Jewellery Quarter.  The battle will be for control of the new Jewellery Quarter Business Improvement District (BID) organisation.

To riff on the Declaration of Independents concept further, perhaps the objective for the Jewellery Quarter should be in one way to turn the clock back to the 1770s – to re-create a period of time when central Birmingham was a genuinely urbane place:  a place where Boulton, Watt and the other founders of the Lunar Society, creative people who innovated and achieved stellar success, actually lived, socialised and raised families – and, as St Paul’s Church and St Philip’s Cathedral show, invested in beautifying for the sake of their fellow citizens, posterity and their immortal souls.

England’s anti-urban culture is deeply ingrained.  The central city is a place purely to make money, and to be got out of, to the suburbs or a country village, as soon as possible.  It was our copy of the Birmingham Post that drove this point home.  The paper’s property section Post Property, (Birmingham’s answer to the Financial Times’s How To Spend It supplement) has the subtitle EdgbastonHarborneHerefordshireStaffordshireSolihull WarwickshireShropshireStourbridgeWorcestershire.  This is the mental map of what a successful Brummie is supposed to aspire to, and only two of the places listed are in the City of Birmingham itself.

6.            Reflections on the Birmingham Post

The Birmingham Post was originally Birmingham’s morning newspaper, and is now making a heroic effort to carve a niche as a weekly quality newspaper for Birmingham’s active citizens and business community.  It’s not a mass market product: our shop assistant in Colmore Row had tried to dissuade us from buying it, saying that although she had never read it herself, she doubted it was worth the cover price of £1.25.

Nevertheless it is best news source for what is happening in the city; it has a pretty good listings and reviews section; its picture by-line columnists doughtily defend the manufacturing interest against the depredations of the banks and the City of London.

Despite being fairly relentlessly boosterist, happy to give credence to the real life versions of Viz Comic’s Tipton councillor Hugo Guthrie (who was forever planning the latest project, be it the world’s tallest tower, or a spaceport, that would finally “put Tipton on the map”), it seems to do a reasonable job at holding the city’s politicians to account.  However, serious criticism of Birmingham businesses looks to be rather more off limits.

What particularly caught our eye were the society pages, an endless series of identical snaps of smiling suits at drinks receptions and golfing weekends, seemingly every one sponsored either by Deloitte or KPMG, our friends in Brindleyplace and One Snowhill.  These are businesses specialising in tax planning, meaning siphoning offshore as much as possible of the money made in Birmingham, rather than re-investing it in the city.

It suddenly struck us that unless and until the majority of the people featuring in the society pages of the Birmingham Post get a deep commitment to city living and long term investment in all aspects of making the city truly liveable, such as schools and parks and policing – as is second nature in Amsterdam, Hamburg or Milan – Birmingham will not achieve the full modern European city atmosphere and status it has sought since 1987.

7.            Jewellery Quarter – suggested urban repairs

The Urban Repairs Club’s manifesto sets us the challenge of coming up with a simple, practical and easily implementable urban repairs for each of the places we visit.

The Jewellery Quarter is an enjoyable and distinctive place, easily standing comparison with Spitalfields or Clerkenwell in London, or with the neighbourhoods you might find in somewhere like Antwerp.  It is not a place in need of any kind of quantum change to catapult it into the property big leagues.

Therefore our first recommendation for the Quarter is a negative:  to do nothing in a panic in response to the recession.  The area has the rare characteristic of real quality and charm, and this will ensure its long term success over many decades.  Allowing overdevelopment by relaxing conservation standards may give businesses and property investors what they say they want in the short term, but would quickly ruin the Quarter’s unique selling point.

Instead our vision is for a Jewellery Quarter where people want to put down roots – a place fit for investing in long term, having kids and growing old in.  Ambitious, perhaps unlikely, but in London or Antwerp, this would not be an impossible dream.  Projects like Coffee Birmingham give hope that a community of residents and entrepreneurs who properly understand and appreciate the area are getting organised to protect it, and enhance it.

Two of the Quarter’s strengths are the intrinsic walkability of its streets, and the quality of St Paul’s Square.  Yet the streets are surprisingly dominated by traffic going too fast, and, being an old factory area, many of the streets have too little in the way of greenery or street trees.  St Paul’s Square should stand as a challenge to Birmingham’s present day developers and residents: what can you do today that is as good as Birmingham’s founding fathers managed in the 1770s?

Therefore we’d like to suggest a modest programme to spread the ‘rus in urbe’ quality of St Paul’s Square by planting street trees across the Quarter.  If the trees could be planted in what is currently carriageway space, they might also help to slow the traffic down – perhaps backed up by a 20 mph zone.

To complement this, the encouragement of a stronger walking culture in the Jewellery Quarter is needed – so we’d like to suggest the development of an evening passeggiata around St Paul’s Square and along Ludgate Hill.  Celebrating the quarter and strengthening its community spirit simply by strolling around it regularly.

We don’t advocate going over the top in terms of “design treatment”.  In fact, what would be nice would be just to plant the trees.  And as they put down roots for the long term, maybe it will encourage human Brummies to do the same.

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Hebden Bridge, Bacup, Burnley, Clitheroe

Easter 2012 and Expedition No.3 took the Urban Repairs Club to a selection of Lancashire and Yorkshire Pennine mill towns.  The concept was in two parts:

Firstly, to visit the regenerated Pennine valley mill town par excellence, Hebden Bridge – also known as “the Glastonbury of the North”, “the fourth funkiest town in the world”, “the lesbian capital of West Yorkshire” – to see what the fuss is about, and to try to get some clues about the process by which the town has become such a beacon of success in organic urban regeneration.

Secondly, to make a start on a survey of other Pennine mill towns to see what sign there is (if any) of any other mill towns following Hebden Bridge’s lead in making urban restoration and liveability the path out of decline and depression.  Such a survey is a major project, and is going to require several trips, preferably, like this one, accomplished by rail and bus.

The Northern mill towns – a field guide

Three distinct types of mill towns can be identified.

First, there are the large mill towns: in Lancashire, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Blackburn, Preston and so on; in Yorkshire, Halifax, Huddersfield, and the largest of them all – Bradford.  These are all major cities in terms of population, with a formidable heritage and formidable problems, all grossly neglected by the media and little studied by outsiders.  For example, the Bradford West by-election of March 2012 was deemed of zero importance and not covered at all by any national mainstream media, until George Galloway launched his “Bradford Spring”, pulled off his electoral coup and had them all scrambling up to the city to find out what the hell was going on.

Second, there are the smaller mill towns on the lower land of the coal measures.  On the Lancashire side these are places built of hard red Accrington brick, such as Radcliffe, Farnworth, Heywood, and so on.  On the Yorkshire side, places such as Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike.  They are all grossly neglected and overlooked by pretty much everybody.

Third, there are the Pennine valley mill towns, built of millstone grit stone and squeezed into the valley bottoms and up the steep valley sides– places such as Ramsbottom, Rawtenstall and Bacup on the Lancashire side, and Keighley, Sowerby Bridge and Todmorden on the Yorkshire side.  This latter category was the subject of this expedition.

Closely related but different, are the Pennine villages and hamlets: sometimes on higher land, sometimes in quieter valleys; sometimes with industry, sometimes without.  Their defining feature is simply that they are smaller.

Finally, there are the two regional metropolises of Manchester and Leeds.  They are not defined here as mill towns, but must be mentioned to understand the overall picture.  Both have experienced massive change over the last 15-20 years, including a boom in downtown living, and will be the subject of their own Urban Repairs Club expeditions.

The Pennine mill towns –background history

The Pennines were always remote, and never dominated by aristocrats and their estates.  To supplement income from hard scrabble farming, the population got into textiles production early, with spinning and weaving at the household scale, often in distinctive multi-windowed upstairs cottage rooms.  The cloth produced was carried out to the wider world across the moors by packhorse, to marketplaces such as the Halifax Piece Hall (1779), a superb relic of the era of household production.

This world was famous for its fierce work ethic and fierce religion, with every last variety of nonconformism flourishing.  Yet the great divide in the mill towns between the puritan self-improvers and the drunken rabble is clearly an enduring feature:  every Pennine town and village revels in its entry in John Wesley’s Journal (from his several tours of the area during his long outdoor preaching career 1739-1790), in which he boggles at the barbarous mobs turned out in every place to hear his sermons, each seemingly more savage and in more dire need of salvation than the last.

The story of the Industrial Revolution is well rehearsed.  Despite the best efforts of the Luddites, the handloom weavers of the moors were ruined, lost their capital, and were forced down into the valleys as wage slaves into the dark satanic mills of the early factory masters.  It behoves us today to share the amazement of outsiders such as Friedrich Engels at the explosion of industrial production and technological, social and political innovation that followed, as well as to be shocked at the extremes of wealth and poverty it produced.  The local historians and the tourist bureaux are absolutely right to shove this heritage down the visitor’s throat – this is Lancashire and Yorkshire’s key moment in world history.  Engels’ tour recorded in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 is a must-read, with each town surpassing the last in the horror of its working and housing conditions, bidding up the misery like the Secret Policeman’s Ball sketch.

The political revolution Engels expected never happened, and the long march of Victorian liberal reforms and improvements gave us the core legacy of the towns we see today.  All the mill towns hit their zenith in the decade before the First World War.  The story of the Accrington pals, mowed down before breakfast at the Somme on 1 July 1916, is also a symbolic watershed, when the story of continuous expansion and improvement flips to become one of continuous relative decline.

The 20th century story is less told by the local historians and the tourist bureaux.  It’s a paradoxical tale of ever-improving health, wealth and welfare, yet set against inexorable decline in terms of relative industrial dominance.  Industrial diversification in the 1950s and 60s was a success in many ways, and there was pretty much full employment throughout.  Yet investment was always low:  in the big mill towns, the mill owners preferred to bring over entire Pakistani villages to work the ancient machines for the old low wages the increasingly affluent native population would no longer accept, rather than to invest in modernisation.

The small Pennine valley mill towns in particular became the land that time forgot.  By the 1970s places like Hebden Bridge were almost a museum piece.  Residents of the big mill towns thought of their inhabitants as hillbillies.  But suddenly the very lack of modernisation became a charm factor, with the best of the Victorian and Edwardian heritage preserved intact, although in dire need of restoration.  Hebden Bridge acquired its hippies, lesbians, and artists; while Holmfirth had the Last of the Summer Wine.

The early 1980s recession really smashed all the mill towns, big and small, in economic and social terms.  The big towns like Rochdale and Oldham never really recovered, and despite some significant social improvements from Gordon Brown’s agenda of increased employment and welfare spending in the nineties and noughties, large swathes remain social, economic and built-environment disaster areas.

