Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Pedalling a ridiculous argument

The local business association that represents my high street – Green Lanes – and town centre – Palmers Green –  have been very active recently, opposing an investment in Enfield of up to £30m in cycling improvements (the ‘mini-Holland’ scheme) because it MIGHT remove paid for, on-street parking on the high street itself.  Without any obvious basis for the claims or any evidence to back up their opinions, it has launched an aggressive campaign using posters in shops and emails to anyone on their mailing list, and put up a single issue candidate to fight the forthcoming local election.  From my perspective, it appears to be a campaign which has jumped to the extreme end of what might actually happen which and presents it as fact to a public who are unlikely to follow up the claims.

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Mini-Holland objection posters

Costas Georgiou, chairman of the business association, is standing in the local elections as an independent candidate on this single issue.  His claim is that the removal of parking spaces on Green Lanes equates to the removal of shoppers.  Again, there is little evidence from him to support this so far – even I can dispute it, being heavily reliant on the shops in Green Lanes, but never having driven there.  But, because the association is respected and run by local business people, it might be natural to assume that their fears are well founded.  I don’t think they are.

There have already been attempts to set out a more balanced view.  The Palmers Green Community website, for instance, has already posted a riposte to explain some of the finer points of the planning process, which is ongoing.  Even from the Enfield Council website downloads about the mini-Holland bid, one can deduce that the proposals for Green Lanes within Palmers Green are a very small proportion of the overall package of improvements across a Borough that has high levels of pollution from vehicles and significantly high levels of obesity in children and adults alike.  The posters imply that the Palmers Green element is a major part of the proposals; it isn’t.

Palmers Green town centre is not without its problems, but is lucky to be one of only a handful of local centres to have relatively low vacancy rates compared to the national average, a high proportion of independent traders, a station right in the town centre, and good bus routes in both east-west and north-south directions.  It has good quality, relatively dense and varied housing all around it, giving thousands of people easy access to the town centre on foot, by bicycle and by two forms of public transport that operate regular services for around twenty hours a day.  We have three good supermarkets, including one with its own ample free car park.  There is an abundance of places to get a hot drink and a snack.  Commuters criss-cross the town centre on their way to the station and bus stops having parked in the surrounding residential streets and walked through it.  The Census between 2001 and 2011 demonstrates a growing number of households in wards around N13 – over 40% in many wards, and over 30% in most – have no car.  None of these factors point to a desperate need for available on street parking for cars.

Aside from my casual observations, there is evidence to suggest that their claims are unreasonable.  A report by the Association for Town Centre Management and the British Parking Association (2013) remarked that, “trying to find a conclusive link between town centre prosperity and car parking provision is extremely difficult”, largely because of the high number of variables involved in a town centre’s success.  There is simply an insufficient evidence base to draw such a firm conclusion.

Further research suggest that town centres actually benefit from allowing greater access to people on foot and on bicycles, or that a balanced approach to traffic management and parking is preferable to boost the appeal of town centres.  This includes a report written by Living Streets, and a wealth of research over many years by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (like this), the ATCM (like this) and the Design Council.  Friends living in Palmers Green have also found easy and accessible evidence to support the idea that town centres benefit from reducing the impact of cars in town centres, and that increasing walking and cycling only has positive effects (here and here) the former of which also demonstrates that traders tend to over-estimate the reliance they place on customers arriving by car.  Consider, for instance, the reductions in noise and fumes as cars slow down looking for spaces; the potential for conflicts and accidents and the simple fact that cars are rather ugly features that detract from good looking places.

It may well be that the proposals being proposed by Enfield Borough in their current form need some discussion and informed contributions, but for an influential group of people in the town centre to launch such a ham-fisted and unsophisticated campaign of opposition is unfair and unjust, and needs challenging.

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Maria Miller – Her resignation, my (different kind of) resignation

Maria Miller is all over the news today.  For those that don’t have their ears firmly pressed to the ground, Maria Miller is the former Culture Secretary who has, today, resigned from her post in light of recent events in respect of her expenses claimed prior to the changes to the rules governing MPs expenses in 2010 (the claims were made when she was a new MP between 2005 to 2009).  As well as having to pay money back, she was asked to apologise publicly in the house, and many thought that her short apology was rather forced.  After a week of discussion and exaggerated disgust, she has finally fallen on her sword claiming that the debacle was distracting the country from all the good things that the Government is doing (insert own sarcastic tone here if desired).  

