End of the Maskrey’s era

The iconic furniture store that was Maskreys, Cardiff

It was the new social barometer Twitter that gave the first indication of the storm that hit the iconic south Wales furniture stores Maskreys. The immediate reaction from Tweeps was sadness. Maskreys, after all, is – until the end of November – more than just a furniture shop. Since 1898 the Maskrey family have been delivering, to a very particular south Wales market, an aspirational lifestyle that can only be hinted at by Cardiff upstarts like John Lewis, and the can-hardly-mention-in-the-same-breath, IKEA.

Others have remarked today that if Maskreys had adapted their buying policies then maybe it could have survived the competition from the comfortably upmarket John Lewis and the aggressively do it yourself IKEA. That seems to me to entirely miss the point! The three stores were always designed to be the bastions of a certain kind of taste (not always so obviously ‘good’): something that bordered on bling, but was rescued from crassness by craftsmanship and, yes, mostly unattainable for the likes of us, pricing. It meant the comfort of having bought something that would last for ever, reinforced by a feeling of painful expense, and the knowledge that everyone would admire your purchase.

I am sure there was another kind of customer as well: the moneyed for whom price guaranteed peergroup (The Jones next door) approval, even if sometimes the objects were themselves of doubtful taste.

Does it matter then that Maskreys is to disappear?

Robert Maskrey (executive chairman) and Samantha Maskrey


I think so. Firstly, there is the cost to the people involved. I have known Sam Maskrey, and her husband and executive chairman Robert through our common interests in the arts. Of course, they are entitled to retire and their orderly closure of the business, the wanting to do the best for their customers and their staff, is more than anyone can reasonably expect in a slash and burn recession.

The Cardiff store has been on Whitchurch Road since 1913. This is not the most suitable location for such an enterprise but it must be an important draw for many of the other businesses that now exist in the area. (The other most important attraction locally is Cathays cemetery!). There will undoubtedly be a knock-on, recessionary effect on those businesses. The Cardiff building is attractive of its kind but will almost certainly fall into a developer’s hands and an unsympathetic, unsuitable replacement is par for the course in Cardiff’s current planning–free–for–all.

And apart from the Maskreys business, there is equally significant potential loss of Sam and Robert Maskrey and their roles in the cultural life of Wales. The company itself sponsors the Hay Festival of Literature and the Welsh National Opera. Robert Maskrey has chaired the Lower Machen Festival for five years. Sam Maskrey is a director of the Hay Festival of Literature, deputy chair of Arts and Business Cymru and is on the board at Chapter Arts Centre. Sam and I met at Chapter when she joined the board and I managed to persuade her to take very active role in fundraising for the recently completed £3.5 million redevelopment. Without her enthusiasm and arm bending it is unlikely that Cardiff would have the benefit of the new Chapter.

It isn’t impossible, I imagine, for individuals to set up and run and businesses like Maskreys. But as a recent report on the homogenising of our high streets has warned, it is increasingly difficult when companies like Tesco regard land banking and the saturation of communities with their multiple outlets as the way to generate the highest return to shareholders. The idea of a business that delivers a particular range of products in an individualistic way for a carefully focused market depends on the market existing and being able to accurately deliver what they need. Fashion, times and financial ability are all fickle.

There is everything to commend in the manner of Maskreys departure. But many of us will notice the absence of the store and the qualities that Sam and Robert bring to life in Cardiff. For the past 12 years they have sponsored an annual Christmas carol concert held in the Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay. That alone has raised £150,000 for Shelter Cymru. It’s not just the rich furnishing their eye-wateringly expensive flash pads, it’s the homeless who will miss them too.

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Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

WalesOnline picture of March Cardiff June 2010

WalesOnline picture of March Cardiff June 2010

The Fascists were bussed into Cardiff yesterday  to object to Muslims in our community. Although apparently hosted by something called the Welsh Defence League the t-shirts in the photos I saw suggested Dudley, England rather than anywhere nearer. Unite Against Fascism got wind of the demo and arranged with the police for a counter demo: I suspect that 500 people marching from the Bay to City Hall was a truer indication – along with a 24hr strike by Muslim tax-drivers – of where Cardiff and Wales’ feelings lie.

Heartened I took to my researches for something quite different and, serendipitously, in a way the internet drags one, fell upon a Punch 1914 short story about a canary. (A bird still at that time serving as gas watch in Wales’ mines, and to subsequently serve in the trenches.) You can download the entire magazine at the amazing Gutenberg project and read on your iPad’s nice new bookstore app.  As you read be grateful of what has changed even if it appears to be so little….

PUNCH, OR THE LONDON CHARIVARI
Vol. 147. July 1, 1914.

ONCE UPON A TIME: The Alien.

