By Mortimer Ribbons
We’ve had strawberries and asparagus in April, and April rains in May. It’s Wet Bank Holiday Monday now and everyone seems a bit baffled.
The blackbirds have been buzzing about for weeks with bits of stick in their beaks, building nest extensions, and the robins have taken to singing at night so they can hear themselves cheep. Our new PM will be arriving at the party any moment now, with his carrier bag of empty cans weighted down with housebricks, to offer us all a drink. This won’t be the gruff old Gordo who stole your pension and sold the gold half-price to the Chinese. Dearie me, no, this’ll be the new touchie feelie Gordie, who humbly listens to your problems before tailoring a stealth tax to meet your needs. We in the vintage clothing sector have been wondering how to welcome him in, and, since he’s decreed the end of celebrity culture, we would suggest grey. It was fashionable for about half an hour in the early 80s and may well be due for a comeback.
The Government thinks we’ve forgotten how to be British, and that we need heroic stories to remind us. When I was a lad we had Battler Britain comics to set us straight: ‘Donder und Blitzen, Englischer Schweinhund! You haf foiled our evil Nazi efforts again!’ Along with Roy of the Rovers we held firm against tremendous odds and won the war for freedom. Later we smoked dope to defeat imperialism… But it’s not so simple now. Helping the Taliban to confront their gender issues or destroying Iraq to instil democracy doesn’t have the same heroic ring. We’ll just have to fight it out on the home front and find some stirring stories round here.
What tales will the future elders of the N16 tribe tell the young folk round the campfire? Will we tell them how we made this a place we actually wanted stay and live in, rather than just a step up the property ladder? Will we be able to sing of battles with greedy landlords, combat with useless officials and confrontations with crappy planners? We’ll have to write off the Vortex occupation as a romantic failure, obviously, like the Spanish Civil War, but at least it was a focus. They had a list on the wall, that anyone could add to, of worthwhile buildings to squat… The Town Hall is a beautiful building, large enough for everyone, and the people who work there will neither notice nor care providing we don’t mess with their parking spaces. I want to tell the grandchildren, as I feed another reclaimed joist on the campfire, that we seized it as a glorious new venue for the rebirth of the area. I’d hate to have to admit that we let the Council turn it back into a dreary old Assembly Rooms to cater for the occasional wedding. (Proposal announced as a done deal in Hackney Today – which is that arse-wipe thing on the doormat under the dodgy pizza offers and minicab cards.)
It’s going to be hard, lads, because to deal with the Council you have to be born without a boredom threshold. But the time for action, as always, is now. There’s a new initiative to ruin Stamford Hill, and the time for objection has passed without notice. The planners won’t even have to pretend that they’ve lost the file or that the objections never arrived. They can say that several copies of a consultation document (Domestic Extensions and Altercations) were distributed, and that the scheme was clearly encrypted into the crossword of Hackney Today. Stamford Hill, Queen’s Drive and Cricketfields Rd are to become ‘Areas of Exception’. Under pressure from religious communities, the planners have agreed that in 52 streets the residents will be allowed to hack up the Victorian and Edwardian houses at will, and turn their gardens into extra bedrooms. The consultation document says the character of an area can be ruined by wrongful development. It points to the existing abuses – extensions built on the cheap, covered in pebbledash, with air conditioners stuck on brackets, old caravan things dumped on roofs, and fluorescent tubes flickering with ghastly abandon – and it concludes that Stamford Hill is so fucked up already it won’t make any difference. The Planning Enforcement Team hasn’t enforced a single thing in the last two years, and it doesn’t intend to start now.
These Areas of Exceptional Architectural Ugliness coincide with the national initiative to relax planning restrictions, but there is an important difference. The national scheme is supposed to encourage neighbours get together and agree to extend their kitchens, or knock up a nuclear power station, or whatever. But in an Area of Exception you can say Sod the Neighbours, and block their light at will. In theory, it allows people with extended families to build extensions to house them in, but it’s also a charter to hack up houses for multiple occupancy – which is the big money now. There are thirteen Poles down the street, crammed into a small house with a single bathroom and no separate toilet. (‘Yes I must wait sometimes two hours for shower and make pipi. Is not nice.’) The landlord’s crappy furniture is piled up out the front because there’s no room inside, and there’s a garage in the garden, currently classed as a prayer shed, just waiting for multi-occupation once the Ghetto is officially sanctioned.
So what about these heroic stories? Did we allow rampant corruption, and let the council be hi-jacked by Special Interests? Did we let everything be banned in the name of Health and Safety, and made equal by dragging it down to the lowest level? Or did we fight back?