This debate has got out of hand and gone off at a rather different tangent from where it started.  It’s become a debate about expenses.  She wasn’t asked to apologise about expenses; she was asked to apologise about her conduct in being obstructive towards the investigations.

I’ve been left with a very odd taste in my mouth following the news coverage today.  Maria Miller has, it seems, been a victim of rather vicious hounding and harassment and – it seems to me – myths, lies and rumours about the circumstances of her case which leave me uncomfortable despite my feelings about the shortcomings of the expenses system that have been discussed in light of Ms Miller’s apology.  It boils down to a few points:

1. Most importantly, given where the debate has gone, she was cleared of making false expenses.  The overpayments were made because she did not reduce the claims as interest rates fell on her mortgage.  The Standards Committee found her conduct obstructive in investigating the claims, but rejected claims that she’d benefited from overpayments.  It was this obstructiveness that was the problem, not the making of false claims.

2. As discussed above, the claims date from the original expenses crisis, and to all intents and purposes is part of that debate, and not a new one.  The possibility of making claims on that scale are much reduced these days, and new MPs – those elected in 2010 – are likely to be much more aware of the damaging consequences of making such claims anyway.  And hopefully the others have learnt…

3. Maria Miller was working on two very important pieces of legislation; gay marriage and press regulation.  The former has now passed into law; the latter is ongoing and, whilst the bill has support politically, it does not have support amongst the press.  It seems to me that this places her in a position that is unlikely to be popular with the press; others might conclude it could make her a likely victim of unfavourable press stories; that the press might gleefully jump on a story that involved someone closely involved in seeking to more tightly regulate the press.  Surely not?

4. She was asked to pay back around £5,000.  Many people have asked the question as to why she shouldn’t pay back ‘the full £45,000′ that she was found to have falsely claimed.  The answer to this is that she seemingly produced late evidence to prove that the remainder was a legitimate claim under the rules and that she did, in fact, pay back everything that was overpaid.

I’m no apologist for MPs expenses but, on the whole I do admire MPs and our political system.  I am thankful I do not live in, say, Italy, Russia or Ukraine.  It seems to me that MPs should be entering the profession with a desire to do something for the public good primarily at a local level, but contributing to the betterment of the country as a whole.  I believe that most politicians have this desire.  They are relatively well paid in carrying out this duty, and in my experience of dealing with MPs I have always left with the impression that the work is long and difficult and brings many compromises.  I also believe that MPs should be compensated for the expense involved in travelling to London from distant constituencies and for stays away from their family home in alternative accommodation.  I don’t think this should be extended beyond the sort of cost that a commuter living in Brighton might pay – without subsidy – to work in London over the course of a 30 year career, for instance, so I recognise that it’s a difficult balance to make.  Funding mortgages is especially difficult when the purchase of a house has, historically, been very profitable and is especially so in London.  There are no doubt issues with expenses, and very complex arguments and counter arguments to be had.  The general public is right to demand transparency and a more palatable system.

But none of this seems to resolve the fact that I think Maria Miller’s initial obstructiveness to what should have been a much more straightforward matter has drawn out a process which has, in the last week, spiralled madly out of control and concluded with her resignation.  Utter madness.  I hope we’re all much happier.

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Seven-a-day man

You might have seen in the media recently some research that suggests that, rather than aiming for five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, we ought to be targeting seven or more.  I’m naturally cautious of health related stories, particular as I’m heightened to them at the moment because I’m in the middle of Ben Goldacre’s rant, ‘Bad Science‘ but also because a lot of media stories about health are populist nonsense seeking to grab out attention for a nanosecond, and a good old fashioned scare story normally does the trick.

However, I’m inclined to think that a higher target for fruit and vegetables each day is a good thing.  Most of the impartial, objective advice to living long and healthy seems to revolve around eating fruit and vegetables in combination with not smoking, doing exercise, avoiding to much drink and generally being a bit of a goody two shoes.  So raising the target should have a side effect of raising the game of those on two or three pieces of fruit and veg a day just through exasperated guilt.

