30 October 2012

Blindly protecting the countryside is not sustainable

The development of our green belt and countryside areas is back on the table, as the government casts around for ways to kick new life into 'Plan A'.

I grew up in prime green belt country on the Kent and Sussex border, and loved escaping from school to explore the rolling hills and woodland that characterises the High Weald. Twenty years on, I still find myself jumping on the train out of London at the drop of a hat. Alighting at stations like Cowden, with its narrow country lane the sole connection to the outside world, is a magical experience for reluctant city dwellers like me.

Sentiment should not guide policy, however. Our rural areas must help deliver the growth we need, and being precious about blindly protecting the countryside is itself hardly sustainable. Indeed the word ‘Weald’ means woodland in Old English, yet today many of the most scenic vistas are open heath, the area’s trees felled long ago to fuel furnaces that smelted iron ore dug up from deep holes. Four hundred years later these pits have become tranquil ponds. The few remaining woods became the setting for Winnie-the-Pooh’s adventures, innocently belying the area’s history as the centre of the English arms industry.

So my frustration at how easily the development of our countryside has slid back onto the growth agenda is not based on a simple aesthetic objection to concreting the urban hinterland. It lies in the ongoing failure to understand the intrinsic value of protecting the green spaces around our cities and further afield, and our inability to look into the future and picture the sort of country we want to live in.

CPRE’s name – the Campaign to Protect Rural England – hints at the nature of the problem. Protecting the countryside would be a great deal easier if people understood the fundamental reasons that make the organisation’s work so important. At the risk of sounding glib, the organisation’s cause might be stronger if they were the Campaign to Value Rural England. As anyone who has been arguing for protecting school playing fields will know, once the worth of something has been shown, the local community tends to be pretty strident in its desire to defend it. Unfortunately the general public’s understanding of countryside has for too long been tied to “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and the like, which does little to stem the remorseless march of the developer.

And so we need to make the argument that green belt land is fundamentally good for the economy, and counter the plethora of misguided headlines for the so-called growth agenda. Limiting urban sprawl focuses capital on regenerating existing land in our cities, which would otherwise require clumsy state intervention, or be left to fester as unsightly wasteland. The countryside also gives much needed space for cityfolk to blow off steam, go rambling, have pub lunches, and so on. And it provides livelihoods for people in agriculture who feed us, which is important given the looming global food security challenge – something those pushing the growth panic button seem to have forgotten. We need to remind the public of these arguments because there is an awfully large amount of money and time being spent to ensure people are persuaded otherwise. The litmus test is whether we can reconnect people who live inside the M25 and M60 with the green areas immediately around them.

Which brings me to the future, and – I suppose – the past. There is huge pressure on the government to unleash a wave of new house building, and the narrative being spun ties this firmly together with economic growth: the prospect of a house building windfall already has landowners and home-builders licking their lips with unseemly fervour at the profits to be made. By now you will be unsurprised to know that green belt land is being considered for much of this, with 11,000 new homes on the North West green belt that lies around Liverpool and Manchester. 7,500 houses are to be built on protected land around Bristol and Bath, and the picture for the rest of the country is equally discouraging: Surrey is unlucky enough to be getting yet another wretched hotel and golf course development.

The problem Britain faces is that our experience of house building has been scarred by some of the terrible projects that were constructed in the mad dash to replace housing stock lost to the Luftwaffe and post-WW2 slum clearances. Shoddy housing schemes like Ronan Point and the Hulme Crescents mean we are not keen on the idea of dense urban living – hence the spread outwards. Fortunately the postwar municipal disasters are balanced by countless Peabody housing associations that demonstrate how successful communities have been created by good Victorian design, and even North Kensington’s notorious 1960s Trellick Tower has been recently redeemed. Yet the damage has been done. Politically the vision of compact urban living would appear to be a much harder sell than the ubiquitous two up/two down semi complete with double garage – which sits in complete contrast to the apartment lifestyle so popular on the Continent.