However, the Pennine villages, stonebuilt and attractive in their countryside settings, began to benefit from the completion of the motorway network, the rise in long distance car commuting, and the new popularity of heritage building restoration.  They all did well throughout the non-inflationary continuous expansion (NICE) era, 1992-2008.  Some of this began to translate to the valley bottom mill towns as well in a patchy kind of way.  Places like Ramsbottom, which had been thought of – and were – utterly working class and workaday, absent from all tourist guides, began to realise themselves to be green and attractive industrial heritage destinations, of interest to visitors.  White collar househunters began to think of them as rather attractive places to commute to Manchester from.  The dining out revolution began to have an impact, with fancy restaurants popping up in unlikely places.  Ribaldry about gentrification and worries about the pricing out of locals began.

The social geography across the region today is greatly polarised.  Most of the Pennine villages are a success, integrated into the great car economy with a mixture of commuter gentrification and surviving – thriving – traditional working class culture.  The regional metropolises of Leeds and Manchester city centres continue to thrive, and have their student and yuppie urban living thing still going on, although they have also experienced a major downtown residential property bubble burst.

By contrast, the mill towns of the conurbations are being slaughtered by recession and austerity, increasingly perceived as no-go areas (and certainly as “do not leave your car” areas), their proud town centres on a steep descent into total defeat by car-based commerce, retail and leisure.

Meanwhile, the Pennine valley mill towns are a mixed bag.  Some, like Hebden Bridge and Saltaire, have changed greatly and successfully regenerated; others have struggled.  Some still feel like the land that time forgot, traditional and unchanged, which can have its virtues as well as its vices.  The purpose of this trip was to search to see if there are any other places that are blending the best of the past with the best of the present, and are successfully achieving organic urban regeneration.

1.  The Long Good Friday: Manchester to Hebden Bridge

The trip started on Good Friday 2012 with the crossing of the great north-south divide: the traverse of Manchester city centre from Piccadilly to Victoria station.  The whizzy new Manchester of a thousand café-bars has pushed the old half-derelict central Manchester back and back.  Now the flavour of the old Manchester city centre is only seen in the decrepit building at the corner of Long Millgate and Victoria Station Approach, and at Victoria Station itself.

Voted the worst major station in the country, Manchester Victoria awaits its restoration to glory, which is scheduled to be completed by 2014.  In the meantime, one can sit, drink in hand, under the faded grandeur of the ornate glass dome in the refreshment room, watching on as seriously scary-looking people leading devil dogs and mohican-barnetted kids go into battle against the seven-strong revenue protection team guarding the platforms, and think that Manchester has barely changed since the 1980s.

The grubby old diesel Sprinter train hasn’t changed much since the 1980s either, nor have the grim swathes of East Manchester, but a fast trip to Hebden Bridge is now offered – only 32 minutes, with two intermediate stops at Rochdale and Todmorden.

En route to Rochdale great red brick mills with their names in white brick on their chimneys exemplify those severely neglected lowland mill towns:  Malta Mill at Mills Hill and Arrow Mill at Castleton are two still standing worthy of a closer inspection.  At Rochdale station, the long-awaited construction of the Oldham & Rochdale Metrolink tram line is in evidence.  It may be unkind to say it, but in regeneration terms, it looks like the US Cavalry appearing on the horizon not in the nick of time, but about 20 years after the ranch has been torched.  A separate expedition will investigate this.

Beyond Rochdale, the train begins the climb into the Pennines.  Moors!  Patches of snow!  Stone-built cottages!  The suddenness of the change from the red brick lowland grot to the more appealing Pennine character is striking.

The train plunges into the 1½ mile long Summit Tunnel, and emerges into a different world:  Yorkshire.  The steep sided valley of Upper Calderdale, which seems to get deeper and narrower through Walsden and Todmorden, until the promised land of Hebden Bridge is finally reached.

2.  Hebden Bridge

Arrival at Hebden Bridge and immediately one is in the pages of Simon Armitage’s All Points North.  A gaggle of modern-day railway children urgently alert the station master (a dead ringer for Bernard Cribbins): “them lads are kicking the vending machine in”.  “No, they’re probably just trying to get their change.”  He sets off to investigate.

The welcome sign immediately opposite the station door announces straight away that Hebden Bridge is its own, different kind of place, self-aware of both its heritage and its own modern identity.  One footstep into the town, and the Urban Repairs Club knows it is going to like Hebden Bridge.

Typical terrace

The striking thing to the outsider is how steep a town it is.  The streets have banisters; the road junctions look perilous.  Hebden Bridge has its own distinctive hillside adaptation of the Yorkshire back-to-back terraced house: they’re four storeys high at the back, so that your neighbours to the rear are actually directly above or below you.  To look at, they give the town a feeling of density and urbanity – like they are in continental Europe (or Scotland at least).

Industrial conversion

Walking down into the town centre, crossing the River Calder and the Rochdale Canal, a series of decent quality restorations and re-uses of old stone buildings can be seen.  The converted industrial buildings look light and airy compared to the dour, heavy look of the classic Northern Victorian civic and commercial buildings of first shopping street reached, Crown Street.

St George’s Square

The centre of town is St George’s Square, close by the eponymous pack-horse bridge over the Hebden Water stream, and a fine job it is.  It’s the best of the old North – one can easily imagine Count Arthur Strong heading across the square into The Shoulder of Mutton for a pint clutching his bag of kidneys from Woodhead’s family butchers– but which has also been brought into the 21st century in a tasteful and attractive way.  Everywhere little touches appeal:  look, someone has thought to grow ivy up the side of an old mill converted into small craft shops and restaurants.

Hebden Bridge Town Hall extension

The sight of a large crane and a big construction project under way along the riverside is a surprising one – surprise which turns into delight when it is realised that this is a community-led public project under way: the extension of Hebden Bridge Town Hall to provide a community meeting space and the development of the Hebden Bridge Creative Quarter.  The wider significance of this groundbreaking project is being recognised when it hosts a national conference in July 2012.

Alt. Tech. Centre

A further poke around the town reveals more gems:  a genuine independent cinema (the Picture House), a traditional working mens’ club of national status for breaking new bands (the Trades Club), and an alternative technology centre in a mill conversion by the canal.

Although famous for its counter-culture of “hippies”, new agers, artists, socialists and anarchists, Hebden Bridge also benefits from standing at the crossroads of two other huge English sub-cultures: canal narrowboating and long-distance hiking, as represented by intersection of the Rochdale Canal and the Pennine Way.

It refuels all with real ale at its freehouse pubs, or with tea and cake at its various cafes.  All these sub-cultures, and Hebden Bridge itself, seem to stand resolutely outside corporate-dominated clone town culture.  Paradoxically, it’s also the free market as it was meant to be – full of independent traders and small businesses, offering choice to a well-informed consumer, rather than corporate mega-monsters brow-beating the flock into the overconsumption of trash.

It is often observed that gentrification and money follow the distinctive, quirky places created by the counter-culture, and often end up spoiling the place they take over.  The outdoor gear shop Rohan on St George’s Square sums up one take on Hebden Bridge’s journey: from a bunch of Tolkien-worshipping ramblers in the 70s, to the expensive boutique product you can’t afford of today.  No doubt different views abound, but from a superficial view this is not true of Hebden Bridge.  The original working class mill town, the hippy colony and the yuppie commuter base all seem to co-exist happily side by side, in an interesting diverse ecology.  And anyway, you can criticise Rohan, but it is in fact a very high quality technology product, and the best of English enterprise.

So much for the town, what about the townspeople?  The streets seemed quiet.  As it happened, being a Good Friday, they were all up at the top of the hill, in the village of Heptonstall, to watch the performance of the traditional Easter “Pace Egg” play.  So it was up to the top of the long, steep footpath-cum-stairway linking the two settlements, called “The Buttress”, to go and participate.

3.  Heptonstall Pace Egg

Heptonstall

Heptonstall is like Hebden Bridge’s venerable parent.  Its heyday was in the 18th century, at the time of the household-based handloom weaving industry referred to earlier.  It has a parish church (with the shell of its 13th century predecessor, and Sylvia Plath’s grave, in its churchyard), an octagonal Methodist chapel (1764), two pubs, one café, a post office and a small museum.

It’s a fabulously preserved place, and having a poke around its nooks and corners is pure delight.  And, best of all, it’s also a real and thriving community.

St George himself

The Pace Eggers are men of the village who perform a traditional mummers’ play at various times and locations throughout the day.  The play features a heroically bumbling St George, who reluctantly but reliably dispatches a series of blackguard challengers, including Bold Slasher, the Black Prince of Morocco, Hector and the King of Egypt, with his well-tempered blade.  A quack doctor is on hand to resurrect the slain with a tot of his “Nip-Nap”.  The performance gets more and more bawdy and shambolic as the day wears on, and the players and audience have consumed more and more nip-nap.

The Cross Inn

Genuinely traditional, genuinely raucous but also knowing, it is fantastic fun, and a big local audience enjoy both the laughs and the seeing of the annual ritual successfully performed.  Then straight into the pub.  It’s the perfect 21st century folk event.

Heptonstall Museum

A nice Heptonstall moment was going to the museum after 5pm, and finding, happily, that it was still open.  The curator had decided to keep it open after the official closing time because it was a big day for the village.  It’s hard to imagine another local authority museum in the country where that would ever happen.  It’s a good museum, with much fascinating information – for example, that Calderdale was a centre of counterfeit coin production in the 18th century.

4.  Hebden Bridge – evening reflections

Down The Buttress and back into Hebden Bridge.  The pint of Yorkshire bitter served at the White Lion was as fresh and tasty as any I have ever had (it was Timothy Taylor of Keighley’s Landlord).

Great value overnight accommodation was at the Hebden Bridge Hostel, aka Mama Weirdigan’s, an independent hostel providing an important staging post for hikers tackling the Pennine Way.  The proprietor is quite clearly an angel who has come down to Earth to help us see the error of our ways, and to teach us how to live simply and work together to save the planet.  She had just returned from a whole winter camped out at Occupy London at St Paul’s, the subject of the Urban Repairs Club’s Expedition No. 1.

Call it the spell of new age Hebden Bridge starting to take serious effect, but this is the kind of thing that seems possible in the town.  Perhaps only the Hebden Bridge Times’ resident astrologer and divine Ruben Skyjuice could really advise on the reality or otherwise of such perceptions.

The historic thread running through Hebden Bridge seems to be nonconformism: in the sense that whatever one’s precise theology and ritual today, be it indie bands, motorbikes, narrowboat living, or the healing power of moorland hikes, the unifying characteristic is an independence from the diet the modern-day established church of the corporate media is dishing up.

This version of the Pennine mill town is comfortable in its own cultural skin, and is thriving.  Both traditional and radical, occasionally boisterous – a southern phoney could still get thumped if they misbehaved too badly, one feels – Hebden Bridge is a template for regeneration that is attracting increasing national attention (a flurry of interest from the media has surrounded the publication of Paul Barker’s Hebden Bridge – A Sense of Belonging).

The inevitable question is, are any other mill towns copying the example?  If people are being priced out of Hebden Bridge, where are they going?  Where is the next Hebden Bridge?