One of those might be Rosie Millard, who wrote – exasperatedly – about all this fruit and veg she now has to eat.  Now, Rosie was a charming screen presence as BBC Arts correspondent in the early noughties and continues to write now, and I’m sure she’s a lovely person.  But her barren breakfast, reluctant lunchtime apple, and evening fish fingers needs some work.

I’m no angel when it comes to food.  I’m a fish eating vegetarian (or what vegetarians would call an ‘omnivore’) who doesn’t like many vegetables.  I am prone to fish and chips once a week if I can get away with it, and my exercise routine could be written on the back of a stamp without a pen.  But I don’t struggle to get at least five portions (usually more) of fruit and veg a day because I’ve found what I like and I try to substitute bad snacks – crisps, chocolate, cake – with better snacks.  Here’s a sample.

My breakfast usually consists of muesli.  I highly recommend the award winning stuff from Lidl. It’s by far the best I’ve had and is full of crunchy nuts, raisins and dried fruit.  I always add raspberries and blueberries, which I feel deprived of without.  I always make a sandwich for work; whether it’s fish or cheese, I normally add some kind of salad – rocket, lettuce, tomatoes.  I will take two pieces of fruit – normally a Pink Lady apple (sweet, crisp, crunchy) and a banana and will buy some grapes or mango at lunch along with a bottle of beetroot juice (although I accept that fruit juices are not as good as fresh fruit).

My wife and I don’t buy pre-prepared meals.  We always try to make something if we can (and Rosie, we have kids aged 4 and 2 who will eat with us most of the time).  This will revolve around pasta with a sauce, or risotto, stir fry, a pizza (base and sauce all prepared fresh) or a curry.  Once you have these, fitting three of four veg into them is a doddle, anything from onion, pepper and carrot to peas, spinach and courgette.  We use frozen peas and spinach to add to most hot dishes or into the pasta water while the pasta boils.  It’s really easy.  We do have sausage and chips now and again, but we’ll cut the chips from potatoes rather than reaching for a bag of frozen chips and steam some broccoli florets to go with it.  It really is no hassle at all; you can involve the kids in making it, they get used to eating fresh food and we share meals together.

Eating fruit and veg is essential for a good healthy life but more than that it helps kids learn, it brings families together and it avoids having to pay lots of money on processed food.  And far from being difficult or virtuous, it’s straightforward and time can be made for it.  Does that help, Rosie?

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Hard working person bingo-ing mad

beer and bingoI’ve been irritated for some time about the constant reference amongst Coalition politicians to ‘hard-working people’.   There’s been something quite forced and contrived about it.  It’s as though they’re being given bonuses on the back of mentioning it.  Even Boris has the regional version on repeat.  It’s stuck very stubbornly.  Unlike ‘the Big Society’ which slipped away very quickly.

It hadn’t occurred to me until yesterday to really question what they mean by ‘hard-working people’.  In a sense, I prefer the Big Society.  At least there’s a sense of togetherness about it.  Constant reference to help for ‘hard-working people’ has the implicit idea that there’s a group of people who aren’t hard working who don’t deserve any support.  Referring to hard-working people is divisive.  It’s us against them.  And that’s assuming that I’m classified as a hard working person.  I’m not sure about this, as I’ve not seen a definition.

In my mind, the truth of the matter has become a little clearer with the widespread circulation by the Conservatives of their charming little poster following on from the Budget (above).  It’s the word ‘they’ that really grates.  Not only is it patronising (that means talking down to people, George) but it also indicates that the politicians themselves – or at least the Conservatives – don’t fall into the definition of hard-working people.

So, what we now know is that there are hard working people (who like beer and bingo); there are people who don’t work hard (who deserve to be ignored), and there’s the political elite and their pals (who don’t enjoy beer and bingo).  The only one of those I fit into is people who don’t work hard, as I’m partial to beer, but not bingo, so excluding me from the other two.

