How to actually save the Picture House

The big news in Edinburgh music this week was the announcement that MAMA are to sell The Picture House on Lothian Road to JD Wetherpoon, for conversion (presumably) into a pub.

As outlined in the Evening News article above, the internet sprung immediately into action. There’s a petition going around (of course) that, at time of writing, has just shy of ten thousand signatures, and a twitter hashtag (of course) at #savethepicturehouse, which seems pretty long for a medium that operates in 140 character bursts.

Please excuse the withering tone. I don’t really want to rain on any parades here. Indeed, for a city that can often be so musically apathetic (how many shows have you been to at Electric Circus or Sneaky Pete’s or the Liquid Room that has been painfully undersold?) it’s quite heart warming to see so many rallying to save a venue. The thing is, and I hate to say this, but a petition aimed at JD Wetherspoon won’t make an iota of difference. They’re a company that operates pubs and hotels; they’re not a company that invests into other businesses. If they’ve bought the Picture House, their only intention towards it will be to turn it into a pub.

(I should point out I’ve got a fair bit of affection for Wetherspoon. Over the years they’ve put a lot of really great buildings back into productive use, and I like their intention of keeping things fairly simple and cheap in face of a sector seemingly overrun with awful gastropubs full of awful people.)

Without getting into too much political theory, the development of cities these days is based around neoliberal market economics. Put in really simple terms, the use of a piece of land will generally be the use that brings in the most money. Obviously if you’re onboard that particular ideological train you’ll find that all dandy, but for the rest of us this might be an end use that is completely at odds with what we think a place “needs”.

Obviously the concept of “need” is pretty nebulous, open to interpretation and malleable to your political beliefs. This is where the Planning system (in theory) comes in. It’s meant to act like an overlord, looking down, trying to work out what a place “needs” and judging the market’s proposals based on that. If you’re trying to assess the “need” of either a building or a building’s use, you should probably look at (a) what it provides to the wider community, and (b) what alternatives there are that duplicate that use.

What the Picture House provides seems fairly obvious; a centrally-located music venue that can (and does) bring a substantially number of larger national and international touring acts to Edinburgh. It also operates a number of clubnights, a key part of the “night time economy” that politicians seem to alternate between loving and hating.

The Picture House, for all the faults you can find with it (I could pick on some, but that isn’t the point here), doesn’t have any real local substitutes. The Corn Exchange is probably closest in character, but sits in a residential area about three miles from the city centre and has limited public transport access as a result. The Usher Hall serves more as a general arts venue and isn’t really suitable for a lot of the acts that would play the Picture House. Can you imagine seeing a scrappy rock band or some bass-heavy hip hop in there? The Liquid Room and the Queen’s Hall are both centrally located but considerably smaller, and won’t be able to attract the acts of the same commercial clout as The Picture House currently does. If there are vacant buildings of a suitable size that could open up to fill the void, they’re all escaping me right now.

Looking at the wider picture, live music in Edinburgh struggles as it is. We’re often relegated to tours of secondary markets by British acts, whilst international acts tend to ignore us altogether in favour of that city to the west. The loss of the Picture House, coupled with a dearth of existing or potential replacements, would be damaging to the local musical economy. A cynical person would find it easy to poke fun at petition-starter Callum’s dream of playing there himself, but it’s a completely fair aspiration and I imagine similar dreams are how a number of bands you like got started.

If you’re just skim-reading this (I probably wouldn’t blame you), here’s the important part. The Evening News article linked at the top makes mention that they’ll likely need to put in a planning application before they can re-open the building as a pub. This is good news, because planning applications are open to public comment.

Now, commenting on a planning application that you disagree with it isn’t a guarantee that it’ll be rejected - even if the ten thousand who’ve signed the petition all do it. But application comments from the public are considered as “material considerations”; things that are examined by the elected officials who make the final call.

I’ve had a look at the Edinburgh planning application database, and currently there are no applications lodged for the Picture House’s address at 31 Lothian Road. It’s difficult to say with the Christmas period bearing down on us, but I imagine, as the building changes hands on January 6th, it’ll appear there fairly soon.

So, if you’re wanting to keep the Picture House open as a live music venue, here’s what you need to do.

