Coventry

This is a third poem from a larger collection of mostly new poems. I won’t publish them all online: I want them to appear in print. But – I want to give people a flavour. You can read others here.

It is an attempt to write a picture of England in 2017, through a series of poems about place. It is based on my travel and research. I’m aiming for 100 poems.

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Coventry

“Basil Spence is a prophet
Who seeks to proclaim the Word of God
In modern ways”

Spence had liberated Chartres, cold and dead;
he knew churches needed life –
so started with a model
that cost as much as a house,
for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition;

then he built his new cathedral
from the inside out.
Fed by Bishop Gorton’s understanding
of people and liturgy,
of choir and canons and clergy and communion,

Spence drew pools of lightness,
wove tapestry in stone,
coloured glass, etched glass, copper frames,

thought about the fastness of dye,
the geodetic construction of a bomber,
Gothic ribs, the facets of a fly’s eye,
radio pylons as he reached higher, further.

“It is going to be built, it is going to be built”
in Spain, over and over and over,
until English ideas and Danish engineering
let the disciplined grid of Spence’s vaulted ceiling soar.

John Laings, builders,
gave all their profits back.

The last flame from the burnt cathedral
lit candles on the newest altar;
the first and last,
alive for evermore amen.

Worthing’s favourite developers

For some time, Worthing’s been singing to the tune of one local property developer. Roffey Homes are behind a number of developments in the town.

Established in 1960 as a building company, it’s since 2000 that the company has taken off; all the directors are members of the Cheal family, and presumably the change in direction came when the children took over their father’s business. All Roffey Homes work is carried out by Westbrooke Developments – registered at the same address and with the same set of company directors.

Everything Roffey Homes build is billed as ‘iconic’ but in fact, they’re all pretty bland regeneration-lite architecture. It’s all blocky, all crams as many ‘luxury flats’ into as small a site as possible, all degrades the public realm with poor integration with the street, and is all aimed not at local people who need homes, but at people who wanted a second home by the sea, or somewhere to commute from. In short; they’re not developments that are good for Worthing’s people.

Worthing Pier

They’re not the kind of buildings that are recognised as good planning anywhere (Jacobs, Mumford and Tibbalds are all turning in their graves), but in a town that’s been desperate for change (pre-Roffey, there have been no significant developments since the 1970s) and which has a large incoming population who don’t understand the grain of the town’s history, they’re big shiny signs that change is happening. Council officers can point and them and say ‘we’re delivering regeneration’ and councillors can say; ‘look what was built on my watch!’ It’s a great example of the Politician’s Syllogism:

We must do something, this is something, we must do this.

But actually the ‘something’ is doing huge damage, although it’ll probably be 20 years before the scale of that is understood. Remember that the Guildbourne Centre, and the Marks & Spencer site on the seafront, and even the old Aquarena were all seen as high-quality when they were built.

The first major Roffey development destroyed a lovely 1930s block, Roberts Marine Mansions. This building belonged to one of London’s trade guilds, and provided homes for retired tailors and haberdashers. It was built with care and class, full of beautiful period details, windows and railings and reliefs on the walls, and was knocked down in the late 1990s to build a pastiche Art Deco block where apartments sell for twice the local average home and 17 times the average local wage.

That’s a pattern they’ve continued on the site of the Warnes Hotel, Eardley Hotel and Beach Hotel, all landmark buildings demolished to build cheap pastiches full of luxury apartments.

And those three developments do further damage, removing any hopes of tourism growth in Worthing at a time when UK tourism is in growth. A recent report suggested that demand for affordable hotel and guesthouse accommodation is high, and the existing businesses turn away trade, and that there’s a local need for an ‘incremental growth in accommodation supply and a focus on high quality, modern accommodation offers that can generate new business.’ It says that Premier Inn are looking for an 80 rooms site locally, and there’s further potential to develop the market for accommodation from kite surfers and watersports markets.

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Even worse is the way that the developments are segregated from the town. The Warnes site and the neighbouring Eardley development are both at key points on Worthing seafront, providing the link between the town centre and pier, and the revamped East Beach, fast becoming the new centre of beach life in the town. But both developments are walled off, providing aggressive frontages and contributing nothing to the street. The Warnes building (pictured above) has a wall at street level. Neither building has entrances or windows at street level. They’re very carefully excluded from public life, and not for local people.