5.  Easter Saturday: to Todmorden

The obvious places to look would be the neighbouring towns upstream and downstream the Calder, Todmorden and Sowerby Bridge respectively.  But this would have been too easy for the Urban Repairs Club.  Instead an appointment in Clitheroe focused the search onto the Lancashire side of the Pennines, and a tour taking in Bacup, Burnley and Clitheroe.

However a brief look at Todmorden was possible when changing between buses, before passing through the Lancashire-Yorkshire border control and passport check at Todmorden bus station.

The efficient bus service heading out of Hebden Bridge is well used, including by traditional carefully-permed, blue-rinsed northern old ladies chatting away to each other.  They appear to be absolutely identical and unchanged to the northern old ladies of the 1980s, but must in fact be their daughters.

For renovation enthusiasts, the road through Upper Calderdale seems to have an unlimited supply of old mills, terraced cottages, hillside villas, all crying out for restoration and investment.  Some opportunities have been taken, for example at the Stubbing Wharf pub on the Rochdale Canal.

Todmorden Market

Todmorden itself is bigger than Hebden Bridge, and clearly poorer.  The very same design of terraced cottages that looked funky and cosy in Hebden Bridge, look rather more dour.  Instead of a full set of original teeth, Todmorden has had to infill some of its former industrial sites with modern shed redevelopment such as Lidl’s.  The planners have clearly battled with some success to make the developers adapt their standard design templates to the environment, and so stone cladding and landscaped parking is in evidence.

Todmorden: the spirit of free enterprise

A key battle for the independent retailers of Todmorden is over planning permission for a new Sainsbury’s superstore, currently refused, but going to appeal.  Entrepreneurialism at Todmorden market is currently thriving, but on a cursory look, its continuing health under active assault from the supermarkets looks fragile.

But in general, Todmorden town centre is intact, and has a very distinct chance of following Hebden Bridge’s recipe (although no doubt local pride would deny that such a thing was ever desirable).  The town famous for its Incredible Edible Todmorden urban gardening project clearly has the necessary ingredients.  A dedicated Urban Repairs Club expedition is called for.

6.  Bacup

Instead, it was over the hill into Lancashire, and the valley of Rossendale, source of Manchester’s River Irwell.  Although about the same size as Hebden Bridge, Bacup is a very different kettle of fish.

Although it has the accolade of being “Lancashire’s best preserved mill town” from English Heritage, the preservation does appear to be a function of the lack of any kind of capital investment, rather than of a thriving restoration scene.  An example of the remarkable built heritage is the old market hall on Bank Street, up for auction in April 2012 at £125,000, but with little prospect of a viable use.

Bacup

What is striking to the outsider is the poverty.  People have very little money and it shows.  In the town centre, independent retailers dominate because there is not enough money in circulation to entice the chains here.  To the Londoner, the prices seem incredibly low, but these are the prices that people can afford.  The third world phenomenon of “subsistence retail” is in evidence: little shops with barely any stock, selling low volumes at low prices, but keeping going because there is little else to do.

Lyn’s Café on St James Street is a friendly haven, but its collection of retro recycled chairs and tables is not artfully contrived as it would be in Camden Market, it is what could be afforded with minimal investment capital available.  Its eclectic display of “found items” around the walls are actually random bits of stuff on sale, to boost revenues.  The food however, is good.

But people tend not to be scandalised by the general poverty.  The “in your face” problem is the vice, anti-social behaviour, and worse that follows from an entrenched underclass population living on welfare.

Bacup last reached national attention in 2007 when 18 year old goth Sophie Lancaster was kicked to death by a gang of five teenage boys in the town park.  Its entry on the Chav Towns website gives a flavour of the town as experienced by the young (although to be fair, almost all towns in England get a similar negative report on Chav Towns).

The town centre, like those of almost all the mill towns, has become a perpetual territorial struggle between the traditional “respectable working class” perplexed and depressed that their town has gone to the dogs and the profoundly alienated, drink and drug-sozzled lumpenproletariat.  For the middle classes of the valley, the town centre is a simple no-brainer: stay in the car, and avoid.

The political dynamic is that the working class, working long hours for low wages, are infuriated both by the chavs and by the public sector with its army of good, secure, pensioned jobs based on dealing with the welfare-dependent population.  Always a bastion of working class Toryism, the electoral battleground is over who can most credibly promise to bear down on anti-social behaviour, and to fly the flag for local small business and jobs.

7.  Easter Saturday Coconut Dance

A little bit harsh on Bacup, then.  To be fair, the above analysis could apply to almost every Lancashire mill town, and Bacup is much better than some, in the sense that it has a strong community and hasn’t been half-demolished to accommodate the car.

In fact, Easter Saturday is probably the most joyous day in Bacup’s annual calendar, as this is the day that the famous Britannia Coconutters perform their traditional ritual morris dances at venues all across the town and its surrounding villages.

The Urban Repairs Club hooked up with folk-punk poet Oatcake Joe, the Rochdale Ranter, to catch a performance in the heart of the town centre, outside “Th’ Owd Con Club” (the Conservative Club).  A large and partly dutiful, partly enthusiastic crowd flowed down from the residential areas to gather to watch the performance.

The dance is a morris dance with added clicks and knocks from the men’s Lancashire clogs (leather uppers, wooden soles) and “coconuts”, which are actually discs of maplewood, rather than anything from the BBC sound effects department.  The men’s blacked faces are the subject of much discussion and debate; why precisely they are wearing pom-poms and a red stripey tutu, less so.  In both cases, it is probably simply to do with the concealment of identity.

Coconutters’ Dance

Various civic groups and charity projects had assembled to reach out to the crowds, including Inspire – Overcoming Addiction and Rossendale Enterprise Anchor Ltd (REAL).  Bacup Pride had a stall at the kids’ party and jumble sale at the AB&D Club.  A self-organised group with a straightforward and action-orientated programme to go out and tidy up various civic spaces.  Their motto is: Let’s rebuild the reputation of Bacup; support and encourage activities for our youth; clean up the image; develop respect and community spirit.  Admirable.

Whether it is a Christian or a pagan tradition, Easter Saturday seems like a good day to have faith that, as long as the Coconutters dance out their ritual, and Bacup Pride continue to organise, the possibility of resurrection and salvation will remain for Bacup.  However, it feels like it is a long way from being the next Hebden Bridge.

Urban Repair suggestion No.1 – Bacup

It seems wrong to recommend any particular urban repair for Hebden Bridge, not because the place is perfect, but because the town community seems to have such energy and good mechanisms for identifying and rectifying things that need improving.

At Bacup, any particular urban repair suggestion also seems superfluous, because of the scale of the town’s challenges.  It doesn’t seem helpful in the depth of recession to make the blanket suggestion that the stock of heritage buildings be defended at all costs, when it is difficult to suggest any fundable, viable re-uses of them in the current circumstances.  But looking ahead for the long term, this is exactly what must be done, as this, along with the strength of its traditional community spirit, is Bacup’s u.s.p.

The suggestion offered here is to wonder whether some kind of town-twinning between neighbours Bacup, Todmorden and Hebden Bridge could be arranged, to see if there could be any cross-fertilisation of ideas between the three communities.  Just comparing the three towns’ community websites of HebWeb, Todmorden Pride and Bacup Pride, it is hard to believe that they have nothing to offer each other.

8.  The Forest of Rossendale

The next leg of the tour was the no. 8 bus to Burnley.  The A671 Burnley Road heads up the last section of the Irwell Valley through the settlement of Weir, to Irwell Spring at 1,335 feet.  Outside of Bacup Town Centre, greater wealth and investment in property is apparent, as is the health of Lancastrian evangelical Christianity – a big banner advertising an impending full immersion Believer’s Baptism service at the Weir Baptist Church was seen.

At the top of the hill snow had drifted against dry stone walls in various stages of decay, with ramshackle patching using bits of plank and barbed wire.  The “Welcome to Rossendale” sign at the city limit had blown over, whilst at the New Deerplay Inn, another banner announced Christmas Bookings were being taken.

Lancashire County Council’s landscape character assessment describes the particular “enclosed upland” landscape of the Rossendale Hills plateau (around 1,000 feet altitude).  Pre-First World War this was an intensively farmed and quarried landscape of small wall-enclosed fields, but now (quoting Lancashire CC) “…the overall impression is of a somewhat derelict landscape with rush-infested pastures and tumbled stone walls.  Views of the prominent high tension power lines which cross the plateau top reinforce the sense of bleakness”.

A campaign placard, “Say No to Weir Windfarm”, gives a possible clue to the Council’s rather disparaging  assessment.  Windfarms are like public art not only in that their beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but also in that they are an indicator of a depressed area: places where they are welcomed by the council must be in difficulties.

One windfarm is already operational at Coal Clough on the no. 65 bus route between Bacup and Todmorden.  This is also where Treesponsibility’s admirable Midgelden reforestation project is under way, on the bare shale of a mine tip and former pipeworks site.  (Treesponsibility are a Hebden Bridge-based organisation, you might have guessed.)

Unfortunately, the Singing Ringing Tree, a public art project that also harnesses the area’s “wind resource”, and which looks very interesting, could not be seen.

Burnley Wood

Coming down into Burnley, the attractive, leafy, clearly prosperous suburb of Towneley comes almost as a surprise, but quickly one is into the very different landscape of Burnley Wood, a “Housing Renewal Pathfinder Area”.  This programme, suddenly cancelled in 2010, has been a great saga that can’t be dealt with in this report. Enough to say that, on a quick look, the “renewal” of Burnley Wood does not appear to be a completed job just yet.

Then, sweeping past Burnley FC’s Turf Moor complex, it was into town and the end of the ride: Burnley bus station.

9.  Burnley

Burnley – Town Hall

Burnley belongs to the category of the large mill towns, rather than the small Pennine valley ones.  Its population of 74,000 is about five times that of Todmorden or Bacup.  It is one of the most depressed of all the mill towns, and often tops charts for the cheapest house prices in the country.  It also has racial segregation issues resembling Bradford and Oldham, being 92% White British and 7% Pakistani British.  The BNP enjoyed some success here in the noughties, having 8 councillors at its high water mark, but its last councillor lost her seat in the May 2012 election.

Burnley bus station

Burnley bus station is brand new, works well, and is a good gateway to the town.  But, as with Bacup, it’s the poverty of the people that is immediately striking to the outsider.  A whippet-thin young Mum was playing very lovingly with her toddler on the bus station mall, but it was hard to avoid the judgement that she was a hopeless drug addict, off her face in a bus station on a Saturday afternoon.

Red Lion St

Like all the mill towns, Burnley town centre has a fine legacy of Victorian and Edwardian civic and commercial buildings.  It also displays a 20th century heritage of efforts to modernise and update the town centre.  Some of these look rather tired today, particularly those of the 1960s modernist vintage, but they all show evidence of a civic commitment to Burnley as an urban centre – trying to bring it up to date and keep its place in the league.

