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Peter Wilson's Weekly Wrap - News Review

June 6 2008

Peter Wilson's Weekly Wrap - News Review


Royal Command

Its that time of year when the streets around Holyrood blossom with yellow and the appearance of some rare plants – yes, it’s shiny new traffic cones everywhere to announce the arrival of the Royals for their garden party season. This year, however, an added joy – a talk by the Prince of Wales on his favourite subject at a seminar hosted by his eponymous Foundation. Speaking to an invited audience that included First Minister Alex Salmond, Prince Charles called for a return to “civil, courteous and well mannered” architecture, adding “we must rediscover – rapidly – our respect for nature and her universal principles that can give us everlasting inspiration and environmental hope”.

While sounding worryingly like an application to join Tony Blair’s recently launched ‘Faith Foundation’, the talk parallels Andres Duany’s lecture to senior members of the Scottish Government to find a more meaningful path to town planning through the teachings of his ‘New Urbanism’ movement. And what politician could reasonably resist when the (voter) appeal from the Prince is couched in terms of Scottish planners taking a leading role in the UK to build ecologically-sound communities? We have clearly entered a New Age of political lobbying here and the old canard of how difficult it is to speak of the principles of democracy when talking to a Prince comes to mind.

 ‘Civil, courteous and well-mannered architecture’ can not only be found in the Georgian period, however, but it will take some very good p.r. on the part of the architectural profession in Scotland to capture as many column inches as the heir to the throne so easily commands.

Tough Eco Conditions

What price UK government housing targets now that the industry is facing meltdown as a result of the credit crunch? Gordon Brown’s demand for three million new build homes by 2020 was a political gesture reminiscent of the 1960’s and as unachievable as the targets set then, but the speed of decline in the share price of major house builders like Barratts and Persimmon is now at nose-bleed levels and there is little chance of these or other builders returning in the foreseeable future to the number of new builds per year delivered in what can now be seen as the millennium’s early boom years.

Gordon’s ‘big idea’ of ten “Eco-Towns” each made up of 10-15000 low energy, carbon-neutral homes was equally ambitious and equally poorly thought through, but were already facing a popular revolt from the very people he presumably expected to be all for them – the environmentally-protective voters of middle England. The rise in interest rates and the downturn in property values does allow some time to sort out the conflicting messages coming from Westminster – Eco Towns powered by local biofuel plants, new nuclear power stations for everyone else, for example, but the big issues such as cancelling vat on refurbishment of old buildings to encourage brownfield regeneration or the time and money required to develop the far more highly skilled workforce required to build the Prime Minister’s new Jerusalem seem unlikely to enter the political consciousness. 

Rural Housing

In Scotland, the minority government’s hope for an extra 10000 new homes on top off the 26000 constructed each year seems equally far off, but it does allow some finessing of the crude numbers into some rather more serious analysis of where these homes should be built and what kinds of houses are actually required.

Clearly – and even were the wildest dreams of the volume housebuilders to materialise in terms of the release of large swathes of Green Belt land – the additional – or indeed, even existing - numbers are not going to come from that sector. This is the time and the opportunity for the Scottish government to really tackle the scandal of rural housing provision and facilitate the delivery of 10000 new homes in this sector alone. Serious discussion of land ownership issues, provision of utilities (or lack of) and the questionable interpretation of environmental protection policies has been avoided for too long and has prevented the development of perfectly good housing sites from the Highland and Islands to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

The benefits to the rural economy from solving the current impasse are enormous – maintenance of local population levels, new employment opportunities and greater use of local materials are only three of the many improvements that would accrue from making this a central plank of government housing policy. It is not new money that is required so much as the beating of heads together to sort out the range of conflicting issues that currently conspire to prevent any progress in this area. 

City Slick

The news that a New York hedge fund was urging the board of a US oil company to abandon the “rapidly declining” North sea and pull out of Aberdeen was, of itself not remarkable, given the apparent long term discord between Vaalco Energy and its largest independent shareholder Nanes Delorme Partnership. The spat does, however, bring into sharp focus the future of the city if the largest part of its economy is in as rapid decline as some doom-sayers predict.

While a contrary view of the extent of the North Sea’s long term resources was given in “Truth, Lies, Oil and Scotland” on BBC1 on Wednesday 4 June, the question remains as to what visible benefit – architectural or urban – Aberdeen has derived from almost four decades of boom and how its long term future can be planned to ensure some decent new architecture emerges to dispel the long years of petroleum-bling that has blighted the Granite City’s urban charms.

This will not be easy in the face of the depredations to come as a result of the financial ineptitude of the city’s present and past administrations – not for them the Aberdonian reputation for monetary caution – or what seems like collective weakness on the part of the 100 or so practices in the local RIAS chapter area to make any substantive impact on the architectural quality of the city over the past forty years. Perhaps now is the time for a major conference on ‘Whither Aberdeen and its Architecture Post-Oil?’ before the question becomes ‘Whether Aberdeen?’ 

Burrell Ties the Knot 

And finally, architect-developer Andrew Burrell of the Burrell Company gets married to Carol MacBain of Reiach and Hall Architects this week. The wedding is due to takes place in the Town Hall in Palma and has had a longer administrative run-in with the local authority there than most architects would ever encounter with a contentious planning application. In this instance, tenacity has won out against the many difficulties encountered along the way but with a host of Edinburgh architects off to Mallorca for the celebrations, there could be as many headaches for Reiach and Hall staff afterwards as were apparent in the days that followed their multi-award triumph at the recent Scottish Design Awards. 

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