Deptford Dockyard Clock in Thamesmead

Deptford Dockyard Clock in Thamesmead

And here is the Deptford Dockyard clock in situ in Thamesmead town centre.

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Deptford Dockyard clocktower

Deptford Dockyard clocktower

The 18th century Deptford Dockyard clock on its way down river to its new home in Thamesmead, 1986. It was given to Thamesmead by the GLC as they faced abolition “as something to remember the GLC by”

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Sitting in a ditch watching stars

After a good start with weekly blogs I seem to have fallen into Abeyance. It feels like a ditch I want to climb out of.

It’s been a stunning couple of months – which is probably why I feel like a cartoon character seeing spinning stars.

So I’ll just begin and hope there’s something of interest for everyone in this meze of odd experiences and learning.

It started with a 24-hour residential to help redesign the Community Organisers training programme. As we approach the final year of the programme, our task is to consolidate everything we have learned to create a new framework for the Foundations of Community Organising certificate course (along with other training offers like Digital Organising) to hand over to CoCo, the legacy body. This training is expected to be delivered through the Inspiration Network, a group of the most skilled graduate COs, hosts and other trainers. The IN is already operational and providing a great mentoring service within the current programme. Over time it will be opened up to include other trainers – watch out on for further news.

I left Staffordshire to head straight to Seoul, to join the international guests at the Global Social Economy Forum. I never particularly meant to go to South Korea – I was a last-minute stand-in, but now I’m a convert.

I keep mulling over the enormous contrast with Detroit – the last city that really blew me away. First the obvious – Seoul is economically thriving; it has one of the largest, safest public transport systems in the world; and you would have to search all day to find a building, or part of a building, that’s not in use. Detroit is technically bankrupt; has almost no public transport at all; and has a sadly-deserved reputation for crime and empty buildings.

Then the next layer – people eat well in Korea whereas Detroit is a food desert of Saharan proportions; South Koreans are taught to despise the neighbours over the border and the £8m Dorasan station built to cross the so-called ‘demilitarised zone’ (DeeEmZee) has never been used, whereas Detroit looks across the river at tranquil Canada but there are no non-car routes between them.

But in my personal experience these two cities do have some common ground. I walked them both – 6 miles down Woodward on a dark Detroit night, about the same in Seoul up and round Namsam, the mountain in the middle of the city. I met amazing people in both – Grace Lee Boggs, the 98-year old community organiser and ultimate role model, and Park Won Soon, the activist-turned city mayor committed to generating a social economy alongside the dominant jaebeol super-companies (Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, etc). Most of all, I hope I get to go back to both cities before too long.

I’d hardly touched down before it was time for Locality’s Convention in Leicester. 600 people from all over the country, all caring about local neighbourhoods – my favourite environment. And I got to meet the wonderful Bernadette McAlliskey again.

I had a Jericho Road exhibition stand and people kept coming to talk to me about precious buildings in irresponsible ownership – my specialist subject. I’m already working with local groups on two piers, a 14th century monastery, a cinema, a former hospital, a newspaper factory and an old bakery. But I really like the sound of the old coach works empty for 40 years and owned by scary gangsters…!

While I was in Seoul my 50-year old brother-in-law died. He was diagnosed with cancer 6 years ago, having only moved in with my sister 18 months before. I went straight from Leicester to Devon to be with her. Of course it was tragic and there were tears but it was also the best funeral I’ve ever been to. We had a lovely little hall beside a river, courtesy of Green Fuse, so about 15 of us spent the day before making origami cranes and lanterns and decorating it. The coffin was made of woven willow, perfect for interlacing with all the flowers and spending time with the coffin was so different from the spookiness of a standard crematorium.

The eulogy was given by a very old friend who caught the balance perfectly between serious memorial and the funny poignant stories any life has. The music was an eccentric mix, with Richard’s own compositions and recordings punctuated by the Star Wars theme. Richard had made an astoundingly detailed large-scale model of the Star Destroyer for one of the family’s crazy annual film projects – it was hanging from the ceiling on display in the hall! As his brother reminded us, Richard always liked blowing things up; they’ve decided to shoot his ashes into space in a specially-designed rocket!

Since then it’s been back to the usual round of good people with ambitious projects in interesting places. Bexhill Community Playhouse have been granted £500k to buy the last cinema in Bexhill. South Parade Trust have finally got an offer from the current owners to sell them the pier. Ancoats Dispensary Trust are about to press ‘submit’ on a £5m Heritage Enterprise bid.

