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Archive for June, 2013

Wayne was asked by The Big Issue about his views on housing. Find out what he had to say!

Are architects reluctant to get their hands dirty with affordable housing?

It’s a difficult time for a lot of architects to earn money. Even really good ones can take on housing development and get bullied – to some extent – out of delivering their original vision by the developer. And some of the big architects who don’t need the money don’t bother with housing because it can get just too fiddly. They prefer big commercial projects. And of course, some of the big housing developers don’t really use architects, just architectural technicians who are not about creativity or liveability – just basic engineering. Architects have to be able to have the discourse and, if needed, the arguments with the builder.

Has housing policy – and obsession with house prices – influenced the kind of architecture that has held sway in Britain?

Enormously. If you’re building a house with a view to making money rather than thinking of it as a place to live, it has an impact. Buy to Let is not about liveability – the people buying often don’t care about a sense of place or quality. We need more choice, and that means a massive building programme. There seems to be too many people keen to maintain the status quo, it not being in their interest to flood the market with a choice of new homes and rental options.

And surely a better range of options would include much more social housing?

Yes, whatever you call it – I prefer to use council housing – we need more from councils, RSLs and private landlords with a conscience. There’s a whole generation out for whom council housing can be a very good option, despite the fact the term has had very negative connotations. I think there’s a generation who’d welcome it rather than having to deal with some of the private landlords out there. But there is a new crop of landlords out there like Get Living London who are starting out with a refreshing attitude.

You’re an advocate of renovating empty homes. Are there any building types than can’t be re-modelled?

Some of the stuff from the late eighties and even more recently, in the early noughties, is so bad it won’t be able to be re-modelled. It’s so characterless and was built in characterless areas, with no thought about public space. That kind of housing is what happens when greed takes over, and housing becomes about quick return and not somewhere to live, when there’s no thought about aesthetics or the long-term future of an area.

Is there any architecture that’s resistant to fashion, of a quality that makes it timeless?

I think the Victorian and Edwardian terraces prove it can be done. Some new developments like Accordia in Cambridge, I think will last. I like to think what we’ve done in Gateshead has avoided the vagaries of fashion. House interiors, and often exteriors can be changed, but place is the most important thing: what you feel like when you arrive back in your street. People buy into places well connected to what you need – access to shops, schools, bus and train stations, places to kick a football, walk the dog and ride a bike. Given these things, human beings are very resourceful in taking a building and adapted it to their current lifestyle and taste.

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London has always been a magnet for those in search of heavy doses of culture .Thirty odd years ago Gerardine and I moved from our native East Lancashire to London because there were more clubs, more places to buy cool clothes, more indie cinemas, more bands to see. We settled, set up our business and over the years have employed hundreds of people. In the early days of Red or Dead, we did set up a manufacturing unit in Blackburn and today we have manufacturing licencees based there including Graham & Brown and Crown Paints and later in the year we are taking a version of our Vintage Festival to my birth town, Morecambe. But there can be no questioning that most of our economic activity has taken place and benefitted London. 

In the 34 years that we have been in London, we have seen the city go from the strength to strength and become arguably the world’s greatest capital city. London has continued to prosper during a downturn that has seen our home region and many others suffer terribly and London has continued to attract young people for the same reasons as it did with Gerardine and I. 

However it isn’t as easy for today’s ‘migrants’. Accommodation is so expensive (we bought a 3 bedroom house in North West London for a little over £20,000 in the early 80s) and the cheap rents that allowed us to ‘have a go’ at retail (£6 per day on Camden Market and £60 a week for a shop on Neal Street, Covent Garden) just don’t exist anymore. 

This article in The Guardian contains some shocking statistics and its impact radiates out through the inner and outer suburbs.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2013/jun/20/prime-central-london-property-bubble

The article highlights the fact that 7000 new homes were sold in central London in 2012 and that 5000 went to overseas buyers (with 40% of these being bought by Chinese and Singaporean’s). Savills believe that 50% of these are left empty for investment (capital appreciation) or only used a couple of weeks a year.

I have always understood that this inward investment has its benefits but have questioned whether these outweigh the negatives and often wondered if we should be trialling the Australian system where developers can only sell a small proportion of their new development to overseas investors?

However, positive chap that I am, I am increasingly wondering if there is a potential silver lining in how difficult it is to move to London from a UK town today and survive and prosper in the way that Gerardine and I did? If the expense of living in London starts to put a restless, creative demographic off moving then surely some of them will start to create a lifestyle that suits them in their hometown? 