That goes against the successful regeneration of this area of Worthing, too, which has all been about fine grain, people-scaled urbanism. The success of Craft:Pegg’s public realm at Splash Point (pictured below), the East Beach Studios, even the new swimming pool itself, are because of their friendly scale.

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And incredibly – Roffey Homes latest plan is even worse. Worthing Borough Council spent over £17 million building a new swimming pool, to replace the larger 1960s Aquarena. To give you something to compare that to, it’s the same cost as Margate’s Turner Contemporary, which has attracted over 1.5 million visitors to the town and has generated acres of press coverage. To fund this expensive new pool, with a pirate ship inside named after local councillor Paul Yallop, the old Aquarena site would be sold for development. It’s a prime beachfront site, at the edge of Worthing’s string of Victorian parks and butting up against the new swimming pool’s expensive (and genuinely iconic) architecture.

Aquarena

Roffey’s proposal for this important spot? a twenty storey towerblock (taller than any other building in Worthing) providing more exclusive apartments. It’s clad in something white, has a poor rhythm of jumbled windows, and has a string of cheap balconies up the sea side, A cluttered jumble of low rise blocks and some privatised public space at the bottom complete the proposals. Is it good? No. It’s cheap architecture, it doesn’t relate in any way to the location, it contributes little to the expected future of this active beach and it crams homes into a small site, straining local infrastructure. Schools locally are full, the small grid of local roads often at gridlock and the next door pool often has long queues.

Residents already expressed their concerns, at a series of consultations in June; but the developers have ignored them and come back with a towerblock the same size.

And it’ll probably get permission, because Worthing Borough Council need to pay down their large debts on the neighbouring pool. Councillor Bryan Turner, in charge of regeneration, said before any plans were even drawn up that “I look forward to working with Roffey Homes, to bring another high quality development to Worthing.” When you have the council’s Cabinet Member as your cheerleader, you must feel pretty confident.

Thanet Press plans refused

TP1It was a bit of an honour to be asked to speak at Thanet District Council’s planning committee last night. I was there on behalf of our local residents, asking the council to turn down plans for a large site on the road where I live. The former Thanet Press works is a lovely jumble of buildings from the earlier Bobby & Co, the first Victorian printers on the site, up to 1950s modernist blocks built when Thanet Press was part of the publisher Eyre & Spotiswoode. I’ve written about the history of the site previously. The plans are to replace this with two large blocks of flats, one storey higher than the surrounding terraces and over twice the height of any buildings currently on the site. The current facade, a pleasing jumble of buildings in different styles, would become one big, uniform building – a tower block laid on it’s side and dressed in an amateur dramatic company’s version of a Georgian costume.

Our ward councillor, Iris Johnston, had called for the plans to be seen by the full committee, after planning, traffic and conservation officers all recommended refusal. And Iris spoke on behalf of the developers last night, who she confirmed she’d had a number of meetings with. She reinforced her credentials as a supporter of the Armed Forces, and suggested that the 64 one and two bed flats to be crammed into the site might be ‘Homes For Heroes’ (there’s no evidence that this is the plan). Iris was taking a brave stand, speaking out against 34 of her constituents, the Resident’s Association in her ward, the town’s Conservation Area Advisory Group, and the council’s own officers, who’d all objected to the plans – not one local had written in support of them. Iris asked for any decision to be deferred, to allow a site visit to the collection of buildings which are just across the road from the council’s offices.

TP2Thankfully, councillors disagreed with her, with Cllr. Clive Hart pointing out that he’d walked past the site at least a thousand times. The plans were refused unanimously, fourteen committee votes against them.

Here’s what I said last night:

Good evening Chair and members; my name is Dan Thompson. I am a Union Crescent resident  and am speaking on behalf of the Hawley Square Residents Association.

We urge committee members to refuse this application for all the reasons raised by Planning Officers. Residents would like to draw attention to 4 points:

1. Density
Margate Central is already densely populated, and is one of the most deprived areas in the UK with a high concentration of small flats. Existing houses in Union Crescent are split into as many as six flats.
The small flats attract a transient population, which causes problems which the council’s planning department, the Margate Task Force and our ward councillor are aware of.