I’m a bit frustrated by this, as I think I do work hard.  So perhaps this brings us no nearer a definition of hard-working people.  How is it being defined?  Is it defined by the number of hours we have to work?  By the nature of the work?  By how much they we earn?  By how socially valuable the work is?  By how economically important it is?  Does it include work that isn’t paid, such as caring for a sick or disabled relative or friend, or parents who choose not to do paid work because they value time with their children?  Does it only refer to work that is ‘hard’; and is it physically hard work or emotionally hard work, or intellectually hard work?  And who’s defining ‘hard’ if it is?

Is it retrospective, so applicable to people who have worked hard in some way but – at this moment – can’t because of some other reason?  Maybe, like me, they were working hard for, say, a quango that was abolished, and are now struggling to find other work?  Does it apply to people who aren’t hard working right now but are aspirational strivers who want to make and do and could, with a bit of help, be hard workers?  Do you see the problem here?  And I’m not getting any closer.

Can anyone help me out here?

HOUSE!  Damn, there goes my secret.

 

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Only in England

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I took the day off work today to revisit the ‘Only in England’ exhibition at the Science Museum in London today.  The exhibition draws to a close this weekend having been on since last September.  I visited last November and, despite having had two hours in the gallery back then, I felt it wasn’t enough.

The exhibition was a joint show with photos by Martin Parr and Tony Ray-Jones.  I was aware of Martin Parr, having bought his, ‘Think of England’ publication some time ago.  I bought it at a time that I was becoming aware of street photography as a genre – spontaneous photos taken of everyday situations with the subjects often unaware that they’re the subject of the picture.  Martin Parr’s shots, particularly in that collection, emphasise the everyday in British society; the traditions, the conventions, the gatherings, the situations, the people, and he’s continually drawn to the British seaside as a source of inspiration and saturated technicolour.  It seems inevitable as a northern lad brought up by the sea, who enjoys the wonderful sadness evident in English seaside resorts, that his aesthetic would appeal to me, particularly having been subconsciously been brought up on a diet of Oscar Marzaroli.

I knew nothing of Tony Ray-Jones, but he was an inspiration to Martin Parr, and part of the point of the show was to compare the style of each, particularly in Parr’s earliest work, ‘The Non-Conformists’, in 1970s Yorkshire. However, Ray-Jones died, aged 30, in 1972 of leukaemia at a point in his career when he was being recognised as a new and unique talent.  Parr had been asked to look through his legacy and bring to the world unseen pictures alongside his iconic images.  The focus of these shots was a period at the end of the 1960s when Ray-Jones spent a lot of time at the British seaside, including in Morecambe, my home town.

I’d expected the exhibition to be of interest, but many of the shots – by both photographers – are stunning.  All in black and white, and all taken from an age long gone, they are evocative, melancholic, humorous and revealing, often in a single picture.  Ray-Jones’ particular talent was to find a subject for a picture and place it in the middle of the scene and then gradually take the viewer to the edges of the shots where other stories would exist.  The shots open up, evoke tales, bring questions to the observer.  They are so well composed that they act like films as they enter your mind.  This one is typical – see the boy and the dog and then see all around them.  There’s so much going on, caught expertly in a moment.  And without the benefit of digital cameras.  It’s true genius and artistry.

Parr’s pictures were focused around life in Hebden Bridge circa 1977 – street parties, football games, church gatherings, workers in sad looking factories, kids playing in the street, dogs running free, old ladies in hats and horn-rimmed glasses drinking tea in huddles.  I found myself thinking of my grandparents and being reminder of my own experience of the Silver Jubilee, of a time before we were attached to phones and social media and demanded constant entertainment and all our information RIGHT NOW..

But, as Parr himself observes, we cannot become hostages to nostalgia.  As we look back and believe what is lost was better (it wasn’t) the next generation will look back at our pictures and be envious too.

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Sometimes, likes don’t help

I’m a regular user of Facebook – I’m in it every day.  I enjoy reading up on old school friends that I’d otherwise have no contact with.  I enjoy reading about people I really care about and keeping up with them even when I’m a long way from them, and I like being able to share my things with family and friends really easily.  It’s fun to have a FB business page because I do get to interact with actual customers who I’ve met and who do genuinely like what I do.   Crikey, I even promote my random rants on it.

But it’s an uneasy relationship because at its core, it’s really shallow.  Nothing is easier than writing a quick remark, ticking a box, clicking a link and saying hello and  - because nothing is easier – I wonder about the sincerity of it.  And, as a user, I fall into that trap all the time.