Changing the British perception of housing and the environment will take time – something that the Downing Street strategists probably don’t have a great deal of. But if we fail to recognise the value of greenbelt land and develop it for short term economic gain we are simply placing people further away from the city centre, and expecting them to pay extortionate prices for petrol or a season ticket – as well as waste their lives with the unnecessary grind of commuting. We are designing pointless expense and untold misery into people’s lives, and consigning the taxpayer to decades of road widening and dual carriageway improvements. That’s not a Britain that I want to live in, and looking at my fellow travellers on the rare occasions I take the train early in the morning, I know many would agree with me.

First published by Platform 10 on September 3rd, 2012

29 October 2012

Heathrow to Stansted by train: not as expensive as you’d think

In some ways Heathrow’s third runway is like giving your wife an incredibly expensive diamond necklace when you realise your marriage is on the rocks. It will buy you some short term goodwill, but ultimately you’re still in trouble. The £10 billion third runway project might well stimulate some work in the boom-and-bust construction industry, but it does little to address the fundamentals of growth, or indeed offer a long term solution to London’s need for airport capacity: it is lazy policy.

So instead of looking at expensive, shiny baubles, the government’s review should concentrate on getting the basics right: remembering to put the rubbish out, cooking more often, or in the case of London’s airports, making sure they are used more efficiently. Considering an expensive runway as a short term fix to Heathrow’s woes seems mad when you consider that Stansted is running at 50% capacity, with the space for more terminal buildings that would linked seamlessly into existing motorway and rail infrastructure.

The problem is that getting between London’s airports is utterly nightmarish – as anyone who has trekked across the capital to catch a connecting flight knows. Slow bus journeys around the M25 are the order of the day: not exactly reassuring if you have a tight schedule, and hardly an advertisement for modern Britain. The logical solution would be a Heathrow-Stansted rail link, yet this would obviously be a wickedly expensive option given the distance involved.

But curiously enough we already have all the infrastructure in place to operate such a service.

Re-laying the track on a disused rail chord south of Tottenham Hale is all that stands in the way of running trains between the two airports. The Gospel Oak – Barking line is a busy railway, but improved passing loops and signalling would allow passengers to transfer in about 70 minutes.

The disused rail chord
The work could be delivered as part of the already proposed capacity improvements to the Stansted Express, and for a tiny fraction of the £10 billion required for Heathrow’s short term third runway solution. The connection at West Hampstead would link to Thameslink’s Luton and Gatwick services, and Willesden Junction would give access to the new HS2 interchange. It wouldn’t be too much of a leap in imagination to see a ‘London Airport Connect’ service quickly becoming popular for both transfer journeys and passengers travelling to and from west London.

If looking at airport strategy is indeed a completely open-minded exercise, then there is the potential to shift the political consensus from a negative (a wasteful short term fix at Heathrow) to a positive (creating a long term solution – potentially building Boris Island in the Thames Estuary).

This process will be drawn out, with either solution decades away. The fine tuning of our existing facilities should start without delay – and with the imagination and flair that London desperately needs.

First published by Platform 10 on September 10th, 2012

28 October 2012

After six decades of the British Bomb, are nuclear weapons still a game changer for the UK?

Sir Nick Harvey’s suggestion just before the Conservative conference that the replacement of Trident wasn’t quite such a sure thing generated the usual flurry of articles in the press. I do feel rather sorry for Fleet Street’s defence editors, who have had to flog this poor dead horse for decades – last week marked the 60th anniversary of Operation Hurricane, the first testing of a British-built nuclear weapon. Unfortunately the political consensus built around our nuclear weapons since then has seen very little discussion of what they are actually for – or acknowledgment that their original development had little to do with the direct defence of the realm.

Newspaper report of Britain's successful nuclear test 
The primary reason behind the cash-strapped Attlee government’s decision to build a British bomb back in 1946 is not one that many people today would be familiar with. Ernest Bevin (Attlee’s Foreign Secretary) had just returned from Washington where he had been spoken down to by the Truman administration – the post-WW2 reality of Britain’s diminished status setting in with uncomfortable haste. Bevin’s intervention swung the debate in cabinet, with his now famous utterance that ‘I do not want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at, or to, as I was. We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ The nuclear issue had focused British minds on Washington rather than Moscow, and atomic weapons were the cost of entering the superpower club of the 1950s (although they still didn’t guarantee access to the VIP room).

