Tuesday, 12 July 2011

a field student of planning processes and agendas

How and why does public art come to be in Waltham Forest? A partial answer came via Adrian Stannard at this month’s News from Nowhere Club meeting and talk. Adrian Stannard asked, will the internet encourage the public to engage in the planning process in Waltham Forest? He explored the issue of participation via a series of power point slides with a guiding commentary on the many stages and implications of public planning processes.
One of the slides concerned the Section 106 Agreement. This is what developers can pay to offset negative impacts caused by their construction and development projects. Adrian Stannard spoke about Tesco and Highams Park as an example. A million pounds may be paid to the community to fund tree planting, community facilities and other needs. There is a local report about this here.
Public art happens to be one of the expenditures to which Section 106 funds can be applied. I wondered if it was Section 106 funding which helped pay for The Hitchcock Gallery at Leytonstone Tube. The basis of this might have been making public transport facilities in the area more attractive and conducive so as to offset the increase in Tesco customer motor traffic in the area - an environmental agenda. Of course, I am speculating and their funding of that public art could have been for very different reasons and Adrian Stannard certainly made no reference to specific circumstances of any commercial development and the commissioning of new public art.    
During his talk, AS was generally sceptical about the integrity of ‘Section 106 Agreements’, saying in some instances they may verge on the corrupt and are, particularly for the layman, a confused and confusing civic grey area. Stannard speculated councils may be in receipt of various funds which are directed at similar elements of the same development and so it can be difficult to tell who has paid for what. If someone has reasonable cause to doubt a particular Section 106 Agreement there is a Local Government Ombudsman to complain to.
The local government ombudsman states planning permission is conditional on the developer first (my emphasis) entering into an agreement or obligation, more commonly referred to as a ‘Section 106 Agreement’ and once signed it is a legally binding contract. Developers can make an application knowing that they too can complain to the local government ombudsman and incur costs on a council if it takes an unduly long time to draw up the Section 106 Agreement. In this respect the agreement may give the larger developers powerful leverage in the application process which can subdue or obscure smaller local contingencies and objections - even when they are actually made as a part of the ‘legitimate’ planning process.
Elsewhere, objections to supermarket developments have taken on more radical and additional direct actions and strategies - Stokescroft being a prime example. If public art was to be one of the supermarket chain’s offsets there, then the local campaign against that store and company certainly did a lot to create its own counter/contra public art. Objections to supermarkets are those which could also be made against many other global retail businesses and it could be unfair to focus on Tesco but for the fact (?) Tesco is the UK’s leading grocer so has a huge and iconic influence on the character, culture and distinctiveness of the areas in which its stores reside. I know this from, in part, the experience of working on a small market garden/farm with a farm shop whose fruit and veg’ sales declined drastically when the nearby Tesco store installed new checkouts (I think they had new weighing scales) and their queues reduced in proportion to our loss of custom. We were not alone; a new and improved (metaphorical) supermarket bull dozer had rolled into town.      
Leytonstone is a business improvement district and developing high street commerce might be one of the strategies aimed at improving the economic/cultural life of the area. What influence does this initiative have on planning processes in terms of business development? How does public art, in its many guises, influence local commerce? Having participated in the E17 Art Trail, including post event discussions and evaluations, feedback has sometimes pointed to the economic benefits of art trails as more people are attracted to the area, sometimes from outside it as an excursion, and they spend money while visiting - more often in places away from the larger retail concerns. As part of the cultural life and identity of an area, an art trail may encourage people to move and settle there.
Adrian Stannard explored the cultural economic consequences of the planning process in more detail via the ongoing saga of the EMD Cinema and UKCG. One of his slides for this section of the talk featured a photograph from the planning committee meeting at Walthamstow Assembly Hall. The choice of that venue was his initiative. The photograph showed, chillingly and comically how the UKCG congregation had donned high visibility vests in order to make their self (corporately) known to the committee - a mass outing of construction site fluorescent yellow. What a hoot! Was it an out of order donning of a political uniform?   Hundreds of people were not able to get into the hall due to lack of space and, in answer to Adrian Stannard’s starting question, a plethora of inter-net/wireless based devices connected outside and inside establishing a contemporary form of participation.
Was this dull - a modestly proffered comment made by Adrian Stannard about the planning process at the beginning of his talk? Well, perhaps some of the slides were a bit dry, but his energy, commitment to, and knowledge of the subject outweighed this. There are, I suggest, quite a number of colourful public art works around and about the borough which could appropriately spice up the visual content of the slideshow.

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