St James St

Even the 1980s legacy has these virtues.  The main shopping street, St James Street, is a pleasant environment, a mix of old and new buildings, tastefully paved and planted.  A busker’s pitch and a fairground ride have been encouraged in to add life.  The Charter Walk shopping centre is not the greatest architectural jewel, but it has a sensible urban design: multi-storey car park to the rear, using the topography, shop fronts facing the high street, a covered mall area for inclement weather.

Boot Way

But, despite all this, in 2012, Burnley town centre is clearly and visibly dying on its arse.  Many shop units are empty or not trading; those that are look pretty desperate. On Easter Saturday at 1.30pm, the main shopping drag St James Street felt quiet.  The busker and fairground ride, both with no customers, gave off a melancholy air, like a seaside resort in winter.  Boot Way, a historic alley with a little gem like the Jireh Baptist Church (erected 1853 by the “Strict and Particular” Baptists, or Gadsbyites), one might expect to contain some interesting independent shops.  It does not.

Hammerton St

Other than struggling retail, Burnley’s central commercial offer is binge drinking.  Whatever its problems with heroin and so on, Burnley’s drug of choice is undoubtedly alcohol.  Vertical drinking establishments advertise with the modern day equivalent of the “drunk 1d, dead drunk 2d” sign in Hogarth’s Gin Lane.  In the beautiful Co-op Buildings on Hammerton Street the serious business of separating the people from their disposable income, and the charitable work of picking up the pieces, are found side by side.

Unfortunately the timetable did not allow the Urban Repairs Club to test the temperature of Burnley’s evening economy, and see first hand how the policy to create a more relaxed and continental drinking culture by loosening the licensing laws is working out for the town.

In towns like Burnley the central area empties out around 5pm, with the town centre shoppers and workers hurrying home either to take cover (if older), or to get tarted up for the evening’s revelries (if younger).  For an hour the streets lie deserted before the onslaught commences.

Glimpse of Tesco Extra

The big puzzler in Burnley was why the place already had this feel at only 2pm.  Then, the likely culprit was sighted by chance: a giant Tesco Extra on the inner relief road.  Tesco Extra is Britain’s answer to America’s Walmart, a giant supermarket also selling clothes and most other non-food consumer products, carefully designed to grab the revenue from every other High Street retailer in the town.

In a town like Burnley, the combination of low prices, free parking and insulation from the risk of encountering aggro in the town centre is a completely winning combination.  A Tesco Extra is unquestionably what the people want (as defined as what they do when given the chance to vote with their feet);  it indubitably creates inward investment and new jobs;  it cannot be denied that it can be reached on foot from the bus station.  And Tesco and its army of hired consultants are not easy people to defy.  So it is easy to see why Burnley’s civic leaders felt inclined to permit the scheme.

But by doing so, they signed Burnley town centre’s death warrant.

Maybe it was dying anyway, and Tesco Extra just put it out of its misery.  Maybe Tesco in fact ensured that Burnley residents’ non-food retail spend at least stayed somewhere in the town rather than heading off down the M65 to Blackburn or Preston.  These arguments would no doubt be made, and the Urban Repairs Club hasn’t enough information to judge.  But dying it clearly is.

The next stop was the Weavers’ Triangle, billed as one of England’s architecturally most complete industrial heritage townscapes.  The Triangle is on the edge of the town centre, with the mills clustered along the course of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.  Although the Council’s own tourist information centre was closed (from 5pm on Maundy Thursday through to 9.30am on the Tuesday after Easter), pleasingly, the Weavers’ Triangle Museum and Visitor Centre was open, staffed by volunteers.

Queens Lancashire Way

All the mill towns have struggled for years with what to do with the architectural legacy of the mills, once the looms and spinning mules had stopped.  With their large floor areas, other industrial uses sometimes followed, but ultimately, as heritage buildings, they could not provide the right kind of space for any serious modern industrial use.

In the 1980s/90s the architectural masterpieces in the right areas, such as Salt’s Mill at Saltaire, were converted into museums/galleries and studios/yuppie flats/start up space etc.  But in a town like Burnley, where the population is falling and housing is being demolished, the options for commercially viable conversions are thin.  There are literally hundreds of thousands more square feet than any currently conceivable market could absorb.

Typically, if the big mill towns have found anybody willing to invest the cost of knocking an old mill down to redevelop anything on its site, they have taken it.  Which has proved to be a shame, not only because the old mills had great character, but also because the quality of the replacement development the property industry and highway engineers have contrived to build has been so shockingly bad.

This means that many old mills still standing are stranded in a townscape which in urban design terms has already gone to hell.  What seems to have happened at the Weavers’ Triangle is that civic leaders (vocally supported by Prince Charles, amongst others) have taken the brave step of saying that the area, the best of its remaining heritage, will be declared a conservation area, and defended.  They have then taken flak and brickbats as for years they have been unable to conjure up very much actual progress in building restoration.

Burnley Wharf

At the Weavers’ Triangle there is the museum, a decent pub, and a warehouse conversion into office space overlooking a well-restored canal wharf.  The rest is just ideas and masterplans shot out of the water by the recession, and the reality of Burnley’s decline.  The latest plan is for a technical college for 14-19 year olds, teaching skills and trades for manufacturing industry.  We wish it well.

Urban Repair suggestion no.2 – Burnley

It is so difficult to think of a realistic urban repair suggestion responding to the extent of Burnley’s problems.  It is easy to think of frivolous ones:  turn the M65 into a wooded cycle path; convert Tesco Extra into a state of the art factory, exporting textiles to China; put some Strict and Particular Baptists onto the licensing committee and launch a massive culture war against the vertical drinking industry.

Probably the best suggestion for the town would be to encourage sticking to the long term vision for the restoration of the Weavers Triangle.  In China, city mayors build a model of their crazily ambitious civic plan and exhibit it as a statement of their intent.  An architectural model – or perhaps a computer visualisation – could be built of the most wildly ambitious dream for the full conservation restoration of the Triangle (with, say, the full gamut of Hebden Bridge-style quality businesses and cultural facilities), and put into a suitable exhibition space in the Triangle.  Then dare Burnley’s people to share the dream. 

Polish civic activists meticulously recorded the architectural legacy of Warsaw’s Old Town before it was systematically razed to the ground by the Nazis.  They did this with no great expectation that the Old Town would ever be rebuilt, but reasoned that it was a worthwhile effort in itself anyway.  Similarly, setting out a quality dream for the Weavers Triangle area is worthwhile, even if Burnley realities ultimately make it virtually impossible to imagine being realised.

So, just do it, and – like at Warsaw – the act of civic faith might become the inspiration to actually getting it done .

10.  Clitheroe

Then it was hotfoot out of Burnley on the no. 27 bus for the final leg of the odyssey, to Clitheroe.

The bus passed through Padiham, the Shuttleworth Mead Business Park and the ancient abbey village of Whalley, making en route the transition from depressed, post-industrial East Lancashire, to prosperous, rural, true blue North Lancashire.  An exciting detour was made to the village of Sabden, in the Pendle Hill exclave of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in the first scenery yet seen vaguely reminiscent of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip.

Pendle Hill from Clitheroe Castle

Pendle Hill is an important place in the history of the Quakers, but the history everybody is keenest on is that of the Pendle witches.  Sabden’s “Sandwitches” sandwich shop, a typical example.  Of Sabden’s two attractive old mills, one appears still to be in industrial use, and the other has been converted to become the Pendle Antiques Centre.

At Barrow, between Whalley and Clitheroe, a dense Barratt-type new housing development caters for people who want to move into this economically successful area.  The Eagle at Barrow had all the outward trappings of belonging to a seriously affluent area, but the Italian restaurant La Taverna was boarded up.  Perhaps with Barrow in mind, a placard strapped to a lamppost in Whalley announced “Whalley Says No to More Houses”.

Castle St

Clitheroe (population 14,000) is definitely historically a mill town (it had 13 in 1891), but it is, and has always been, also the main market town of the agricultural Ribble Valley district, with distinctly un-milltown-like features such as a real Norman castle keep, and a livestock market.  It looks rather more like one of the small country towns of North Lancashire or Westmorland than it does a mill town.

In commuting range of the main North West metropolitan economy, and offering a small-town environment to those who want out of the big towns and cities, Clitheroe is on a path to change and gentrification.

Woone Lane

This could work in the old town’s favour, if green belt and other planning policies restrictive of new housing estates ensure that newcomers are encouraged into renovating old property.  It appears on a quick glance that the town has a sufficient supply of older houses at reasonably cheap prices to avoid prices going stratospheric and choking off younger newcomers.

The interesting question for the Urban Repairs Club is to what extent there is/could be an organic urban regeneration flavour to Clitheroe’s gentrification, or whether it is doomed to follow a more conventional path towards becoming a more typical stolid, car-based, middle England dormitory town.

Mike Kneafsey of Clitheroe-based band Sweeney Astray kindly provided a whistle-stop tour of the town’s organic urban regeneration highlights.

The castle mound is a must, providing an excellent overview of the town and across to the brooding, iconic Pendle Hill.  Down at street level, there are intriguing signs of a developing organic urban regeneration scene.

Emporium, King Lane

The Grand http://www.thegrandvenue.co.uk/About is a privately-owned arts centre with a good live music programme:  Essex pub rock legend Wilko Johnson was in town on Easter Saturday.  Key Street Bar of Music http://www.keystreetmusic.co.uk attracts young people from across the county.  The Emporium http://www.theemporiumclitheroe.co.uk/ is a Methodist church conversion with an upmarket flavour.

Wellgate

Apparently there is a place in Mexico City that offers a better range of rare fine coffees than the Exchange Coffee House on Wellgate.  But that may just be a rumour, so why risk leaving Clitheroe?  Its deli offers local delicacies from local farms and is very much part of the thriving rural Lancashire foodie scene.

New Inn

We then moved on to the open-mic music session at the New Inn,  Parson Lane.  The New Inn is an excellent traditional northern pub, and deservedly very popular.

Clitheroe lost its rail service to Blackburn and Manchester in 1962, but fought hard to get it restored, and in 1994, it was.  The last train back to Manchester is at the usefully late hour of 22:40, and so it was on to the train, for the slow sprint back to Manchester Victoria.

Urban Repair suggestion no. 3 – Clitheroe

Clitheroe is not, is not going to be, and no doubt does not want to be, the new Hebden Bridge.  It will remain the main market town for an attractive and prosperous rural area, and could easily simply double that up with becoming a upmarket commuter dormitory (or indeed, retirement home) for the nearby major conurbations.  However, it does seem to have some elements of a young population that wants to see an organic urban village lifestyle in Clitheroe – which is hard to define, but let’s say the defining feature is being able to live in town and walk to your activities, rather than driving in from your housing estate to Tesco Extra – and this is a good thing for the town.

The Urban Repairs suggestion tentatively offered is that one next step Clitheroe could make on the journey from being a normal middle-England rural market town towards being a full blown English funkytown would be for one of the independent café-delis in the town to try putting on an evening shift, and so provide an alternative hang-out to the pub in the early evenings for those who don’t just want to go home to watch the telly.  If that place could also provide a meeting place for the Transition Town Clitheroe organisation, then it’s possible that many interesting community projects could flow from it.

