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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: An inconvenient truth; Telly-tullochs come out to play & Turning tricks in Trumpton

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December 5 2008

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: An inconvenient truth; Telly-tullochs come out to play & Turning tricks in Trumpton
An inconvenient truth
Ah the Olympic Games – don’t you just love them? It’s only a couple of weeks since I last wrote about Captain Coe’s Gravy Train, otherwise known as the London 2012 Special, but there seems no end to the good news being puffed out from its smoky engine and I feel duty bound to report on same.

Regular readers will be familiar with the inverse relationship between spiralling costs and the construction of fewer and fewer venues; they will also be aware of the damning statistics that show just how little, if any, of the promised benefits are likely to accrue north of the border; but the icing on the cake is surely this week’s report that a previously secret 250 page strategy document, signed off in December 2002 by the artist formerly known as Tony Blair, found little support for the claim that the Games would produce significant economic returns or more people playing sport.

According to John Clark, chief author of the Game Plan, he and the leading economists and civil servants commissioned by the Prime Minister’s strategy unit and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport concluded “that countries should host the Olympics only for reasons of national celebration because the economic rationale is weak”.

Well, knock me down with a feather – like you, I’m fascinated to discover even at this late stage of affairs to be told that the UK government’s main motivation for staging the 16 day event was to have a morale-boosting national party, especially since, at the time of the report’s signing off, we didn’t actually need our morale boosted. Now of course, Tessa Jowell, the hapless Minister responsible for all things Olympic has admitted that if the current recession had been foreseen, a bid to host the Games probably wouldn’t have been pursued.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t actually remember a single Olympic Games in my lifetime that came out at a profit and delivered a genuine economic legacy for the host city or country. Sure there have been a few pr triumphs but probably only Barcelona and Sydney can hold their heads high and say something really useful came out of the Games for them, but at an extraordinary financial cost that they are still to this day paying for. In any case, you’d think the Millennium Dome would have been enough warning to the UK government that grandstanding on this scale was unlikely to deliver big league economic results. Nope, not warning enough it seems, and the Game Plan was just an inconvenient truth that the Downing Street wonks felt easily able to suppress.

And so the rise from the initial cost forecast of £2.4bn to the current £9.3bn and rising came to pass. Tragically, the pressure is now on the athletes rather than the politicians – following the former’s unexpected successes in Beijing, if the UK doesn’t manage to carry off every single gold medal in London in 2012, the Games will be viewed as a disaster – not only for the average cost per medal gained, but for the East End of London, where the ‘regeneration’ will be forever associated with the country’s most high profile sporting failure. The bar couldn’t be set higher really.

Telly-tullochs come out to play
Ever since Tullochtown was upgraded to city status and given the more locally recognisable name of ‘Inverness’, the place has been touted as the fastest growing housing estate in the UK. Never a place with too much concern for the conventions of planning process, the locals have until now been unable to vent their spleen at the unsatisfactory world being created by housing developers - ok, one developer - in their neck of the woods. But then, hey, somebody had the bright idea of holding Scotland’s first Housing Fair within spitting distance of the country’s last major battlefield, and the denizens have ever since been mobilised by an intractable farmer and a complicit local press to rise up and fight the good fight against the construction of 55 houses.

Such was the underlying scenario when the organisers of the Highland Housing Fair (henceforth to be known as ‘Scotland’s Housing Expo’ - eek) came to the capital this week to present their case to the Parliament’s Cross Party Architecture Group. Ever on the ball, the CPAG had to have the whole history of the project spelled out to them before the meeting could be opened up to questions. Now, for the many architects present, the whole reason for the presentation was to highlight the project’s current financial plight - a problem picked up in the Wrap long before the credit crunch crunched - but you wouldn’t have known it from the way the meeting was allowed to progress.

First of all, Ricardo Marini, Terry Farrell’s right hand man within Edinburgh Council, bowled a googly by questioning the whole planning premise of the project, a debate he then disengaged himself from by taking early leave of the session, only to be followed by recalcitrant Tory MSP Mary Scanlon, who felt it her stern duty to lengthily upbraid the project organisers on problems that were neither within their brief nor of their making.

Now it should be said at this stage that the organisers of the Fair/Expo had at the outset delivered a briefing paper to the CPAG members, tucked away in the back of which was a proposal (Plan B?) for the Parliament to underwrite the project. Essentially, a guarantee of this sort would allow the Highland Housing Alliance – one of the main agencies involved – to take on the financing of the whole project and allow it to be completed in time for the rescheduled opening in August 2010.

This financial scenario presumes that the housing market will return to some form of stability by that time and that the subsequent sale of properties will recover the funds invested in the project’s construction, a desire that may well not be realisable in practice. Sadly, none of this could be gone into in detail as the meeting had to close by 7:30pm, and in any case, it transpired that no submission had yet been made to the Scottish Government upon which any financial decision could be made. Trouble is, time is flying and with many of the houses requiring components and materials from mainland Europe, the current low value of the £ against the € may escalate budgets still further so it would seem prudent to have a Plan C available should the Parliament decide that the Fair/Expo is not a political priority in the current climate.