Our regional towns and cities could surely benefit from a London that welcomed the international monied set at the expense of folk closer to home.

Maybe, just maybe, a generation will start to see their regional home town as a place of opportunity with affordable town centre space and in some towns housing that anyone with a ounce of determination can afford.

In the same Guardian there was a further example of £1 homes:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2013/jun/22/houses-1-pound-charity-empty-homes

Stoke on Trent is following Liverpool as a town that is being forward thinking when it comes to its terrace streets that need serious rejuvenation. If you are earning £18,000 pa, don’t own a house, and agree to carry out some internal works (on top of the £42,000 that the housing association will pay to cover essential works) then for £1 you are solving one of life’s insurmountable for some of this generation .

For some it just might be worth forsaking London for?

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When Gerardine and I started our design careers over 30 years ago we quickly learnt that designers can’t get very far without expert and efficient manufacturing behind them. 

Our first Red or Dead collection was manufactured in a freezing cold, old subdivided (by breeze blocks) mill in Blackburn. After Macy’s New York came into Kensington Market and placed an order for Gerardine’s first range of clothing, my mum bravely packed in her job, sourced some second hand industrial sewing machines from a local nurses uniform maker that had closed down, and set up the Red or Dead manufacturing unit in Roe Lee Mills. One of Gerardine’s sisters joined the team and along with a few local ladies. We were off and running.

We learnt so much about design and business through our little factory and when we started to design shoes a couple of years later without the support of a wonderful chap, Mr Everard of Frank Wright Footwear in Kettering, who taught us so much about footwear and helped us for years as we expanded and needed new sources of manufacturing, Red or Dead would not have become the household name that it became in the 80s and 90s.

At HemingwayDesign today, we try our utmost to make our products in the UK. It makes sense to do that. Having a close relationship with a manufacturer really helps to achieve products that are fit for purpose and look exactly as you hoped for when you imagined them. Having a manufacturer who is almost always on hand means that you have an indispensible expert as part of your team as invariably the manufacturer can add something to the design concept that will add to its saleability. There is the sustainability argument and the security of supply (we are no longer as important to China as their home market continues to grow) and, whilst its stating the bleedin’ obvious, manufacturing means jobs and boy we need those.

We seemed to go through a period where making stuff in a factory was not seen as great career option. Maybe that attitude comes from people who have never experienced the joy and sense of pride and achievement that we often experience when we go round the factories where our products are made.

The smell of fresh cut timber where our ShackUp sheds are made at Shires in Wisbech always puts us on a high.The modern G Plan sofa factory in Melksham, Wiltshire where the beautifully crafted G Plan Vintage range is made is a joy to behold. Every time we go, there is a new process being tried out and new ways of reducing packaging. There are craftsmen spending weeks on ensuring that the comfort levels are so high that you don’t want to get off their sofa’s.

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A couple of weeks ago we were at the Wedgewood Factory in Stoke where we are embarking on a new product range.

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Seeing the modern automated kilns juxtaposed with the detailed handwork of skilled artists who clearly loved what they were doing was a moving experience. Try telling these men and women that a job working in front of a computer screen trading money is a great way to spend your working day.

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Making and manufacturing is part of what we are as human beings and did. We fight hard enough to prevent so much of it being lost to Britain over the past decades. We have seen the end result in the North East Lancashire towns that Gerardine and I grew up in as they became decimated as their raison d’etre, their soul, textile manufacturing, evaporated at pace.

Sometimes society and countries can make a mistake and ours has been to forget about the joy of making and to an extent denigrate or at least, not champion manufacturing. Mistakes can be rectified, the publics appreciation of quality over price can be nurtured and we can support a generation of entrepreneurs, crafts people and makers who “get” this joy.

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I am an avid people watcher. A big part of the joy of being in town and city centres is that there are just so many people to watch. I suppose in my line of work people watching is pretty important. At HemingwayDesign we subscribe to the idea that, “design is about improving things that matter in life” and you can only understand what matters in life, to a wide range of people with differing taste, by observing. So as I pass through streets I have never been one to wear headphones and get “lost in music”. I rarely use my journeys through town centres as time to catch up with folk on my mobile and daydreaming when there is all that human stuff going on, it’s never an option. So as I walk to a meetings my eyes are normally scanning horizontally “clocking” how folk are dressed, taking in hair and makeup styles, checking out the bikes people are riding and how they are riding them, looking at shopping habits through glass shop fronts, looking at the food they have chosen, are they out with friends, work colleagues, family, or on their own? What phones are they using?