11.  Conclusions

Pic courtesy of She Sees Red

The purpose of the expedition was to get some clues about Hebden Bridge’s recipe for organic urban regeneration and to see which other small Pennine mill towns were putting the same ingredients together.

The first conclusion is that Hebden Bridge is great:  high expectations were surpassed in a little town that mixes the best of the old North with the best of a “funkytown” vibe.  It exudes cultural self-confidence and civic activism, and its glorious independence from the diet served up by the mainstream media and retail/leisure industry has a wide, not narrow, appeal.

Hebden Bridge may be the best example England has of the Urban Repairs Club’s contention that 21st century green, urban village living can be for everyone and needn’t be exclusively a high income lifestyle.

The second conclusion is that the secret of Hebden Bridge’s success has clearly been its incomers: green/left-minded, (mostly) university-educated, and above all active, energetic and enterprising.

Gentrification is inevitably a controversial issue in small towns, but the conclusion of this trip is that Hebden Bridge is a better place for anyone to live in – incomer or native, at any level of income – than the places that are not assembling its ingredients.  The incomers haven’t spoiled traditional Hebden Bridge; they’ve allowed it to survive.  The mill towns without incomers, such as Bacup, are the ones where the traditions are in trouble.

The third conclusion is that you have got to defend your town from Tesco Extra & co: they will destroy it.  Easier said than done under current laws, and this is a political campaign matter (as pioneered by the New Economics Foundation, for example) that now needs to go mega.  In French law, small traders are protected and supermarkets are not licenced to sell certain products that would drive the town centre independent shops out of business.  This approach could easily be copied in UK if only Tesco could be dethroned in the way that Murdoch has now been.

So, where else is following Hebden Bridge’s path?  The conclusion here is that the Urban Repairs Club needs another visit to the Pennines to provide an answer to that question, and will be targeting Todmorden, Sowerby Bridge and the Colne Valley towns of Marsden and Slaithwaite.

Can the Lancashire mill towns keep up with the Yorkshire ones?  That remains to be seen:  Ramsbottom and Rawtenstall need to be investigated before that question can be answered.

Fundamentally, is there an adequate supply of arty/greenie/lefty enterprising types willing to live in places of abysmal weather to allow other mill towns to follow its path?  The answer to that question is surely yes.  The supply is effectively infinite, because the example of the pioneers is contagious.  Public sector austerity may cause some of the income sources to dry up for purveyors of arty/crafty items, but in general going for green enterprise is a good strategy for all places hit by the recession, and the current crop of talented graduates who can’t find conventional careers, but want to have an enjoyable life, are looking for places to go.

The most difficult unanswered question from the expedition is whether there is anything that the larger mill towns, like Burnley, can take from the Hebden Bridge story.  At the moment it seems that social and economic polarisation is favouring the smaller places (like Hebden Bridge, or Clitheroe) and the regional capitals (Manchester and Leeds), whilst the large mill towns like Rochdale or Burnley are going to hell with no clear view of any way to turn that round.  That vital question will be returned to.

In the meantime, Hebden Bridge flies the flag for a viable, sustainable, enjoyable future for the Northern mill towns, and let’s celebrate that.

Click on link for video

The Dream Academy: Life in a Northern Town (rare original version of video shot in Hebden Bridge)



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South Birmingham

The Urban Repairs Club go Birmingham

Birmingham is well known for having poured investment into its city centre, tackling the legacy of its 1960s comprehensive redevelopment and creating the No.1 business conference and convention city outside London, as well as cementing its position as the undisputed regional capital of the Midlands for the arts and for shopping.  Its greatest coups have included Simon Rattle opening the Symphony Hall in 1991, hosting Clinton, Yeltsin and the G8 in 1998, and – perhaps the most impressive, for the retail worshipping English – the opening of a giant Selfridges in the completely replaced Bull Ring shopping centre in 2003.  Meanwhile, the steady development of the world’s greatest German Christmas Market should not go unmentioned – with a gluhwein in hand and Slade blasting out of the speakers, the embodiment of the 21st century English Christmas.

But the Birmingham beyond the major set-pieces feels less widely known.  As England’s second city, Birmingham hasn’t quite achieved the reputation of, say, Manchester, as a city that has really remade itself around a new downtown living and urban lifestyle “offer”.  Is that just because the Brummies aren’t as gobby as the Mancs?

The initial concept for the first full Urban Repairs Club expedition was to find and explore Birmingham’s bohemian quarters and 21st century urban villages – to see what had been achieved in our field of “organic urban regeneration” during the long nineties/noughties boom, and to take the temperature of how they are weathering the recession.  Not in search of glossy newbuild, but of quality restoration and interesting reuse of the buildings and neighbourhoods of the industrial heritage.

In the end, that’s not quite what we did, but we did establish some lines of inquiry for a future visit by a getting a taster of Digbeth and what Birmingham City Council’s Big City Plan calls the “Southside major transformation area”.

Instead, the visit evolved into a field investigation with a theme of urban transport options, in particular of two perennial problems in British transport planning:  what to do with traffic on Victorian & Edwardian retail streets doubling up as arterial roads, and the trials and tribulations of trying to do urban rail/integrated public transport on a shoestring.  We promised our hosts that we would seek out the positives rather than just carp or criticise, and this is what we tried to do – it feels like the right modus operandi for the Urban Repairs Club.

On the first topic, we compared and contrasted the A38 through Selly Oak with the A34 through Sparkhill, with quick visits to the A451 Stourbridge town centre ring road and  Birmingham city centre’s Moor Street (formerly part of the Queensway “concrete collar”) providing a couple of glimpses of the West Midlands’ distinctive history of city centre inner ring road building.  On the second, we experienced the Cross City line New Street to Selly Oak, the Moor Street/Snow Hill line to Stourbridge Junction, investigated the Parry People Mover Stourbridge Junction to Stourbridge Town, and had a taster of the bus network that serves as the alternative to urban rail across most of South Birmingham, where it is absent.

Birmingham is a large metropolis, and you can’t even get an overview in a single 24 hour visit.  Instead we tried to dig into a few issues, whilst leaving plenty more to look into on other occasions.  A systematic investigation of the Big City Plan’s six quarters surrounding the city core (Eastside, Digbeth, Southside/Highgate, Westside/Ladywood, Jewellery Quarter and St George/St Chad) is called for, as are detailed investigations of great Birmingham suburbs such as Moseley, Handsworth or Longbridge.  And that’s not to mention entirely separate trips to Coventry and the Black Country.  The threat of a return visit – possibly many – by the Urban Repairs Club must hang like a pall over the West Midlands.

Meanwhile, our sincere thanks go to our hosts and native guides from Birmingham’s Lunar Society, West Midlands Friends of the Earth, Pre-Metro Operations Ltd, the New Optimists and the Birmingham University School of Geography.

Birmingham New Street

We arrived at Birmingham New Street, which, since the demolition of the Bull Ring Centre, now epitomises the last remaining eyesores of 1960s Birmingham which, it seems everyone agrees, must be swept away.  The New Street station redevelopment is firmly in the tradition of Birmingham’s nineties/noughties era ambitions for the city centre, and will no doubt be a success, replacing today’s claustrophobia with a station atrium apparently of New York Grand Central proportions, and the great trophy of a giant John Lewis.

The problem with the new New Street is that it will not provide any new platforms, which would have been prohibitively expensive/impossible in its constrained site, a cutting between tunnels in the heart of the city centre.  Therefore the new New Street will be great for the station’s primary role as a major regional and national rail hub, but high frequency metro-service urban rail serving the inner city’s requirements will of necessity remain the poor relation.  Even HS2 will have to go elsewhere – to a new stand-alone station at Curzon Street in “Eastside” about half a kilometre away, simultaneously creating both a problem and an opportunity.  The Big City Plan is alive to this challenge, and aims to respond to it.

The new Bull Ring and into Digbeth

One of the celebrated achievements of the nineties and noughties was loosening the grip of the “concrete collar” of the Queensway inner ring road on Birmingham City Centre.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to look at the various sites and schemes in detail.  However, we did inspect the changes at Moor Street on Day 2 (see section below), whilst on Day 1 we were able to take a look at the two great public realm achievements of the new Bull Ring – the bridging of St Martin’s Queensway outside the renovated Rotunda, and “Spiceal Street”, the new premium chain restaurant mecca which overlooks and wraps around St Martin’s Church in a way it would be churlish to deny is exciting.  It’s nice to imagine that Nelson, whose statue – the first in the country raised to the great Admiral after Trafalgar – presides over the scene, would agree.

Spiceal Street the property development is a big stakes commercial gamble on high volume and high margin chain restaurant dining retaining its popularity despite the recession.  Our guess is it that will succeed, and we wish it well.  The new steps open the route down into the promised land that is Digbeth in a way that the dotty, fascinating, but ultimately sterile, cliff face of Selfridges’ exterior doesn’t.  As an urban repair, the steps get top marks in their class;  all looks like it is going to work admirably.  Whilst the statue adds a touch of class admiralbly.

Digbeth and “Southside”

Digbeth was the Shenzhen of the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries.  Not heavy industry, but light manufacturing: low to mid-tech, mass production of consumer items for the mass market.  The extent is impressive – block after block of small workshops and factories, which thrived right into the 60s and 70s.  Unfortunately, globalisation and actual Shenzhen has ensured that the business model for this old-style Birmingham manufacturing is completely busted.  Thirty years into a relentless trend of decline for British manufacturing, what is striking now is the acreage of redundancy and dereliction.  Many industrial premises remain, but in parts “Southside” feels almost emptied out, Detroit style.  If “the march of the makers” ever does really get under way, and West Midlands manufacturing does recover in response to the big fall in the pound, it’s unlikely that it will be doing it in this part of town.

However, throughout, a relatively fine grain of urban streets survives, and in Digbeth proper, a variety of heritage buildings with great opportunities for conversion and re-use, many of which have already been realised.  The canvas for organic urban regeneration is there, and a number of interesting people and organisations have already started painting.  The “Digbeth is Good” website gives a very good flavour of these impressive urban guardian angels.

Sadly, we couldn’t visit Digbeth’s organic regeneration showpieces, including the Custard Factory or “The Bond” canal warehouse conference centre.

Beneath the Moor St viaduct

We did however get to see the amazing spaces below the Moor Street railway viaduct (currently used as a car park), including Birmingham’s only Grade 1 listed urinals, before heading for dinner at The Warehouse Cafe, Allison Street.

The Warehouse is a former stable for police horses which later served as an abattoir, and is now the headquarters of Birmingham Friends of the Earth.  It’s a delight to visit – offering the chance to pick up leaflets on the range of Friends of the Earth’s campaigns in the West Midlands, before sitting down to a quality vegetarian feast at its welcoming and unpretentious café.  The rent from the café helps to fund the running costs of the building as a whole, a little green redoubt from which FoE’s campaigners can sally forth to do battle against the forces of earth destruction.  An environment and business model the more diametric opposite of Spiceal Street it is impossible to imagine.  The alcohol policy is the admirable B.Y.O., which we tried the patience of by bringing in a bagful of cheap Polish lager.  Try doing that in the new Bull Ring.

