Saturday, 19 April 2014

An Atheist at Easter

Unfairly, I question my wife’s religion. Born a Catholic, an alumnus of Sacred Heart and the Oratory, for some reason I assume her faith a nostalgic affectation, a dedication to her upbringing rather than a true commitment to a calling.

This is more a reflection of my atheistic scepticism than her actual faith. My wife is a regular church goer; it is a friendly, welcoming place just around the corner from our house. She takes our daughter. When the music starts our little girl waves her arms with joy; other members of the congregation wave at her, play with her, pull faces to make her smile. She giggles.

Too often these days, atheism carries something a fundamentalist tag; perhaps the intemperate Richard Dawkins is to blame. But atheists can actually enjoy church. The music can be uplifting – as long as there is no Graham Kendrick – and real strength can be found community. Few arenas of contemporary public life offer such enthusiastic friendship.

When I am at church, it’s easy to avoid the nonsense. Ears closed, attention diverted, reading the publishing details of the hymn book or prayer book. But our daughter is entertained by the company and the noise. The message itself, of course, may well be lost..

But does that matter? The quality of the music is my major concern with the church; decent hymns, sung with enthusiasm, and a choral anthem, can be a unifying joy. Meanwhile, the priest, the lay preachers, the congregation – perhaps tedious to my ears – are entirely harmless. But together, they all help to begin a cultural and spiritual history for our daughter, one she can learn from, argue with and develop.

On Easter Sunday, I'll be roasting lamb and chopping potatoes, but, despite my atheism, I'll be pleased our daughter will be with her wider family and enjoying the love, attention, community and spiritual education that a church can offer.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Five problems London's next mayor will inherit

In just over two years, London is highly likely to have a new mayor. The Boris Johnson show - arch clown, Latin performer, the mayor of the Olympics - could well have drawn to an end. The blond one insists he is not standing again and if that were to be the case, though many doubt his promises, it would result in the most open, unpredictable London mayoral election since the position was established.

Boris has not been a bad mayor. His great talent is championing the capital, most vividly demonstrated before and during the London Olympics. It is hard to imagine any other British politician so effectively, and eccentrically, exhorting the crowds to enjoy themselves. He has also, for the most part, remained assuredly independent, not dogmatically pursuing a Conservative agenda, a tacit acknowledgement that his support derives far more from his personality than from his party's politics.

But, he has been a surprisingly unambitious mayor. Much of Boris’ creations have been built upon the legacy left by Ken Livingstone and his own legacy relies too heavily on curious vanity projects and follies; fun while they last but ultimately ephemeral and unsatisfactory. Boris' Vision 2020 is a remarkable document in its vapidity, and the next mayor, he or she, Tory or Labour (sorry, the Lib Dems won't win) will inherit several high profile, potentially politically awkward issues. Here are just five of them:

The Cable Car

Boris was very proud when the cable car – or the Emirates Air Line as it is officially called – opened in June 2012, ahead of the Olympics. It was, he said enthusiastically in this interview, ‘a fantastic deal for the taxpayer’ with much of the £60million cost covered by sponsorship and the European Union:

‘We’ve got a wonderful new way of getting over the river… at virtually no cost to the taxpayer….. The real advantage of it is that it is an important addition to our transport network, it’s as good as a bus route with 30 buses on it… it’s a viable addition to people's commuter route’.

And certainly, during the Olympics it was a notable success with more than 20,000 trips made per day but since then it has been nothing short of an embarrassment for the mayor. Far from being the equivalent of a bus route with 30 full buses, it emerged in December that just four passengers were using the service regularly enough to qualify for discounted prices. 

It wasn't a good deal for the taxpayer either as it later emerged Transport for London paid £15.5million towards construction with a further £6million for operational costs.

The abject failure of the cable car to attract passengers is hitting Transport for London's finances - not hugely, but enough not to be ignored. Mayorwatch reported revenue from tickets last year was 35 per cent lower than forecast. While Emirates has a ten year sponsorship deal for the cable car, it clearly isn't a 'viable addition' to commuter routes and the next mayor is likely to try and sell it, hoping someone in the private sector can run it successfully as a tourist attraction.