60 years later our nuclear weapons are now routinely referred to as a ‘deterrent’. And perhaps they did deter the Soviet Union to some degree during the Cold War. But the primary reason Britain secured nuclear weapons was to ensure that Bevin and his successors stood alongside America at the pinnacle of global diplomatic power during the polarised Blue versus Red era that mercifully came to an end in 1991.

Today’s security challenges are rather different, but it helps to cast our minds back to the original decision to become a nuclear weapons state when making the case for a new generation of weapons. Does Trident help maintain our position as an important player in the world’s affairs? I’m not so sure that it does. Our place at the top table is more likely to be secured by enhancing our overworked conventional military capabilities that bolster our diplomacy, rather than sending a boatload of Armageddon off for months of hiding in the depths of the oceans. Either way, the debate about the future of our nuclear weapons needs to be conducted with greater honesty, and we must be clear as to whether Trident’s replacement (in whatever form) passes the Bevin test: is it really a game changer for Britain’s power and influence?

First published by Platform 10 on October 14th, 2012

27 October 2012

London's Centre Point building

This is an essay I wrote during my first year as a undergraduate at UCL. I've published it here as I couldn't find a decent single account of Centre Point's history, and it might be of interest to anyone who has walked past it wondering how it came to be.


Critically explore how Centre Point fits into the surrounding urban landscape and assess how its function, design and everyday use can be used to examine processes of urban change in London.

Centre Point is a building that many Londoners regard with ambivalence at best. Its concrete construction and prominent position on the West End's skyline places it firmly in the imagination of the architecture of the 1960s, and the length of time the building spent empty adds to the general sense of its being unloved. However Centre Point's construction was not a simple redevelopment of an existing plot, but a substantial rezoning of the St. Giles Circus street layout, and assessing the building's aesthetic merit must include an examination of how it was integrated with its surroundings. Most importantly, though, is understanding the blend of politics and social change that allowed the construction of a building so vastly different from the surrounding area: in short, this boiled down to property speculation and motor cars.

Compared to Manhattan, London's skyline was historically dominated by church spires, a result of the 100' restriction that was in place until 1954 (Marriott 1967). The easing of building restrictions meant that property suddenly became substantially more lucrative – A.N. Wilson points out that in 1943 Land Securities was a sleepy company with three Kensington houses: 25 years later it was worth £28 million, and that this sudden expansion changed London's skyline 'so irrevocably and with such brutality' (Wilson 2005:114). The boom commenced in the summer of 1959 when construction started on the 118m high Vickers (now Millbank) Tower. This building showed how the outlay on purchasing land could be met by the revenues from the large volume of space in a high-rise building, and the new 177m tall Post Office Tower in Fitzrovia would have further spurred the interest of developers with plots of land in the West End.

Figure 1: the layout of St. Giles Circus and environs before the Centre Point redevelopment
(Ordnance Survey)

It was the rise of the motor car after World War Two that created the local conditions for redeveloping St. Giles Circus (the junction of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street). Urban authorities across the United Kingdom were busily reconfiguring streets for the era of mass car ownership, and London County Council (LCC) was keen to install a roundabout (the latest thing in highway technology) at St. Giles Circus to enhance the flow of the A40. This scheme was vigorously resisted by Pearlmans, the company who owned the land required by the local authority. Fortunately for the LCC, the city's property developers were usually amenable to doing a deal: 'Developers bought up the land required and made it over to the LCC; the council in return granted planning permission on adjoining land owned by their benefactors' (White 2008:112). And in Harry Hyams the council had found their man. As a private business concern Hyams had far greater flexibility to bargain with other landowners, and his solution was simply to throw money at the problem until it was resolved. LCC had offered the Pearlmans £55,000 for their property and been rejected, but when Hyams offered them £500,000 they gave in (Wilson 2005). He amassed other local properties to complete the collection of titles the project required, and in 1962 Hyams handed the site to the council in return for a 150 year lease at £18,500 a year – an amount that was regarded as peanuts at the time (White 2008). Construction started immediately. The use of pre-cast concrete removed the need for scaffolding and shortened the building phase, and Centre Point was ready for tenants three years later (Wright 2006).