The Anchor Inn, Digbeth

Later, we inspected the excellent new National Express Digbeth coach station before repairing to the Anchor Inn, a serial winner of Birmingham CAMRA’s best pub award, and a stone’s throw away from the coach station.  It’s a template on how to take the heritage of 19th and 20th century Digbeth and make it into a genuinely enjoyable place to be in the 21st century.  Digbeth has sadly experienced a massacre of street corner pubs, with boarded-up but unburied corpses all over the place.  The Anchor Inn, we hope, shows a way forward for some of them.

Urban Repair suggestion no.1:  Could a civic activist organisation re-open a closed pub of real importance to Digbeth heritage on the same business model as the Warehouse, cross-subsidising a community/activist resource with drinkers’ dollars?  It would be nice to think so.  Maybe it’s already happened, we’d be interested to hear.

Our overnight stay was at the Paragon Hotel, Alcester Street, in Highgate Park, or “Southside”.  Formerly a “Rowton House”, as celebrated by George Orwell in Down & Out in Paris & London, this high class migrant workers’ hostel has to be experienced to be believed.  Nowhere can one get a stronger sense of what “Digbeth as Shenzhen” might have felt like in its heyday.

The hotel’s publicity, admirably, does not shy away from its dosshouse heritage.  As the hotel’s own leaflet says: “Rowton House thrived until the 1960s when it fell into a state of disrepair.  In 1993 the building was purchased by hoteliers and has changed hands and name several times since then.  The Paragon today is owned by the Dhillon Group and has a grade 2 listing to protect its impressive Gothic Edwardian architecture… With each year we are restoring another part of the old building with the dream that one day we make The Paragon hotel a stunning destination hotel”.

A veritable manifesto for the organic urban regeneration of Digbeth.  All credit to the Dhillon Group, and a challenge for all others – can you beat that?

Southside and the Big City Plan

The teams that meet in caffs

We breakfasted at the Moseley Street Café (232 Moseley Street, no website), and pondered whether the clientele were actual local factory workers on their break, or retired former local factory workers coming back in to their old stamping ground just for the crack.  Either way, they had a nose for good value.

Southside Major Transformation Area

The Big City Plan’s vision for Southside is “major transformation”, meaning comprehensive redevelopment.  It sees potential for a significant residential area, which – although it might feel slightly counterintuitive whilst gazing at the industrial scene – is probably right.  The plan boldly claims it wants to see urban family housing as well as one-bedroom flats.  It could be done – the canvas is large enough – but does one feel confident it will be done?  Certainly, much of the Big City Plan seems to assume that redevelopment can proceed at the pace of the noughties boom years, which feels anachronistic in our new age of austerity.

It would be good to see some early wins.  The Plan makes much of the opportunities for the further improvement of the Gay Village centred on Hurst Street and the Chinese Quarter around Bradford Street and the Arcadian Centre.  Sorry, we can’t report – we didn’t make it to either place on this trip.

Much more controversially, The Plan hangs its hat on the development of the 8 hectare site of the City’s wholesale markets, a move being bitterly opposed by FoE and some of the city’s fine dining restauranteurs.  The City Council points out that the 1960s wholesale market buildings are ugly and life-expired, and they cover up the potentially very interesting site of the original de Bermingham family manor house, with moat and frontage onto Birmingham’s native river, the Rea.  But FoE and the restauranteurs point out that the wholesale markets are a vibrant and useful part of the city’s modern gastronomic offer, as well as part of its tradition.

We didn’t see enough to take sides on this controversy.  Mostly now culverted, the Mississippi it ain’t, but opening up the Rea sounds on paper to be a noble aim.  But it does seem perverse to want to demolish the liveliest and most thriving marketplace in an area with plenty of other derelict sites.  Birmingham may have more miles of canal than Venice, but you don’t see the City of Venice threatening to redevelop the wholesale markets of the Rialto.  You can follow developments in the battle here: http://friendsofbullringmarkets.wordpress.com/

Mick the Meat

Network West Midlands

Birmingham has a quite limited urban rail network for a major European city.  New Street is the crossroads of the national rail network, and the range of destinations on its departure boards is striking – Aberdeen to Penzance, Aberystwyth to Penrith.  The downside is there is not much room on the available platforms and tracks for a dense network of frequent urban services.

For some reason, Birmingham’s go-ahead Victorian civic leaders never made a start on an underground rail network, and there is no “U-bahn” type network to the main inner suburbs, which are served by bus.  The Birmingham Integrated Transport Study of 1989 (of which more later) envisaged the development of a comprehensive network of urban light rail, with underground stations in the city centre, but it wasn’t built.  Instead, three projects went ahead:  electrification of the Lichfield to Redditch via New Street Cross-City line (1993), the Stourbridge to Solihull/Stratford route via Snow Hill & Moor Street (1995), and the Midland Metro tram (1999), following the old Great Western Railway route through the Black Country from Snow Hill to West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.

We sampled Birmingham’s attempt at developing an “S-bahn” network by riding out to Stourbridge from the 1990s-redeveloped Snow Hill station and returning on the same route to the nicely restored heritage environment of Moor St station.  We also sampled the Cross-City line with a ride from New Street to Selly Oak.

Midland Metro tram at Snow Hill station

The new Snow Hill is a functional big city urban metro station amongst an associated major office development.  Its status as the (current) terminus of the Metro tram feels like a well-kept secret.  Absurdly, the “London Midland rail network” maps displayed on the rail platforms at Snow Hill do not show the tram.  Although “Network West Midlands” exists as a concept and a branding, public transport in Birmingham seems to be advertised on a company by company basis, with little sense of a single city-wide public transport network.  We bought a Network West Midlands daytripper ticket (one day bus & rail travelcard) for a reasonable £5.50, but it didn’t seem that this was a ticket our booking clerk at Snow Hill sold very often.

Urban Repair suggestion No.2:  A widely-distributed simple map of the combined rail and bus network to the main Birmingham suburbs – Birmingham’s answer to the London tube map.

To Stourbridge and the Parry People Mover

We were told in no uncertain terms that a visit to Stourbridge had no place in a tour of Birmingham suburbs, and that, in daring to enter the Black Country, we were crossing a serious cultural boundary.  But we went anyway, as the guests of Pre-Metro Operations Ltd, to see the Parry People Mover, a flywheel and Ford Focus engine-propelled rail car.

Our route out to Stourbridge seemed to stay mostly confined to wooded cuttings, with the view from the train giving only glimpses of the Black Country’s jumble of towns and villages.  However, at Stourbridge, the railway is up on the hillside, with the town down in the valley.  The Victorians’ solution was the 0.8 mile long single track branch from Stourbridge Junction to Stourbridge Town, one of the steepest sections of track in the country.  It’s difficult for heavy rail to be economic on such a short branch, and it was a perfect application for the Black Country visionary J.P.M. Parry’s People Mover.

The Parry People Mover dates back to the renaissance of interest in trams or “light rapid transit” in the 1980s/90s.  The essential Parry concept is that power supply is a big problem for light rapid transit running through pedestrianised streets.  Diesel engines are too noisy and polluting, third rail electric requires an entirely segregated track, creating severance, and overhead wires are expensive and arguably unsightly.  Parry’s answer was a vehicle self-propelled by stored kinetic energy:  a half-ton onboard flywheel, revolving at 2,500 rpm, re-powered electrically at each station stop.  The concept offered a low cost, low noise and pollution-free light rail people mover for your town’s shopping street.  It could even run inside shopping malls and buildings.

The Parry People Mover

An application of the original pure concept remains wanting.  Instead Parry was able to offer a low cost option for the difficult economics of the Stourbridge Town branch line.  On sub-contract to London Midland, Pre-Metro Operations Ltd’s 16 seater Parry rail car provides the service in place of a standard British diesel train, ploughing up and down the branch every 15 minutes.  The rail car interior is reminiscent of London’s Docklands Light Railway (both are 1980s design concepts).  Like the DLR, the novelty for the punter is being able to get the forward view of the track ahead.  Unlike the DLR, there is a driver, but the absence of standard railway practice and union rules allows him to act as a friendly on-board host before taking the controls from the driving seat in the corner.  The power is from the on-board Ford Focus diesel engine running at constant speed, with the power surge to get into motion and to get up the steep hill being supplied by the flywheel.

The result is a curious mixture of rumblings from the engine and flywheel, and a rather swaying, bumpy ride, which is the fault of Network Rail’s track, clearly in dreadful condition.  (Apparently, the effect of the spinning flywheel is to damp down the bumping and swaying there otherwise would have been in such a light rail car.)  The overwhelming impression is of a gentle, jolly fairground ride which usefully and enjoyably brings you to and from downtown Stourbridge.

One could view the saga of the Parry People Mover at Stourbridge as a microcosm of Britain’s competitiveness gap in industrial design, manufacturing, industrial finance, transport planning and town planning, as we continue into the 21st century.  Alternatively, one could view it as a welcome and delightful addition to Little Britain’s treasure trove of unusual transport systems.  In the relentlessly positive Urban Repairs Club, we take the latter view.

Stourbridge Town

As said, Stourbridge has no place in a tour of Birmingham.  The demography and the economy are clearly different: older, whiter, slower – and giving off a sense of a lot of people of all ages in the town centre with not enough money and not enough to do.

Nevertheless, Stourbridge is one of the most prosperous of the Black Country towns, and it does show.  On the edge of the conurbation, it provides the local Waitrose for the well-heeled residents of the Worcestershire green belt.  The High Street has some appealing architecture and low levels of shop vacancies; the shopping mall is immaculately kept.

However, for the Urban Repairs Club, Stourbridge can only mean one thing: the extraordinary Stourbridge inner ring road.  The road provides another microcosm of British transport planning history – the saga of what to do with traffic in towns.  The Stourbridge ring road is a very West Midlands exemplar of one of the things the British have made such a mess of over the years: the town centre inner relief road.  The Stourbridge road, completed in 1969, is a pretty gung-ho example.  A one-way gyratory racetrack, with traffic leaving and joining from slip roads on both sides of the road, it basically turns Stourbridge town centre into the large central island of a roundabout.  With traffic exiting the slip roads at speed, the road geometry makes the damage to the old street layout profound.  All pedestrian crossing was originally intended to be by subway – unfortunately built as narrow, dingy ones in the British style.  At Church Street, the traffic engineers have been persuaded to allow the addition of a surface pedestrian crossing, but have not taken the opportunity to soften the road geometry.  Elsewhere, the road remains defended by heavy duty guard rail.