I do take some comfort in the fact that I can acknowledge that and fight against it to some extent.  But lots of people don’t seem to.  Every day, someone caught in my Facebook universe will post or share some inane picture that promises happiness if I ‘share’ it, or looks to garner support for some charity or cause if I ‘like’ it.  I try to resist this because I can’t really see the point of liking a campaign or a product (I still regret ‘liking’ Ronseal; ever since being peppered with updates about creosote) or sharing a picture just because I know someone with, say, cancer.  What does anyone gain from a ‘like’ or a ‘share’ like this?

As you may well know, I’ve been trying for a couple of years to get a greetings card business off the ground using my own photos.  On the whole, I’ve felt that it’s had some successes, but it’s not enough to stop working somewhere else.  Through word of mouth, local business has been good, and I really appreciate those who come to my business FB page and give me support and help and advice and encouragement (and I get quite a lot).  But my experience is that Facebook adverts get you likes, but not sales.  One day I had a FB message from some woman in America I’d never heard of before who ‘liked’ my page.  She asked me to ‘like’ hers.  I didn’t like her product, it had nothing to do with my product, I didn’t know her and didn’t know what she stood for, so I told her that I wouldn’t ‘like’ her page and I didn’t need hers.  It was, perhaps, a bit rude, but it was honest.  How on earth would I benefit from her ‘like’, and how would she benefit from mine?  She was surprised by my attitude, so for her it was just about numbers and looking popular.  I can’t see the point of this superficiality.

It hit home again today as I flicked through The Independent newspaper.  I came across an advert for Crisis Relief Singapore that encapsulates how I feel about it.  You can read about it here.  It doesn’t need any explanation.

This evening, dipping into my news feed, I had a cute photo of a raccoon – like me, like me!  It was an ad from the Anti-Fur Campaign – of which country, it wasn’t clear.  They’d achieved 115,000 likes and were looking for 1 million.  Did I ‘like’ it?  No..what is the point?

What I did do was find out more about the charity promoting it – they’re based in Greensboro NC – and they oppose the wearing of fur and leather.  They’re especially interested in the fur trade in China.  You can actually become a member of their cause if you like, or buy stuff in their shop.  If you really want to care, you could stop wearing fur, or leather shoes (or jackets, or skirts…).  But I suspect most people just ‘like’ it and move on.

Sometimes, likes don’t help. If you care about something, put your hand in your pocket or go out and help, rather than clicking a mouse at your desk. I suspect whoever is asking for your ‘like’ would prefer your cash and your genuine interest.  That includes supporting brilliant greeting card designers, by the way (so why not buy and send a birthday card, and not just comment on a FB wall when you’re prompted…).

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Candy Crushed

I have one of the old Nintendo DS consoles, the hand held ones that predate the 3DS model.  I’ve only ever really played two games on it – FIFA08 and FIFA11.  I’d upgrade again if they still made it for the DS, but they don’t.  I know that I’ve been playing these two games for about seven years; I recall playing on a train back from Hull when I worked with CABE.  I enjoy it because I understand the principles of football, so only had to master the controls and it offers a mild challenge in little chunks of four or five minutes.  I had two or three games tonight whilst I watched the kids go the sleep.  I don’t think I’m ever going to get bored of playing it.

I feel the same about Candy Crush Saga, the maddeningly addictive game that thousands of commuters in London seem to be playing during every trip they make.  For the uninitiated – catch up, grandad – it involves moving little coloured sweets into lines to achieve an objective like delivering ingredients, getting rid of jelly or achieving a score in a certain amount of moves.  Complete a game and you move to the next level, where a slightly different challenge awaits; play long enough and you start to experience new obstacles – like sweet bombs and the maddening chocolate and gather treats like the colour bomb and the lollipop hammer.

Like my Nintendo, there is an beautiful simplicity to Candy Crush, which clearly resonates with thousands of other people too.  It’s easy to play and it’s non-discrimatory.  You see progress.  Even when a level is hard to escape, there’s always the feeling that it can be conquered.  It’s just the perfect combination of skill, luck and judgement in short games with decent rewards; it’s easy to learn and it provides water cooler conversation.