The deal between Hyams and the council is the most important factor in understanding how Centre Point came to be at such odds with the surrounding urban landscape. Hyams' commercial savvy was in obtaining his pound of flesh from LCC, and the 20,000m2 building he was given consent for had a floor area equal to the size of the site that he handed over to the council – including the proposed roundabout. Hyams was also canny in his choice of architectural partner, and in Richard Siefert he had found someone whose 'reputation for speed and mastery of planning law made him the doyen of commercial architects' (Pawley 2001:online). Wilson is blunter, describing the 'undistinguished' Siefert's genius as 'not for architecture, as Londoners are now all too painfully aware: it was for getting round planning regulations' (2005:115) – a criticism that underlines how polarising Centre Point has been since its completion, but also the speed at which Siefert had to work. He submitted the Centre Point proposal on behalf of Hyams four days before the 1959 Town and Country Planning Act came into force – legislation that would have forced the development team back to the drawing board (Bayley 2006).

Harry Hyams' decidedly fast approach to business and Centre Point's subsequent impact on London's skyline might well have been long forgotten had its impact on the immediate vicinity been a success: it wasn't. As the project's contractors were putting the finishing touches to the building, the local authority was quietly shelving their proposed changes, as the temporary one-way system around the site had proved so successful (White 2008). Porter describes Centre Point as 'a fine building squeezed too tightly into the wrong place' (2000:521), and it was this sense of imposition on the new street layout that provided a common cause for both the building's advocates and opponents. Paul Williams, the architect currently working on the site's landscaping as part of the new Crossrail station and a self-confessed fan of Siefert, recognises that street level integration was a weakness of architects in the 1960s and 70s. The indecisiveness over the roundabout created a site that Williams considers a 'lethal catastrophe which unsuccessfully mixes angry traffic with anxious pedestrians' (Bayley 2006:WWW). Hyett points out that the situation was compounded by a 'useless water feature [that] has sprayed pedestrians struggling to use the miserably narrow pavement around its base' (2001:online).

Today the site is changing again, and Centre Point presides over the large construction site for Crossrail's new Tottenham Court Road station. This will metamorphose into a public space that rectifies the 'dysfunctional and missing link between Covent Garden, Soho, Bloomsbury and Oxford Street' (Terry Farrell & Partners 2008). The landscaping that was so studiously in sync with the sense of 'white heat' modernity in the early 1960s in which the car was the future, will instead reflect the priority that today's urban planners place on the pedestrian. The visual line down St. Giles High Street from the Circus will be restored, pavements will be widened, and the area between St. Giles Circus and St. Giles-in-the-Fields will be prioritised for pedestrians (ibid.) – much of which seems to address Glinert's observation of public anger towards the original scheme:

What the 1950s and 1960s public found distasteful was the mass destruction of the locale – old St Giles and the stretch of ships at the northern end of Charing Cross Road which included London's first women's bookshop, opened in May 1910 to cater for growth in suffragist literature – to build a 380-foot, honeycomb-windowed white elephant'. (2007:188)
Crossrail will be completed in 2018, and it is worth pondering how the Centre Point building will be regarded in the decades to come. Freed from the shackles around its footprint, will the skyscraper finally enter the public's affection? By the time of his death, Siefert's reputation had been restored, with the Guardian noting in his obituary that in 1993 'his former enemies at the Royal Fine Art Commission called for the listing of Centre Point for its "elegance worthy of a Wren steeple"' (Pawley 2001). London's skyline has also moved on, and while the controversy surrounding Centre Point finished off any thoughts of building other skyscrapers in the West End, it is a relative minnow amongst the giants of the early 21st Century.

