St Julie’s & Woolton Woods: The deadline nears!

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The planning application put in over Christmas for the demolition and rebuilding of St Julie’s school has been cancelled and a new one put in – 15F/0067 on the council’s website. There is also an application for altering the stone boundary wall between the school and the field (15L/0072). Site notices have been put up dated 20th January 2015 giving 21 days for objections ie by 10th Feb – though the Council’s website says 12th Feb. I can’t work out how to make objections online so the safest bet is probably to put them in writing. The application includes a mass of supporting documents but the key ones to look at are the existing site plan (12017-115), the proposed site plan (1207-116)  and the heritage statement. The plans show that the new school will be built 30 to 70 metres closer to the village (ie on the 5% of the field often referred to) and will be substantially higher than the existing buildings. I am trying to get a graphic to demonstrate this but the one on the Liverpool Express blog (Liverpool Express: More public open space to be created in St Julie’s) gives some idea (though this one is not totally accurate).

The heritage statement gives a good summary of the qualities of the conservation area and sets out what the Council expects from new development in conservation areas (page 25 UDP Policy HD11 – I have picked the appropriate bits):

Proposals for new development in conservation areas will be permitted having regard to the following criteria:

– the development pays special attention to conserving the essential elements which combine to give the area its special character and does not introduce changes which would detract from the character or appearance of the area

–  the proposal protects important views and vistas within, into and out of the conservation area.

The statement assesses the significance of the conservation area and draws attention to (page 28 Again, I have chosen the appropriate bits):

  • A distinctive topography which creates long range views
  • A rich skyline punctuated by spires, towers and pediments

The statement accepts that (page 30):

The area to the rear (north) of Woolton Hall, has been developed with a variety of school buildings which are just a few metres from the listed building. They severely restrict views of the Hall outside the site and even from most locations within the site and have massively changed its setting.

In assessing the effect of the new school building the statement argues (page 36) that:

The new development will reflect the orthogonal nature of Woolton hall and make a positive contribution to the local character and distinctiveness of the area.


The open character of the land which is proposed to be developed does at present allow views over it from the north but the current views are towards the current unsightly building of St Julie’s school and their replacement with a co-ordinated design for the new school buildings will be an enhancement of that view.

‘Orthoganol’ comes from the Greek for ‘right angle’. I think the author means ‘huge box’. While the existing school is an eyesore, we should be taking the opportunity to improve matters. Rebuilding with what amounts to a huge box that does not reflect the character of the buildings in the village, higher that the existing buildings and 30 – 70 metres closer to the village, will be a retrograde step. A more careful and respectful design would have had the new buildings set well back from the existing field and wall. The main reason why they are not seems to be that they want to build the new while the existing buildings are in place.

A truly independent author of the heritage statement might have agreed with these suggestions, but no (Conclusion page 39);

The development will deliver some very beneficial impacts for the heritage assets in enhancing the setting of Woolton Hall and the visual amenity of the conservation area

Overall, the statement demonstrates that there is no justifiable reason why the proposed development should be refused for reasons of impact on the heritage assets.

Well, there you have it. The author of the statement is presumably a freelance contractor who is not going to rock the boat.


We got fed up with the meagre fare on TV over the holiday. The Alan Carr Show, Graham Norton  Show,  John Bishop Show. Shows about dead comedians that don’t actually have the comedians telling jokes but have  long, boring clips of other comedians saying how funny they were. Shows about famous rock bands that have very brief clips of actual music but are mostly composed of clips of other musicians saying how good they were. Aghh!!

So we caught up on Breaking Bad. One night we watched four in a row. The series is addictive. Good acting, camerawork, plotting. And it is very popular. Why is that? There’s a lot of darkness. It’s not sentimental. You identify with the protagonist, Walter White (references to Walt Whitman and Reservoir Dogs – wow) but you know that, some time soon, he is going to move from protagonist to antagonist. When one of his street drug pushers is robbed I found myself thinking, what your business plan needs is some enforcement, mate.

It has been pointed out that Walter’s family is typical of the American middle class that has been shafted economically over the last thirty years. So, the thinking goes, if bankers, financiers and the rest are becoming fantastically richer while the rest are getting poorer, why shouldn’t Walter get in on the action?

