Saturday, 13 August 2011

Riots: aren't we missing a trick by imprisoning first offenders?

The news that a young man who opportunistically stole a bottle of water during the riots has been sentenced to six months in prison has about it a slight whiff of the eighteenth century, writes Robert Bargery, Director of the Georgian Group. If not exactly transportation to Australia, the punishment seems an extreme response to an act conducted in the heat of the moment – a response that will stain for life the reputation of a youngster of previously good character. There are other very similar examples of first offenders responsible for minor transgressions being imprisoned.  

There seems a risk here of a loss of perspective and subtlety. Justice that is punitive must also be condign, in other words appropriate to the offence. Locking up petty thieves who acted irrationally and out of character in a moment of madness is highly inefficient, committing the state to fund their board, lodging and round-the-clock supervision when there is no suggestion that they are routinely a threat to the public. It also forces them into day-to-day contact with offenders who are exactly that. Basically civilised people such as the one-time water thief might be able to weather that storm, but we are creating a wholly unnecessary risk of contamination for those you might call ‘floating offenders’, impressionable people who might never reoffend if managed properly but who, confined to the wrong environment, might get sucked into a life of crime.   

Disproportionate penalties breed resentment as they appear contrary to natural justice. A far better response for petty offenders would be sentences based on redemption.  This is an underused principle of justice and one that custodial sentences make hard to exploit. Incarceration is the epitome of unproductiveness: offenders are removed from the society they have harmed, unable to redeem themselves in any meaningful way even if they wanted to and freed from the need to confront the effect of their actions on others. A physical and emotional wedge is driven between them and society, driving out any real possibility of constructive engagement.

For types such as the water thief, should we not stop trying to emulate Judge Jeffreys and instead introduce a new category of Redemption Orders, where minor offenders are required to perform constructive tasks to help the communities they damaged and to earn society’s forgiveness. There is no need for chain gangs or Guantanamo jumpsuits: the Orders could be supervised in a civilised manner by respected volunteers. This would allow them to have a double purpose as a form of mentoring.  

Our streetscapes, townscapes and historic environments could benefit hugely from such a policy. Over the past eighteen months, Britain has seen the emergence of numerous civic societies dedicated to the improvement of local environments. Could they and the amenity societies be asked to perform a public service by overseeing the Redemption Orders? As director of the Georgian Group, I can commit one such society to playing a full role. The benefits could be considerable: genuine action to improve debased environments (think of all the rubbish-strewn towpaths, pockets of flyblown no-man’s land and graffiti-defaced walls that need attention) and a class of offenders who, instead of languishing in prison for unpremeditated petty theft, would be given satisfying work making our cities better places to live. They might even end the process with some applicable new skills.  

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Tottenham: don't rush into demolishing fire-damaged historic buildings

We have asked the Leader of Haringey Council, Cllr Claire Kober, to defer a decision on the future of the fire-damaged Georgian buildings on Tottenham High Road until a conservation accredited structural engineer has been able to inspect the damage and give an expert opinion.

Structural engineer Brian Morton, founder of The Morton Partnership and hugely experienced in the heritage sector, has given the following initial assessment based on photographic evidence:

"A quick assessment of the information from your website suggests to me that the damage to these buildings is not likely to be any greater than a similar fire that occurred in the Market Place at Stockport a few years ago. There was a proposal to demolish the buildings due to the danger of accessing the building because of Health and Safety Risks. We were able to propose that, using a large cage attached to a crane, it was possible to go inside the building and drop damaged elements into the ground floor, and then clear them out from the shop front.

"The form of damage, looking at the photograph of the Grade II Listed Building 662 High Road, suggests that the front elevation externally is unlikely to be seriously damaged because there is no great heat generated on this open facade and similarly, I suspect, that the bressumer would only have been affected by burning of the surface face of the timber.

"Internally, I have no information but it is likely the damage is greater to the brickwork inside because of the likely intensity of the fire bought about by the floors, partitions, and fixtures and fittings.

"Before demolishing a Listed Building, the very least that should be done is an inspection by an Engineer, via a cherry picker or crane, and advise".

Mr Morton has offered to visit the site this week. We have passed that offer on to LB Haringey and await a response. Obviously there are several competing urgent priorities in the immediate aftermath of a riot, but it is important that demolition is not undertaken precipitately. The rioters should not be allowed to add Tottenham's heritage to the long list of other losses.

Further destruction on Tottenham High Road

As well as the early nineteenth century terrace ay 530-536 High Road, another casualty of the riot in Tottenham has been this Grade II listed building at 662 High Road. Behind the later facade is original early eighteenth century fabric dating from when Tottenham High Road developed as a semi-rural retreat for prosperous Georgian merchants.

It is important that knee-jerk decisions are not taken on the future of these buildings and that conservation accredited structural engineers (such as the Brian Morton Partnership) are consulted on any work to make the buldings safe in the immediate term. As much as possible must be salvaged  for use in restoration and rebuilding.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Tottenham riots destroy Georgian terrace

These before and after photographs show the wreckage of a locally listed Georgian terrace in Tottenham High Road, following the attentions of rioters this weekend.

The Tottenham Conservation Areas Character Appraisal has this to say about the terrace:

"To the south of Dowsett Road, Nos 530 to 536 High Rd comprise an attractive local listed symmetrical three storey early C19 terrace originally built as four Regency houses with a lower right side extension, orignally set well back from the road behind long front gardens. The end bays of the main building are set slightly forward beneath shallow pediments, the others have a parapet with stone copings which conceal the shallow slate roofs, but above which tall brick chimney stacks and terracotta pots add interest to the roofscape. The former front gardens were built over with attractively detailed single storey extensions at the end of the 19th century that extend forward to the High Road.

"This handsome terrace is of particular interest. It is constructed of yellow London stock bricks with largely unadorned facades, which include undecorated pediments and round-headed arcading around the first floor sash windows. The right side addition contains an attractive stucco panel at high level which has pilasters and entablature with Soane-style detailing. In contrast, their retail frontages, restored in the 1990s with grant assistance as part of a CAP scheme, are richly detailed with timber shopfronts with stallrisers and toplights and stucco surrounds with pilasters in the form of Ionic attached columns, entablatures with corbels, moulded cornices and parapets with stone copings and ball finials, which provide the group with a sense of rhythm and proportion and add significantly to the character and appearance of this part of the conservation area." 

We are offering the London Borough of Haringey conservation team our immediate support with a view to getting the terrace restored and where necessary rebuilt.