Once upon a time a poet was sitting at his desk in his cottage near the woods, trying to write.

It was a hot summer day and great fat white clouds were sailing across the sky. He knew that he ought to be out, but still he sat on, pen in hand, trying to write.

Suddenly, among all the other sounds of busy urgent life that were filling the warm sweet air, he heard the new and unaccustomed song of a bird. At least not new and not unaccustomed, but new and unaccustomed there, in this sylvan retreat. The notes poured out, now shrill, now mellow, now bubbling like musical water, but always rich with the joy of life, the fulness of happiness. Where had he heard it before? What bird could it be?

Suddenly the poet’s housekeeper hurried in. “Oh, Sir,” she exclaimed, “isn’t it a pity? Someone’s canary has got free, and it’s singing out here something beautiful.”

“Of course,” said the poet—”a canary;” and he hastened out to see it. But before he could get there the bird had flown to a clump of elms a little way off, from which proceeded sweeter and more tumultuously exultant song than they had ever known.

The poet walked to the elms with his field-glasses, and after a while he discerned among the million leaves, the little yellow bird, with its throat trembling with rapture.

But the poet and his housekeeper were not the only creatures who had heard the strange melody.

“I say,” said one sparrow to another, “did you hear that?”

“What?” inquired the other sparrow, who was busy collecting food for a very greedy family.

“Why, listen,” said the first sparrow.

“Bless my soul,” said the second. “I never heard that before.”

“That’s a strange bird,” said the first sparrow; “I’ve seen it. It’s all yellow.”

“All yellow?” said the other. “What awful cheek!”

“Yes, isn’t it?” replied the first sparrow. “Can you understand what it says?”

“Not a note,” said the second. “Another of those foreigners, I suppose. We shan’t have a tree to call our own soon.”

“That’s so,” said the first. “There’s no end to them. Nightingales are bad enough, grumbling all night, and swallows, although there’s not so many of them this year as usual; but when it comes to yellow birds—well.”

“Hullo,” said a passing tit, “what’s the trouble now?”

“Listen,” said the sparrows.

The tit was all attention for a minute while the gay triumphant song went on.

“Well,” he said, “that’s a rum go. That’s new, that is. Novel, I call it. What is it?”

“It’s a yellow foreigner,” said the sparrows.

“What’s to be done with it?” the tit asked.

“There’s only one thing for self-respecting British birds to do,” said the first sparrow. “Stop it. Teach it a lesson.”

“Absolutely,” said the tit. “I’ll go and find some others.”

“Yes, so will we,” said the sparrows; and off they all flew, full of righteous purpose.

Meanwhile the canary sang on and on, and the poet at the foot of the tree listened with delight.

Suddenly, however, he was conscious of a new sound—a noisy chirping and harsh squeaking which seemed to fill the air, and a great cloud of small angry birds assailed the tree. For a while the uproar was immense, and the song ceased; and then, out of the heart of the tumult, pursued almost to the ground where the poet stood, fell the body of a little yellow bird, pecked to death by a thousand avenging furies.

Seeing the poet they made off in a pack, still shrilling and squawking, but conscious of the highest rectitude.

The poet picked up the poor mutilated body. It was still warm and it twitched a little, but never could its life and music return.

While he stood thoughtfully there an old woman, holding an open cage and followed by half-a-dozen children, hobbled along the path.

“My canary got away,” she said. “Have you seen it? It flew in this direction.”

“I’m afraid I have seen it,” said the poet, and he opened his hand.

“My little pet!” said the old woman. “It sang so beautifully, and it used to feed from my fingers. My little pet.”

The poet returned to his work. “‘In tooth and claw,'” he muttered to himself, “‘In tooth and claw.'”

Alice in Wonderland hole digging

I thought a primary rule of politics was to stop digging when you are in a hole: not Cardiff’s leadership apparently.

There’s been good advice given since Ocober 2008 that Cardiff’s Local Development Plan wasn’t any good. Amongst others, Cardiff Civic Society (disclaimer, I am it’s chair and have worked with the team who produced the society’s LDP submission) identified that the recession (and global warming) would blow a hole in any estimates made previously.

CCS executive member David Eggleton told them at a ‘stakeholders meeting’ at County Hall on the 22nd October 2008,”regrettably, it seems to me that there is an elephant in the room that we are studiously ignoring. We are entering a financial crisis, the worst for a century and an environmental situation that could require drastic action; would it not be appropriate to have a contingency plan in the event that the LDP is not found sustainable by the inspectors”. The council’s answer to this? “We carry on to produce the LDP, no contingency plans”. This objection amongst many others was re-voiced in June last year in CCS’s coruscating submission. Now the council is claiming global events have taken them unawares.