The question posed by the series is: given the right conditions would you commit a crime? As a crime novelist this is  an important question for me. I am constantly thinking like criminals and, quite often, sympathising with them. In my first novel A Fair Wack the main character blows the whistle on gangsters yet ends up taking the place of a gangster for the sake of a woman. The ageing hood who must track him down has to come out of semi-retirement. In Time Lapse a surveillance expert ends up joining forces with a woman who has had to take over an organised crime operation when her partner is drowned . Yet I am boringly honest and non violent. I’ve handed in wallets stuffed with money that I’ve found in the street. I’ve never fiddled an expense sheet. The last time I even hit anyone was at school many years ago. I suppose the majority of people reading this are the same.

Crime on TV, cinema and in books is incredibly popular. In fact, it always has been popular. Back in the 40s (written, ironically, while German airmen overhead were doing their best to kill him) George Orwell examined the popularity of crime fiction in his essays Decline of the English Murder and No Orchids for Miss Blandish. He lamented the change from the cosy English detective story often in a domestic setting to the semi pornographic American stuff then flooding the country. Orwell pointed to the tendency in America, in life and fiction, to admire criminals so long as they are successful. The battle has long been lost in this country. Writers of ‘cosy English detective fiction’ are ridiculed. ‘Go as dark as you can’ is the advice. Sometimes it seems like an arms race to the bottom – more and more grizzly murders, burned bodies, ingenious tortures. Joe Nesbo?

Joseph Conrad wrote a brilliant short story The Secret Sharer. A sea captain keeping watch at night on a sailing ship off the coast of what is now Indonesia hears a sound in the water. It is Legatt, first mate of a nearby ship who killed a rebellious seamen during a storm to save the ship. He was accused of murder and imprisoned – most likely to be hanged on the ship’s return to England. He has escaped and swum to the captain’s ship. The captain hides him at great risk to himself and eventually helps him escape. The captain obviously sympathises with Legatt but it is more complex than that. Legatt represents his darker self with which he is a secret sharer.

I think many people feel like that about Walter White. ‘In the right circumstances, that could be me’. More: ‘would I have the guts to be that decisive?’


Woolton Woods & Woolton Hall: The pace picks up!

Watch this wedge, sorry space, I said in my blog of  17 August 2014. Well things are happening. A planning application was made for the rebuilding of St Julie’s school (Check council’s website PL/INV/3686/14) on 23rd December 2014. I can’t find a copy of the design online but this shows the effect on the view from the village ( )  – the proposed opening of part of the woodland for public use is nice but doesn’t address the key issue. The word is that the mayor wants a start on site in May 2015 in order to help meet his core pledge of 12 new schools in Liverpool.

Nothing wrong with that. A new St Julie’s school would be great. Except that the design is still flawed. It takes 5% of the field between the existing school and the village, coming beyond the existing stone boundary wall. Also, the new buildings would be somewhat higher (four storeys) than the existing buildings. A higher building would be brought forward into the conservation area. The problem is that the design looks as if it is a standard one, taken from statutory guidance and previous projects, and just plonked on the site, instead of a purpose designed solution taking into account the conservation area, grade 1 listed building and the green wedge.  There may be opportunities to use part of the woodland at the rear, where some trees might be dead/diseased for eg car parking. However a full tree survey has not been carried out. I think we should push for a better design.

Coincidentally (?) Woolton Hall has been put up for sale and is on the Savills website ( ). There is an existing planning consent for a 28 bed care home facility and 62 sheltered flats, 7 on the upper floor of the hall and with the ground floor used as a day care centre. Apparently work had already started under the previous owners so the planning consent may have been activated. This could be an acceptable use for the hall and the site. Handy for the village. Put me down for one of the flats.

The Fall: Brilliant or Prurient?

I’ve not see the word ‘prurience’ used in the press for some time. Until recently, when I noticed its use in several reviews of The Fall. I’m a bit of a word obsessive, always wanting to find out exactly what a word means and where it comes from. Etymology I think it’s called. There I go again. Back to ‘prurience’. It means an unhealthy fascination with sexual matters and derives from the Latin for ‘to itch’.

Most of the reviews of The Fall have been glowing. Sam Wollaston of The Guardian described it as ‘a properly thoughtful, brooding, clever and bleak psychological thriller – and as scary as hell’. On the other hand a number of reviewers have accused it of glamorizing violence against women.