But today Colwyn Bay Pier was thrown into jeopardy by a crazy ‘democratic’ decision. Despite having (nearly) sorted out ownership and having an approved development grant of £594,000 from HLF, Conwy County Borough councillors voted to demolish the 113 year-old Victoria Pier! It’s astonishing how the worst stories of irresponsible ownership are not about gangsters at all but groups of well-meaning but ill-informed politicians. More on this soon…

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Delinquent ownership – a PS about the council role

When it comes to dealing with derelict and disused buildings and land, Councils are in a practically impossible position (but that’s quite normal for local government!). They have a set of ‘powers’ that are theoretically available but technically complex. In my experience, councillors quickly learn a default position to say they won’t use them – too difficult, too expensive, too risky (the DER response). It’s important to remember that this is a cultural and political position and it can be changed.

But once you get the ‘DER’ response, it can take years for a local community to campaign to get the local authority to pay attention and consider using its powers. Most will fail simply because people have better things to do, but others – doggedly persistent – will see it through to a win. The council will come round – through political pressure or officer change-of-heart, or both – but even after that it will take longer than tolerable to actually make it happen. (You’ll know I’m referring to Hastings Pier… the CPO process included unpredictable delays including the Secretary of State lecturing us about Ravenclaw’s human rights and the final document being sent to Panama by courier, who couldn’t deliver to a PO Box so had to return, mission unfulfilled, and rely on the royal mail instead!).

There are two ways that this unhelpful tension between democratically-elected local authorities and their voters concerned about precious buildings can be resolved – either making it easier for councils to use their powers (eradicating ‘DER’), or giving communities powers directly. Which would you advocate? ANSWER THE SURVEY!

There are two councils I’m aware of that have consistently and systematically used particular powers over a sustained period:

  • Great Yarmouth – compulsory purchase on heritage grounds
  • Hastings – section 215 ‘grotbuster’ orders to tidy up the outside of buildings and charge the owner

I would welcome any additions to this list…

And then there is the terrible story of Manchester’s failed CPO of the London Road Fire Station. A compulsory purchase that (imho) should have happened, if the timely restoration of the Grade II* listed building was the primary consideration. Stan Edwards, CPO expert extraordinaire, has written a fascinating article (IRRV Valuer Journal May 2013 – CPOs Listed Buildings)  exploring why it didn’t happen. It’s no wonder MCC feel burned and cross about it. They will need to be coaxed away from this ‘ghost’…

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Policy, Thinking | 3 Comments

Precious Buildings at Risk through Irresponsible Ownership

In this country we would never let someone drive a car that was uninsured or dangerous. That’s why we have the MOT system and DVLA to keep records of car ownership.  Yet we allow hundreds of owners to keep buildings and land irresponsibly, the Land Registry role is limited and non-regulatory, and the only fallback mechanism (Compulsory Purchase) is torturous, expensive and fraught with risk.

It’s time to do something about it. First we need to know more about the scale of the problem. If you know about a building that matters to the local community but is disused or derelict please complete the questionnaire and help to build the evidence.

The impact of buildings in limbo is particularly acute given the financial climate and the need to squeeze the contribution from every available resource. While Empty Property Rates provide some incentive to owners to secure new uses, they seem to have little effect on the most irresponsible owners, perhaps because they pay no rates at all on a ‘derelict’ building. Currently a CPO authority may insist on nil compensation if it can be proved that the owner is deliberately mistreating the building in order to profit from development on the site. But this does not deal with the majority of irresponsible ownership which is not driven by development pressure but rather by market and regulatory failure. Meanwhile some sites stay problematic for decades due to the rule that, once work has started, a planning permission lasts forever. Most owners are responsible but are dragged down by the tiny but troublesome group of delinquent owners.