Stourbridge Old High Street

But it is not really the ring road itself that offends the most: it is the failure to use all that investment to actually get cars out of the historic and otherwise quite architecturally-appealing High Street.  The narrow High Street is literally full of cars.  Two lanes wide, one lane is for on-street parking and the other is for one way traffic, queued waiting to access the main town centre car park.  In order not to block the queued traffic, people needing access to premises on the west side of the street (the side with the double yellow lines) park on the pavement.  And it is not just deliveries: to my eye it seemed there was commuter parking on the pavement too.

It would be easy to level criticism at the way that, in transport planning and urban design terms, almost everything that can go wrong has gone wrong – and all in an unmistakeably British way.  But we did promise to look only for the positives, and here they are.

Centro is building a new bus station at Stourbridge Town railway station, and the bus-rail interchange will be much improved.  The leafy churchyard of the United Reformed Church, simultaneously provides a little oasis of serenity and a reminder of the Black Country’s nonconformist heritage.  The subway from station to the heart of the High Street is being done up, and will offer a seamless walking route when re-opened.  Accessible by both car and public transport, Stourbridge’s town centre has every chance of staying viable and lively as a retail centre in a decade when many others will be killed or left half dead by austerity and the internet.

Urban Repair suggestion no.3:  Make more of the Parry People Mover as a unique Stourbridge phenomenon.  And how about some ambition?  Get it across the ring road on a level crossing and run it straight down the old High Street, on flywheel power.

Moor Street and Eastside

Having ruled out a bus, there were two options for our rail route from Stourbridge to Selly Oak: changing at Smethwick Galton Bridge, or returning to Birmingham city centre, to walk between Moor Street and New Street stations.  We chose the latter and took the opportunity to take a have a quick look at progress in “breaking the concrete collar” of the old Queensway inner ring road at Moor Street, and a get a glimpse of the Eastside mega-redevelopment, linked to the project that is causing the most excitement in Birmingham at the moment, High Speed Two to Curzon Street in Eastside.

Moor Street (the railway station) is a great success – its Edwardian heritage well restored, with a new range of Chiltern Railway services to London Marylebone.  Moor Street (the street) is more of a work in progress.  Formerly part of the infamous inner ring road, it now carries a diminished amount of general traffic in one direction only – anti-clockwise along what was the old clockwise carriageway.  The other carriageway now carries buses only on the city centre bus loop.  The heavy lifting has been done, including the demolition of the large Masshouse Circus grade-separated junction.  We understand that the project to gain some of the city street environmental benefits of the road downgrade is about to start.  We look forward to it: at the moment one emerges from Moor Street station with the exhaust pipes of the remaining general traffic precisely at nose height.

Masshouse plaza development, Eastside

Eastside – which we glimpsed from a quick detour into the new Masshouse development – is such a mega-project that it is really beyond the scope of the Urban Repairs Club.  The development so far is more of the factory farmed regeneration genre than the Club’s preferred human scale organic urban regeneration.  Fair enough: the arrival of High Speed Two propels the area into the big league, and small scale is not the right thing here.  So far it’s early days and too soon to tell whether a unifying urban design theme is guiding the way, and a coherent new big city place of the Paddington Basin ilk will rise here, or whether it will remain a rather unhappy 21st century urban dystopia.  So it’s not wise to give a final verdict now, but suffice it to say that for the time being any Chinese investors will feel very at home here.

Selly Oak and Sparkhill – history

Our main investigation of the history of the West Midlands’ take on dealing with “traffic in towns” continued at Selly Oak and Sparkhill, in South Birmingham.  The aim was to look at contrasting responses to the problem of accommodating an arterial road with through traffic in an inner city suburban context.

Selly Oak is situated on the A38 Bristol Road.  It’s the first refuelling stop for students outside the gates of the campus of Birmingham University, and the enormous new Queen Elizabeth PFI Hospital is nearby.  Sparkhill is on the A34 Stratford Road and is famous for forming one side of the “Balti Triangle”.

Both suburbs grew up in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and in both the commercial/retail centre grew up as a corridor along the main road.  In 1919, the aforementioned go-ahead Birmingham city fathers laid down plans for on-line widening of both roads to 120 feet – dual carriageway boulevards with green verges and tram lines down the central reservation.  All the buildings along both corridors were to be demolished in due course, upon arrival of the necessary funding.  Meanwhile, highways powers were deployed to establish a new building line for any new development, set back from the existing road, back to where would be needed for the widened road.  This blighted a swathe of the existing Victorian & Edwardian property along both roads, discouraging investment in its upkeep for decades.

On both roads north and south of Selly Oak and Sparkhill, sections can be seen where the highways engineers realised their vision.  But it is also clear how little of the vision was realised when the engineers hit the bottleneck of a successful suburban shopping street, built tight to the old road.  Of course, the traffic on the A34 and A38 was not just city traffic but long distance through traffic too in those days and traffic congestion got worse.  Trams, which had not got their segregated central reservation, were scrapped and replaced by more manoeuvrable motor buses, partly to help ease congestion.  But this provided no cure for the problem as traffic levels grew in Britain’s premier motor manufacturing city.

By the 1970s battles were being fought and it was getting pretty clear that on-line widening of the full network was never going to happen.  In Birmingham, as elsewhere, the creed of comprehensive redevelopment was replaced by council grant-funding for the renovation and modernisation of Victorian era property in dire need of investment.  The programmes were a great success.  Particularly interesting was the Birmingham tactic of making grants conditional on the participation of the whole terrace in the upgrade.  In Sparkhill, we saw excellent examples of the quality of restoration achieved at that time, still visible today.  They are a tribute to the quality of the people and ideas behind that historic change in policy.

Amazingly though, the 1919 building line still stuck in official plans until the 1980s/90s.  In Sparkhill, the South Birmingham Environmental Traffic Management Study of 1992 tackled the anomaly – the new approach was the downgrade the road as a through route for traffic, and simultaneously upgrade the pedestrian environment of the shopping centre, without actually providing any replacement road.  The key concept was that at low speed, say 20mph, a continuous chain of slow moving traffic could still provide the traffic capacity the traffic planners said they needed.

In Selly Oak, the revised policy was the more conventional one of a relief road or by-pass.  After a long wait, the Selly Oak New Road was finally officially opened on 13 October 2011.

Bristol Road, Selly Oak – impressions

That was the concept – but our delivery on the ground was a little more hit and miss.  Arriving in Selly Oak by rail, we found Bristol Road, but were utterly unclear as to where the relief road was, and if it had been finished.  There certainly seemed to be little evidence of any relief from heavy traffic.  In fact, the new road was open, but the environmental scheme to reap the benefit of reduced traffic on Bristol Road had not yet begun.  Later, confusion was introduced over whether we had even been to Selly Oak at all, or in fact technically had visited Bournbrook.

Bristol Road the retail street is reasonably thriving, and benefits greatly from having the student community to enliven it.  There are some interesting independent retail businesses, most of whom it seems make a play on the Selly Oak name – Selly Sausage, Selly Soak (launderette), and so on.  There is even branded Selly Oak civic pride, as we saw when we met some I Love Selly Oak student volunteers.  Let’s say we were justified in thinking this was Selly Oak.

Exhausted by our morning’s exertions, we piled into The S’Oak pub for lunch, and hit upon the students of Birmingham University celebrating the last day of term.

Either Selly Oak or Bournbrook

Bristol Road has endured years of narrow footways, resulting from the determined attempt of the highways engineers to maintain four lanes of thundering traffic (two in each direction) on a single carriageway 3½ lanes wide (32 feet).  The opportunity is now great to reduce the road to two lanes, and re-use the space to widen the pavements, allow the traders to make more use of their outdoor frontage space, introduce more street trees, and (even) to bring in some street parking.

It’s an interesting question to ask how badly the heavy traffic and ban on street parking has damaged the development of Selly Oak/Bournbrook’s retailers, cafés and pubs over the years.  The impression is that, like many main road retail streets in inner London (Upper Street Islington or Balham High Road spring to mind), traffic hell only feet away does not seem to hold back the development of an interesting mix, if the basic demand is there, and nicely sized, reasonably priced retail premises are available.

An even more interesting question is whether a street environment improvement can really help independent retailers and cafes/pubs in the age of austerity and Tescopoly.  What impact can it have, compared to the impact of student fees rising to £27k for a three year undergraduate course?  Surely students’ ability and propensity to spend three years supporting the local high street by spending most of it in the pub will now decline?

We love Selly Oak

Nevertheless the potential for a fantastic improvement is now there for the taking – as is the potential to cock it up with the wrong scheme.  Cost is probably not a major issue: a good scheme needn’t cost a lot; the crucial issue is probably avoiding a bad design.  A key decision will be whether to go for a “bus gate”, to make the old road unavailable to general through traffic.  Could an Exhibition Road, Kensington-style shared space work for Bristol Road?  Maybe, maybe not – but it would be good to see it aired as one of the design options.  We wish the City Council’s consultation on the scheme well.

The key message we took home from Selly Oak was that students are good news for urban repairs.  They are great at bringing life and a determination to make the most of the available environment.

Edgbaston Interchange

We set off to Sparkhill by bus, changing to the No.1 bus at “Edgbaston Interchange”.  Although the sculpture was interesting, some useful bus information like a network map would have been welcome.  We finally got under way, getting some intriguing glimpses of Moseley en route.

Stratford Road, Sparkhill

Sparkhill is on the A34 Stratford Road and we walked a decent section of it from College Road to Beach Road.  A major pre-1960s suburban shopping street, with evidence of former department stores, cinemas and city corporation facilities such as the library, park and police station along its length, Sparkhill’s life as a shopping street is now almost entirely a product of its role as a retail centre for the local Asian British population.

Stratford Road, Sparkhill

A similar street in a different context would probably be seriously struggling in this recession, with shop vacancies, abandonments and so on.  In Sparkhill, family-owned and run independent grocers, clothes shops and restaurants soldier on and appear to be thriving, although no doubt hard times are being experienced.  Putting on a good show with a superabundance of stock is very much part of the retail offer, and the outcome is impressive, whether the stock piled be fruit & veg or Hindu garlands.  The investment in exuberant restaurants, stimulated by the clustering and competition of the Balti Triangle is impressive – not quite Las Vegas, but the same general idea.

We checked out the palette of design measures from the 1990s environmental scheme: widened pavements, bus boarders, improved pedestrian crossings and entry treatments for crossing side roads, loading bays for deliveries to shops.  All have provided 20 years’ good service improving the environment for pedestrians, shoppers and bus passengers.

Urban Repair suggestion No. 4

What Sparkhill needs now is a relatively modest amount of continuing investment to maintain and refresh the renovation and improvement projects of the 1970s and 90s. 

Conclusions

According to the elderly proprietor of one of the specialist Asian clothing shops where we bought our guide a garland, what is needed is “the return of the Council grants”, and we are inclined to agree.  Birmingham is a big city that has a particular penchant for comprehensive redevelopment, and it may well be that its focus on the comprehensive redevelopment of the previous 1950s/60s round of comprehensive redevelopment has been precisely the right strategy.