The housing strategy says we have too many small flats and not enough family houses – a fact highlighted when we moved here, from Worthing, and struggled to find a family home to rent. This scheme proposes 64, 1 and 2-bed flats. This is completely against policy. Instead of addressing a need, this development would make a problem situation, worse. Cllr Hayton spoke earlier about cramming – this is cramming on a massive scale.

2. Highways
These additional flats with 1 parking space will be harmful to the amenity of all neighbours, and is against policy D1.
The strain on street parking and pedestrian movement highlighted in the officer’s report is increased by large numbers driving in from elsewhere and using the mosque, churches and the Theatre Royal. And this in a road already busy with buses and delivery lorries. We are particularly concerned about the problem of crossing at the top of Pump Lane and note the Highways Officer’s concerns about crossings for those with impaired mobility.

3. Heritage
Union Crescent is in a Conservation area. It is lined with a variety of fine buildings, many grade II listed.
The collection of industrial buildings that form Thanet Press are unique and tell the story of earlier prinetsr on this site and of a nationally-important company, founded in 1770, printing everything from bibles to Royal Wedding invitations and exam papers. Policy says these buildings should be protected or enhanced. Wiping out this history would be harmful to the Conservation Area.

The massive block of flats proposed would be overbearing and even more harmful to Union Crescent,  Princes Street and its Listed neighbours.

Demolition and redevelopment is only permitted if it would enhance the Conservation area. This does not enhance the area, and should be refused because it is against national policy and local policy D1.

The existing buildings can adapted and re-used. Their heritage celebrated. Other developers do this –The Vinyl Factory in West London, Butler’s Wharf on the Thames and Circus Street Market in Brighton are all premium developments because of their history.

There is no evidence of any attempt to preserve these buildings and people like me, who’ve approached the agents, have never had a reply, or have been told the site is unavailable.

4. Employment
Which leads to my final point; employment. Thanet Press at one time provided employment for 300 people. While the economy has changed, there is still a need for employment in the area, which has above average unemployment.

At the same time, businesses like mine are unable to find suitable premises and creative studios and coworking spaces across the town – of which there are a remarkably high number – are all at capacity.
No other site in Margate lends itself so well to a mixed ecology of studios, offices, spaces for small-scale manufacture, live-work units – all with an excellent street-facing façade and just a minute from the old town which is also at full capacity. This is in line with both local and national policy.

Thanet Press boarded up is a problem; but opened up by good development and new use, this could be the biggest opportunity Margate has to embed the emerging creative economy in the town centre.

Thank you.

nb The above is taken from my notes and is not a transcript of what was said so may vary slightly from any recording.

Worthing’s new swimming pool

Side by side, the competition-winning design by Wilkinson Eyre, following a RIBA competition to design a new pool for Worthing; and the final design, after changes at the planning application stage.

While it’s great that Worthing is getting a new pool, a major civic investment, it concerns me that the design has been compromised.

In particular, the seafront elevation shown here doesn’t seem to blend well into the beach – and not shown here, will actually present a large wall to the beach. The connection to the neighbouring Esplanade, a 1930s raised walkway, has also been broken – and the walkway itself partially demolished ‘for security reasons’. The cantilevered cafe (on the right) has been reduced in height and thrust, losing the drama of the curved form, the cantilever and the cladding in the process – and in fact the cafe will now be to the north of the building, overlooking the road and not the seafront.

But perhaps most importantly the charm of the original wiggling roof, which looks like the patterns made by waves in sand, has been lost in favour of a more industrial form.

After getting the public behind the initial designs, I think those involved in planning, architecture and regeneration need to keep talking, educating and informing their audience about the process of urban design; and as importantly, managing expectations. This isn’t just about this small building in Worthing – it something to consider for all planning and regeneration projects, particularly if we want local people to become more engaged with the process and practice of urbanism.

in this case, we’re getting a good pool, but not the great one we were expecting.

(images Wilkinson Eyre Architects/ Worthing Borough Council shared with kind permission of Paul Yallop, Worthing Borough Council)