- Keep an eye on the Planning website for when the application goes up.
- and more importantly, OBJECT TO IT when it does.

If you’re going to post an objection, you need to ensure your objection is what it deemed “reasonable“. Essentially, this means you need to say why the building should retain its current use. You need to say why the venue is important to the city. You need to say that the current use as a music venue is more important than another pub. Keep it positive – slating JD Wetherspoon as a company will only hurt whatever you’re saying.

It may seem difficult right now to stop this, but it’s not without hope. It’ll just require a bit more than signing your name on an online petition. So, Edinburgh, I ask you; how badly do you want this venue to stay?

But, hey, even if this goes ahead and by next summer we’re all sat in The Picture House eating our £5 beer-and-burger offer, at least we’ll still have the memories.

The Planners, Ep. #1 – Solar Panels and Ye Olde Walls

You can probably (just about) be forgiven for not noticing, but BBC2 is currently broadcasting The Planners, an imaginatively-titled fly-on-the-wall type documentary following various planning departments up and down the country as they, in theory, attempt to cope with the Coalition’s great SHAKE UPPPPPP of the planning system.

As with a lot of these kinds of shows, it’s not so much of an informative look into an arguably misunderstood profession, but more an excuse to gawp at members of The Great British Public getting angry and shouting and, in this case, fishing for newts. I guess the USP here is that not only do they get to shout at each other, but also at their faceless bureaucratic oppressors and their elected overlords. And we get eight whole weeks of this, you say?

I’m probably being slightly unfair here; it is a decent slice of television, slickly produced (looks real nice in HD), with clearly defined ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, and this first episode does raise at least one fairly important issue in amongst the oft-hysterical emoting.

Something the first episode does steadfastly ignore is to provide any real explanation as to how the planning officers make their decisions. Certified planners are bound by the RTPI Code of Conduct, which states that planners should;

fearlessly and impartially exercise their independent professional judgement to the best of their skill and understanding

(If you want to read more of the RTPI’s code of conduct, feel free.)

What this essentially communicates is that planners are bound to make judgements based on a professional opinion, not a personal one, and in that they are bound by the law under which they operate – local plans, legislation, statutes etc. I imagine this is true of most professional roles.

This particularly comes into view during the fourth case introduced in this first episode, that of the old couple in Chester who wanted to put solar panels on their roof. If you’ve watched this episode, you’ll be aware of who I mean – the doddery old couple with the utterly charming disposition, who wanted to coat their roof in solar panels for seemingly no reason other than they felt it was the right thing to do. Seriously, they were so charming. At one point they said that it would take them until they were both about 95 to see any financial return from their investment, with the pretty obvious subtext that they likely wouldn’t be alive then and thus would never see a financial return from their investment. But that doesn’t in any way put them off. See? Charming. So very charming.

Planners ep #1 - Doorbell trouble!

“Oh, my doorbell isn’t working?” (prod) (prod)  – and the nation’s collective heart melts.

Their problem was that their house was a pretty old building, directly next to Chester’s city wall, and thus subject to being a listed building and in a conservation area.

The officer who visited to make the initial assessment turned them down, due to the impact the panels would have on the historic appearance of the city and the views from the city wall, which dates back to Roman times. Which is, you know, pretty old. If you watched to the end, you’ll know that the planning committee eventually ignored the recommendations of the officer, and granted permission for the panels. Several things emerge from this;

  • Based on the requirements of their position, the planners were absolutely right to turn down the application. The solar panels quite clearly impact upon and modify the historic fabric of the city, and the planner was completely following their professional responsibilities in refusing them.
  • The planning committee is made up of elected officials, not professional planners, and as such they are not bound by the RTPI code of conduct. Whilst they must act within the law, they are they not obliged to follow things like local plans in the way planners are. In theory, they should also act impartially, but… well… you know.
  • However, given all of this, I think the committee’s decision was ultimately the correct one.

This raises a pretty important question though, given the growing emphasis on sustainability that development policy has had  for the last 15ish years. What should win out between our longstanding urge to preserve important aspects of the past, and our new desires for sustainability and decentralised energy generation? Furthermore, do we preserve our historic places as is, or do we allow them to grow and adapt to a changing world?