Figure 2: The proposed pedestrian plaza and entrances to Tottenham Court Road station (Crossrail)

So far I have concentrated on the impact of the physical building. But there is an elephant in the room that must be addressed when looking at whether Centre Point's everyday use is symbolic of urban change. 'Everyday use' is a complete misnomer, as the building was notoriously left vacant by Hyams, who would only consider renting the office space to a client willing to take the entire building. The dynamics of the booming property market were to blame, and the politicians felt powerless:

By June 1972, it had been empty for almost eight years, yet still Hyams showed no signs of finding a tenant; indeed, because of the tax laws on capital gains, he was probably making more money by keeping it empty than if he had rented it out. (Sandbrook 2010: 523)
Figure 3: Protesters occupy Centre Point in 1974 (Museum of London)

At a time of great social unrest across the country Centre Point was becoming the focus for protests about the wave of urban change driven by property speculators. There was talk of compulsory purchase orders and nationalisation of the building. Protesters broke in and occupied the building for two days in January 1974, and The Times columnist Bernard Levin asked:

'What sort of a society is it that says dockers are holding the country to ransom by striking but does not say that developers are doing so by keeping office blocks empty until the rent has risen high enough to satisfy their greed?' (ibid.)
The building's reputation had transformed from representing the excitement of the swinging 60s to the malaise that gripped Britain in the 70s.

Hyams finally relaxed his demands for a single occupant, and in 1975 a Greek shipping company took over the building's 5th floor. It was only in 1980 that Centre Point had its first major tenant, with the Confederation of British Industry taking over 14 floors (Wright 2006). Today the building is home to a variety of businesses, including a serviced office operation with flexible leases: a move that would surely have been an anathema to Harry Hyams back in the early 1960s, but one that reflects the flexibility that today's businesses demand. The battle between commercial property interests and government continues to ebb and flow, most recently with the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 – legislation against which property agents have already honed their skills in avoiding compliance (Guilfoyle & Askham 2010).

The bad press surrounding the development of Centre Point spilt over to Siefert's work on other projects. His plans for NatWest's new headquarters involved the demolition of historic buildings, and while the canny Siefert was ultimately successful in his battle with the authorities, the decade-long planning battle meant that the 183m tall NatWest Tower was obsolete by the time it was opened in 1981 (Pawley 2001). More importantly, the desire for building iconic skyscrapers in the capital subsided for the next two decades.

Hyams eventually sold his interest in Centre Point in 1987. His approach might have made business sense, but today commercial property operates on a very different model, with large companies like Unilever sharing their iconic buildings with other tenants. 2008 saw the opening of The Paramount, a members' club located on the top three floors, and the venue was favourably reviewed by London's influential 'Coolhunter' blog as 'a blend of 60s retro and futurism' (Evans 2008:online). For decades Siefert's creation has been the ugly ducking of London's tall buildings, but with the passage of time and attention finally being paid to the building's immediate vicinity, will opinion still be so polarised ten years from now?


Bayley, S. (2006) 'At last, things are looking up at the end of Oxford Street' London: The Guardian retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/oct/01/architecture?INTCMP=SRCH

Evans, L. (2008) 'Paramount bar by Tom Dixon (London)' retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.thecoolhunter.co.uk/article/detail/1410

Glinert, E. (2007) 'West End Chronicles: 300 Years of Glamour and Excess in the Heart of London' London: Penguin

Guilfoyle, S. & Askham, P. (2010) ' Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 and business rates avoidance tactics' The Sheffield Hallam University Built Environment Research Transactions 2,1,p.5-13

Hyett, P. (2001) 'Wonders and blunders' London: The Guardian retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2001/jul/02/wondersandblunders.architecture?INTCMP=SRCH

Marriott, O. (1967) 'The Property Boom' London: Hamish Hamilton

Pawley, M (2001) 'Richard Siefert' London: The Guardian retrieved 17th March 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2001/oct/29/guardianobituaries.arts

Porter, R. (2000) 'London: a social history' London: Penguin

Sandbrook, D. (2011) 'State of emergency : the way we were : Britain, 1970-1974' London: Penguin

Terry Farrell & Partners (2008) 'St. Giles Circus: Strategic Framework Study' London: Terry Farrell & Partners

Wilson, A. (2005) 'London: a short history' London: Phoenix

White, J. (2008) 'London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People' London: Vintage

Wright, H. (2006) 'London High' London: Frances Lincoln

26 October 2012

Bicycles: a very Conservative way of getting from A to B

This summer has seen a transformation in the fortunes of the humble bicycle. Names like Wiggins, Hoy and Trott are now part of Britain’s sporting pantheon, and have inspired us mortals to pump up our bike tyres and take to the roads. But away from the hype around getting our children more involved in school sport, cycling has an important part to play in securing the sporting and social legacy of the Games.