  • Hastings Pier – owned by Ravenclaw, a company registered in Panama to avoid English company law, abandoned in 2006, burdened by a £1.8m mortgage, uninsured and subject to dangerous dilapidation and eventually arson. Saved at last by local people’s dogged persistence over seven years against all the odds.
  • South Parade Pier, Portsmouth – owned by people with criminal convictions (horse theft and assault) and associated with the Lapland New Forest Christmas funfair scan, who keep the management companies separate from the asset ownership so that the former can go bankrupt as often as they like without losing the asset.
  • Palace Theatre, Plymouth – owned by Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh who was imprisoned for nine years for allowing the ‘overt and blatant’ sale of Class A drugs at the theatre in a controversial case that has kept the building empty and deteriorating for many years
  • Rose & Young site, Caterham – a large historic building in the centre of the high street, empty for 25 years, owned by a man who continues to collect rent on his other local properties. The council feel it is not their responsibility to take action.
  • London Road Fire Station, Manchester – owned by Britannia Hotels  and kept empty for the past 27 years. They recently won a CPO against Manchester City Council on the basis that they will develop it and then promptly said that it was not viable now or in the foreseeable future.
  • Undercliff, St Leonards. Permission was granted in 1966 to build 16 flats and 19 garages. A 1972 landslide put the work on hold and the site into limbo until in 2008 work began again under new owners. A second major landslide led them to abandon the project and the developers have now gone into liquidation. The land is likely to go to auction, still carrying an entirely unsuitable 50 year old planning permission.
  • The Observer Building, Hastings – 41,000 square feet in the heart of the town centre, empty since 1985 while a series of speculative owners achieved planning permissions to ratchet up the price without ever starting redevelopment or undertaking essential safety works.

In all these cases there is strong local community interest and an existing or emerging community trust willing to take on the asset. Many more examples are emerging all the time, including some that could be seen as ‘borderline delinquent’ where just the threat of action would be likely to change the behaviour of owners.

Local authorities often say that the powers exist but they don’t have the resources to make use of them and they are wary of the risk of legal challenge or of ending up owning the building themselves.  This is immensely frustrating to local people trying to save buildings and sites from the grip of delinquent owners. It takes huge campaigning effort to convince local authorities to take the risk even of approval in principle to make a compulsory purchase order, and then many years to see an outcome. Although increasingly acute due to budget pressures, this is not a new problem. The answer is not necessarily more resources, but simplified powers and strong encouragement.

It’s time to tackle delinquent owners of precious buildings.

Locality, Jericho Road Solutions and other partners are working together to say “enough is enough”.

We want to extend the evidence base, support communities and local authorities who are fighting delinquent ownership , and petition government to bring in more effective policy solutions.

Please click here to add your precious building to the list and contribute your views about the problem and what should be done  about it.


Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Policy, Thinking | 1 Comment

The People’s Piers

I was taken aback by the level of interest in the Bank Holiday launch of my Coops UK Fresh Ideas pamphlet ‘The People’s Piers’. Given the coverage – Guardian, Times, Mirror, Daily Mail, BBC News, ITN, etc – I should have put more care into clarifying the argument and also made sure I was in the country to explain it better.

The pamphlet tells the story of Hastings Pier – which opened 141 years earlier, on Britain’s first ever Bank Holiday in 1872 – and of the long community campaign leading at last to its transfer from the shadowy Panamanian-registered Ravenclaw, via Hastings Borough Council, to the dedicated Hastings Pier Charity.

I argue that community ownership can be a solution for other piers. However, I am certainly not suggesting that all piers should be forcibly transferred. Each of the 58 surviving British piers has its own unique story and situation. As Gavin Henderson, president of National Piers Society (NPS), said on Radio 4: there are a small number at the top in good ownership and thriving; there are some horror stories at the bottom that desperately need solutions; and there are the majority in the middle being run by public or private owners who try as best they can. My argument is that all those in desperate need should consider community ownership as an option, and that the line between getting by and neglect is a thin one, easily rubbed out by fire, storm, or a string of bad luck.

I do not believe the standard property market works well for these majestic but immensely challenging structures. Piers spend too much time in the hands of people and organisations who have neither the will nor the resources to make them work. There’s always another speculative optimist round the corner – many have the best of intentions, though there are also some gangsters who just get the cash rolling off the deck and are ready to walk away when the substructure begins to buckle. Sadly, public authorities still tend to see ‘the private sector’ as a risk-free answer and ‘the community’ as trouble. My involvement in Hastings Pier has always aimed to challenge that – not just to save the pier but to show that community solutions are viable and when it comes to the really difficult but important buildings, they may be the only option.

Most of all I want to encourage local people to stand up to irresponsible ownership that risks the buildings they care about, and to stop accepting the idea that there is nothing we can do. The majority of property owners are responsible but there are many shades of delinquency – from abandonment to illegal uses, from the dangerous aloofness of the pension funds to the progressive demolition that starts with ‘taking the roof off for repairs’.

