Monthly Archives: February 2013

White flight and the whingeing poms

Parsloes Park, Dagenham, photographed by Nico Hogg and used with his permission under creative commons. His Flickr photostream as Nicobobinus is well worth a look

Parsloes Park, Dagenham, photographed by Nico Hogg and used with his permission under creative commons. His Flickr photostream as Nicobobinus is well worth a look

The flight of white Britons from London has been generating considerable heat for moderators of online chat to hose down on the nation’s media websites.

There’s been a lot of statistical analysis of this population movement, as ever in matters of immigration and race adding up to the right or wrong answer according to the views of the writer or reader. There’s a lot of anger out in chatroomland, much of it directed at Muslims accused of failing to integrate into mainstream British society.

It’s also brought a new comparison to replace the notional number of football pitches, countries the size of Wales or planets the size of Earth. We now have to imagine the equivalent population of a city the size of Glasgow marching out of the capital between 2001 and 2011.

In my own London borough, Redbridge, there has been a 29.8% decrease in the white British population, according to census data. That figure masks sizeable variations within the borough, measured by council ward. In my local area, South Woodford, the figure is considerably smaller, according to the ONS map reproduced in a report by the BBC’s Mark Easton. I’d have said the biggest demographic change locally is in the number of east European voices heard in the street and at the tube station, and the biggest visible change in the diversity of the cafes,  restaurants and shops.

Easton has considered in some detail the population history of Barking and Dagenham, and the rise and fall of of car manufacturing by Ford in the borough, to conclude that the story is much more positive than bald headlines about the white British having become a 45% minority of the city’s population might suggest.

Easton picks up on the growth of the white British population along the Essex coast in places like Leigh on Sea. The suggestion is that the cockney sparrows who were rehoused in the postwar homes for heroes of the Becontree estate in Barking and Dagenham, and who invested in the Thatcherite “rght to buy” dream,  have now cashed in their equity and their Ford redundancy cheques to move further out.

 “The movement of the white British is often characterised as white flight – the indigenous population forced out of their neighbourhoods by foreign migrants. That may be part of the story, but I think the evidence suggests it is also about working class aspiration and economic success.”

He misses one salient fact. The white British population has seen its biggest percentage increase of 13.7% in South Derbyshire, where Toyota has its Burnaston plant. The first car rolled off the line there in 1992 and even in today’s economic climate there are vacancies for production workers. Quite a draw for ex-Ford workers, I suspect.

By comparison with inner London boroughs, where the “white other” category of rich white Europeans and Russians is growing, the story in Barking And Dagenham is different.

“The people moving into the borough tend to be of black African heritage. I was introduced to Victor and Victoria, whose parents came to Britain from Ghana in the 50s. He works for London Transport and she is a nurse in the NHS – typical of the professional black families who’ve arrived from inner London to take advantage of available housing as the borough’s white residents leave.

“With a time-lapse camera, it would appear that London is pulsing as generations and ethnic groups move up and move out.”

Easton’s piece triggered 2,062 comments, many of those most highly rated vehemently hostile to his argument and to immigration and minority ethnic communities, while pleas for tolerance and stories of the geographic mobility of previous immigrants to London, including the Irish, are lowest rated.

Then there are the writers who should know better. Step forward Graeme Archer at the Daily Telegraph and a piece entitled Let’s talk about the exodus of 600,000 whites from London. As if we were not.

 Dystopian vision

He takes the Glasgow comparison and paints a dystopian vision.

Argyle Street, in the city centre – empty. Byres Road, next to the university – derelict. The Crow Road – abandoned (except, perhaps – if this were an exciting new BBC drama – for an old Iain Banks novel, rain-damaged pages flapping in a gutter, symbol of the great evacuation). All those tenements, riverside apartments, suburban villas, all lying vacant.”

His vision of a collapsing society is not one I recognise from South Woodford. Not for nothing does his Telegraph biog state that “Graeme Archer is a professional statistician, who won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011”. So we have the bow to impartiality before he draws the opposite conclusion to Easton.

Fundamentally, none of this is strictly about “race”, but rather the cultural constructs we layer on to genetics. There are good and bad neighbours of every hue, of course. But the scale of white flight demands more than issuing congratulations to the second and third generation children of immigrants, who’ve done well in life and moved from Zone 2 to Zone 5 of the Central or Northern Underground lines. It’s also absurd to assume that the grandchildren of cockneys are moving still further out, just because their houses have increased in value.”

 And then there are the BBC’s alleged sins of omission in reporting on Bethnal Green.

“Hate crimes disfigure its streets: in an ironic reversal of one reason for the East End’s fame – that it was where indigenous, working-class Londoners faced down home-grown fascists – the streets of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel are now scenes of increasingly violent attacks on gay people. The BBC doesn’t talk about this, oddly, or wonder why the Eastenders’ movement is always away from their original homes: there are plenty of expensive properties in E2.”