Planners ep 1 - The eventual solar panels

The eventual solar panels, and a visibly upset conservation officer.

This is obviously an issue of pretty paramount importance right now, and one that clearly is going to have to be solved sooner rather than later. Ultimately, I don’t think the panels had that much of an impact, but that comes down to a personal value judgement and I accept that. It’s also probably worth mentioning I have pretty strong opinions on historical preservation interfering with modern life, particularly when the “tourist” word is invoked.

But I think what you can unequivocally draw from this is a clear example of a professional making the correct decision, but based on legislation and regulations that are potentially no longer fit for the time they find themselves in, something which the programme frustratingly failed to cover.

The Planners is currently airing Thursday nights on BBC2 at 8pm. There are (apparently) some upcoming episodes filmed in Edinburgh, including one that will cover the absolutely ghastly new Napier University halls going up opposite Fountainpark. I’m very interested to see how those got through, considering that this city is supposed to have pretty strict design guidelines…

Stars – The North

On the other side of my life, away from thinking about cities and living and roads and all that stuff, I’m a giant music nerd. Over the years I’ve put on live music events, spent vast amounts of my own money pressing up 7″ singles for bands, and in the last year I’ve spent about twenty hours hours talking jibberish into a microphone around songs I love. DIY and independent music was pretty much my life before I arrived where I am now, so it’s always fun for me when these things cross-over.

I’m a big fan of the Montreal band Stars, in particular the sequence of records they released from 2004 through to 2008, a run of three records of shimmering, romantic and expansive indie pop that few bands have come close to equalling in recent years. Stars are the kind of band who could only come from a big city. Their songs are intensely melodramatic, but in a great way, a way that reflects the often overwhelming feelings that come with big city life; every missed connection is a momentous “what if?”, every romantic entanglement that goes awry a drama for the ages. Their music is big and dramatic because where they’re from – a story that takes in Montreal, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, and endless touring of the world’s big cities – is big and dramatic.

So this is the fairly apt cover of their new album;

Stars - The North

The building on the front cover there is Habitat 67, a 1960s experiment in the residential form that adorns a sliver of land opposite Montreal’s old port. Brutalism will always be one of those things that will be incredibly devisive, and the naked white/grey concrete does nobody any favours, but it’s one of those buildings that just spins your head to look at. A city within a city, with all the drama of a skyline evolved over the ages, but condensed downwards. There’s no regular form or pattern to how the individual units are laid out, it’s just an incredible jumble of boxes that, to this day, remains a popular place to live.

Whilst the cost (quoted on Wikipedia at CAN$140,000 a unit – I’m unsure if that means per concrete box or per residential unit) meant that it never really caught on as a mass produced form of residential housing Living in Edinburgh these past nine months has taught me the beauty of repetition (and, my word, the tenement neighbourhoods certainly are beautiful), but I can only wonder what the modern world would look like if the core design ideas, of providing a high density but with the genuinely private space suburbanites craved, had been transposed over to some kind of cheaper form.

The North by Stars is out September 4th in the US, via ATO Records.

The Government’s selective truth-telling on housing benefit

As revealed in the press yesterday, and confirmed today, as part of their latest round of ideas to cut the welfare bill the Government are floating the idea of restrict housing benefit to those who are over 25. If you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed a mini-breakdown I had over this yesterday afternoon. I’ve taken a day to think it over and approach it in a more rational way, but even discounting the idea of benefits being linked to age – are people under 25 going to get a tax rebate because they’re potentially entitled to less? – and the implication this has for the concept of a universal welfare state, I’m still finding this to be a really flawed idea.

It was announced with some typically Cameron-esque bluster and hot air. From the first Guardian piece linked above:

“We are spending nearly £2bn on housing benefit for under-25s – a fortune. We need a bigger debate about welfare and what we expect of people. The system currently sends the signal you are better off not working, or working less.

”A couple will say, ‘We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?”

“One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.”

This is pretty much classic Cameron; it’s got an almost laser-precision but incredibly shallow populist sentiment attached to it (gotta stop scroungers, nrrrrrr), but at the same time it takes aim at the kind of social stereotypes that his political base dislike. But, like a lot of what he says, it’s also really disingenuous.