The Boris Bus

The New Bus for London (NB4L), or the Boris Bus, is perhaps the current mayor’s greatest demonstration of his vanity. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, he of Olympic cauldron fame (and also the considerably less successful B of the Bang), the NB4L is an enormously expensive bus especially notable for its many design flaws.

B of the Bang, in its brief prime

As something of a nostalgic public transport enthusiast, in some ways I applauded the initial aim of creating a successor for the Routemaster, to add character, quirk and identity to London’s streets, but this entire project has been a tale of excessive folly.
From the start, the selection of Heatherwick as designer was odd considering he is not a bus engineer. It can be argued that the resulting vehicle has one staircase too many (two) - the desire to maintain a hop off/hop on capacity being mainly to blame for this. The back staircase works perfectly well during the day but at night, when the rear doors are closed, the central staircase is vital as passengers board and alight.
Last summer, the overheating on the bus, particularly on the top deck, promoted hundreds of complaints. The bus relies on air conditioning as the windows don’t open, but the system is clearly inadequate and several blogs and papers reported temperatures soaring above 37 degrees last summer. It was later claimed that the problem had been ’fixed’ but temperatures have still been measured over a stifling 32 degrees.
Then there is the little matter of cost. At £354,500 per bus - on top of the £11.4m development costs - they are substantially more costly than a conventional double decker bus which has a price tag of about £190,000 each. And then there is the additional cost of conductors, with an estimated annual amount of £60,000 each.
Ah yes, the conductor. They are not actually conductors but ’Passenger Assistants’ and their primary role is not ticket collection but, according to a job description, ’to travel the length of the route and ensure that passengers board and alight the bus safely’. They are, in fact, merely responsible for ’encouraging passengers’ to pay for their journey.
The next mayor will have 600 of these vehicles. Clearly, the buses cannot simply be scrapped, that would just add even more cost. But, we can expect the conductors to vanish - though the fare dodging problems that afflicted Ken Livingstone’s bendy buses are likely to return - and the notion of a hop on/hop off bus in London will be consigned to history. And gradually, over years, the NB4L too will be phased out from our streets.
 A crashed Boris Bus near Hyde Park corner, causing problems, much like the new bus

The Boris Bike

In many respects this has been one of Boris' great successes; more people are cycling than ever before, a network of these familiar hire bikes is well established across large parts of the city - the south east of London remains a glaring exception - and, unlike the cable car, the system genuinely does add another 'viable' commuter choice. It was not Boris' idea, of course, but he was responsible for its implementation. Their Barclays blue livery is a familiar sight across central London and the scheme has expanded, going further west, and continuing to prove a hit.

Nevertheless, it is still beset with problems. Barclays is ending its sponsorship in 2015, three years earlier than expected and the scheme is proving costly. A report last year found that TfL faced an annual bill of £11.1million – or £1,388 per bike. The price of the service also rose by 100 per cent; 24 hour access is now £2, and annual membership increased from £45 to £90. The price hike was way above inflation and combined with a chilly winter, the number of rentals fell by a third over the year to March 2013.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem of the system are its most typical users, white, middle class professional men between the ages of 25 and 44; these are not the usual recipients of a heavily subsidised means of transport. The next mayor will have to do something to broaden the network’s appeal.

The lack of a new east London bridge

A few weeks ago, I found myself going through the Blackwall Tunnel for the first time, going north on a 108 bus. With the narrow Victorian passage twisting its way under the Thames, offering no sign of surface light from either end, it feels like the preamble to a disaster film.

The bus route is one of the most unreliable in London due to the constant congestion in the tunnel; any accident, particularly on the older, north bound line, almost certainly incurs massive delays. Yet, the Blackwall Tunnel is one of the most important transport arteries in London and one of the very few river crossings east of Tower Bridge.

