Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Disabled loos, baby changing and the needs of toddlers

Like many others in London on Saturday, we took our kids into central London to enjoy what might be the last sunshine of this year on what turned out to be a lovely warm day.  We met a couple of friends who’d been brave enough to babysit for the day for their 6 month old niece.  There was an element of support for them, but also there was a sense of rubbernecking, as we couldn’t quite envisage how a childless couple would cope with a baby for a whole day, her having being separated from her mother.

We’d chosen to go meet in the Euston area, and gradually sauntered off to The British Museum for a browse and a coffee.  Needless to say, it was very busy.  Having negotiated the tiny lift at the front of the building for pushchairs and wheelchairs, we went into the central court, spent some time marvelling at the glass roof and had a coffee before our friends had to start pushing their charge round as she had entered a screaming phase.  They decided to leave, and we followed, stopping only to take Toots to the loo.

There are two toilets on the ground floor of the central court at The British Museum.  Both have steps down to them.  Given how busy it was, I chose not to use the one disabled loo at the top of the stairs, but went downstairs to find the loos crowded and smelly with water all over the floor.  I decided this wasn’t an ideal environment to help a three year old child go to the loo so went to hunt the baby changing facilities.  There was only one of these, and I was disappointed to find that they had no toilet in them.  I resorted to using the disabled toilet, which was also smelly, but had to be okay.

Lots of people have toddlers and many will have to accompany them to the toilet when visiting places.  I have often found that there are baby changing facilities available, but they often do not have toilets (John Lewis and Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street are notable exceptions).  This means that toddlers either have to go in the adult toilets, which are often dirty, crowded, small and inadequate, or use the disabled toilets which are often limited in number, but do at least have a bit of space and privacy to deal with the needs of your young children.

I’m quite surprised that more isn’t said about the needs of parents with toddlers when out visiting places.  Clearly, adults can manage toilets by themselves, and baby changing facilities allow for very young children.  Disabled people are manfully catered for, albeit with a palpable sense of reluctance on the part of most shops that they have to give quite so much floorspace away.  But toddlers are left a little stranded in the middle.  Would it not be better to provide family rooms to allow toddlers and younger kids the ability to meet their needs without feeling somehow compromised?

I complained to The British Museum about the condition of their loos, for which they seemed a little thankful.

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“Get planners off our backs”

David Cameron has a nasty little campaign going on to ‘get the planners of our backs’.  As a chartered town planner, and a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, I have reason to be more than a little aggrieved about this.

Planning seems to get a lot of the bad press and blame when it comes to things that are wrong with the world, and particularly stuff that’s needed to be built.  Throughout my career in planning, I’ve met countless planning professionals who shrug their shoulders at this and get on with their jobs, knowing that they are but one little piece of the jigsaw that creates our towns, cities, buildings and spaces. However, popular myth would have you know that the crap in society where stuff doesn’t work must be the fault of the planners; beautiful things that win awards are either magically created in a vacuum where planners don’t exist, or are solely the philanthropic gestures of the private sector or alchemy of handsome architects dressed in black with designer spectacles.  The fact is that if there is incompetence in planning, then it is no worse than any incompetence in architecture, urban design, engineering or, heaven forbid, politics.  The same is clearly true of competence.

Cameron’s nastiness is borne partly out of misunderstanding, partly out of ideology.  For a start, when he talks about ‘planners’, he means the professionals working in local authorities making decisions on planning applications.  This is but a small minority of town planners working in this country.  The planners who do work in local authorities, making decisions on planning applications, work in a highly charged environment where the will of local politicians is often the determining factor in whether development goes ahead or not.  Very often, poor decisions are not the whim of employed planners, but the whim of locally elected politicians.  This has been demonstrated recently in Richmond, where locally elected councillors have voted to ignore Cameron’s most recent effort to relax the planning regulations, not the planners.  Cameron also fails to recognise that it is local politicians who also approve local planning policy, albeit advised by the planners who are required to write the policy within guidelines set out by the Government.  Planners are not free agents in all this, jumping on the backs of those seeking to develop.

Which brings me to the next significant point.  Ideologically, Cameron believes in the free market to provide for people, believes in entrepreneurism, deregulation and individual expression and creativity.  He essentially believes that people should be allowed to do what they want.  And this is all very well, except that if this were taken to its logical conclusion we’d have uncontrolled anarchy and conflict as everyone sought to impose their will on everyone else.  The planners that Cameron so despises sit in the centre of a network of groups, organisations and individuals with an interest in a development, whether on the side of seeing it go ahead, or on the side of resisting it.  The planners role is to be impartial, look at the facts, the evidence and the interests involved, and make a decision based on that, and the guiding policy.  The planners role is not to allow everything to go ahead, regardless of the consequences.  The harm brought to affected interests in relaxing the planning system is at the heart of the argument of those opposed to relaxation.

Less significant issues here include the fact that ‘planners’ in its fullest sense work across the building professions, being an integral part of teams working with architects, house builders, charities, neighbourhoods, developers and landowners, often pushing for more housing, seeking to release green belts and compromise conservation areas, just as the local authority planners are seeking to protect them.  And in mentioning this, one realises that many of the fantastic things about this country that we value – the protection of listed buildings, conservation areas, beautiful countryside, strong town centres, urban renaissance, the green belt and improving urban design are a result of a solid planning system and planners (and the planning system) placing a value on that on behalf of our society and community.  And let’s not forget that the last time the Tories relaxed planning laws, the gate was opened to out of town retail parks and business parks, perhaps the most damaging development we’ve ever seen.

