We’re not building skyscrapers in Stratford to protect the views from Richmond Park

At least these deer will have a good view. Image: Getty.

You're familiar, I assume, with the acronym NIMBY. Literally "Not in my back yard", it refers to any group of people who don't want things built near them because, well, they prefer fields and trees and chemically contaminated flood plains and so on.

You're probably also used to the fact that, by virtue of being pushy and enthusiastic and well-established in their community, NIMBY pressure groups find it easy to get their voices heard, in a way those who'd benefit from new housing development – younger, poorer, more transient – do not.

What you may not have realised, though, is quite how far those back yards can extend, when NIMBYs put their minds to it. Here's a picture of the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, in south west London, with a group campaigning to protect that park's view of St Paul's Cathedral:

A youthful and dynamic group, I'm sure you'll agree.

What they are protecting, exactly, requires some explanation. London contains no fewer than 13 protected views: legal requirements built into the planning system to ensure that certain buildings are visible from certain places. These have a direct knock on effect on what you can build where: you won't get planning permission for anything that blocks the view of the Palace of Westminster from Primrose Hill, for example.

 

The protected views. Image: cmglee/Wikimedia Commons.

One of these protected views is the vista that looks from King Henry VIII's Mound in Richmond Park to St Paul's Cathedral. Basically, Olney and her gang are fighting valiantly to defend that gap in the trees.

It's quite hard to spot what they're looking at, so let's zoom in. I've circled it in red to help you. Here's the view in all its glory.

Thanks, Sarah, what would we do without you.

So, basically, these campaigners all trying to protect a rubbish view of something 10 miles away that you can barely see anyway. That seems silly enough, in a city with this sort of housing crisis, but it’s actually worse than it sounds.

That’s because the protection afforded by the planning system doesn't just stop developers from building something between Richmond and St Paul's: it also stops them from building anything behind it that may make the view less pretty. It’s not enough to be able to see St Paul’s: these nice old people don’t want to take the risk that they can see anything new at the same time.

Where does your back yard end? If you live near Richmond Park, 15 miles away it turns out.

This problem may be silly, but it is not theoretical. From Paul Wellman at  Estates Gazette:

Six high-rise projects in Stratford could be in jeopardy due to a historic viewing corridor from Richmond Park.

Architects Allies and Morrison have confirmed their proposals for 30- and 40-storey towers, as part of the Olympicopolis proposals, are to be redesigned and reduced in height.

This comes soon after conservation charity Friends of Richmond Park called on London mayor Sadiq Khan to halt the construction of the 42-storey Manhattan Loft Gardens, E20.

I'm not going to bore you by quoting figures about the scale of London's housing need for the thousandth time. I'm not going to bang on about the other various ways in which we tie our hands as to what we can build or where.

I'm just going to note, very simply, that even at one of London's largest brownfield sites – an area which the government has spent a fortune on reviving, which has some of the best transport connections in the whole of London – development is being stymied by a bunch of old people 15 miles away who don't want to take the risk they might just about see a skyscraper behind St Paul's when they're out walking the dog.

And the local MP is on their side.


We are never going to solve the housing crisis in this country, are we.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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