What is sad is that the press is taking the Lib Dem/Plaid party excuses, hook line and sinker. Here’s yesterday’s Wales Online:

“Cardiff council is set to admit defeat in its long-running battle to save some of the city’s last remaining unprotected areas of green open space.”

– just untrue. The council’s policy – which has widespread support, of maintaining green spaces – is only threatened because the LDP was so badly constructed that it failed to present viable, sustainable plans to support the policy. Neither the Inspectors (who have to be neutral about what is proposed as policy), nor the Assembly, are opposed to the policy: but they are saying the plan doesn’t support those policies. The failure is Cardiff Council’s alone. That’s bad enough, but to seek to blame others for that failing is shameful.

Assertion two: “In the papers, officers blame the worldwide recession for scuttling their previous hopes of catering for the expected growth of the city largely through building flats in areas like Cardiff Bay and Butetown with small-scale in-fill development throughout the city.”

– devious diversion. Again, there’s nothing wrong with flats on brownfield sites if they are part of a bigger plan to meet the needs of a holistic policy that includes family and low-cost housing. Until recently it was easy (‘cos they made money) to persuade developers to throw up jerry built apartments and boxy houses for tiny families. As above, the recession was flagged 18 months ago but the steamroller city process rolled on regardless. What was lacking was policy to encourage house building of the right kinds, in the right places. Again, blame anything, and any one, rather than the guilty party.

The final paragraph of the Wales on Line article is breathtaking: it’s not a quote, doesn’t seem to have come from the officers’ report, so one guesses it is inspired investigative journalism, the writer’s own conclusions, or – just maybe – a planted official line from the council: “Asking inspectors to withdraw the plan means the city will be spared a costly and probably futile legal battle in which the council would face widespread opposition from developers and business leaders in a hearing presided over by Assembly planning inspectors who have already indicated they agree with the business community’s concerns.”

– by legal battle, this might mean the public hearings: yes, (see previous) this would have been futile. More importantly, the paucity of the council’s approach and the shallowness of its evidence would had been forensically exposed. Embarrassing, or what?

And again, the blatantly misleading assertion that the Inspectors have ganged up with developers. Actually, if you read the Inspectors’ notes they present obstacles to the get-rich-quick developers. What they do is simply demolish the evidence the council has produced: an LDP, for all our sakes, has to be based on consensual policies, and a viable, sustainable plan to deliver them. It’s neither rocket science, nor too difficult.

But hey, what’s reality around here, this is Cardiff. Let’s keep digging, its saves thinking about how we have failed the citizens of the capital city. And, while we’re at it, let’s throw the mud at others, it might stick and we might hang on to power just a little bit longer.

BBC to give Cardiff’s planning woes a very public airing

Ok, so planning’s not sexy. But it is important and I frequently bore on about it: lately the focus has been dodgy Cardiff Council planning decisions (again) and its Deposit Local Development Plan.

The BBC has taken on a big task to make these subjects fit for human consumption with a 30 minutes long Week in Week Out on Tuesday 23th March (10.35pm BBC One Wales only). Judging from the length of time it has been in preparation, and the care involved (a view based on the endless requests for documentary proof and evidence that have come my way daily for the past two months) I suspect it’ll be a pretty robust analysis.

I’ve had no preview, of course, but I can make some pretty shrewd guesses about the areas that are likely to cause acute embarrassment to Cardiff Council.  The program’s title “Starbucks and stadiums” gives a bit of a clue: might the programme question the city’s relentless drive for more city centre shopping “experiences”, mega-sports-stadiums, and high-rise flats for the (until the recession) upwardly mobile? And does it have a robust and delivable plan for Cardiff’s housing, employment, transport etc in the future?  If it addresses these issues, it will have plenty of ammunition: from politicians who decry the destruction of local communities like Butetown, to academics who question the wisdom of a continued growth thrust in these economically constrained and ecologically threatening times. The programme blurb asks the question: ”who’s benefitted from it all?”

Our council leadership argues that international sporting events are vital to the city’s economic well-being. They are prepared to sacrifice huge sums of taxpayers money and held-in-trust resources like its heritage parks, for kudos and at best, arguable economic benefit. The most recent example concerns Cardiff City Football Club: given land to enable it to build a new stadium, it blithely flogs it off to pay overdue VAT and national insurance. What possible public gain is that – taking ratepayers money to give to HMCR to bail out poor management? It’s a very poor way of developing long-term employment except for a few rich footballers and their board members.

Employment is one area where the council has been under serious criticism from WAG’s planning inspectorate over the Deposit LDP. This document is supposed to set out the plans to support the longterm vision for the city. Cardiff Civic Society (interest declaration, I’m its Chair) warned the council more than a year ago that its approach was flawed and didn’t follow the guidelines. Last year we further contended that it was “unsound” in six areas, housing and employment among them. I know that even more expert, and you would have thought influential, voices were saying the same thing. The council chose to ignore all the warnings and deposited a complete nonsense of a plan that has been forensically dissected by WAG.