Or so I thought.  In the wake of Stuart Heritage’s article in The Guardian earlier this week, and after what seems like an eternity trying to crack level 147 (which I eventually did), I now find myself – for the first time – fighting a level that I don’t think I can get past.  Level 149 is a devious combination of jelly, chocolate and the search for the most elusive sweet combination, the double wrapped.  Worse of all, it’s a level where you can see very early on if you’re not going to make it, but it makes you play on in pain and desperation.  Games can be over in this way very quickly.  I’ve been toiling all week without even getting close.  

And before, I was optimistic and I’d persevere.  I thought that there was some skill and judgement and it was worthwhile.  But now, it’s driving me crazy, I appreciate that – actually – it’s all about luck and the configuration of your opening board; it’s turning me off and I’ve realised that I’m not gaining any worthwhile skills and not benefiting from any of the enjoyment I thought I was getting before.  I’ve realised that rather than being all cerebral, with it and cool, arranging little sweets in every waking moment – and getting annoyed about it – is a little bit twattish.  

I think my time with Candy Crush is over.

 

 

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Bad things come in threes

Further evidence of the decline of civilisation arrived in three cheery chunks this week.  You have to understand that it’s only a decline in my male, blinkered, ageing, slightly pessimistic terms, but I’m extrapolating that out to many other male, blinkered, ageing and slightly pessimistic people who are likely to view such dim news with equal dismay.

Firstly, the enormous palace of joy that was 150 Oxford Street has closed down.  There was once a time back – as people of my age refer – ‘in the day’ when a long trip from the provinces to the capital of the country was made even more worthwhile by the possibility of a few precious minutes in the worlds biggest record store.  I refer, of course, to HMV.  The sprawling wonder of three floors of imports, rarities, racks of records by exotic sounding bands, live performances, guest signings, staff recommendations and the head-thumping confusion brought on by not remembering in its entirety the list of stuff you were going to look for is no more.  Some will point to the new HMV at 363 Oxford Street but I’ve been there and it’s an embarrassment in comparison.  I’ve written about HMV and it’s place in my psyche before, so I shalln’t moan about it again here (and I’m forgetting that young people don’t make day trips to London from the provinces any more, as they usually have to stay as it’s the only place where work exists).

Secondly, and in related news, I had a lovely day off work on Tuesday for various reasons but found myself on Tottenham Court Road with time to kill.  Whilst my wife wandered off to Liberty, I said I’d go and browse in Fopp on Gower Street.  I know that Fopp is essentially HMV with a different badge but it has become a reliable little place to go where music is prioritised, classic albums are sold at a reasonable price and new stuff – and not just Top 40 fodder – is readily available for sale.  They take time and effort to provide recommendations and the stores are generally cosy and well frequented.  Of course, in this cynical world, I arrived to find the branch had closed 11 days ago (albeit because host store Waterstones wanted its space back, but all the same a light has gone out).

Third, and still on the subject of music and its importance to me (hey, it’s my blog, and I can be selfish and pretend the world revolves around me), the BBC website today speculated on the demise of the iPod.  As it happens, I’m in the market for a new iPod as – in a Christmas washing up related incident – I shorted mine out .  For me, an iPod is pretty essential.  It has a reliable battery, plenty of storage space to allow me to have whatever music I want at my fingertips without being reliant on a download or a wifi connection and space for podcasts.  In looking for a replacement, I’ve examined other models – the nano, the shuffle and the iTouch, but all have too little memory thus allowing too little choice, the touch is basically an iPhone without call making capacity, the shuffle allows no control at all and the iPhone carries so many apps and photos that anything else is sidelined.  It has to be an iPod Classic (and they used to do a handy 80GB model, but now only a 160MB model, so having a big gap in memory capabilities in Apple models).  But sadly, I’m in the minority again and it seems even when it comes to recent technology I’m a Luddite.

I do wonder where it’s all going.  With the demise of the high street – which I also seem to be on my own about – and the loss of all the things I actually enjoy from modern life, I wonder where everyone else gets their entertainment from.  I’m sure it can’t be the god-awful selection of TV we have (something else that’s deteriorated with the advent of choice) and it seems people don’t want to read, or listen to music or go out and shop or play in the street, or send a card or give their kids a day out beyond the interior of a McDonalds or Starbucks.