One of Boris’ first actions as mayor was to cancel the Thames Gateway Bridge, the go-ahead for which had been given by the previous mayor. Had everything gone as scheduled the bridge would now be open.

The plan had faced considerable opposition but there is now widespread acknowledgement that a major new river crossing is needed in east London to relieve traffic congestion and to encourage investment into the area, especially as the Olympic Village and Greenwich Peninsula are currently such massive redevelopment sites.

Potential mayoral candidate for Labour, Andrew Adonis, wants three new east London river crossings but just one would take a new mayor, I'm reliably informed, about five years to deliver. It will be near the top of the next incumbent’s ’To Do’ list.


This is not a problem of Boris' making - it goes much further back than his administration - but one upon which he has failed to have a significant impact. His successor will have a troubling trio of housing challenges: supply; affordability; and construction.

London desperately needs more homes - yes, the city is awash with property building but not of the sort we need, genuinely affordable homes in the right locations and family homes.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in its release published the other day, in the year to February this year, house prices in London soared by almost 18%. If you're lucky enough to own a home in London, it is very likely it earned you more money in the last year than you did from your salary.

Boris Johnson has a target of building 42,000 homes a year but last year only about 20,000 were built. In September last year London Councils estimated 809,000 extra homes would be needed by 2021, with currently only 250,000 scheduled to be built.

Boris has not been a disaster for London; instead a celebrant and champion of the city. But his mind wanders; too often, he gives the impression of being semi-detached and like an excitable kid he is prone to throwing himself into a new project before completing the one he had already started. Assuming Boris doesn't stand it's hard to know who the Conservatives will pick to stand in his place; names such as Sebastian Coe have been suggested. There also seems to be uncertainty from the Liberal Democrats.

A whole host of possible candidates have emerged for Labour. As previously mentioned, there is Andrew Adonis, but also transport journalist, Christian Wolmar, Tessa Jowell, David Lammy, Sadiq Khan, Diane Abbott and Doreen Lawrence.

But will any of the eventual candidates have the ideas to solve these - and many other - issues facing the capital?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sexist boys' club rails against sexist boys' club claims

A UN rapporteur has ruffled a few feathers (that, it seems, is their point) after coming to the Britain and claiming the country is dominated by a ‘boys’ club sexist culture’.

The over-sexualisation of women is ‘pervasive’ Rashida Manjoo said and claimed sexual bullying and harassment are rife within schools.

She said:

‘Have I seen this level of sexist culture in other countries? It hasn’t been so “in your face” in other countries. I haven’t seen it so pervasively in other countries. I’m sure it exists but it wasn’t so much and so pervasive. I’m not sure what gives to a more visible presence of sexist portrayals of women and girls in this country in particular.

‘What is clear from these indications of portrayals of women and girls is that there is a boys’ club sexist culture. That exists and it does lead to perceptions about women and girls in this country.’

Britain is not the most sexist country in the world - she doesn't claim it is - but she touches on a real problem. Arguing that other countries are much worse does not mean we can be complacent and not confront such issues. About 85,000 women are raped every year in England and Wales, another 400,000 sexually assaulted and one in five women between the ages of 16 and 59 has 'experienced some form of sexual violence'.

We live in a society where daily newspapers think it's acceptable to continue featuring topless women on page 3 for no other reason than the apparent quality of her breasts. Yet the campaign calling for and en to this daily dose of objectification is stubbornly resisted; meanwhile former editor of The Sun, Dominic Mohan, defended the page at the Leveson Inquiry, saying it was an 'innocuous British institution'.

Yes, Ms Manjoo did rather let her argument down somewhat claiming some websites and televisions channels dealt in the ‘marketisation' of womens' bodies before adding that she had not herself looked at the websites.

But, among the hundreds of comments beneath the article on the BBC, many made her point rather too well (I have tried to retain the typos and mistakes submitted by the supplier).