But Birmingham also did itself a lot of favours in the 1970s when it decided it was going to invest seriously in the renovation of its excellent Victorian and Edwardian suburbs, such as Selly Oak and Sparkhill.  A way does need to be found to unlock a new round of investment in Birmingham’s inner suburbs, to keep the basic infrastructure of streetscape and building stock in good shape for the coming decades.  Can it be done?  Austerity, Tescopoly and the internet all make for a hurricane blowing down the High Street that is sweeping away independent retailers, traditional pubs and public funding for basic upkeep of the streetscape.  But on the other hand, there remains a fierce civic pride in Birmingham that can be harnessed to defend and improve its urban villages.

We at the Urban Repairs Club are convinced that urban village living – which need not be a preserve for the richest and the poorest only – is something there is a real desire and market for.  Some, but maybe not all, parts of the city will be able to remake their lifestyle offer to meet this pent-up demand.  We intend to follow the progress of the most promising places, and to celebrate the civic entrepreneurs who are going to make it happen.

England expects

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The City of London

Visiting the Occupy London demonstration at St Paul’s Cathedral is so not what the Urban Repairs Club is supposed to be about, that there is a certain wilful contrariness to it becoming the subject of our first ever Expedition Report.

Our vision of the Urban Repairs Club (see our manifesto) is of a club dedicated to the search for liveable, lively, enjoyable urban environments in English towns and cities.  It is not supposed to be about politics – or, to be more precise, not about the politics of the day-to-day media circus.  And it is absolutely not supposed to be about London:  it is supposed to be about exploring the England beyond London.

Its initial activity, this blog, is intended to contain the reports of our expeditions, which we envisage being based on photos as much as on text.  They are certainly not meant to be rambling, discursive essays on topics in the current news agenda.  So it is with some risk of misinterpretation that this rambling, discursive, political report is offered, with a handful of poor quality photos off my mobile phone because we hadn’t brought the camera.

On the other hand, our vision of our club is also that we will only define who we are, and what it is we do, by discovering it along the way of our expeditions.  And so the concept is that as much as we are the cool, focused Urban Repairs Club, we are also the New Corresponding Society of the Pickwick Club:  rather ludicrous characters wandering without any great plan through 2010s decade* urban England and stumbling into adventures.  It is in this latter spirit that we thought it appropriate to designate our visit to the City of London as the first of our expeditions, and report on it accordingly.

[* what is the name of this decade?]

The objective of the evening was to discuss the club’s draft manifesto and the arrangements for our first planned proper expedition, to South Birmingham and Stourbridge, whilst doubling this up with a visit to check out Occupy London’s tented city, causing great excitement in the media.

City Thameslink station

East Croydon to St Pauls in 25 mins

And so our visit began at City Thameslink station, halfway up Ludgate Hill and in the shadow of St Paul’s, yet less than 25 minutes direct journey from Croydon.  It’s a functional space, far from pretty but which works fine because it has a handy location, (just about) enough space and all the basics it needs.  For the nostalgist, it offers some marvellously unreconstructed reminders of British Rail or, more precisely, Network South East, as was.  The management won’t allow a TfL roundel in the place.

A social counter-revolution in the making?

It also has room for a bit of modern private enterprise in the form of licensed street hawking.  We met an authentic cockney geezer knocking out “Freedom cigarettes” at £35 a pop, and blowing out pure, odour-free water vapour beneath a stern No Smoking sign.  The perfect stocking filler for smokers this Christmas, we were told.  And this product could possibly really be a real-life social counter-revolution in the making – were it to reintroduce the sight of people puffing on a strand and (apparently) blowing out smoke in pubs, cafes, and on public transport.  Should Freedom cigarettes take off, the short window of the noughties where this sight was not seen will seem in retrospect an aberration, rather than – as we imagine it now – the start of a new and permanent era of the banishing outside of nicotine addicts.  Or it may become a quaint one-Christmas wonder to puzzle archaeologists of the future.  Either way, it is the function of a metropolis to be the front line where these fashion battles will be decided, and City Thameslink station is delivering on this role.

St Pauls Churchyard

To St Pauls, and another 21st century front line.  The story of the Occupy LSX (London Stock Exchange) protest is well-rehearsed elsewhere (eg: here), so no further background provided here, except to say that protesters did not originally intend to occupy the square in front of St Paul’s.  The plan was to occupy the outdoor space of the next door Paternoster Square development, home of the London Stock Exchange since 2004.  It was thanks to Canon Giles Fraser that the protesters were given sanctuary on Sunday 15th Oct, and it was purely by accident that the main interest of the events became the spectacle of the Church of England examining its conscience and trying to decide whether it exists to minister to the 1% or the 99%.

What to say on impressions of the encampment?  It closely resembles Climate Camp, except in a city square in the shadow of a global tourist icon, rather than in a field in the shadow of the chimneys of a coal-fired power station.  If you don’t know what that feels like, it resembles a DIY mini-Glastonbury, with “Tent City University” seminars and outdoor General Assemblies in place of bands’ performances.  The atmosphere is calm and unconfrontational with a surprising lack of intrusion by either police or media mob.  Unlike Glastonbury, it feels like an access unlimited pass is granted to anyone turning up off the street.  The welcome tent provides instant orientation and you could grab a free veggie stew and start participating in an Assembly meeting within five minutes of arriving.  Or, if you preferred, checking the tents with your heat detection device.  The tranquil atmosphere is entirely a product of the good taste of the protesters, who are delightful.

The camp’s impact on St Paul’s Churchyard as an urban space is entirely positive.  The steps of a great cathedral should feel like a space that is relevant to the life of its city.  Without the protest, with empty steps, the meticulously renovated white-grey Portland stone of Wren’s west front (the iconic dome out of view) could easily feel a little cold, easy to admire, but hard to love.  Without the protest, today’s pristine St Pauls could easily feel like the mother church of the undemocratic and unaccountable banking city-state of the City of London.  With it, it feels a little more human and connected to its wider metropolis and the rest of the world.

Among the more desperate mud thrown at the protest has been the claim that they may cause innocent, humble, hard working independent traders to go out of business (repeated by trite old hack Simon Jenkins here).  An actual visit to the site reveals the charge as absurd.  The only area remotely affected was the arcade of the Paternoster Square development containing those humble independents Starbucks and M&S Simply Food, both of whom were doing a roaring trade feeding and watering the protest’s visitors.  Paternoster Square itself, owned by Mitsubishi Estates and home to Goldman Sachs’ and Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s City outposts, was the only place in paranoid lock-down mode, with its court injunction against public access pasted on to a crowd barrier thrown across the gateway* to its private square, and defended by hired security guards in hi-vi’s.  Friday evening trade in the champagne bars where the bailed-out bankers go to play was roaring away entirely unmolested by protesters or “all in it together” austerity.

[* no less than Wren’s original Temple Bar removed from Fleet Street in 1878, and brought back to the City from Hertfordshire in 2004.]

Urban Repair No.1:

Our manifesto sets us the challenge of coming up with a simple, practical and easily implementable urban repair for each of the places we visit.  For St Pauls Churchyard our suggestion is to remove the outdated and mean-spirited railings around the base of the statue of Queen Anne in the centre of the public space, and to let people sit and enjoy the steps, like Eros at Piccadilly Circus.

Cheapside and One New Change

St Pauls resolved, we ventured further in the new City.  The City has changed.  Cheapside was once a dead office street – “somewhere where the bus would speed up” on its way to livelier parts of town.  The Corporation of London’s planners have worked hard to get retail and street life back into the City.  Famously the City’s pubs used to close at 9pm on weekdays, its rail and tube stations shortly after, and neither would open at all at weekends.  This has now changed – a lot.

The Corporation’s streetscape enhancements are splendid – they have spent a big budget well, and their mastery of “keeping it simple” in street design is second to none.  The pavement widening on Cheapside is neatly and simply done, and it works beautifully.  We also picked out the entry treatment of Angel Street at its junction with Newgate Street.

The epitome of what the Corporation’s planners have aimed to achieve on the retail front is the One New Change development, opened on 28 October 2010.  Unknown to us, we had stumbled across its first birthday party.  In the basement a West End troupe was singing songs from the shows to an enthusiastic crowd, as the free bubbly (courtesy of Searcy’s Champagne Bar) flowed.

One New Change would be a city centre mall to die for in any other English city.  It has paved pedestrian streets open to the sky, and seems to have cunningly resolved the problem of weatherproofing from wind and rain without losing the essence of being in a street outdoors, rather than inside in a mall.  It’s pleasing, it works, and all the shops were still open at 7pm.

A planning vision with which we entirely sympathise, and – for once in England – fully realised.  So why is it so impossible to like?

We think it is the utter boringness of the shops in it.  The retail units, one after another, are immaculately branded and differentiated from each other, carefully calibrated to each market demographic.  Every aspect of fashion culture is forensically plundered – youth culture, surf culture, city gent, London mod – but then served up in a manner that completely fails to connect with the spirit of any of the originals.  The overall sense is of thorough, stifling corporate conformity.  The landlord is entirely to blame – it is transparently obvious that the object of the exercise is rents, and rents alone.  This is the City, home of the ruthless balance sheet analyst, after all.

Is it a failure in the market?  Clearly the Urban Repairs Club is not the target market for One New Change, and so we can’t say.  But it does seem like a shame for such a great effort to feel so wasted.  The City’s planners laboured for decades to find developments that would revivify the City and architecture that would show respect to its neighbour St Pauls.  Largely they have succeeded in creating the physical environment, only to fall at the final hurdle of finding it a soul.  It’s a microcosm of today’s City as a whole.  No, Mr. Jenkins, it is not the Occupy London protest that is squeezing the independent trader out of today’s City of London.

The picture is not unremittingly bleak.  We did find a soul in One New Change – three souls in fact, three young curators from the London Museum, with a trestle table of artefacts, found in the archaeological dig when the mall was being built.  These included a really beautiful Roman marble statuette found directly below the mall – 1800 years old? –  which they were happy for us to just pick up and handle.  Pure magic – kindred spirits in the Urban Repairs quest.

Urban Repair No.2

And so to suggestion no.2 for the City.  More trestle tables, more street stalls, more chances for real start-ups of every kind, please.  Not just in One New Change, but on the widened pavements of the main streets too.

And more chances too for independent retailers like this, please:

Simon Jenkins – wrong as usual

 Smithfield

To reflect on what we had seen, and to ponder the future of the Church of England, it seemed appropriate to repair to The Bishop in West Smithfield – Britain’s oldest brewer’s original City of London outlet.  Smithfield was great – the best of the City and its older landlords’ ability to let tenants breathe.

The City of London really should be the historic heart and living soul of all metropolitan London, but it is not now, and it cannot be so whilst it remains solely a disconnected banking city state – Airstrip One for the international banking elite.

The Urban Repair that would do the most for the City would be the democratisation of the Corporation of London: the handing over of its assets and the considerable talents of its staff to a properly elected public authority – we would suggest to the elected Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly.  If the Occupy London protest left one legacy, shining a light on the Corporation and starting that debate on its reform would be a worthy achievement.

Occupy London General Assembly – breakout tables






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