 Except that a cursory Google search finds the BBC has been covering the attacks on gays since at least 2011.

Archer’s piece is sufficient to generate another 1297 comments and counting for the all-important click count, most written by people angry at the fact of immigration and attaching the blame to Labour politicians for the alleged adverse impact.

There are in the comment threads on both stories a smattering of expats and people planning to leave the country, oblivious to the irony that they will rely on the welcome other countries extend to immigrants.

In the Guardian, Rupa Huq points out a delicious irony.

“The current displacement of the white British is essentially a new version of an old story, one that has made London the city it is. Twentieth-century Jewish suburbanisation away from the East End provides earlier precedent, as do similar journeys made by French Hugenots and the Irish. One of the reasons Thatcher was selected by Conservatives in Finchley in the 50s was her pledge to end the ban on Jews joining Finchley golf club.”

 Soul in the suburbs

London’s soul, she says in an echo of an old punk song, is in the suburbs.

“Polski skleps (Polish convenience stores) and boldly designed Hindu temples (such as at Neasden) and mosques appearing alongside pre-existing churches not only contradict both notions of suburbs as private worlds and the decline of religion in the UK but have also been welcome additions to the suburban landscape. Ethnic retail has saved many high streets from adding to the sense that we are living in boarded-up Britain.”

 And at the New Statesman, Sunder Katwala picks up a key problem with making the 45% figure the headline – that it suggests the majority of London’s residents are migrants and sees the “salient contrast as between ‘white Britons’ and ‘ethnic minorities, immigrants and foreigners’.”

The truth, he says, is that “our increasingly diverse capital is 60% white and 63% of Londoners are British-born. Overall, threequarters of Londoners are British citizens, and under a quarter are foreign nationals.”

Not only that, but most immigration is now temporary. Instead of the “Ellis island model” of settling for good, 72% will now leave within five years, according Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

The fact is, then, that many of the Telegraph-reading whingeing Poms who’ve taken off for foreign climes will be back to “dear old Blighty”. Just when you thought you’d seen the back of them.

Margate: a faded seaside town in February – gallery

  • Lido shuffle

    Margate Lido awaits redevelopment. I hope they save the sign. Tracey Emin could have done little better

  • Going down

    The lift to Walpole Bay beach was closed but there were concrete steps straight out of East Germany nearby

  • Sign language

    Margate is littered with signs prohibiting this, that and the other. Some make sense given the speed with which the tide changes

  • Art housed

    Turner Contemporary art gallery and the visitor information centre in Margate

  • Retail revival?

    Margate old town shops. Just add people

  • Margate harbour and, left, the Arlington Tower. Tesco want to build a megastore on the site of the shopping centre with flats. The decision rests with Eric Pickles, the communities secretary

A February Thursday provided the opportunity for a first ever visit to Margate. A walk along the beach, a stroll round the old town’s growing number of retro shops, and fish’n’chips al fresco across the road from the harbour when the sun came out. The attempts to revive this Kent seaside town merit closer study, especially as the Mary Portas designed  scheme is proving controversial. There were French school parties gathering on the steps of the Turner Contemporary gallery,  business people bustling away and a handful of anglers and birdwatchers on the prom. We saved the Dreamland and penny arcade side of town for another visit, and walked past the Winter Gardens – coming soon Simple Minds – and the crumbling Lido built into the cliffs above sandy Walpole Bay beach in Cliftonville. The water quality failed some pollution tests in 2012, which is a shame. Click on the photograph for the gallery. More at   Photographs: Paul Nettleton

Mobile first: news re-imagined for smartphones – or just borrowed?


News for mobiles from the Guardian and Circa.

News for mobiles from the Guardian and Circa. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

I’ll start with a declaration of interest. I am a journalist who recently took a severance package and decided to strike out in new directions because my employer, the Guardian, was pleading poverty in the changing media marketplace. The editor wanted to cut the editorial staff and hire more developers. I still have to make a living to pay the bills and hope to continue to do so from my journalistic efforts.

So you will, I hope, understand why I’m not entirely happy when people appear to appropriate the work of professional journalists. That is, I believe, what the creators of a free mobile app called Circa risk doing while presenting their software as a new way of telling stories on portable devices. Circa denies that characterisation and their rebuttal appears later.

Circa, a Canadian start-up, claims on its website that the iPhone-only app best way to keep up with what’s going on in the world, wherever you are. “News without the fluff, filler, or commentary: Circa’s editors gather top stories and break them down to their essential points – facts, quotes, photos, and more, formatted specifically for the phone.”

And: “Rather than shoehorning existing content into a new environment, Circa is creating the first born-on-mobile news experience, delivering it in a format native to mobile devices, with an experience intuitive to mobile users.