Well I did get some insight from Stylist magazine on the journey home this evening – a magazine so vital that people can’t be arsed to carry it off a train; a magazine so absolutely essential it has to tell women what to wear with hiking boots (it demands ‘key wardrobe decisions’, fact fans).  This, according to Stylist, is what we’re all doing.  This is what we fought for; this is what all those time saving devices that gave us all that free time have lead us to.  This is why the things I enjoy are being sacrificed.  Welcome to the future.  Goodbye World.

 

 

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Milton Keynes – I like it. Honest.

In Milton Keynes, the seats light up.

It took me a very long time to like Milton Keynes. I almost wrote ‘love’ then, but I thought better of it. I do like it, but I don’t love it. I love Krakow for the town square and rambling central streets; I love San Francisco for the bay and for retro coffee shops; I love London for the feeling that anything could happen at any moment to make the day memorable. I really can’t think of anything I love Milton Keynes for; it wouldn’t be any of those things I just mentioned though, obviously.

Milton Keynes is geometric.  Amazon is based there.  It has concrete cows. It’s completely dominated by cars, and pedestrians are pushed under subways. It all looks identical when you’re in the centre, and out on the roads, you’ll see cut grass road verges but no houses. You’ll get lost in the shopping centre because it’s very confusing. It takes years of practise to even cope with that. Don’t cycle anywhere because it’s totally indecipherable. Even though they started with a clean bit of paper, the town centre is a long uphill walk from the station.  Even the name, Milton Keynes, has nothing to do with anyone worthy, like Milton or, er, Keynes.

But despite all that, I still like it. I first went to Milton Keynes in 1993. I’d passed through it on the train before then, which is often the best way to see new towns. But, in 1993, I had to get off. It was a hot day in July, and I was whisked from the station, along H6 (did I mention all the major roads are ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ and numbered) to one of the villages right on the edge that’s yet to be engulfed by the city. Give it time.

And over the next 12 years, I went back, and went back, and went back – not, it has to be said, by choice. I gradually realised that – despite the utter confusion I felt for about seven of those years; despite the lack of a coherent bus service; despite the theatre being parked 400 metres across a windswept car park from the shops; despite having a town centre park so divorced from the town centre I never ventured in it, despite having a phoney football team that nods to south London (and is actually in Bletchley) and despite the silly hippy names for many of the roads – people like living there.

On the whole, Milton Keynes – MK if you want to be cool (ish) – is thoroughly charming, very clean, has very little congestion despite all the cars, has a great Council and has pretty much everything you could ever want or need in it or near it. People flock there and stay there. It’s utterly bland and totally unchallenging and therein lies its charm, because it at least had a damn good shot at being neither. It’s like a slightly tipsy, untrendy dad, showing you pictures of how it used to be in the seventies and how it had a long beard and was centre of attention and had gyro-copters flying round. And now here it is, all cords and slippers and dozing off in front of the telly at 9.30.

And really, despite how it sounds, I really like Milton Keynes.

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Is the high street doomed?

Yesterday (January 2, 2014), two local businesses in the southern part of the London Borough of Enfield announced that they would be closing this month.  The businesses have much in common – they are both independent stores, they both sell goods for the home or for celebration (gifts and cards), both have only been trading for five years or less and both are run and managed by outstanding young, female entrepreneurs who have collected multiple awards during their trading period.  The announcements lead to an outpouring of sadness, disappointment and frustration on social media that such innovative and unique shops are disappearing from their respective town centres.  The shops in question are Ruby Blu in Southgate and Papylon in Winchmore Hill.

I’m in an interesting position here to assess this rather depressing turn of events.  For one thing, both of these shops have supported my own venture, London Letters, by taking and selling my greeting cards.  I know that both shops are supportive of local artists and manufacturers where they are able, and are active in their communities.  As a consumer, I have supported both shops by buying from them.  And now, as I’ve recently gone back into the town planning, I find myself collating ideas together to help my employer comment on ways to ‘create a vibrant town centre moving beyond a traditional offer’ as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge.