Riding a bike is fun (and good exercise to boot), and by getting people out of cars, buses and trains we can reduce the need for expensive increases in public transport and road capacity: Transport for London’s Boris Bikes are run at a profit, unlike tube and bus tickets, which are heavily subsidised. Indeed, the bike is the ultimate Conservative way of getting from A to B: it offers complete freedom, and the user bears almost all the costs of riding!

Making our roads safer for cyclists also carries a useful electoral dividend, with the rise of transport poverty an increasingly pressing issue. UK roads are twice as dangerous for cyclists when compared to Germany, which in part explains why in Britain the simple act of hopping on a bike to get around is largely the preserve of affluent, young caucasian men. Ensuring our streets are a more appealing prospect for bikes is something that will play well with the sorts of voters we need to connect with – women, people on low incomes, etc.

The Department of Transport’s work with local authorities to promote 20mph limits in residential areas is a step in the right direction, but there is much more we can do. I think there are two inexpensive measures the Government can take that would be a massive step towards encouraging people onto their bikes in a safer road environment.

1) Simplify complex design standards. At the moment there is no overall idea of what constitutes design best practice when creating safer streets for bicycling. The Highways Agency addresses it in several publications, regional authorities have their own guidance, and local councils also have best practice documents – with no requirement for any of these to be followed. This seems incredibly inefficient, and unsurprisingly the internet is awash with photos of poorly implemented bike lanes that are at best a waste of time and paint. Instead, we should create a single document that local authorities must adhere to. Cyclists want better infrastructure, and having a unified, clear sense of what this entails would be an important step – and much more cost-effective.

2) Put the onus on drivers. Three quarters of car/bike accidents in London are attributable to drivers failing to look properly, yet in practise the law remains heavily weighted against vulnerable cyclists. Directing the CPS to increase prosecutions of careless driving seems a little heavy handed. Why not simply insist that drivers have to prove they were not at fault in civil cases, rather than the current situation where cyclists (who are to blame for only 26% of accidents) have to graft away to get redress? This balance of liability is common across the Continent, where it encourages responsible biking – a common gripe of the British motorist.

The cycling safety debate will come increasingly to the fore as fuel and ticket prices rise in the coming years. There is a huge opportunity for us, particularly given that Labour’s recently announced cycling policy fails to address the structural challenges inherent in making our roads more bicycle friendly. Offering cyclists reasonable legal protection and simplifying the spider’s web of design parameters addresses the core safety issues, and would be important steps in the right direction at little cost to the Exchequer. And it would also be a positive message to sell on the doorstep to the sort of people we need to win over in 2015!

First published by Platform 10 on August 23rd, 2012

25 October 2012

A building weakened by red tape

"I was inside the main hall when the quake hit. As the building's tower came down, the noise and dust was unbelievable. The bottles, plates and glasses were like shrapnel flying all over the place. The three chefs were preparing a lobster bisque, which went all over the floor but missed them, as did a pan of hot fat. They came out through the dust looking like ghosts. We didn't have the composure to stop and grab our wallets and car keys - we just bolted."

Alan Slade
Octagon Live owner Alan Slade was short on sentiment as he looked back at the ruined building he'd narrowly escaped from, with his concern entirely focused on ensuring his staff were all out.

After the previous September 4 quake he'd had funny mannequins attached to the emergency scaffolding that had shored up the stone walls.

"I just remember looking at one of the mannequin's legs sticking out of the rubble and I just felt sick - my joke had backfired on me."

In retrospect, it was an unusual holiday purchase. Alan Slade, owner of a thriving wedding business in Australia, was visiting Christchurch when he heard the Trinity Congregational Church on the corner of Manchester and Worcester streets was for sale.