The first time I saw the anti-squatting tactic of concrete down the toilets (22 years ago in a gorgeous but pillaged building at 221 New Cross Road) I felt sick with anger. A couple of years later I watched men with pneumatic drills destroying the scrolled detail on the roof of a riverside warehouse to avoid a heritage listing. Another historic Deptford asset, Lady Florence House on Arklow Road, was transformed by a group of good-squatters into a vibrant party-space with workshops in the day, until the council called in the bailiffs, sold it for £80k (of which £60k had to be returned to central government), the windows were breeze-blocked and it’s been used for storage ever since. It is still beautiful and sad today, while the owner holds out for silly money. My own baptism of fire into community action focused on the lovely Old Town Library – languishing in the early 1990s with Lewisham’s other historic libraries on the Disposals List, arsoned, flooded, bad-squatted and spoiled; then rescued by local people who transformed it with love and sweat into a youth and community centre. Eighteen months later at the planning committee meeting to decide its fate three councillors sat with their backs to the 80-strong audience and their exhibition of photos and memories, and voted 2:1 in favour of demolition. I cried.

Our response then was to set up Magpie Community Planning Resource Library – so that we could be active citizens, better informed, and then maybe we wouldn’t lose so many of these battles. I still believe that knowledge is power, but it’s not enough on its own. Indeed Magpie quickly developed to focus on creative outreach, and my own faith has been increasingly in community organising to build power based on numbers rather than righteousness (though it’s best to have both!).

Community action – hard and slow and unpredictable as it is – is the right answer. But it must be matched and supported by some effort from an enabling state. Councils have a range of powers to deal with derelict buildings but in far too many cases they don’t have the resources and capacity to use them. Is the answer to carve out more resources to pay for the hoop-jumping? Maybe, in a high-public spending era (although sometimes the resource that’s missing is backbone rather than money). Instead I think we should look at the powers themselves. Part of the problem is that they are all legalistic which means information and decisions about them rest with the borough solicitor or outsourced legal firm. The questions are not about what is right or possible but about the risk of legal challenge. Another issue is that legal powers are not finely distinguished – so the same ‘solution’ has to be stretched to fit across utterly different scenarios. And perhaps the biggest problem is that the powers are all held and exercised (or not) by local authorities rather than shared among stakeholders. So local residents and businesses expect the council to deal with these problems and then berate it for failing, when in fact they can only ever be solved through active partnership and bold steps taken together.

Hastings BC has built a well-deserved reputation for grot-busting, is blazing a trail for compulsory purchase of HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) to create family housing, and has its hard-won but well-worth-it experience of the pier CPO. But the 28-year ordeal of the Observer Building continues – passed from one greedy, irresponsible owner to the next and now stuck on a bank balance sheet at a ridiculous price. It will take all our collective efforts against the odds to unlock it from limbo… and we could really do with the threat of compulsory community transfer to oil the wheels.

* * *

To return to the piers pamphlet… the NPS has responded with some valid criticism (NPS_response_to_Co-operatives_UK_report_on_seaside_piers). I should not have said “those [piers] in public ownership tended to be unimaginative and dull”. This was a broad characterisation of a spectrum from safe-and-dull to dynamic-and-vulnerable to make the point that piers need ownership that balances the 100-year horizon with next season’s excitement. Nonetheless I’m not convinced by the NPS statement on public ownership “thus one in every three piers has an assured future”; where councils are struggling to provide social services they will find it harder than ever to justify pier maintenance.

I love the phrase “the NPS considers it impertinent to try to interfere in the running of commercial enterprises”. Piers are scarce, historic resources – an 11 mile stretch visited by more than two-thirds of the population (what else comes near that?). Just like motoring or smoking, property ownership rights must be tempered by social responsibility. If it is impertinent to say so, then we must be impertinent!

NPS are right to stress “the huge task that the newly created Hastings Pier Charity has set itself” and the “considerable commercial acumen” that will be required. They are well aware that the ‘enthusiasts’ who mobilised public opinion and won an unprecedented lottery grant also recruited a superb CEO with highly relevant experience and now oversee a team of specialists in engineering, project management and education. Community ownership does not mean doing it all ourselves.

So… we can agree that piers are all different, all important, all in need of good responsible ownership, dynamic management and community support. And that the extensive media coverage of August Bank Holiday 2013 was a useful trigger for the ongoing debate about their future. The People’s Piers UK (the emerging peer network that was discussed with NPS) will promote community solutions as a valid option and will encourage ‘impertinence’ whenever it is necessary to protect these totemic assets.