The Red Tape Challenge was launched by the Cabinet Office in April 2011.  It addresses the idea that, whilst some regulation is necessary and beneficial, over the years it – and the ‘inspection and bureaucratic regimes’ that go alongside it – have ‘piled up and up’.  The Government believes that unnecessary regulation has constrained business, damaged the economy and discouraged people from getting involved in their communities.  It wants to remove regulation and both allow freedom and show trust to enable people to, ‘do the right thing’.

It’s difficult to tell how much the idea has set the world alight – the official Twitter feed last posted in August 2013 to its 753 followers and the website states that the process will last until April 2013, though it’s still very much open today.  The current call for evidence concerns the ‘regulatory burden’ affecting town centres. 

I wondered whether there was any mileage in looking at the response on social media to the announcement of the closure of these two shops that might help with my efforts to understand where the regulatory burdens might actually be that could feed into my response.  There are limitations in doing this – it’s unscientific, subjective and I don’t actually know the real reasons for these shops closing – but it might provide pointers that give an indication of the underlying problems that a cross section of society sees with town centres and the smaller, independent traders trying to exist on the high street.

It came as no real surprise to me that regulation barely features as a cited problem facing traders on the high street.  Even if it was, I’m not convinced that fiddling with it would help town centres.  In fact, I don’t even think that the Government is fully appreciative of the range of problems facing town centres to suggest that reducing regulation is one way to save them. 

Significant concerns expressed related to the state of the economy and competition from the larger high street retailers and operators. Town centres need attractions to bring people into them – a diverse offer and a safe environment with decent transport and available parking is part of that.  Whilst retail parks and out of centre shopping centres continue to offer this, town centres have failed to keep pace.  This is about infrastructure– the size and shape of retail units, the clean and dry environment, the way that parking is managed and charged for.  It’s also partly down to those large companies that own and manage retail parks and shopping centres, pitted against the public authorities that are trying to make town centres attractive with meagre resources and means available to them and diverse ownerships and interests to manage compared with the more straightforward task faced at purpose built shopping centres. 

Clearly people feel that rising food, energy, fuel and housing prices against a backdrop of relative decrease in wages puts pressure on household budgets. Larger companies have economies of scale and can offer cheaper goods, bought in bulk.  Supermarkets can offer a wide range of food and non-food goods and can also offer these online because people know who they are and what they offer.  New, unknown companies will find it hard to compete online against well-known brands.  Further, those supermarkets have infiltrated the high street in a micro form, making it more difficult for the diversity needed in individual town centres to flourish.  At a time of austerity, people need to find the basics quickly and easily and at a good price; many people find they are less time-rich than they were and that there’s not the time to browse the local shops and support the independents.  Needs must.

Of course, the internet offers a realistic alternative to the high street.  Many people are internet savvy and the internet allows easy comparison of prices and an increasing reliability in terms of delivery and quality.  The high street appears to be increasingly left with those businesses that can’t operate online – hair salons, nail bars, coffee shops, estate agents – and those preying on the less well-off elements of society – charity shops, betting shops and money lenders where, ironically, a relaxation of regulation has made it easier to set them up.  It means that the physical environment for independent stores and competitive attractors in town centres is constrained by the public purse and by the nature of businesses willing to take space on the traditional high street.

Many of the comments received also focus on the high rents, utility charges and business rates faced by smaller traders, and on the lack of support available to start-up businesses to allow them to set up and then flourish on the high street.  They comment on how town centre parking is either too strictly enforced or regulated by Councils who are perceived to see the motorist as an easy revenue stream, or too sparse to warrant a trip to it for fear of being unable to park, something which is also seen to affect any passing trade.

All of these and more could be factors in the closure of these two shops.  What was clear is that there is a sizeable proportion of the population who do value the high street as a place to shop, meet and provide a focus for their community, and ideas for improving this were also discussed.  These included stronger networks between businesses, business owners and their communities (including schools) which could act as a basis for mutual support; the possibility of shorter or rolling leases for town centre units and the splitting up of larger units for a number of different traders which might offer community functions as well as retail and commercial space (but may be tripped up by uncooperative landlords), and better public transport, which addresses some of the problems associated with parking costs and parking spaces.

What is clear is that the solution for town centres is going to be hard – if not impossible – to find, and that tweaks to regulation are certainly not the answer alone.

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