Cameron’s beef shouldn’t be with the planners.  Cameron’s beef should be with the housing market.  There is plenty of land and planning permissions available to supply housing.  Part of the current problem is that it is not economic for house builders to build houses because of the raised expectation in both land and housing prices.  This raised expectation means that those at the bottom of the market cannot afford housing and therefore don’t enter the housing market.  People elsewhere in the market do not have the ability to move because the market is static, and prices are over inflated.  Affordable housing isn’t being built in sufficient quantities to change this (and the market is poor at providing this anyway).  Cameron’s plan to relax the planning rules to allow bigger extensions appears to allow more space for grown up children to continue living with their parents rather than stepping out into the housing market, and for those established homeowners to expand their homes and stay put rather than move.  How this is going to help anyone is anybody’s guess.  In the meantime, we’ll see unregulated extensions that are cheaply built and taking light and privacy from neighbours, undermining local character and identity and causing unnecessary conflict in neighbourhoods (at a time when the Coalition expects planning to be lead from the neighbourhood level).

Having grown up in the north, listening to the likes of Deacon Blue and The Smiths, having had my free milk stopped at primary school (I won’t forget, Mrs T.) and having always worked as a public sector planner driven by the desire to make society better overall, I was never going to be a Tory but, my word, this lot take the biscuit for crazy ideas and knee jerk, short term stupidity.

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Virgin: Mission Accomplished

I had a very pleasant letter this week from those nice folks at Virgin.  You’ll recall my outrage expressed on these pages a few weeks back following a terrible journey on Virgin Trains between Lancaster and London.  The journey was terminated at Crewe because of an incident further north on the line, and passengers were asked to find other ways of going north.  The journey, which I was making with my three year old daughter, was over three hours late in getting to my destination, and went via Manchester.  It entailed a round trip of seventy miles for my father, who had to pick me up from Preston when it was clearly evident that Virgin didn’t have a plan for getting people north of that point with the time approaching midnight.

The letter I now have is empathetic to our situation and understands our frustrations. It expresses regret and apology.  The letter explains that the line that evening was blocked by the police, who were investigating an incident involving a person with a young child close to the railway line, and that Network Rail were asked to turn off the overhead wires.  The cause was outside of the control of Virgin, which I’d understood, and the letter expresses how Virgin sought to keep disruption to a minimum.  The letter acknowledges that the information available to me on the night was not up to scratch and that this was a failure on their part.

In acknowledging this, and seeking to win back some good will, Virgin reimbursed the full cost of the ticket and the expense incurred in buying food in Manchester by way of a cheque.  They have also offered £30 in rail vouchers to in some way compensate the fuel costs and inconvenience suffered by my father.

This has certainly met, if not exceeded, my expectations of the complaints I made after that night, not least because of the manner in which the letter has been written, and I will be offering my thanks to the writer of the letter.

In the original blog post, I did mention a planned journey by Virgin Trains the following week, and this passed off without incident.  Whilst I have occasionally been unlucky on the route, most journeys are trouble free.  That’s not to say that my views on the comfort and space provided by the Pendolino trains don’t remain, and every journey with them is compromised by this.  I also remain of the view that the network would be better run as a single organisation rather than a fragmented one, whether this be in the public or private sector.  But I’ll put the bigger picture to one side for the moment and celebrate good customer service and a small victory for both sides.

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We humans are dancers (The Killers, KOKO, 12/10/12)

Sandwiched in between their show at the iTunes Festival and a UK arena tour, The Killers swing by KOKO in Camden for an intimate and rather impromptu fan club/competition winners gig to be filmed for a future broadcast on Channel 4.  Whilst the fans get in for free, and are suitably gleeful in their receipt of the band as they march on stage to the swirling lights, pleated gold backdrop and hefty instrumentals at the allotted time of 8pm, all the emphasis appears to be in making The Killers look good for those in tellyland.

So all the regimented organisation the audience has been put through just to get here for the early start is cast aside as those in this glorious venue erupt to the opening bars of first single from the forthcoming album Battle Born, ‘Runaways’.  Its typical Killers, all atmospherics, overblown dramatics and soaring choruses.  And it’s marvellous, if let down a little by the booming bass and Flowers’ voice being lost in the noise.  A further three new songs, including ‘Flesh and Bone’ and ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’, feature in the opening six of an eight song main set, and are well received.  However, there’s little in the way of banter, or interaction between the band members, perhaps cast aside in the interests of efficiency in the time limited set.

Seven songs in, the loudest reception is reserved for a thundering ‘Mr Brightside’, Flowers now energised and audible, pumping his arms and grinning like a Cheshire Cat, owning the stage and taking the adulation.  He looks fit and well for this tour, not unlike a young Tom Cruise, bronzed, young and at ease.  ‘Mr Brightside’ morphs effortlessly into ‘When You Were Young’ to more pounding and arm waving amongst those on the floor – at least amongst those not recording every move on their iPhones – and with that they leave the stage after 40 minutes.  The cries for an encore are very muted, perhaps because we all know they have to contractually  fill the time for telly or perhaps because the folly of the encore has become even more stupid in modern times.  But, despite the quiet amongst these fan club members, The Killers return for ‘Somebody Told Me’ and ‘All The Things That I’ve Done’.  We dance some more, then they leave the stage at 8.55, the lights go up and we shuffle out.

These intimate gigs in the oldest theatres are always the most amazing and incredible.  We’re used to seeing the big bands in the big arenas, lacking in soul, supping our Cokes and munching on bland hot dogs and popcorn.  Seeing The Killers this close, this loud, this confident was a special night, despite the shortcomings associated with the sound and the limits presented by the tv recording.  One not to be forgotten.

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