Sunday, 22 March 2009

A city outing

Susan and I celebrated the coming of spring yesterday with an afternoon outing. We didn't go to the countryside or a city park. Instead, we caught the L12 bus to Hyson Green, so that we could visit the New Art Exchange (NAE) Building and take a look at some work Nottingham City Council is doing on Waterloo Promenade, which is between The Forest Recreation Ground and Radford, from where we could walk home.

The L12 is a subsidised 'Local Link' service which only exists thanks to the City Council. It runs hourly Monday–Saturday between Nottingham University and the City Hospital via the Queens Medical Centre in Lenton, the Jubilee Campus, Hyson Green and New Basford. It one of those bus routes which, with a little tweaking and an increased frequency, I am sure would be far better used. Apart from one student, we had the bus to ourselves all the way to Hyson Green.

It was off the bus at Hyson Green and onto Gregory Boulevard, where NAE is located. It only opened in Autumn 2008 and looks very impressive. I'm not sure if I like its dark appearance. It makes Hyson Green Library (to the left in the picture) look neglected and tired. To its right is Hyson Green Community Centre which is of a similar age to the library and also looks in need of attention and care.

When we went into the building just after 2pm we were the only visitors in the reception area, where we had a coffee and that is how it was until we left some ninety minutes later. On a dry and mild Saturday afternoon I was expecting to find NAE bustling with folk.

Perhaps the reason why NAE was so quiet was in the fact that there was only one temporary exhibition. Floating Coffins, Saphir & Middlesea, which had started on 6 February and run until 19 April 2009, are all by the same person, Zineb Sedira. The first is a twenty minute multi-screen 'installation' with hanging speakers, about breaking up ships on 'Saharan shores', whilst the other two video films are 'metaphor(s) for cultural crossovers' and explore abstract memories of Algeria and the sea journey made on the way to a new life in Europe. Floating Coffins was atmospheric and engaging. The secret of the intallation's success for me was not in the long lingering, static, images but in the sound of the sea and the wind. Without the images I would have still conjured up a windswept, desolate, beach. The video films didn't little for me, despite some clever moments. I am presently on a 'video and film editing' course at a local college, so I have a better appreciation than I had before of what film makers are trying to achieve. One view which hasn't changed has been with me since I was in my early-twenties: if the artist or film maker has to write long notes to accompany his or her work, then they have already failed. At best, a paragraph or two should be enough.

If this exhibition was to run for a month that would be long enough and given NAE's limited exhibition space (one large gallery on the ground floor and a small space on the first floor), they should be aiming to hold more than four exhibitions a year. We will be going back again to see their next exhibition, which starts on 2 May 2009.

We left NAE and headed for Waterloo Promenade and were passed by a tram as we reached our goal. There would be no tram ride for us today. It has just celebrated its 5th birthday and still no news of whether the Government is going to give the go ahead to a further two lines to the south and west of the city centre. In fact, the public enquiry held last year has still to publish its findings.

We turned onto Waterloo Promenade and headed west towards Radford and Alfreton Road. This section is wide and lined with large Victorian houses, which overlook a corridor of green and trees. Most of the houses are in a poor condition and some are empty and have metal shutters over the windows and doors. In London, the Promenade would have been gentrified years ago. What is it about Nottingham (and Derby for that matter, where you can see the same thing around its Aroretum Park) which sees good housing in prime locations such as this in the hands of absentee landlords?

Waterloo Promenade is cut in two by Southey Street and would not know from this view, looking east towards The Forest, that many of the houses were neglected and, in some cases, boarded up? But there is good news…

… for across the road, the western section of Waterloo Promenade is in the middle of a makeover, with new paths being laid and the roadway getting some attention. As you can see, it is a very long terrace of smaller houses on this side, many of which look run-down and in need of attention.

We were prompted to make this pilgrimage because Nottingham City Council has begun 're-generation work' which was declared a 'conservation area' in 1969 and has an Article 4 Direction on part or all of it (an A4d protects the outside appearance of each property). Unlike our own road, Devonshire Promenade, it looks as if the A4d has not been enforced. And the fact that after forty years there is still no 'Area Appraisal' or Management Plans tells you just how lax the council has been in protecting this wonderful piece of 19th century Victorian townscape. But, a start has been made, so we will see what happens next. I wish I could say that we left Waterloo Promenade feeling happy and uplifted. Of course we didn't. It pains me to say it, but it has to be said, Nottingham City Council will have to do a great deal more, and quick, if it wants me to have any confidence in its ability to manage and care for the city, its heritage and its long neglected neighbourhoods — which takes me nicely onto my last pic of the day…

… which is of a boarded up shop front on Alreton Road. I recognise the image from a print by Jamie B Edward (www.urban-colours.co.uk), which has been put up 'The Neighbourhood Regeneration Company'. The Radford and Hyson Green areas have had tens of millions spent on them, yet they still look tired and neglected. The sad truth is that Waterloo Promenade is the norm and reflects what much of Lenton looks like as well — no part of Nottingham's inner-city yet sets a standard for other areas to aspire to. As we made our way home to a cup of tea and slice of cake, we reflected on what we had seen and the fact that for most of the time we were alone, except for the occasional pedestrian who passed us by. When we crossed main roads, we saw lots of cars, almost certainly occupied by passengers and drivers who gave no thought to streets and scenes they would never choose to linger in.