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Tackling irresponsible ownership

I have been frustrated for many years by the impacts of irresponsible private ownership in the two places I’ve known best (Deptford and Hastings) and the many communities I have been privileged to work with all over the country. There are all kinds of examples, from rogue HMO landlords to dodgy scrapyards in residential areas. But the thing that makes my blood boil is when beautiful historic buildings of huge community interest are left to rot, abandoned by delinquent owners, or passed from one to the next, each making their packet out of speculative planning permissions and none taking the slightest care for the place or its people.

I have been raising the issue with ministers for a couple of years now, originally with Greg Clark and lately with Don Foster. How can we support local government and local communities to solve the really challenging buildings in their area? It was when I saw Caterham High Street with the Rose & Young site left to rot for 25 years in the middle of a Tory high street in the SE of England that I realised it wasn’t just poor coastal towns and the north where this kind of behaviour was allowed to continue, but everywhere.

The reason it’s allowed to continue is twofold – on the one hand we have an obsession with private property rights. As a society we don’t let people drive dangerous cars without insurance and responsible drivers don’t feel bad about being made to do an MOT. It keeps everyone safe, it’s a responsible behaviour. And yet with buildings we hardly have anything to protect places and communities. Section 51, building control, even the heritage listing framework, none of it is fit for purpose when you get these extreme cases. Fit for purpose would be something that sought a realistic solution rather than just identifying the problem, emboldened local authorities and communities rather than terrified them and, most important of all, worked fast when the case was clear. I think this would be a community Compulsory Transfer Order (CTO) which would require a) proof of abandonment and/or irresponsible ownership leading to risks for the building and the local community and b) a bona fide recipient to transfer it to.

The Government has introduced important legislation to allow local communities to take on responsibility for things they care about. Yet even this purposeful approach is in danger of failing to allow communities to deal with the buildings that matter most to them.

The mystery of the recent past

The Community Right to Bid in the Localism Act 2011 introduces the idea of Assets of Community Value. This is where:

1.     Its actual or current use (or there is a time in the recent past when its use) furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community, and

2.    It is realistic to think that there can continue to be (or it is realistic to think that there is a time in the next 5 years when) non-ancillary use of the building or land that would further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community.

Right now I am focusing on two buildings of enormous community value – the Observer in Hastings and Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester. Both have been hugely important to local people and neighbourhoods, delivering services that furthered social wellbeing and community interest over many decades (six for the Observer and eleven for the Dispensary). They are urgently in need of designation as ACV with the protection it provides against more irresponsible private ownership and with the doors it opens to grant aid for communities to bring these assets into viable, sustainable community and commercial use, with the profits from those ventures re-invested in local regeneration. If ever there was a time that this was necessary it is now and for these buildings.

Ancoats and Observer

The issue is the use of the phrase ‘the recent past’ in point 1. As a local historian the recent past means something different from what it means to the Norfolk farmer and landowner quoted in Hansard below. He is trying to protect his fields. I am trying to rekindle the pride in down-beaten communities who feel that nothing they do or say has any impact on the powers that be.

Can a building that has served the community interest for decades but then has become vacant, left to rot by irresponsible owners, kept in a way that has disallowed community use or indeed any use at all, still count as an ACV? Does it make a difference if during those years of neglect, local people have campaigned again and again to try to save and bring these buildings into community ownership and community use? If not, what exactly is the point of asking communities to step up and take responsibility? I am astounded that this question was not raised during the development of the Localism Bill – I feel some personal responsibility but for some reason I assumed somebody else (the heritage sector?) would have been paying attention.

But it is certainly not too late. My practical suggestion – promoted to both central and local government – is that, when considering nominations for ACV, assessors be allowed to discount periods of vacancy from the calculation of ‘the recent past’. At the moment they don’t feel they can. They need a clear reminder from DCLG of Baroness Hanham’s words: “It is the local authority’s job to put these regulations into effect and to be the guiding light” and that for buildings with long histories of serving the community interest the interpretation of the recent past is up to them.

For support on using the Community Rights go to

If you know a building that local people care about but is stuck in irresponsible ownership please let me know about it: 

Posted in Jericho Road Solutions, Locality, Policy, Self-renovating neighbourhoods, Thinking | 2 Comments