"We owned a number of churches in Australia, but when we saw the Trinity building we couldn't believe that such a precious icon of Christchurch would be for sale," says Slade. "It was a treasure: the interior was unmatched, and the ceiling was the jewel in the crown."

He admits that buying the building was a weak moment. "My wife says it was bought by a guy with a big heart and very little brain."

The church was designed by Benjamin Mountfort, the architect behind Christ Church Cathedral and the Provincial Council buildings. What followed was a 13-year renovation that transformed the site into Octagon Live, Slade's quirky vision for a restaurant with live music performances. Mountfort's vision of "beauty though a lack of ornamentation" was preserved.

"The building's H1 historical registration meant that everything we did needed consent, which took forever. The roof had a lot of water damage: repairing that with matching timbers was a long job. We even restored the dilapidated 1871 London organ to superb recording condition. Finance held us up, as things always cost more than you'd expect, but it was worth it."

The restaurant opened in 2006 and, after a quiet first year, business grew rapidly, with a strong following built on the restaurant's food and live music.

"By the third year we were second on TripAdvisor.com's list of recommended restaurants in New Zealand. In the season before the earthquakes we were booked out every day of the week," says Slade.

With four music schools in Christchurch, the restaurant was also instrumental in nurturing young talent.

"Learning to perform for an audience - rather than at them - is a critical skill. Where else in town can you learn that? We were strongly recommended by some of the teachers, and we always had a long queue of musicians hoping to work with us."

The building's acoustics garnered rave reviews, with pianist David Helfgott stopping by every six months to play.

Behind this success was an ongoing tension over heritage issues with the city council and the Historic Places Trust.

"When you take on a building like this, you do it with your heart, not your head. You are as keen to protect it as anyone. You don't want to cut corners, and preserving the building's integrity is vital. But the Historical Places Trust suspects every owner of deviousness."

The September earthquake hit Octagon Live hard, with more than $600,000 required to rescue the building. "We were allowed to take emergency action to build a frame to hold up the tower, but the retrospective consent ended up costing $8000 - for something I'd done to save the building."

The restaurant was closed for only two months, with the local community pitching in. The Boxing Day earthquake caused yet more damage.

Even though it was the building industry's traditional holiday period, Slade had 11 workers and two cranes onsite repairing the damage the day after, and the restaurant was open a day later, with the public enjoying the mannequins that adorned the temporary braces holding up the exterior walls.

Trinity Congressional Church was significantly strengthened in 1975, explains Slade.

"The engineers at the time strongly suggested earthquake proofing the tower by temporarily removing the roof, which would have meant some damage to the wooden shutters. They were over-ruled by the Historic Places Trust.

"Just recently, the engineer from the 1975 assessment told me that the tower was severely compromised, and warned that it was unsafe. Now it has come down as predicted. We were incredibly lucky no-one was underneath it at 12.51pm, but it was the conservative attitude of the conservation movement and the Historic Places Trust that caused the danger in the first place."

Slade believes this attitude in the heritage preservation industry amplified the consequences of the Christchurch earthquake.

"Maintaining our old buildings is incredibly important, but the heritage framework in this country has worked against keeping buildings in good condition. Spirit-sapping bureaucracy stands in the way of routine jobs like replacing weak stones. Even repairing roof tiles requires consent, and the damage that three weeks' rain can do while that is processed can be enormous. Many of Christchurch's treasured buildings are now in a pile, and the narrow-mindedness of the conservationists in the council and the Historic Places Trust played a substantial part in that. Sadly they will probably never be held accountable."

With thoughts turning to rebuilding the city, Slade is confident that Octagon Live will be a key part of the new city. The structure is considered saveable by engineers and the organ should be fine.

"I do think this is the time for us to radically change our approach to protecting our heritage," he says.

"I'd be very sad if we have to replicate our old tower stone by stone. The earthquake is a tremendous opportunity to be bold and adopt modern technology - the guts of the Cathedral Spire could be made from carbon fibre, for example. It is better to preserve elements of our heritage safely, rather than taking risks to keep whole structures. But we hold on to the essence of Christchurch, and I think the new desire for a low-rise city will allow our heritage buildings to dominate once again."