I must confess that I find it hard to watch. I think the main reason is the contrast between the surface normality of  the serial killer and his underlying psychopatholgy. He is a loving family man yet we see things from his point of view as he stalks and murders his victims. This has been done before – Peeping Tom, The Killer Inside Me, Hitchcock’s Frenzy & Psycho – but never has the killer been so attractive and appealing. The actor was specifically chosen for his angelic good looks. He was once a model for mens’ underpants which I hope is a coincidence, considering the character’s interest in the female variety. The camera does linger over the bodies and underwear of female characters – including Gillian Anderson. Yes, The Fall is prurient.

The Fall’s writer, Alan Cubitt, took on these criticisms in a piece in the Guardian in June 2013. He admitted that he had deliberately identified the killer from the start so that he could explore his psychology. The killer objectifies and dehumanizes his prey and carries out his acts to reassure himself of his power and potency. In the first episode he explores a woman’s private space – stealing underwear, leaving a macabre calling card on the bed and orange peel on the table. Cubitt points out that this is the same behaviour as flashing, taking underwear from washing lines and making obscene phone calls. The implication is that what the killer does has its roots in male psychology.

The angel/devil thing is chillingly effective as a dramatic device but is the psychology convincing? Much of the effect derives from the contrast between the killer’s ‘normal’ family life with his wife and children and the way the killer compartmentalises his life keeping the two – angel and devil – separate. I’m not sure that this would happen in reality. A man’s nature is just that – what he does and what he thinks. Schizophrenics separate out parts of their beings but then those unfortunate people are clearly mentally ill. A psychopath is supposed to be ‘normal’ but with no moral sense. We are all psychopaths to some extent – it is a continuum. You can google ‘psychopathology test’ and take it yourself. I rated quite low down. So I’m safe to have around. Well, quite safe.

It is true that clever psychopaths can learn how to appear normal, and are often superficially ordinary and charming. But this is a mask. And masks can slip. I just can’t believe that a perverted killer could be a loving husband and father for any length of time without the mask slipping and arousing suspicion.

In his article, Cubitt mentions that he based his killer on the real life case of Russell Williams who was a decorated pilot in the Canadian military. Until his arrest in 2010, Williams had no previous convictions but had a long career of breaking and entering  and stealing underwear. This escalated to killing and he was eventually caught and convicted of murder. If you check the details of the case, Williams was in a dysfunctional marriage with no children. He lived apart from his wife for much of the time. He cleverly hid the files containing his records of his crimes on his computer’s hard drive and explained his nocturnal activities as necessary walks to ease his chronic back pain. In fact his wife is currently being sued by the family of one of his victims on the grounds that she ‘must have known’ – which is the usual response of a layperson to such cases.

Leading a double life seems to be a characteristic of such killers eg John Wayne Gacy, Gary Ridgway and Ted Bundy, and it is easy to see how a wife or partner might make herself blind to the truth. One thing I noticed, however, in reading up these cases, is that the killers’ marriages/partnerships were usually dysfunctional and nearly always did not involve children. My suspicion is that the killer’s normal family life depicted in The Fall is a brilliantly effective plot device but is not based on reality.

And what about the idea that the actions of Paul Spector, the killer in The Fall, stem from male psychology? Taking it to its logical conclusion this would imply that all men have the seeds of Paul Spector inside them. I think not. I believe that everyone’s nature – male and female –  contains tendencies toward biophilia on the one hand – encouraging living things to grow and fulfil themselves – and necrophilia on the other – controlling and hurting living things  and, ultimately, destroying them. Male psychology, with its evolution-determined tendency towards aggression and dominance, is probably a more fertile incubator for a Paul Spector than the female version but the truth is likely to be much more complex.

So is The Fall brilliant or prurient? Probably both.

Will Self & Orwell: who is right?

Will Self is in the news again, making out that George Orwell was a literary mediocrity and that his views on the importance of plain writing are plain wrong. (1)   You can imagine midlife pedants across the country, the kind who write letters to Private Eye’s Pedantry Corner about split infinitives and the misuse of the apostrophe, spitting out their cornflakes in fury. The fact that Will has a new novel out is of course a coincidence.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Will Self and his books. We need cheeky ageing punks to liven things up a bit. But he does remind me of a clever sixth-former who has just discovered Oscar Wilde. Take the article.