To start with, as highlighted by George Eaton’s excellent New Statesman piece today, only one-in-eight of those who claim housing benefit are actually unemployed, and a huge majority of new claims in the last few years have been from households with at least one working adult.

Personal anecdote time! I had a flatmate a few years ago who, for no fault of her own, lost her job. She claimed housing benefit for a period until she found new employment. She was able to do this reasonably quickly given the circumstances, as we lived in London, and a big city like London is  a great place to find a job suitable for your personal skills base. Her mother lived in a mid-sized commuter town an hour or so from the city. They, generally speaking, are not such great places to find work matched to your skills. Would my flatmate have been able to find work there, had she been denied that housing benefit and and been forced to move back in with her mother? Probably, but not nearly as quickly or in a way that was as efficient as it was.

Cities are economic engines and a fundamental part of labour markets. They allow workers to match their skills to demand from employers, and they’re incredibly efficient places at doing that. This is very basic economics. There’s also been a pretty solid trend in migration patterns over the past two decades that, after several decades of sustained decline, people have returned to living in cities. Generally speaking, where this has happened it has been the young who have done this, a city still being seen by many as an undesirable place to raise a family. Taking a position of economic efficiency it makes almost no sense to restrict independent living for the young like this. If you’re actively trying to get people to work, why remove the safety net so vital given the precarious nature of many jobs in the current economic situation?

He’s also, rather oddly, conflating social housing with housing benefit in the above quote. What does this fictional mother getting a council house have to do with the spend on housing benefit? Authority-owned housing has rents far below market levels. It almost sounds like he’s arguing in favour of broadening the catchment of social housing to more than just the choice of last resort. Is he implying that this fictional young couple deserve some kind of state-subsidised housing, but they can’t because there’s not enough of it to cater for those priced out of the private market?

A mention is also made that victims of domestic violence will be exempted, which is ever so terribly nice and all (again, precision sharp but shallow populism), but far from problem-free. There’s a good reader from the CPS on the issues surrounding domestic violence here, but to summarise; women aged 16-24 are at the most risk of domestic violence, it takes – and I’m staggered by this – around thirty five instances of violence before a woman reports it, and conviction rates are poor. I’m not clever or learned enough to discuss why this is (but I’ll hazard a guess at both outright fear and social stigma), but it’s deeply troubling in light of this policy. Is a “victim” someone who successfully obtains a conviction, or someone who makes a report? How many reports? How long would an investigation take? It can take long enough as it is to pry housing benefit out of the system. How long will it take if you’ve first got to be rubber-stamped in some way as a victim of an awful crime?

You won’t get me to disagree that spending billions of pounds of public money on  housing benefit is a good thing, because it isn’t. But does it not make more sense to look at where this money is ultimately going, and why we have to spend it in this way in the first place?

If those who receive it are mostly in work, they’re getting it for one the following reasons; either their rent is too high, or their wages are too low. This isn’t a new issue. Part of the problems with the slum clearance programmes in 19th century Edinburgh, for instance, was that there was no way for those at the bottom of the economic ladder to afford the rent on any dwellings that weren’t slums.

Governments have never seriously tried to tackle the issue of the lowest level of wages being below the basic minimum cost of housing (cf, the ongoing difference between a minimum and a living wage), and have generally always decided to tackle the issue in the form of housing subsidies. But we’ve spent thirty years selling off our social housing stock and not replacing it, so today this equates to direct provision of housing for only the most needy, and the state directly subsidising private rents via housing benefit for the rest.

Really, the Prime Minister is right – this is a situation that has to stop. Public money shouldn’t be used to subsidise the mortgages of private landlords, and the state shouldn’t be spending vast sums propping up the arguably unreasonable levels that market rents have risen to in some parts of the country.

But constructing a straw man argument to further kick those at the bottom is simply not the way to do it. What we need is for a Government that is willing to instead look again at policies on directly constructing new homes, and widening the scope of social housing beyond the most needy to those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Sound familiar? This is essentially the function that social housing used to fulfill, and by doing that David Cameron could not only help his fictitious family who work and struggling to afford a home, but he’d also create a few jobs in the process. Tell me we don’t need those right now?