Despite the gloom, it was an afternoon to remember and we saw enough to encourage us to repeat the experience in a few months time.

Councillors with political stickers on their cars have been banned from parking at Nottinghamshire County Hall, West Bridgford, in the run-up to summer elections.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

To Let signs and an introduction to 'RON'

Unipol provide a registration and lettings scheme for landlords in Nottingham, which is beneficial to all concerned: If landlords meet Unipol's published standards, then Unipol will advertise their properties for them, which means that students can be sure that the accommodation they choose to rent meets standards approved by Unipol. Other local residents benefit because it is another, very useful, way of helping to ensure that the private to-let houses around us are better maintained and controlled than might otherwise be the case. Even Nottingham City Council benefits, because it has a partner in Unipol it can work with, as do local groups like the Dunkirk and Lenton Partnership Forum and the Nottingham Action Group (NAG)

Now Unipol are proposing that the number of 'To Let' signs in and around Lenton are limited to one sign per letting agent per street and that they have to be attached to the property, instead of freestanding, and to an agreed size. If and when the property is let, the sign has to be taken down within fourteen days. This is something a number of local residents and groups have been arguing for, so this is really good news, even if the proposal is only for a trial period at first (1 May–31 October 2009), with a review in November 2009.

But first, there will be a period of public consultation, ending on 27 March 2009. In between now and then there will be two public meetings. Whilst it would have been nice to have more notice of the meetings, the fact that they are getting on with it is some compensation. The meeting times and dates are as follows:

Monday 16 March @ 7.15pm
St Mary's Church Hall, Wollaton Hall Drive (by Lenton Lodge, opposite Hillside, off the Derby Road).

Wednesday 18 March @ 6,30pm
Thomas Helwys Church, Church Street, New Lenton.

Views and comments can be sent direct to Unipol Student Homes at:
Old Engineering Building
Cut-Through Lane
University of Nottingham NG7 2RD
email: g.welton@unipol.org.uk
www,unipol.org.uk/nottingham.

On a lighter, yet equally serious, note, last Wednesday, I picked up a copy of a booklet about the Nottingham University Students' Union 2009 elections, which were held this week and saw that 'RON' appears on every ballot paper. It isn't a person's name. It is, in fact, an abbreviation for 'Re-open Nominations'. If students don't like any of the candidates running for a particular post, they can vote for RON and should 'he' win, the election for the post in question has to take place again. I rather like the idea — it's certainly preferable to compulsory voting — and wonder what might happen in some our local and general elections if voters had the chance to vote for RON?

A ban on restaurants using staff tips to make up wages to the legal minimum could be delayed after the hospitality industry claimed the move could put jobs at risk.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Parish pumps and local democracy

This is a picture of Lenton's 'parish pump'. Few who live in Lenton could tell you where it is, yet thousands pass it every day. Admittedly, many will be in cars or on buses, but hundreds will be a few footsteps away and, with a turn of their head, see it quite clearly. Every time I walk by I check to see if it's still there — that someone hasn't come along during the night and taken it away to be sold as scrap metal or, in my mind, even worse, to become an antique curiosity in someone's garden.

For me, the pump is a metaphor for local government and democracy — not that local communities have ever gathered around parish pumps to make local decisions. Then, perhaps they have. At one time they would have been a natural meeting place, where locals met and exchanged gossip, discussed the going rate for labour or local issues. You can imagine these local watering holes becoming places where traders came and local goods were bartered or bought and sold. Perhaps I am being too romantic, but there can be no doubt about the symbolism of the parish pump.

After nearly fifty years of continuous political activism at the grass roots and, for a good few years, at city and regional level as well, I can say with certainty that local people make the best decisions about their local communities. They have more invested in the outcome of any decisions they are able to make than any outsider. Nor are they oblivious to the significance of wider issues and that they have to balance these against their own needs and aspirationss.

The trouble is the present system of city and local governance in Nottingham excludes them from the process. For all the talk of 'citizens' panels' and local involvement, the agenda and the process is controlled by outsiders and 'partners', who have no stake in local communities like Lenton. We are dependent on their good will. City 'boards' like 'One Nottingham' and the 'Greater Nottingham Partnership' have no community members. They do have the powerful and connected from commerce, education and the professional voluntary sector, but not the local communities they purport to serve and seek to improve. In truth they seek to control and make local communities subservient to their agenda. At best they offer a few crumbs.

The alternative is something they fear. It is called local democracy and should begin at the parish pump, so to speak. It's a simple enough concept and idea. Very easy to manage and understandable by all, because it begins among the people and belong to them. Once local communities rediscover this power, they will not lightly surrender it. I have a belief in ordinary people and their ability to make good and wise decisions. I hope we can bring this to Lenton before too long. It won't be easy, there will be a struggle, but I am confident all the arguments are on our side.

A letter in The Guardian, 4 March 2009, from Adrain Greeman, London
It's like Alice through the looking glass now. Private finance, which it turns out is not 'more efficient' than public after all, having brought us the biggest financial meltdown in history, is still deemed to be 'better', and to make sure it does not fail, it will be – er – publicly financed. There will still be a component raised 'privately' from banks which are –er – publicly financed.