“Through comprehensive yet concise news updates paired with a clean, simple mobile experience, Circa redefines how news is produced, delivered, and consumed.

“Circa is news, re-imagined.”

I’m wary when people reinvent the wheel [as an aside I’d include in that the carmakers who have decreed that the spare wheel must go to save weight]. I also suspect that rivals, including the Guardian which has apps for Apple, Android and Blackberry devices, might have something to say about the “shoehorning existing content” claim.

Circa says you can find its sources with one tap to reveal footnotes and click through to the originals. “Circa employs a team of editors to collect facts from a variety of sources: newswires, articles from news sites, and other sources we believe to be trustworthy. Individual pieces of information are converted into concise, easy-to-read “points” within Circa. Collections of points about one event form a “story.”

“Photos are licensed from Reuters, the Library of Congress, Flickr photos with the appropriate Creative Commons permissions, or other sources where fair use is employed.”

And: “We also have a copyright policy, including instructions for notifying us if you believe that there is copyright-infringing material or activity on, or available through, our service. You can find it at”

The latter link was to a page that did not exist when I tried it.

Circa licenses some photographs, which will cost money. It is not stated if it subscribes to the newswires or pays royalties to news sites whose copy it re-imagines for “points”. But it is wire services and news outlets who hire reporters to find stories, point by point, quote by quote. Sometimes it’s at considerable risk to their health in the world’s troublespots. And that doesn’t come cheap.

Atomic elements

David Cohn, the director of news at Circa, told “We don’t summarise but we do try and hit just the highlights of a news story. The way we do that is we break down news articles into what we call atomic elements, facts, quotes, stats, events, images, and we strip out everything that we would consider fluff or opinion.”

And in an earlier piece when the app launched, reported: “Cohn explains that the app features original content, in that it is all written by the Circa team, but ‘it is not original reporting.

‘We don’t have people on the campaign trail, we don’t have people in Libya, so we are doing original content and there is a lot of original research.’”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Copyright law and cases of plagiarism are difficult both to establish and enforce in the internet free-for-all. The music industry has similar issues with sampling. But re-imagining is not necessarily creating original content.

The UK government’s Intellectual Property Office puts it this way (their emphasis): “A work can only be original if it is the result of independent creative effort. It will not be original if it has been copied from something that already exists. If it is similar to something that already exists but there has been no copying from the existing work either directly or indirectly, then it may be original.

“The term ‘original’ also involves a test of substantiality – literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works will not be original if there has not been sufficient skill and labour expended in their creation. But, sometimes significant investment of resources without significant intellectual input can still count as sufficient skill and labour.”

I put three questions to Circa: I note that you are licensing photos from Reuters, Library of Congress etc. Do you similarly subscribe to the newswires or pay a royalty to news sites for re-use of their words? Do you intend to hire reporters to generate exclusive stories? How do you respond to the suggestion that you appear to be appropriating other people’s original work?

Core facts

Matt Galligan, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of Circa, replied to deny that it re-uses words. Circa did not currently subscribe to any newswires but had considered this to get their stories out faster. He continued:

The question of “re-use” is an interesting one. I would argue that what we’re doing is not “re-using” any particular content. Our editorial staff gathers information from many different places and works to identify the core facts and details, then distills them using our own language and research. The writing is accomplished much in the same way as traditional organizations, when they don’t have staff report[er]s on-site. While on a daily basis I see many publications writing stories about various topics, without citation of any of their sources, we make sure that all of the source material that helps us write our stories, gets cited. That’s not to say that we took content straight from the source, and republished it. In some instances where only a single source is available we write “SOURCE is reporting that…” much in the same way any other publication would. However, in the event that we’ve found many sources, which is far more common occurrence, we identify the facts common among them and report those.

One example where we’ve gone above and beyond just “re-use” is a story that surfaced last week about California school districts. The AP reported there to be “nearly 3,000” districts, and that information was later re-used in an LA Times article, as well as others. But through our research we discovered that number to be closer to 1,000 and reported that as such. We use many sources as the BASIS of what we write, but don’t use them as the final word – that is ours.

To answer your question: “Appropriating work” insinuates that we’re using someone else’s original reporting and publishing content that uses that same original reporting as the basis of our work. We’re no more guilty in that regard than many, many other publications that do the exact same thing. I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but I would believe that the vast majority of stories written in the world were not produced by the original source.

This is all a result of our limited staff right now. We have 13 writers, 11 of which are part-time, doing our best to identify the biggest news of the world, and cover all 24 hours of the day. As we grow, we may have the ability to have feet on the ground and do what’s commonly referred to as “original reporting” though.

But beyond all of this, the crux of the issue is really whether or not we’re giving something back into the ecosystem. We recognize that we are currently and only ever intend on being the “brief” for someone. It’s likely that people that are interested in various stories may be inclined to want to read further on a topic. As such, in a future update to our app, we intend on curating the best articles that help further develop the stories we write about, and surface them for further reading. That traffic would be sent directly back to the publisher’s website, or an arrangement would be made to include it directly within the app.