Telly Savalas looks at Birmingham

This is pretty fun(ny), not least for pointing out how absolutely crazy some of the attitudes to urban design/planning were in the past. An elevated dual carriageway running over a marketplace is a good thing?

I grew up in the south of England, albeit in an old market town, so whilst the New Towns weren’t a stranger to me they always felt a little odd in comparison to what I knew. Why was everything so far apart? Why were the roads always so huge and difficult to walk across?

This was only further exasperated after I spent a number of years living in inner London, when I found myself travelling through Stevenage one weekend whilst en route to a music festival. I arrived at the train station and realised I needed some cash. The machines in the station were both out of order, so I followed the signs to the “town centre”, ended up walking down this really long skybridge that took me out of the station and over a dual carriageway, and upon leaving this I was  deposited in the middle of a pretty glum and run down marketplace. It then took me a further couple of minutes to locate a cashpoint, which was in something approaching a bus station. I never did find anything resembling a proper high street.

Sometimes I can’t help but think  everyone in the 1950s and 1960s pictured the future as a magical land where everyone drove their hover ferraris down the dual carriageways under forever-blazing sunshine. Given you can find a naysayer for pretty much anything these days, where were the people shouting about bigger roads just breeding more traffic?

Still, I’ll let Mr Savalas off here because, (a) he’s Kojak, come on, and (b) how excited he sounds when he exclaims his love of BRITISH PUBS!

Everything you ever wanted to know about this Government’s attitude towards housing

There have been two interesting pieces of news this week, both concerning absolutely flagrant landlord abuses in east London. But, beyond that, they also illustrate the current Government’s attitudes towards private rental housing and the culture that surrounds it today.

Firstly, from the BBC, a piece about landlords issuing eviction notices – sometimes illegally – to tenants that live in the vicinity of the Olympic Park so they can lease them on short-term deals to tourists during the Games. Generally speaking, a  landlord is required to give you two months notice if they wish to reclaim their property. It’s early May, so notices issued now would see the properties clear by the start of July – perfect for the globe-trotting super tourist who fancies a nice break in London to take in both the city and the Games. Um, if they even exist.

So, we have people losing their homes so that landlords can make potentially a large amount of profit in a short space of time. Predictably, the article also reports that some landlords are trying to get their tenants out in a much shorter period, which is illegal. The response of Government?

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said: “Landlords should be under no doubt that it is a criminal offence for them to evict a tenant without giving proper notice, and that anyone found guilty of doing this – or of harassing a tenant – could lead to a custodial sentence of up to two years.”

Lovely. Nothing about how evicting people from their homes for such spurious reasons is maybe a little morally questionable? Nope. Nothing about how it generally benefits landlords, neighbourhoods and cities as a whole to have long-term tenants who feel secure in their homes? Nope. Just something about how, if you must kick people out of their homes to satisfying an alarmingly short-termist desire to profit-gouge, you should at least do it legally.

Moving on, a wonderfully soul-destroying piece in The Guardian about overcrowding in Newham, where apparently the latest trend in crowdsourced urban regeneration amongst landlords is to convert garages and sheds into residences, usually because the property they’re attached to is already filled to bursting point. Predictably, this seems to mostly affect vulnerable, often immigrant communities, people who are more likely struggle with the documentation (bank statements, credit history, references) needed for a legitimate tenancy.

Never fear, though because once again Grant Shapps and his team have leapt straight into action.

On 30 April, the housing minister, Grant Shapps, announced that the government was creating a nationwide “beds in sheds” taskforce, to identify the thousands of sheds and outbuildings being illegally rented out, often to illegal migrants. He said it was “a scandal that these back-garden slums exist to exploit people, many of whom … find themselves trapped into paying extortionate rents to live in these cramped conditions”.

Note the specific mention of “back-garden slums” and it being a “beds in sheds” taskforce. Note the lack of mention about the overcrowding, general slum conditions, and rogue landlords that pretty well signpost the road to this situation. It’s probably worth considering that slums are a bad thing for the wider community, and historically clearing and fixing them has only been done via the public purse.

So, yeah, there we have it. This Government has no problem with landlords kicking you out of your home to make short-term super profits, and they have no problem with slumlords preying on the most vulnerable members of our society. Isn’t that nice?