Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Return to Speakers' Corner

Speakers' Corner 2017

Is it just winter, or is Speakers' Corner in terminal decline? On a recent visit – my first for over a year – religion, always a dominant presence, was the only thing on offer, mostly in the form of squabbles between Christian and Muslim preachers and hecklers. And there weren't more than three or four of those. I don't remember ever seeing such an unimpressive bunch.

It was the last, rather miserable, Sunday of 2017. Dull and damp, with occasional spots of rain, and darkness threatening by mid-afternoon. So maybe not a fair basis for judgement. I will be back to check. I hope I'm wrong.

For a record of how it used to be, my book Speakers' Corner, Debate, Democracy and Disturbing the Peace is still on sale at all good bookshops.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Lendlease: Someone Has Blundered

Elephant Park construction site, Southwark

Lendlease's controversial deal with Haringey Council may be looking precarious, but the developer is still going strong in Southwark, where it is replacing 1194 social rented flats on the once publicly owned Heygate Estate with a paltry 74.  A further 500 of a total of 2500 new homes in its Elephant Park scheme will be let at so-called 'affordable' rents, and the rest sold off. Purchase of a one-bed, shared-ownership flat requires a minimum household income of around £60K.
The now demolished Heygate Estate, 2002

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The London Clearances (continued)

Walterton Road, North Paddington 1975
My first useful work as a photographer came about through involvement with housing campaigners at the tail end of the slum clearance programmes of the 1960s and 70s. In London, streets of poorly maintained, privately rented Victorian terraces were being torn down and replaced by a brave new world of modern homes in publicly owned estates of concrete apartment blocks.

Forty years on, that world has turned full circle. Now it is the 'castles in the sky' that are coming down, streets are all the rage, and council housing, now renamed 'social', is struggling to survive.

Gloucester House and the rubble of Durham Court, South Kilburn Estate, 2008
Across the road from the sub-standard flat that was my home back in 1975 (toilet and cold water sink on the shared landing, no bathroom), work has begun on Phase 2b of Brent Council's 15 year South Kilburn Estate regeneration scheme. Demolition of the low rise Durham Court blocks is underway, and the now deserted 18 storey Gloucester House awaits the wrecking crew.

If all goes according to plan, by 2029, when the final phase is scheduled for completion, 2400 new homes will have been built, 1200 for private sale, and 1200 let at social rent to existing secure tenants.

Partly demolished blocks, Durham Court, South Kilburn Estate
The buildings and landscaping completed so far are impressive, a big improvement on the bleak brutalist concrete they have replaced, and the scheme has attracted much praise. The council has also been lauded for its financial strategy, using income from the private sales to fund the homes let at social rents.

So what's not to like? In a convincing piece on Haringey's controversial partnership deal with Australian developer Lendlease on the Red Brick blog, Steve Hilditch argues that the most straightforward criterion for assessing the wave of regeneration deals being done by councils across the capital should be the number of social rented homes there will be at the end of the process.

Thousands of mainly social rented homes will be knocked down and thousands of mainly private homes will be built. There will be many more homes overall, but, how will the proposed mix of market and sub-market homes tackle homelessness and the needs of people on the waiting list?  The type and tenure of new homes is as important as how many homes are built in total. Social rent remains the only truly affordable option for many people on lower incomes.”

On that measure, the figures for South Kilburn don't stack up. By 2029, 2400 new homes will have replaced 1610. Of the latter, 1420 were occupied by secure tenants and 190 by leaseholders. It's hard to know whether the prices leaseholders are getting for their compulsorily purchased homes match the prices demanded for the new (unlikely). But it is certain that 1420 secure tenants will not fit into the 1200 homes available for social rent. It is probable that enough of them will have been rehoused elsewhere to make the scheme work, but the net effect will be to reduce the number of social rent homes available across the borough, and to clear even more people on low or average incomes out of central London.

Kilburn Quarter, completed phase 2a of South Kilburn Estate regeneration scheme

Brent, like many others London councils, has been forced into this trade-off between private sales and publicly owned social rentals by central government funding cuts and the long-term disempowerment of local authorities. The new estate looks like it's going to be a nice place to live, and will provide much improved homes for the tenants who are rehoused on it - albeit at higher so-called 'target' social rents.  It will also increase the number of homes available for private sale and market rental – in itself not a bad thing, as long as they're occupied once bought. It's just a pity it won't be of any help in cutting the waiting list and housing the homeless.  More pictures here. More words and pictures here and here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

HS2. The Wrecking Begins

Reverend Anne Stevens and local resident Jo Hurford, Euston Square Gardens

On Friday the Reverend Anne Stevens, vicar of St.Pancras Church, spent two hours chained to a 100 year-old plane tree outside Euston station, whilst local residents handed out leaflets to passing commuters. Work has already started around the planned London end of the HS2 high speed rail link to Birmingham, but the protest marked a significant escalation in the disruption which will turn the area into a building site for an estimated 17 years. On Monday Euston Square Gardens will be fenced off, and the felling of its century-old trees will begin, clearing the park to make way for construction vehicles, expected to average 650 trucks a day.