Galligan’s point that most stories are not produced by the original source is a valid one and similar to arguments by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News. It touches on Alan Rusbridger’s argument that the Guardian should do less “commodity news”.

With apps delivering push notifications, 24/7 rolling TV news and newspaper websites with breaking news, what feels like an avalanche of content often consists of very few facts padded out with the “fluff, filler, or commentary” that Circa has identified as ripe for editing. In part, it’s because there are fewer and fewer reporters trying to provide copy for more and more platforms. And web subs are not encourage to spend time cutting and honing stories as their newspaper counterparts must do. Without reporters on the ground there is no news to distill, whether for the Guardian or Circa.

My redundancy cheque was not the first in a news industry which needs new entrants such as Circa, whose business and editorial model is a work in progress. Readers have told them they want more UK material. My hope is that they will hire some reporters, as well as editors, to provide it. By their own sweat.

The planners, HS2 and the bonfire of red tape

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There must have been disappointment at the BBC2 when the first programme in its documentary series The Planners drew only 1.3 million viewers, some 5.5m fewer than would be expected for the peak time slot.


Days after the controversial announcement of the northern extension route for the HS2 railway, this portrayal of how developers, local authorities and the public are reacting to the government’s stripping away of planning controls  to encourage construction with the aim of kickstarting the economy is both timely and engaging.


Who cannot have felt sympathy with householders faced with losing their views of farmland on the edge of Winsford in Cheshire. They even pursued a fruitless hunt for great crested newts, a protected species, in their attempt to bock the building of 540 houses, with all that entails in disruption during construction work, additional traffic and the loss of an open aspect for which they’d doubtless paid a premium in house prices?


You might have wondered why a human resources company boss could not have a dropped kerb to facilitate parking in the front garden of her Regency house in Pittville, Cheltenham, “just like her neighbours”, instead of having to manoeuvre round the back as if her car was a horse being led to stables?


Solar panels


At least Basil and Rachel Thompson, retired GPs nurturing a beautiful garden in a grade two listed house in the shade of Chester’s historic city walls, were allowed to put 17 solar panels on the slate roof of their garage.


Conservation officer John Healey objected to concealing wall walking tourists’ views of the slates with large modular reflective panels. Basil pointed out that the office block looming above the far side of the wall looked “just like a panel”.


Indeed, redbrick Centurion House, boasted slate grey window frames and acres of glass arranged as if to resemble a fortress – lacking only Roman soldiers peering over the top.


Healey said he could not “answer for the sins of those who were here in the 70s”. This failed to answer the Thompsons’ point that solar panels are a response to 21st century needs for sustainable energy.


After the elected councillors voted through the installation, Healey was interviewed while looking down from the walls, oblivious to the blooms most tourists would have admired and with his back to the office block monstrosity rising behind him. It even had me jumping from my seat and prodding at the screen in astonishment.


Appeal costs


Still, even as the nimbys brief their lawyers in attempts to derail HS2 that are likely to delay its construction for years – not in my leafy acreage, please – you have to wonder if the balance has swung too far in favour of private developers.


Planning officers and councillors alike must now calculate the likely costs of losing an appeal to the planning inspectors if they reject any application. That’s not treating an application on its merits.


Developers who secure outline permission can return time and again, asking for more blocks and more flats. They can build closer to the neighbours than agreed drawings showed, yet not be forced to tear down the timber frames and start again. Both are examples close to my home in South Woodford, north-east London.


And while the predicted benefits of HS2 for the North and Midlands are now being questioned by academics and rail experts, such as Christian Wolmar, it is becoming all but impossible to stop a railway or a Thames bridge or a housing estate on a flood plain, all in the name of economic recovery.


Dither over HS2


The Chinese, we are told to wonder as we were once told to work more like the Japanese, will have built thousands of miles of high speed railway while we dither over HS2. But in the bonfire of red tape, so beloved of Tory politicians at their annual conference, are we ignoring the growing clamour in China for controls to avoid preventable deaths in the breakneck race for growth?


Would we accept the pollution-laden air of Beijing, where CNN last month reported an air quality index reading of 700? The World Health Organization regards 25 micrograms as healthy.


There’s a telling quote in a People’s Daily Online article after fire killed 53 people in a 28-storey building in Shanghai in 2010. It raised concerns at the lack of fire safety measures and facilities in China’s biggest metropolises. “The drive for modernisation should also include the quest for a greater peace of mind,” the article said.


It’s a lesson lost on British politicians engaged in dismantling protections for the public won at Westminster over many years, or seeking in Brussels to negotiate away workers’ rights in some à la carte European Union.


The Planners is on BBC2 at 8pm on Tuesday