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“A two-day “festival of cycling” will be the first large-scale event to use the Olympic park when it reopens in 2013 after this year’s Games, the London mayor, Boris Johnson, announced on Thursday. The festival will culminate in a 100 mile race for amateurs and world class competitors starting at the Olympic Park that organisers say will be similar to the London Marathon – but for cyclists. Johnson said he wanted to create one of the world’s leading cycling events in the capital as part of the legacy of the Games.” – The Guardian

“Its going to be a fantastic feast of velocipedes. I have been conscripted for the 100 mile ride and I will perform. I will be a chiseled whippet by the end !” – Boris Johnson

As a patron of SUSTRANS, and someone who loves cycling in London, but who is peeved that London is still a country mile behind the likes of Copenhagen and Amsterdam in terms of cycling ease and safety. I hope this two day cycling extravaganza on the first weekend of August prompts more investment in enabling cycling to become easier and safer in the capitol. London has not been making fast enough progress for my liking.

London-Olympic-park-007
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For three decades now I have been know as part of a design team that has been known as questioning, independent, and over the past decade or so, champions of social and sustainable thinking.

Over the last few years we have begun to work with large corporate organisations, not to feed turnover, but because it has become increasingly clear that because of the scale and investment available, bold initiatives can be undertaken.

The likes of Greenpeace and WWF (and the legions of small activists) have done wonderful jobs in hounding and naming and shaming corporations who have failed to take the environment, sustainability and ethical trading seriously. Their tireless campaigning has made a significant section of the public aware and helped to build a business environment where it makes business sense to “care”.

Whatever the tipping point has been, my overwhelming experience is of corporate who now hold sustainability, the environment and ethical thinking at their core. They have set up corporate responsibility departments and whole segments of the business who are dedicated to this thinking. They have employed directors who are zealous and “dedicated to the cause”, directors who have significant budgets at their disposal. They now have the economies of scale to really start to make a difference.

The work we are doing with McDonalds (in collaboration with up cycling and re use  specialists Worn Again)  in terms of working out a system that allows the uniforms of their 88,000 UK staff to eventually be able to be made into new material to make new uniforms ad infinitum is bold, industry leading and takes considerable investment.

The project we have with Coca Cola promoting their move towards plastic bottles that have significant PET content  (in simple terms plastic derived from sugar cane and molasses) is forward thinking , helps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and ultimately, makes financial sense.

We learnt a decade ago, when we started working with (Taylor) Wimpey Homes that sustainable  projects of scale that resonate far and wide are much easier to deliver by collaborating with those that have most to gain (and to lose).

So it’s time for people to stop raising their eyebrows and look surprised that designers like us are choosing to work with the kind of corporations that the campaigning bodies that we support once hounded. Big Corporations are not The Devil incarnate they have an ability to lever their tremendous resources and some are now leading the way.

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In 1982 after an “experiment” of living in London, Mrs H and myself came across an old, unmodernized 3 bed Victorian terraced house in Wembley for sale at £22,500. We were close to the 10 per cent deposit needed to get a mortgage and with some help from our parents and grandparents we cobbled together enough and then sold some of the furniture that was being left to pay the conveyance fees.

Like many young couples owning a property was something that we felt was a must. We saw home ownership as a way to “stop wasting money” on renting, as a cheaper alternative to renting, and as a way to enjoy a bit creative home improvement. (more…)

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Any right minded person is saddened by the events of the last week. The mindless violence and wanton destruction is totally abhorrent and inexcusable. The immediate response from the government to promptly bring the perpetrators to justice is welcome but it’s the long term that we should all start to think about and act on quickly. (more…)

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I keep reading that there are a million empty homes at the moment in the UK  (and a further 300,000 empty commercial buildings). And we all know how there is a major, growing housing shortage.

I am not suggesting that it is easy to convert all these empty properties into homes but as a nation I don’t think we are doing our best.

Many commentators say that the majority of the empty homes are in the wrong location either in towns where there are no job opportunities or in the “wrong part of town”. But we have a growing creative industries sector (second largest employment sector in the UK), a sector that by its very nature and its early adoption of mobile technologies has made it  more footloose and fancy free than most sectors. Many “creatives” can run their businesses from home using Skype, Microsoft Mobile Office and the like.

What is more, for many of us “creatives” the idea of upcycling an old building is at the forefront of our planning for a home ahead of a new build house.

Could government be taxing empty properties (rather than the present 50% reduction on council tax that is offered to owners of empty properties?)

Could they be encouraging us to bring unloved streets and industrial buildings back to life by reducing (or abolishing) VAT on renovations? In Switzerland VAT on renovations was reduced to 5% and there was a net gain in income as activity rocketed. And doesn’t VAT on renovations bolster a “black economy”.

I have already written about my experience here.

The historic system for salvaging these properties was via the council, but because town halls no longer have money, we need to look at alternatives. We need mortgage companies to really support housing renovation and for the government to back their efforts.