I expect on the tv that council leader, Rodney Berman, will trot out his already rehearsed defences: I’m guessing the words, of course, “the LDP idea is flawed” (how come all councils in Wales helped to develop it then?); “WAG is forcing us to build on greenfield sites” (no, it’s saying you have no evidence that you can avoid building on greenfield sites – the whole point of the plan!); “it’s an affront to democracy” (this from the council that consulted 123 citizens over the plan asking them questions no one could reasonably answer); “the Inspectorate won’t tell us what to do with the plan” (oh, they have and you’re very aware of the alternatives, all of them embarrassing and shameful in terms of the cost that has been wasted).

Two days after the tv programme the full council meets to decide what to do with the LDP. Frankly, all and any option is bad for Cardiff. To go back to the drawing board means a planning hiatus, massive embarrassment for politicians, a huge waste of money, and serious questions about council officers’ and members’ competence. To trudge through public hearings where the council attempts to shore up a totally flawed structure with ‘new evidence’ will simply expose even further its paucity of robust, creative solutions for Cardiff’s’ many problems. And it seems that at some point the inspectors’ patience might expire and they declare it unsound anyway.

Strangely, it may turn out to be good for Cardiff in the end. What the programme might demonstrate is how, for so long, the city has depended on a self-generated aura of ‘capital city-ness’ and that big, brash, often violent planning solutions will succeed. The “we’re not afraid to make difficult decisions” mindset of minor dictators.

Like many people, I think Cardiff needs to take a long, hard, painful look at itself. It needs to question the quality of its decision making, the ease with which it has accepted assertions (like long-term benefit from sporting events) as though they were inviolate facts that would survive recession and global warming. It needs to engage with its civic society (and maybe even its Civic Society!) in a meaningful way so that communities in Butetown, Whitchurch, and Ely and elsewhere might once again be connected.

A local development plan might seem boring, but it’s actually, when used with skill, imagination and vigour, potentially a way of mapping a better future for us all – not just a few.

Now if next week’s half hour on BBC Wales manages to make some of that sound interesting then it will be worth this year’s licence fee.

Cardiff’s Local Development Plan: dead in the water?

Report by Civic Society on Cardiff Council Deposit LDP

Report by Civic Society on Cardiff Council Deposit LDP

Cardiff is in the final stages of deciding the shape of the city for the next 15-20 years seeking approval of its “Deposit Local Development Plan”. The next stage in the process is supposed to be consideration of the LDP by a WAG appointed Inspector to judge its soundness.
Into the arena steps WAG planner Mark Newey who has apparently told the council to drastically revise it!
As one of the team that helped Cardiff Civic Society submit a coruscating response, I am overjoyed that the council’s flimsy, shallow, unstrategic apology for long-term planning should be shown up for what it is: a high sounding – and perfectly commendable – vision that lacks any real evidence based delivery mechanisms. CCS found that it was ‘unsound’ on six grounds.

The Cardiff Civic Society believes that the process of developing this LDP has been followed in accordance with the guidelines: its implementation however has been unsound leading to inadequate policy formulation. Whilst the CCS concurs with the vision section of the LDP, our mapping of policy proposals onto that vision reveals patchy coverage and this leads, inexorably, to inadequate and inappropriate proposals.
We conclude therefore that the plan is unsound and thus has to be rejected in its entirety.

Mark Newey states:

There is a fundamental issue regarding the ability of the plan’s strategy to deliver the vision which presents a significant degree of risk for the authority if not addressed prior to submission stage.
“In summary, while the vision sets out a clear position to enable Cardiff to play its role as a European capital city, the LDP strategy does not deliver the council’s own vision, nor does it adequately reflect the evidence base. The degree of concern is significant.”

In an interesting presentation (Delivering Spatial Planning) that Mark Newey prepared, he set out very clearly – it seems to me – the way the new LDP process should work. It’s littered with phrases like: community consensus; interest groups; opportunities; focus not on objections but issues; addressing cross boundary issues; adapt to change; holistic evidence base; grounded in stakeholder/community involvement. I could cite many more areas he says are needed to be addressed and where CCS found that Cardiff Council had, quite simply, failed to understand, address and reach agreement.
It makes me wonder how the Council is going to get itself out of a very large hole of its own making. Will the Deposit LDP even go before the Inspector in this state in the light of the WAG objections?
I hope not.
Now, perhaps the council could get off its arrogant high-horse, and sit down with organisations like Cardiff Civic Society and create a visionary, viable, and deliverable strategy for the nation’s capital city.