The comment below was typical:

First of all anyone who basis such outspoken opinion on what they have allegedly been told instead of factual personal knowledge, is an idiot, end of ! Secondly, one only needs to take a glance at this woman to realise her “type” , probably constantly claiming victimisation of any and every sort if things do not go exactly as SHE wants . Not worth the coverage really.

A jccanary wrote:

‘I’d like to see how women are treated in her country of origin, before she comes over here and lectures us

Woody, who strikes me as being a bit lonely, thought:

‘So she’s investigating violence against women?
Perhaps she could look into why guys that commit violence against women rarely seem to be single or struggling to find a girlfriend? They have no problems finding another victim
Yet plenty of nice guys are long term single
Perhaps women have to take some responsibility here…?
As Alexandra Burke sang; ‘the bad boys are always catching my eye’

Alasdair Campbell thinks women not wearing enough clothes are the cause of the problem:

As far as I can see, groups of young women in the UK out on a drinking binge or hen party week-end sexualise themselves by wearing little or nothing. No wonder some lads behave in the way they do when confronted by such blatant displays.

Mike from Brum thought:

‘I am guessing Rashida Manjoo hasn’t had much personal experience of sexual bullying’

And similar sentiments came from the charming xvs250

One look at her face,and her title 'Ms' just says it all. Criticising UK websites which she admits she has not even seen.Well,let's not allow facts to get in the way of our ultra- left opinions,eh? Who pays this Ms's salary?

Derek and phrtao think it’s the men we need to be worrying about

It does appear that the most downtrodden individuals in the UK at the moment are white non-Muslim heterosexual males aged between 18 and 65, despite what this biased South African lawyer says.

I feel that we actually have a female dominated culture in Britain where female values and etiquette dominate. Men are afraid to be men and boys are treated as sub-standard girls. Women participate in the over sexualisation of themselves much more than men demanding it. If all women wore no make-up and overalls men would still find them attractive (but they don't want that).
Meanwhile, it sounds like VanDiesil got in trouble with his better half after a night at a strip club
If a man goes to a gentleman's club to view strippers it is "sexist", but if a woman goes to watch the Chippendales or whatever male strippers are nowadays, it is perfectly fine and just a laugh. If a man buys sex toys he is a pervert, but fine for women to do so at an Ann Summers party

Meanwhile Stuart and empiredown are just trolling:

Women are good at cooking and cleaning , and some admin based stuff , they should leave the rest to the men

Women take twice as long in the bathroom. This is where real inequality resides. And where it is mission critical to address it.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Is it time for London City Airport to close?

The average salary of passengers using London City Airport is £92,000 and traffic accounts for just 2.4 per cent of the capital’s total flight demand. These are two of the arguments put forward in a report, just published, which argues for the closure of the Royal Docks site.

The persuasive New Economics Foundation (NEF) study makes the case that retaining London City airport makes no sense economically, contributes little socially and is a missed opportunity.

Opening in 1987 – as the redevelopment potential of the Docklands was being recognised – the airport obviously has strong business ties. Last year, more than 3.3milion passengers used it with most coming from other major business centres such as Amsterdam, Zurich, Frankfurt, Geneva and Luxembourg. Of these, the report claims, three quarters of inbound journeys ultimately ended at Canary Wharf or the Cities of London and Westminster.

Moneyed business travellers clearly enjoy the convenience the airport provides, but does it really contribute much else?

Well, not according to NEF. It occupies 500,000 square metres – a huge area in such a congested city – and directly contributed £110m to the UK economy in 2011, while the nearby ExCel exhibition centre contributed more than £500m.

The airport hasn’t delivered on jobs either, it argues.

‘For example, despite claims that additional jobs would be created following planning approval for expansion in 2009, the number of jobs has actually fallen since then – London City Airport data records 2098 jobs in 2009 compared with 2,055 jobs in 2012.’

This is despite London City Airport claiming in their planning application to double flights to 120,000 a year would create 1,000 jobs.

And it's not just about the jobs the airport itself has failed to deliver, with a crash safety zone of three miles, it limits business development.