Orwell’s fifth rule was: never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Self breaks this rule twice in his piece, I am sure deliberately and mischeviously. Firstly:

‘…radio stations broadcasting their tepid lucubrations…’ And: ‘…whose dark countenance is lit up by brilliant fulguration…’

I have two dictionaries, an Oxford Paperback and a brick of an Oxford hardback. Neither words are in the paperback so I had to consult the full weight version, which I try and avoid as I think I must be developing arthritis in my fingers after all those years rock climbing. Lucubration derives from the latin lucubere to work by candlelight. Fulguration means flash like lightning and is derived from the latin fulgere to shine. So I’ve learned something. Well, no, what I’ve learned is that the latin-derived words are an irritation – I didn’t go to public school and don’t understand latin, and I had to break off from reading to consult a dictionary. I also learned that English equivalents would have been much better.  Something like ‘whose dark countenance is lit up by a flash of lightning’. I am not sure how anyone could work by candlelight on the radio so can’t help with that one.

It is true that Orwell’s ordinary novels – eg Keep the Aspidistra Flying – aren’t particularly good, and that his political novels 1984 and Animal Farm are a bit didactic. But his journalistic books – eg Down and Out in Paris and London – are brilliant. And his essays are wonderful. I re-read them when I’m feeling down.  One of the best is Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool. Tolstoy hated Shakespeare, in particular Ling Lear. Orwell digs out the truth – that Tolstoy made similar mistakes to King Lear in his own life and didn’t like to be reminded about it. If Orwell was alive today, no doubt he would write a riposte to Will Self along the lines of ‘that’s what a guru of modernism who is really an ex public schoolboy who loves to show off and use long words would say, wouldn’t he?’

Needless to say, I will buy and read Will Self’s new novel ‘Shark’. Bugger, the plan worked.


Woolton Woods…and Woolton Hall

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Photo 1 Woolton Hall Photo 2 St Julie’s school Photo 3 Looking across green wedge to Woolton Village

Woolton Hall is one of only a handful of Grade 1 listed buildings in Liverpool. It dates back to 1704 and its interior and exterior were remodelled by Robert Adam in 1774. It is considered to be one of the famous architect’s best works. After the Second World War it came into the ownership of the Notre Dame religious order and  in 1973 was declared redundant and permission was sought to demolish it. A public campaign saved it and it was refurbished as a public house/function rooms. It is now vacant.

St Julies Catholic Girls’ High School was built next to it at that time and it is fair to say that in architectural terms this was a disaster. The buildings are tightly packed in and block most views of the hall. The main building material used was the common breezeblock available in builders’ yards – you would generally only use them for the inner leaves of buildings where they can’t be seen. The hall and many buildings in Woolton are built in local red sandstone, and the use of breezeblocks in the school can only be regarded as a huge ‘v-sign’ to anyone with any sensibility to such things. Around the same time the nearby community centre was also built in concrete bricks – which you would generally only use in a building’s foundations where they can’t be seen.

So what was going on? The original boundary of  the Woolton Village Conservation area abuts the site and it was designated in 1969. So you’ve got the negative effect on the conservation area as well as the Grade One listed building issue. 1973 was just before local government re-organisation and it was a time of rapid change. One possibility is that money and time were short. But it wouldn’t have cost much to use reasonable bricks. Maybe something else was going on?

The latest proposal by the mayor of Liverpool is to rebuild the school, utilising the field adjacent, which is in the green wedge, and sell off some of the land for private housing. It would be funded by some form of private finance initiative, maybe using the capital receipts from the housing development.

This would be in direct contravention of the Council’s own policies as set out in the Unitary Development Plan (UDP), approved Nov 2002, which is the statutory document for guiding planning decisions in the city. These policies are:

Green Wedge Policy OE3 The site is a key part of the Calderstones/Woolton Green Wedge. Green Wedge policies are very similar to Green Belt policies. The aim is to protect and improve the open character of the wedge and not grant planning permission for new development that would affect its predominantly open character. Tellingly, it is also specifically stated in the UDP that Liverpool does not have a shortage of land supply for development and there is no need to safeguard land for this purpose.

New Development in Conservation Areas policy HD11  The Woolton Village conservation area was designated in 1969 and later extended to include Woolton Woods/Camp Hill and the school/hall site, which provide a key wooded setting to the village and, with its sandstone walls, lodges and the hall itself, make a major contribution to its quality. The policy states that planning permission will not be granted for development in a conservation area which fails to preserve or enhance its character.

This isn’t me or the Woolton Society or Fred Bloggs in the local pub saying this. It is the Council itself. In a legally binding document. So it was with some incredulity that I discovered that the Council’s planning officers have informed the Woolton Society that they ‘see no problem building on conservation/green wedge areas’.

