Saturday, 14 July 2012

Hastings: scaffold and grim churches Someone once described Brighton as the kind of town that is helping the police with their enquiries. The same or truer might be said of Hastings, a little further along the coast. I’ve been staying a few days in St Leonard’s, a whispering-close co-conspirator of Hastings which behaves very much as Hove does to Brighton – with a slight sense of musty superiority that is cracked and peeling when you get close up. Hastings has that delightful blend of the seedy discreditable and miss-handled style (clichéd as ‘faded elegance’) that rewards the curious. The wobbly terrain helps to spring surprises around corners and over crests. There are splendid, wretched old shop fronts and facades and front doors crying out for restoration, and a colourful sense of artistic optimism in stalls and studios between the charity shops and mini-marts. But what has struck me most on this visit has been the most dominant feature of the built environment – the numerous dismal and ugly churches – and the rash of scaffolding. Scaffolding seems to be the main industry in Hastings. As I look out the window from this flat I can see the confused geometry of standards, ledgers, ladders and crossbraces imprisoning seven separate properties, and two more from the back. So many buildings here are four, five, six storeys high, and the coastal weather scours them relentlessly. But I’ve never noticed so much scaffolding before nor had so much cause to wonder about its effect. How does it feel to live in a neighbourhood with such a sense of ongoing maintenance? In some places the frameworks seem to have settled in for the long term, with rust gripping the clips and guano accumulating on the boards. Is it more realistic to live like that, with a lasting symbolism of the ephemeral against your windows? Is there an architecture of permanent upkeep that I have been missing? The churches are far more depressing. The range of architecturally inexcusable lumpy hulks across the town is remarkable. It must present a problem for the planners to develop any kind of vision, because for each church, tabernacle, or chapel, I suppose there will be a handful of defendants determined fiercely to protect their spiritual home for eternity and somehow keep it open, perhaps claiming a social role which the architects had forsaken. But the cumulative effect is to sour the conversation that the town is trying to have.
Which is worse, unplayable streets, or no front gardens? We have smaller households and more cars between us all (1.14 per household: some of my neighbours appear to be collecting them). A new report from the RAC Foundation shows that ‘the average car is parked at home for about 80% of the time, parked elsewhere for about 16.5% of the time, and only actually used for the remaining 3.5%.’ Each requires a parking slot at each end of each journey. Where should we put them all? Apparently about 80 per cent of Britain’s 26 million dwellings were built with a front plot. That’s nearly 21 million properties. The press release says that ‘Almost a third of these plots have been turned into hardstanding. This means seven million front gardens now contain concrete and cars rather than flowers and grass.’ But 25 per cent of vehicles are still parked on-street overnight, and this rises to a choking 60 per cent at the highest densities. I don’t know how far it’s been heeded, but the government introduced guidance on the permeable surfacing of front gardens in 2008, noting: ‘From 1 October 2008 the permitted development rights that allow householders to pave their front garden with hardstanding without planning permission have changed in order to reduce the impact of this type of development on flooding and on pollution of watercourses.’ Recent research confirms that car use is rather more susceptible to policy influence than car ownership. But when the choice is reduced to having no front gardens or having unplayable streets, maybe it’s time for a behaviour change approach to this peculiar cultural obsession. Previously: Front gardens More on front gardens The right to an impermeable front garden? Local democratic participation and parking

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