Monday, 30 November 2009

St Giles, Renzo Piano and a cast of outcasts

The five blocks of Central Saint Giles have clambered onto the London skylineClad in 5,479 yellow, orange, green and red ceramic panels, the blocks tower over Henry Flitcroft's church of St-Giles-In-The-Fields (click on photo to enlarge). The two-acre complex also creeps up on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue, Centre Point and Denmark Street, London's electric guitar alley, writes Paul Coleman. 

Architect Renzo Piano's development promises 'a new public realm' just off St Giles High Street, one of London's forgotten thoroughfares. 
The new edifice rises in an area rich in history because so many of its former inhabitants, many of whom were Irish immigrants, were crippled by poverty. It's close to the site of the 'Rookery', a notoriously overcrowded London slum.
Burials in St Giles' churchyard ceased in 1853 after public health fears. 
The ruinous Gin craze of the 17th Century destroyed many lives in St Giles.

Some claim highwayman Claude Duval was buried at St Giles after being hung at Tyburn in 1670.
Earlier, many Londoners accused St Giles' dwellers for starting the Great Plague of 1665.
The church started out as a hospital for lepers.
St Giles was also thought to have been a Saxon village and a Roman burial ground.
Aptly, given its inhabitants' tortuous history, St Giles was named after the patron saint of outcasts. 

Bovis and Stanhope's joint development will offer new offices, private and 'affordable' homes, shops, restaurants, caf├ęs and a public piazza.
Central Saint Giles replaces the demolished St Giles Court office block. 
Built in the early 1950s,the old block housed the former Ministry of Aviation. 
In recent years, spiked railings and banks of CCTV cameras protected this Cold War remnant. 
Grimed net curtains concealed a vast array of darkened, seemingly empty rooms. Mysteriously, lights could be seen shining from one upper floor.
To add to its mystery and menace, I've heard it was still being used by MI5, er...sorry, the Ministry of Defence. 
Only falling London Plane tree leaves, the odd beer can and wandering plastic bags evaded the railings. 
Look closely at the tree branches in the photo (above). 
The mysterious block might've disappeared but you can see that 'witches knickers' still like to visit St Giles. 

Want to see for yourself? Nearest tube:Tottenham Court Road.
Nearest cool coffee place? Ola, on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Photo (above) shows Central Saint Giles, the white buildings next to Centre Point, as shown on the huge model of London displayed at The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, WC1. The blue line shows the Crossrail route east and west of Tottenham Court Road. Of course, Crossrail will run underground beneath central London!

Nearest cool coffee place: Er...the coffee bar in the foyer of The Building Centre!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Carrots and homes, sticks and jobs

I’ve learnt recently that some London councils might begin to favour unemployed council home seekers if they agree to actively look for work or sign up to training courses, writes Paul Coleman. Distilled, councils want to say:  'If you want the council to find you a home, then help yourself by getting into training or find a job.' 

It’s a carrot and stick manoeuvre to try and reverse a situation where social housing has become a refuge for people who aren't working.  Andrew Baikie, Newham’s lead councillor for housing, tells me his east London borough is looking at legal ways to give added weight to jobless council home applicants who can show they’re seeking, obtaining and - crucially - holding down a job. 

Newham, like most councils, allows applicants to choose and pursue tenancies through a Choice Based Lettings scheme. Applicants are more likely to be successful if they've enough points or are in the right 'band'. “I think one of our CBL options may be to put in a new housing band,” hints Baikie. “If people need to find work to get into a particular housing band, that might work.”

However, another idea is that working age members of families in temporary accommodation who show no intention of finding work might have to wait longer for a council place than those who do want to train or work. “There’s a need for the right blend of carrot and stick,” says Baikie.

Another plan is to offer shorthold tenancies to younger jobless members of overcrowded households once they've agreed to join a training scheme. A typical target is a jobless young man, aged 20 or over, who lives with his parents and siblings in a cramped home. 
But will the smaller ‘harder to let’ housing association flats on offer be enough to lure unemployed young people into training? Over 80% of new housing association tenants under 25 are jobless. It’s a plan being hatched by London councils, including Camden. 

Housing law says local councils must consider every application; and that's unlikely to change. 
But these discretionary London schemes are catching the eye of national politicians on the look out for vote-winning policies for 2010. 

As always, your thoughts are welcome.
You can read more about this approach to council housing in an article I've written for the November 2009 edition of 24 housing, a magazine for housing professionals. Or you can visit

Friday, 27 November 2009

No newts is good news

Thought I'd share with you some birds' eye views of the 2012 Olympic Park in Stratford, east London. (Just click on each image to big them up!) Excuse the poor quality. I snapped these on 28 October, a damp and dull morning.

Games events at the Olympic Stadium (above) will attract 80,000 capacity crowds. Another 17,000 will be seated beneath the Pringle-shaped roof of the Aquatics Centre (below).

My vantage point was a balcony at the top of the Omega Works apartment block on Fish Island (see photo on previous post). The Olympic Delivery Authority leases a flash penthouse to give hacks and snappers an overview of one of Europe’s biggest ever construction sites. Apparently, Amy Winehouse is a neighbour. But Amy wasn't home so my host was Hugh Sumner, the ODA's Transport Director. Over 400,000 people could rock up at Stratford on busy Games days. If transport chaos ensues, the buck will stop with Sumner. 

However, I found Sumner to be bullish. The ODA’s Transport Plan will work, he told me. You can't argue  with a confident man, though I did try. You can read my encounter with Sumner in the latest edition of RAIL magazine (Issue 631. A few copies still grace WH Smith’s shelves).

The 633-acre Olympic Park site once comprised filthy canals and rivers, silting through a labyrinth of roads, rail lines, sidings, goods yards and a rail freight terminal. It was dotted with allotments, a greyhound stadium, derelict land, warehouses, and salvage yards. For folks in possession of hundreds of used car tyres, the river was a popular dumping spot.

The low-lying, marshy land needed extensive decontamination for the Games. Immense ‘soil hospitals’ processed site soils and canal silt for reuse (above). 
Over 200 buildings were demolished.
Power cables were moved into two new 6km tunnels. 
Overhead pylons were removed. 
New sewerage pipes was installed. 
Thickets of invasive Japanese knotweed were destroyed. 
Before the diggers tasted earth, the ODA proudly boast 2000 newts and 100 common toads were ‘translocated’ from the rivers. 
‘Cute newts scoot’ croaked the front page headline of Pond Life...

More about London 2012 in future posts.