My wife, Gerardine, and I wouldn’t be where we are now without the help we received and the work we put into our first house in Wembley, North London.

We stretched ourselves and got on to the housing ladder. That was back in 1982. That house was also a Victorian terrace and it was practically uninhabitable: it had had no Tender Loving Care since the turn of the century. It didn’t have any lights, the roof was a disaster, it had no heating, the chimneys were all blocked off, there were no proper bathrooms, the plumbing was a nightmare and the electrics were completely unsafe.

But when we bought it, Brent council was giving 90 per cent grants to do that work to kick start these streets back to life. We brought that house back to life. I go past it regularly and it is a thriving, lovely little street. So it worked.

It took us 18 months. We were just normal young couple and there are tens of thousands of normal young couples now like we were then who are willing to put in the effort. They would do exactly what we did if given the chance. But the problem is funding. We’re not talking about vast sums though. The irony is that banks would lend a young couple £100,000 for a new flat, but not £50,000 for an old house and a further £35,000 for renovation. I understand why: there’s a risk the couple would just pocket the £35,000.

So what we need is draw-down mortgages where banks release funds for each stage of repair. Yes, it would be hard work for the banks, but it would be worth it. The same applies to people in the same situation as Gerardine and I almost 30 years ago.

Putting that effort into your own home is part of learning to grow up and settle down in life. Most couples would jump at the chance of giving up a couple of nights out a week to work hard on getting a good home.

Our first house in Wembley

The mess it was in…

Twas great fun doing it up

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I realise that times have been and are still tough for most housebuilders and they have had to reign in and batten down the hatches (but they were hoisted by their own petard, see previous blogs), but they also seem to have put blinkers on and are burying themselves in the sand… a record number of sayings in one sentence here but they all do illustrate an industry that is shooting itself in the foot!

Britain is building the lowest number of homes since before the war; demand for new homes is at its highest since the war. Mortgages for first time buyers are difficult to say the least and some housebuilders are responding by building fewer homes for first time buyers and by building larger homes for those well established in the housing market.

Something has to give. I have a hunch that what will give is the desire from this and future generations to own a house (but maybe this will prevent more damaging, greed led, false economy, boom and busts in the housing market).

In Germany, which as we know has a much more stable economy than ours, and has a growing economy, home ownership is not a priority for most with only just over 40% owning. The rest rent from  a rental stock that on the whole is much  better maintained and presented than UK rental stock.  In the UK owner occupation has dropped in the past 5 years from over 70% to less than 68%.  A long way to go to reach German levels but with confidence in the housing market at a record low, with mortgages difficult to obtain, with unemployment fears and  with evidence that “having a good time” in terms of travel, eating and entertainment remains a priority and with housebuilders seemingly doing little to counter this trend we could well be in for a seismic shift in the industry.

The house building industry is going to need some wonderfully attractive product,  some clever ways of helping first time buyers and is going to need to be very smart indeed on all fronts if it is to not end up a shadow of its former self, and terminally so. They may come up with some novel financial model but few of them are capable of competing with Apple, Waitrose, Amazon and Last Minute for our money. Few of them understand design, few of them understand marketing. Few of them will ever recover from their current woes.

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The Government is currently doing “public consultation” on its proposed sell off of some publicly owned land. Ultimately it’s to save money as DEFRA (Dept for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs) has been tasked with cutting its budget significantly.

Polls are showing that 75% of us are against this and I am not going to echo all the well put arguments against that are in the public domain but I have got a couple of things to say.

There are disastrous precedents for selling off the nations “crown jewels”, the coastline being a prime example. I have lost count of the times when I am out running or cycling and have to take a detour inland because of a stretch of privatised coast. I abhor the fact that we can’t walk along the boundary of our country and it is taking the National Trust many millions of pounds and decades to buy our, and I stress our coastline back.

We don’t seem to learn. We are still in a financial hole caused by excessive and irresponsible mortgage lending that led to unsustainable over inflated house prices, a repeat of a “bubble” that had caused similar problems in the 80s. We all witness “planning creep”, whereby land that should never be built on gets change of use by stealth and sharp lawyers. We bemoan the loss of independent retailers and corner shops in our towns and cities, whilst allowing (and frequenting) the big chains to supplant them. Councils moan about the homogenisation of their town centres and loss of serendipity, yet it is often as a result of councils selling off property and land to pension funds who are one iota about contributing to “clone town Britain”.

In the long run any money saved now will quite likely be spent, and more, to buy back the woodlands as they are failed to be looked after. Britain has “previous”.

We are going to need laws and legal agreements more thorough than history often shows governments are capable of establishing if this isn’t going to end in another “weren’t we stupid”, in the way that weren’t we stupid to let Beecham close all those railways in the 60s.

Some things should be for the public good and our woodlands are one of those things.

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