If a Council makes a bad planning decision the application can be called in by the Secretary of State and I would fully expect that if this proposal goes through it would be so called in. I would also expect that The Royal Town Planning Institute would be informed.

The proposals have met strong opposition from local people and groups but there is the obvious wish for parents of children at the school to secure a better school. Alternative sites available locally are said to be not suitable for a variety of reasons. In my opinion, either an appropriate alternative site must be found or St Julie’s temporarily re-located whilst a new school is built on the existing site.

But hang on. What about the hall? It hasn’t been in use for a number of years. Is it being maintained? It’s a tight site – any new housing development would be a lot easier and more lucrative if the hall wasn’t there. It could obviously be converted into flats or used as a pub/ restaurant like, say, Allerton Hall in Clarke Gardens. But the tightness of the site won’t help eg in providing a suitable landscaped setting and car parking. It would, of course be a magnificent tourist attraction if suitably restored and used and made open to the public.

I just wonder what the next episode in the saga will be. Are we being set up for a listed building v green wedge deal, ie ‘we need the field to rebuild the school and save the building’? Watch this wedge, sorry, space.


Latest News on A Fair Wack

Published end April so still early days. Crept onto Amazon bestseller charts recently. Fairly low down though! Getting trickle of good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Latest, by a complete stranger (honestly!): ‘This was a very thrilling book. I couldn’t put it down! I was on the edge of my seat nearly the whole time. A very good read!’ Goodreads giveaway competition ended. Over 400 entrants, 10 winners get free book. Eight from USA. Put 20% excerpt for free read/download on Goodreads. Thanks to anyone who put up a review. Readers seem to be liking it.


At present reading Owen Hatherley’s book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. Hatherley is a sardonic critic of Thatcherism and Blairism and their effect on our cities and their architecture. He has picked up the baseball bat from Ian Nairn and wields it in impressive style. He has recently laid into the government’s Pathfinder demolition programme which aims to destroy huge swathes of Victorian housing, and has particularly criticised the ‘Welsh Streets’ project in Liverpool in the Guardian. He is, however, a defender of well-designed modernist architecture.

So what do I think, after being so scathing recently about Brutalist modern architecture and Jonathan Meades? I said that, like Ann Widdecombe pointing out that ‘there is something of the night’ about Michael Howard, ‘there is something of the tomb about Brutalist architecture’. I will stick to what Hatherley says about Liverpool as that is the city I know best. Surprisingly,  he has a lot of praise for the city as well as some well-aimed brickbats. ‘It’s a dramatic, great city, and at its centre is the most wholly and thrillingly urban environment in England outside of London’. ‘An astonishing skyline, easily the finest in Britain’. However, for the houses built by the Militant Council in the 80s (usually suburban style semis arranged in closes and cul-de-sacs), he says ‘they just look so utterly wrong’. Though he does admit that ‘why shouldn’t every council tenant have their own house and garden’? He has a dig at Alice Coleman and her theory of ‘defensible space’ which the designers of the new houses followed.

He’s right in one sense. The new housing is drab and incongruous in the context of Liverpool’s architectural splendour but then this is what the people said they wanted. And ‘defensible space’ isn’t an abstract concept for people living in badly designed and constructed council estates.

His arguments about Pathfinder and the Welsh Streets is coloured by politics as well as architecture. As well as demolishing perfectly restorable Victorian terraced housing the scheme is intended to clear out the working class inhabitants and build new housing to lure the middle classes back to the inner city. Not an easy one this. If it was me in charge (little old retired town planner me), I would look to compare the total costs of the various approaches, consult the people living there and try and strike a balance. Having said that, I prefer the style of Victorian terraced housing in the ‘Welsh Streets’ to suburban style semis.

Finally to Liverpool One, Grosvenor and the Duke of Westminster. Hatherley says that ’architecturally, there’s no doubt that Liverpool One is good’. He praises the standard of finish on the new buildings and ‘the pleasurable walking experience’ of perambulating through the area. Though the area is ’unashamedly designed for consumers from Cheshire rather than Bootle’. But oh the brickbats. Close to the Pier Head are ‘some extremely shoddy and banal buildings’, in particular the new Pier Head terminal which won the award for ‘worst building of the year’ in 2009.

This is spot on. The good and the bad. Mostly good.