In some places architecture creates a distraction that alters my line of vision. Glasgow’s Merchant City is one such place. I defy anyone with the slightest interest in what man can achieve through the built environment, not to be in awe of the place where we are holding The Vintage Festival in a few weeks.
Glasgow became known as the second city of The British Empire for trade and also for entertainment and this has left a wonderful architectural legacy. Candleriggs, the area where Vintage is focused houses has the City Halls. Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde was amongst the famous names to appear there. We can offer some great live bands and DJ’s, you will meet some great characters hosting workshops, even in the Vintage Hair and Beauty Salon, but maybe not anyone as famous as these two!

So whilst your dancing, shopping, watching films and fashion shows, eating, drinking and looking at all that human and vehicular eye candy at Vintage this July, look up and take in those magnificent buildings that have been bequeathed to us. The Old Fruitmarket where our dance events including The Torch Club , The Soul Casino and Let it Rock are taking place is the most amazing venue we have ever held a Vintage event.

Here are some pictures to wet your appetite.

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Make sure you have a wander and take in the myriad of architectural masterpieces that pepper the Merchant City, from the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall to the grand George Square and my favorite historic building in Glasgow, the City Chambers. Make sure you go inside and then just look upwards!

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Glasgows Merchant City

[The City Chambers has free tours Monday – Friday every week. The People’s Palace on Glasgow Green, the new Riverside and Kelvingrove Museums, are all free and child friendly.]

Read more about Merchant City’s obscure history.

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I have “mouthed off” pretty regularly these last few years about our high streets and town centres. 

One recurrent thought that I am having is “is it time to consign the term high street to history and to just talk about town centres?”

Is the term “high street “outmoded and a product of some human thinking and extreme behaviour that we are learning to correct and temper?
Many of us have started to associate the term “high street” with chain stores and mass, uniform consumption, all terms that do not have very positive connotations. At a time when “ human scale” “bespoke” , “conviviality” , “making”, “fresh” , “inspiring”, “craft “ are the concepts being embraced by a young generation who are having to deal with an economic landscape bequeathed by a couple of greedy generations before them , does “high street” work? 

Where are the most desirable places to hang out? They are rarely classed as “high streets” but rather, more eclectic , less corporate parts of our towns and cities like Manchester’s Northern Quarter, London’s Broadway Market , the Mitte in Berlin or Williamsburg in New York. What they all are parts of our “Town Centres”? They are all in locations where people have traditionally gathered to discuss and debate, meet folk, trade and do what most of us love to do, watch the world go by and watch others go about their business. 

Does that “business” need to be rows of chain stores, often selling something not that different from another chain store 50 metres away and often offering us no connection to the provenance of what they are selling? 

I know that critics will again have a go at what I am saying, arguing that this is a middle class view of the world , that it’s the view of a hipster (well I am far too old to classed as a hipster! And isn’t it about time that those cynics stopped knocking people who are trying to do things differently?) I still understand the value of bespoke, Gerardine and started with nothing, Red or Dead started on a market stall, and under our ownership it remained devoutly “indie” and was nothing but serendipitous. We always sought out and took risks (albeit low cost ones) on up and coming areas and didn’t set out to “displace the indigenous population” as we opened in offbeat areas of London (yes Neal Street, Rupert St and the like was offbeat in the early 80s), Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Vancouver et al.

At Red or Dead we experienced at close quarters the battle that “indies” have with trying to get retail outlets in high trafficked locations. We were turned down by countless pension funds who had snapped up town centre commercial properties and would only lease them to retailers like Next, and Oasis with large covenants (replace that with corporate structures and large overdrafts!)

So many “high streets “ are now largely in the control of pension funds and in instances these pension funds would rather keep their empty units, just that, empty, and maintain the “book value” of these units rather than rent them to someone who can’t afford the inflated rents that the likes of Jessops, Woolworths, Zavi and Blockbuster were paying.

Town centres could be so much more than high streets full of chain stores and empty units. Can we not accept that in some cases the “book value” of the pension fund owned stores is a thing of the past, and that if the real market value were applied to them then we might get back a town centre that was interesting? Yes it would hurt our pensions in the short term, but it would mainly hurt a generation that has left a relatively bleak landscape for the generation below them, it’s the least we could do.