Moreover, pollution levels in the capital are an increasing problem and they can hardly be helped by an airport so close to its centre. Only today a separate, shocking, study found more than 25,000 people die a year from air pollution in England, 5.6% of all deaths annually. And NEF claims Newham, in whose borough the airport is sited, is 'particularly badly affected'.

'Death rates in the borough from chronic heart and lung diseases - commonly exacerbated by air pollution - are among the highest in London.'

It goes on:

'Significant levels of noise are experienced by 18,000 people around City Airport. The World Health Organisation recommends a noise level of no more than 50 to 55dB for residential areas, but in the Royal Docks area every local school experiences noise levels at levels of 57dB.'

So apart from more planes, noise and pollution, what do residents of Newham - get from the airport? Probably not a great deal. Average salaries in Newham are about £22,000 - they're not really the target audience. And as for jobs, while the airport aims to 35% of staff being Newham residents, it has fallen way short.

And of all of London's flights, City airport accounts for just 2.4 per cent - 'its numbers could be readily absorbed by Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted' the report says.

Inevitably, London City Airport is not happy at the report’s conclusion saying it would be ‘turning the clock back 30 years'.

'Passengers, especially business passengers, vote with their feet - if they found other airports easier, quicker, or more convenient, they would already be using them.'

Perhaps, but I'm not convinced. Were the airport to close would anyone take their business out of the country? It is hard to imagine. Not only are there plenty of other airports from which to choose, Crossrail will soon be completed giving London an extra piece of impressive infrastructure. I find myself wondering whether it is the airport itself for whom time has passed. When the area was less developed it made some sense, a part-catalyst in encouraging international businesses to base themselves in a part of London that had been desolate for too long. Now there are no such concerns.

I recently toured development sites across east London and the rate of change is frankly astonishing. A new city is being created from an industrial wasteland but London remains afflicted by a shortage of homes. Taking into account the economic arguments, the environmental costs, can such a huge site - a resource really only available to the ultra-wealthy who have plenty of other options anyway - really be justified anymore?

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Gehry has landed

The Battersea Power Station redevelopment is gathering pace. Just days after the prices of the phase two properties were announced, architectural details of phase three have swiftly emerged.

As visions from the offices of Frank Gehry and Norman Foster were unveiled, Rob Tincknell, the head of the redevelopment company, said he wants to make ‘Battersea a showcase for the world’s very best architects’. A very laudable aim, though some may argue Battersea Power Station already is a showcase of one of the world’s great architects; Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's 'vision'
Inevitably, the new buildings have been greeted with great enthusiasm by many; words and phrases like ‘exciting’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘landmark’ have been bandied about: these new buildings will create ‘a genuine sense of place’ with ‘its own identity and integrity’.

Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, said the new designs ‘will ensure the development of this former industrial site will put Battersea on the world stage once again’. And he is evidently delighted that London ‘continues to attract the best in terms of architecture, design and innovation’. 

The third phase will feature 1,300 homes - just 103 of which are designated 'affordable' - a 160 room hotel and 350,000 square of retail and restaurant space. And running through it will be a new high street – called The Electric Boulevard.

It is inevitable, of course, that projects of this magnitude attract the most celebrated architects of the day; as I have written previously, the star names of Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield and Grimshaw are amongst the firms submitting their visions for a proposed, new £500million Crystal Palace. And it is also inevitable that these firms produce extravagant, sometimes shocking, proposals for such sites, eager to display their own audacity and talents, regardless of whether they are appropriate in such contexts.

According to Battersea's press release, Gehry’s and Foster’s designs ’will complement the iconic power station, but from the visualisations released they rather threaten to overwhelm Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece. Of the two, Fosters contribution is less confrontational though their bulk is considerable. Gehry’s towers, however, are large and seem contextually alien.

Gehry claims to connect ’into the historic fabric of the city of London’ - we’ll overlook the minor detail that the site is not actually in the historic City of London - but I struggle to see such a connection. For such a monumental building, the combination of the two designs threatens leaving the power station looking oddly out of place in its own home.