diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 05, 2014

I attend the public consultation event.

I'd not have stumbled upon the event by accident. It's tucked up a sideroad, off a sideroad, the location revealed only by a single temporary board set out on the pavement. Had I not been here on the right day during the right four hour slot, there'd have been no sign.

A series of information boards has been set up in a cramped anteroom, the sort of place where it looks like former employees once drank tea. Only 30 such workers still exist on site, which is being used as the excuse to knock the place down and replace it with flats. The new development will have greater space for commercial activity, but that looks likely to mean jobs for baristas and service professionals rather than people who actually get their hands dirty and make stuff.

One of the consulting team engages me in conversation, carefully checking how far I live from the site to see if they've hit the jackpot with "a local". She directs me towards the information panels, and I try hard to pretend I'm seeing them for the first time rather than having already read the lot in an online pdf. I am interested and engaged, and so is she, as we discuss how the outlines on the masterplan will translate into reality.

The proposed flats aren't precisely illustrated, but depicted using precedents from similar developments. Nevertheless it's clear that what the architects propose are yet more boxy cuboid blocks, each irregularly regular, of the style by which the 2010s will one day be characterised. Roads and walkways will become residential canyons, enough that the essential character of the surrounding area will be hidden from view, creating a bland heritage-free Anywheresville. I'd like to say this out loud, but instead I ask another insightful question and nod at the reply.

I check the percentage of affordable housing, which is higher than many developments hereabouts, which makes it harder to whinge how pitifully inadequate it seems. I also express pleasure at the existence of actual houses along the waterfront, although disappointingly there are only seven, and the mock-up illustrations make them look ghastly. They lose their sparkle completely when I discover that their gardens will be private water frontage, causing the newly-opened towpath to divert inland.

A second member of the consulting team comes over for a chat. She's free now that the only other attendees have left, and is a member of the architectural practice that's put the package together. Both knowledgeable and charming, she bats back everything I ask... cycle facilities yes, new car-free bridge yes, landscaped public realm of course. It's easy to find fault online, but much harder face to face.

It appears the team have done the best they can within constrained parameters, given the need to pack in 300 homes and match the requirements of the surrounding neighbourhood. The end result may be a characterless residential zone, but the current reality hereabouts is no more appealing, and if London needs more housing then it absolutely needs to go places like this. I become resigned to the plans' imperfection.

The previous visitors have left a positive comment on the post-it board, which the team read out after they've left with a genuine smile. They offer me a chocolate if I'll write something too, not that I needed encouraging, so I head over and start scrawling. It's hard to compose a balanced appraisal in biro on a floppy yellow rectangle, but I try, and make sure there's some veiled criticism as well as praise. They'll probably ignore it.

Because this wasn't a proper consultation anyway, merely a public engagement exercise. Stacked flats are pencilled in for this corner of East London, so stacked flats it'll be. And the planning application'll be submitted unchanged later this summer anyway, now with the "community engagement" box ticked, which is all us stooges were there to do.

I walk away, increasingly aware that I failed to be quite as constructively negative as I'd planned. I also suspect that walking down this road in four years' time I'm likely to look up at the completed project and be disappointed by the uninspiring architecture. I might even feel a slight pang of guilt, but that'd be unfair, because I never really had any say. And they never even gave me a chocolate.

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