I’m dreaming, but just think of how attractive and interesting a town centre could be if it were to contain all those interesting trades and makers that formed part of the vibrancy in the past. Add to the “baker the butcher, the candlestick maker “ a graphic designer going about his or her business and offering as an aside a bespoke birthday card service. Wouldn’t it be great to watch a craftsman making a chair or architects at their drawing boards? It might just inspire a generation that making and creating stuff is a real option.

So let’s let go of the term “high street” and celebrate town centres, places where people get together to enjoy being together and seeing what people get up to. It’s not as if this has not always been the case from the Roman forum to London’s Southbank Centre; places of human discourse with shopping, entertainment and food and drink thrown in, work.

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Over the past 13 years in the course of the various urban design and housing projects that HemingwayDesign have been involved in I have met hundreds of elected town councillors and presented to a good number of town council committees. On most occasions, the councils I have met have been dominated by retired or semi retired folk. I am full of admiration for people who give of their time to serve their communities for “allowances “that are far from generous (The average councillor works 22 hours and receives an allowance of £6099 per annum, equating to £5.38 ph *1). However when the average age is 60 (that’s the highest in Europe) and 43 .3% are retired (the second highest is France at 30.2% *2), when from 1997 to today the proportion under 45 has fallen from 18.4 per cent to 13.1 per cent (*1), then we surely have a problem. 

I class myself as a fairly “with it” 52 year old and work in an industry where it pays to make great efforts to understand what them there young un’s are thinking , are up to, what they want . But I can’t hope to be fully “down with the kids“. I can talk to younger generations about how social media has and is changing the way they conduct relationships, I can try and get under the skin of how they are having to adapt to an economic landscape that is far different, in many places, than when I left home in the 70s. But I am not there living it. Neither am I a woman (only 31 of councillors are women) and like 96 % of town councillors I am white in a population where over 10 per cent are from ethnic minorities.

Anecdotally, many people think that local councillors have very little influence on our lives but that is far from the truth. Local councillors impact on planning applications (are all middle class 65 year old guys likely to fully understand the desperate need for first time buyer housing and is he going to allow it “in his backyard”? ), on education, health provision, public transport, leisure (and that includes those noisy nightclubs!) , the environment and more.

So what can we do to try and ensure that local councillors really represent the diversity of the public they represent and help deliver the localism and the noble but poorly thought through and “running on empty, Big Society” project?

The concept of being a local councillor needs to be seen as a positive way to be a citizen and to serve your community and not derided by the media as it so often is. Once public service in the form of being a councillor is seen as an honourable thing to be doing that impacts positively with employees and with your peers then it would have a good basis to address the current imbalances. The media can play the lead role in this.

We need young people to understand that if there isn’t enough to do in your town , that if the council keep turning down that licence for a live venue , that if there is land that could be used for affordable housing then they can have a voice that can be heard.

There is reluctance from town councillors to vote for an increase in the paltry remuneration. Is there any wonder when the likes of the Daily Mail writes headlines aimed to cause outrage like ‘Doing your civic duty never paid so well: How councillors’ payouts have soared as local services face savage cuts?’ With such a large proportion of councillors being retired then maybe there is less of a need to vote for increased allowances. This can only lead to a vicious circle where the young can’t afford to give of their time.

We need employees to be generous and understand that local councillors need time off to do their duty and that their knowledge and understanding of society can have an impact in the workplace. Without this generosity then how can we get parents with kids and those with a mortgage to contemplate public office?

And surely there is a need to make it clear that serving as a town councillor is about serving your community rather than serving a political party? Yet 92% of councillors represent a political party. (*1)) 

I personally have been wrestling with this for the past few years now, but with a large family (and with one child still at school), with a business to run and with less time sleeping than I could probably do with, I haven’t been able to practice what I am preaching above. I may be 60 before I feel I am in a position to do something about it! 

*1 http://www.dmu.ac.uk/about-dmu/news/2013/january/why-people-are-put-off-becoming-councillors.aspx
*2 http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/samir-jeraj/england-needs-influx-of-young-diverse-councillors
*3 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1357034/Councillors-payouts-soared-local-services-face-savage-cuts.html#ixzz2V7wdHfLe 

Further Reading 

http://www.opm.co.uk/if-councillors-were-better-paid-would-local-government-be-better-off-part-12/

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