As many have pointed out, HS2 as planned is seriously flawed. It is extremely expensive (and getting pricier by the week), poorly integrated with the existing network, and its London terminal is in the wrong place, a densely populated area already home to three of the capital's principal railway stations. To cap it all comes news that Carillion, one of the major contractors involved in construction of the new line, is in serious financial difficulty.

Whilst all taxpayers will be forking out the cash for this, local residents have the added nightmare of living through it, windows closed, day in day out for almost two decades.  More pictures here.  More words and pictures here and here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

An Archival Impulse

Committee Meeting, 510 Centre, North Paddington 1978
In the spirit of archivism, I'm making accessible an article I wrote for the British Journal of Photography in 2010 to mark the demise of Photoworks Westminster (formerly North Paddington Community Darkroom), a community-based photography project that I set up in the 510 Centre, a busy grant-funded advice and community centre at 510 Harrow Road, in 1976. A PDF of the piece can be downloaded here.

This archival impulse has been prompted by a request from the Four Corners project in Bethnal Green which, in addition to documenting the heritage of its own film work, is creating a new archive exploring the photographic practice of its onetime neighbour, the Half Moon Photography Workshop (later Camerawork), from its creation in 1972 to its closure in 2004.

The travelling exhibitions, workshops and, above all, the roughly quarterly issues of Camerawork magazine (1976-85), were hugely influential at a time when a wave of community-based photography projects were springing up in various parts of the capital and elsewhere. As a self-taught photographer working in uncharted territory, the opportunity to read about and discuss the work of those with greater knowledge and experience was invaluable. I contributed what I could, but learned a lot more.

For those wishing to explore this bygone world further, there is now also a North Paddington Community Darkroom Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, which includes a collection of laminated exhibition panels dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Meanwhile Gardens, North Paddington 1983
Dominica Democratic Association meeting, 510 Centre, 1977

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Dustbin of History: Kodachromes

It feels like sacrilege, but I am in the process of binning large numbers of Kodachromes.

In the days of colour film, Kodachrome was the gold standard. It's what the National Geographic photographers used, despite its now unthinkably slow speed (64 ASA, unless you were a masochist and went for the 25). It had other drawbacks: it had to be sent back to Kodak for processing, so couldn't be used on jobs that required a fast turnaround, and, to get the best out of it, accurate exposure was essential. But, correctly exposed, it produced transparencies with great colour, contrast and sharpness, and reputedly better archival stability than any other film. I used it on virtually all my foreign trips through the 1980s and 1990s.

It was only when picture desks started going digital, and image distribution switched from Royal Mail or motorcycle courier to FTP and email, that another disadvantage was revealed: Kodachrome's unique emulsion structure made it quite tricky to scan. Getting the colour and contrast right was not straightforward, and Digital ICE automated dust-removal, which worked well on other colour film stocks, could not be used. That meant dust and scratches had to be removed by hand in Photoshop. Scanning Kodachromes was hard work.

However, that's not why they're in the bin. Distributing images shot on colour transparency film to multiple publications meant shooting multiple frames, or making duplicates after the event.  After each trip one set went into my own filing cabinet, and selections of 'similars' went off to the various picture libraries that also distributed my work. Over the last few years they have all come back, like long lost homing pigeons: many agencies have closed, and those that haven't no longer deal in hard copies.

Once an image has been digitised, identical copies can be made effortlessly, with no loss in quality. There's no need for 'seconds' or spares. So, although I can't bring myself to throw away the original of anything worth scanning, I've finally got round to trawling through the stacks of returned suspension files, comparing 'similars', keeping the best, and dumping the rest.  What I'm doing is completely logical - it just feels like an unforgivable sin.

Pictured above is a binful of hundreds of slides from two trips to the Dominican Republic, for Christian Aid in 1983, and Oxfam in 1991. Scans of some of those I've kept are here.

Dominican Republic 1991

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Rodney Bickerstaffe, 1945-2017

NUPE Conference 1988
For most of the 1980s the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) was one of my most regular, and most enjoyable, sources of work. Its members were the unsung heroes of our public services – ambulance drivers, cleaners, carers, caretakers, cooks, dustmen, home helps, hospital porters and other NHS ancillary staff, street cleaners and more – and my commissions for the NUPE Journal gave me the opportunity to visit a huge variety of workplaces and meet the people who worked in them (more about that here).

The monthly assignments also meant I frequently photographed the union's General Secretary, Rodney Bickerstaffe, whose untimely passing was announced this week. It was always a pleasure. He was wise, witty, warm and, above all, a fantastic public speaker. He will be sorely missed.

Speaking for a national minimum wage at the TUC 1986