At the moment, issues are tied up with the inability to access the CBD.

"My chef's knives are stuck in the restaurant's kitchen. It's a simple thing and it sounds pathetic, but it's important to him. I can't access my payroll details. We don't know how long we'll be kept out of the centre of town for. They're talking about Christmas - heavens, I'd be expecting to have my building restored and my business running by then."

First published by The Press on March 12th, 2011

24 October 2012

Photographing a pilgrimage

I wrote this piece for the Ampleforth Lourdes Pilgrimage's 2009 fundraising carol service to explain why I had joined them that year to take photos. I've been back to Lourdes with them each year since, travelling as my disabled cousin's carer, and continuing to document the Pilgrimage's work. You can see a slideshow of the work I produced from 2009 here.

Most of the Ampleforth pilgrimages to Lourdes since 1980 have involved one (or more) members of my family. This year there were four of us. The Plummer clan's previous would be reasonable grounds for suspecting me of a) having an interest in cameras, and b) being a committed Lourdie. Rewind three years though, and things were rather different.

Dad's Catholicism is half-hearted at best. Likewise, the one time I remember him with a camera was shooting five minutes of video in the Disneyworld carpark before realising the lens cap was still on. Mum is agnostic, the result of attending Wellington's Convent of the Sacred Heart school, where the nuns excelled in producing well educated women with little interest in God. Both made huge sacrifices to give me a fantastic education, which I mention to balance the distinct lack of enthusiasm they had for my early attempts with a cartridge film camera given me for my 6th birthday. I can clearly recall Mum saying that she wasn't buying me any more film because all I did was take dull pictures that were a waste of money to develop. Looking back, she was right.

In the following two decades my contact with Catholicism was pretty much limited to Dad's insistence that I received my First Communion. I remember filling my gold-covered communion workbook with drawings of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and Richard Branson's trans-Atlantic speedboat, so it's a safe bet to say the date was late in the summer of 1986. And in retrospect my first confession of 'being mean to my sister' seems rather sweet.

But as I got older something about God didn't click, and I was lucky that my housemaster at Westminster was sympathetic to my boycott of school church services. And having talked to Dad about belief I decided that enough was enough. I walked up to St. Augustine's – where I had been christened 19 years earlier – and told the bewildered Father on duty that I'd come to resign from the Church.

At this point a pilgrimage to Lourdes seemed an unlikely prospect. But with my parents working full-time I'd grown up spending a lot of time with my aunt Elizabeth Plummer and her boys Rupert, Mark, Andrew and Richard. Trying to figure out why people I loved (and who I considered sane) were interested in what Mum described as 'a week of God-bothering and anointing each other in the fields' was a tricky one. A detour though Lourdes during a camping holiday in the Pyrenees – and the abiding memory of umpteen gift-shops selling plastic Virgin Mary waterbottles – added to the confusion.

And so to the 21st Century. Digital cameras meant I was free to learn and experiment with my photography, and 12 months ago I finished two years of photography school. My final year was spent documenting New Zealand's newly decriminalised sex industry, and it dawned on me that the camera is a powerful tool for accessing places that are far from the everyday. Personal projects are a key part of a photographer's portfolio and career development, and so with my cousin Rupert's encouragement I rang Anna Mayer [the Pilgrimage Director]. For me, the week would be a chance to finally see Ampleforth's pilgrims at work, and in return I'd offer the Pilgrimage a detailed visual record of 2009 in Lourdes. Having been given the green light, I remember Richard chuckling when I asked him if we'd be attending Mass more than a couple of times during the week.

45 rolls of Kodak Tri-X later, and with a month of developing and scanning late into the night, I have a much better idea of what the pilgrimage is about. Lourdes is a wonderful place, where people (if not gift shops) are at their best. I don't think my views on God have changed, but the profound impact of Jesus as a teacher of decency and kindness is manifest. The patience and humour of the sick and healthy together is wonderful, with the ward party on the final night unexpectedly moving. Being a pilgrim with Ampleforth this year was a privilege – thank you!