In the end, with the CPAG being the impotent beast that it is, the meeting came to no conclusions and proposed no follow-up actions, an unnecessary void not helped by Andy MacMillan’s hopelessly irrelevant summing up of the session. Oh, but Mary Scanlon, sensing the support from the audience for the project, did suggest that she – despite her earlier invective – was really a supporter of the Fair/Expo. Political hypocrisy is always good to see at first hand and personally I wouldn’t bank on her vote in any Parliamentary debate on the subject. That said, the jury is unquestionably very much out on the project’s future but, to jumble the metaphors, there’s clearly everything still to play for.

Turning tricks in Trumpton
Following the Wrap’s paean last week about Gareth Hoskins’ many recent triumphs, its good to see the rollercoaster of success continues to trundle for Scotland’s star architect. His plans for a new retail development to frame the old Scottish Provident building in Edinburgh’s St Andrews Square have taken a huge leap forward with the announcement – despite the downturn that is affecting everyone else - that  demolition of the existing buildings on the site will begin in the New Year and construction to begin soon after. But even this news is trumped – and I use the word advisedly – by word that the new ‘Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland’ arts maestro is to be the Donald’s chosen one for the delivery of Trumpton’s new architecture.

Until now, of course, local boys Jenkins & Marr had been the ones employed to get the project past the outline planning stage, but this hole having been successfully negotiated, a new masterplan and building designs are to be produced to keep things out of the next set of bunkers – such as they might be in Aberdeenshire’s tangential form of democracy. The choice of Gareth – from an impartial viewpoint – might seem to be inspired, he being the current golden boy of Scottish architecture and sure to win friends and influence all of the people required to help the project towards the final green.

From another perspective however, could this be the project to break the run of success? Gareth, after all, has made his reputation with carefully wrought schemes, many of which have required extraordinary sensitivity to the needs of the end user. Quite where these skills sit within the world of bling that usually accompanies projects bearing the Trump appellation (if in doubt, look on the web for other Trump golf courses) is anybody’s guess, although the only way is up from the icky Brigadoon-like sketches that have arrived from Stateside to date. I have no idea whatsoever whether the Donald can be led to the promised land of quality architecture and while one hopes the whole thing won’t end in tears for Gareth, in these troubled financial times I feel duty bound to offer the Power 100’s top man a tip: work out the fees, double them and ask for half in advance.

Action man
And so to that other lion of Scottish architecture, Malcolm Fraser. Weeks back I mentioned the unfair focus on his practice by some of our newspapers whose normal interest in things architectural could hardly be described as inspiring. Like most other practices just now, his has been affected by the financial downturn, but with work nearing completion on the new Scottish ballet facilities in Glasgow and planning permission just secured for a large housing project in Newcastle, things are not all doom and gloom in his North Bridge eyrie.

Anyway, suddenly all that is incidental - for the past week Malcolm has appeared in lights, on television and in all the papers as the front man for the Merger Action Group determined to legally challenge the proposed merger of HBOS and Lloyds TSB. As a non financial sector person, Malcolm has acquitted himself well, making the case strongly that if the merger goes ahead, the combined bank’s forces together with those of RBS will hold sway over more than 75% of the business banking market in Scotland, a situation that would be unhealthy in the best of times for companies looking to extend overdrafts or increase loan facilities, never mind in this current troubled period.

By putting himself in the firing line, Malcolm can hardly be endearing himself to the powers that be who are in the position to commission publicly funded projects and it is to his credit that he believes the profession needs to have a voice on matters that will profoundly affect its ability to perform effectively in the coming months and years. Interestingly, this campaign – whether successful or not – has placed him – and, by extension, the profession - more positively in the public eye than all of the ‘consulting’ and ‘enabling’ he once felt obliged to do as deputy chair of A+DS. Would that there were more architects like him prepared to make a stand on issues of genuine public importance.  

We’ll know next week whether or not the legal action he is fronting will wrongfoot the UK government and bring about the competition enquiry that should rightly have taken place on the HBOS/Lloyds TSB merger. For those concerned about doing business in Scotland in the future, there’s still time to register support on the action group’s website – www.mergeractiongroup.org.uk . You’ll only hate yourself if you don’t and then can’t get your overdraft extended. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

And finally…
I know the neighbourhood’s taken a nosedive since they built the Parliament but I still think it’s a bit much to suggest that living in the Holyrood area of Edinburgh is the loneliest place in Britain. This at least is the conclusion of Changing Britain, a study of the gradual transformation of communities produced by Sheffield University. The report indicates that the “social glue” that binds towns and cities together has eroded over 40 years and that the trend is most marked in Scotland. I hesitate to suggest to the good academics from Sheffield that Holyrood – if you discount the presence of MSP’s - is actually quite a sociable place, and that if you are looking for “social glue” there are several other, far more Trainspotting-like parts of the city where they will find the kind of adhesive substances they are looking for.

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