Category Archives: social issues

London townhouses

I Got The Mansion Tax Blues

The people over at Property Division have put together an infographic on how the proposed mansion tax will affect London (see below).  For those of you reading from outside of Britain, the mansion tax is a proposal by the Labour Party to have an annual tax on real properties worth over £2 million.  The actual plan is a little fuzzy.  Originally it would have been an annual levy of 1% of the amount over £2 million but there’s been some step-back on that proposal.

London is disproportionately hit by the mansion tax.  According to reports, 11,462 London homes will face the mansion tax.  Calling the tax a mansion tax is a misnomer as well.  From my own experience, I have found that in Hampstead/St. John’s Wood, the price per square foot is upwards of £1200/s.f..  As such, a 1500 s.f. place could put you over the £2 million threshold.  In Manhattan, 1500 s.f., will get you a good-sized 3 bedroom apartment and in London 3-4 bedrooms, depending on how poky that fourth bedroom is.  Hardly a mansion, either way.

London townhouses

image credit: Rightmove

According to the Labour Party, the approximately £1.2 million raised will go towards the NHS.  That is ,of course, assuming that Labour actually raise the $1.2 billion because they will also let people roll-over the mansion tax if they are under a certain income threshold until the owners sell or die.  My street in Belsize Park actually had a retired couple whose grandfather had bought their house from the Victorian developer of the street.  Although hardly an ancestral pile in the usual sense, their home has been passed down through the family and is now worth well over the £2 million threshold.  They had planned on leaving the house to their daughter and family but this super-charged death tax will probably make that impossible.  They are relatively young and healthy (in their 60’s) and a possible 20-30 years of mansion tax rollover with accrued interest will be a massive amount.  Maybe this particular couple can hold out until a future government repeals the tax.  Death and taxes may be a certainty in life, but so are changes in governments.

An alternative plan would be to increase the council tax bands instead of levying the mansion tax.  I know the council tax rates we paid in St. Johns Wood were laughable.  They had so much money coming in from Westminster businesses, the residents pay the lowest council rates in England.  Our council services in Westminster were excellent by the way and much better than services we experienced in Islington or Camden councils.  The big problem with the Lib Dem plan though is that council tax goes directly to the council and not to the Treasury.  As such, the revenue is out of the potential Labour government’s reach. Money raised from the mansion tax going into the Treasury doesn’t automatically mean NHS funding either but it is a good public relations move.

NW8 road sign

In my opinion, mansion tax is all about wealth redistribution. The top 1% of taxpayers in Britain contribute almost 30% of the revenue for the Treasury.  The mansion tax is just another tax on income that’s already been taxed.  Nice double-dipping if you can get it.



11,462 London Homes Face Mansion Tax - Inforgraphic

Brought to you by Property Division, The Property Investment News Hub.



a cell block at eastern penitentiary

The Solitary and Silent Road of Penitence

Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia was the world’s first penitentiary – a place for wrongdoers to achieve penitence for their sins, as opposed to prisons which just punished its inmates.  Operational from 1829 to 1979, it was based on Quaker principles of punishment, atonement and (radically for that time) reformation of bad characters.  ESP became the architectural model for over 300 prisons worldwide including Forest Bank which opened in Salford in England as late as 2001.  Today, ESP has been designated a national historic landmark.

ESP was revolutionary in its time because previously people who had been jailed were generally placed in large holding pens.  Prison was a place for punishment meted out injudiciously by prison guards.  The members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in Benjamin Franklin’s house (naturally) in 1787 to create a new type of prison based on Enlightenment thinking.  It took them 30 years to convince Pennsylvania that they should be start a new type of prison system.

prison cell

People sentenced ESP were placed in isolation and silence.  Each 8×12 feet cell had a bed, a work bench, a latrine and a bible.  Overhead in the cell, a window let in skylight and also reminded inmates that God could see all.  There was a little door to the outside where the inmates were allowed fresh air in individually walled 8×12 areas for 2 half-hour breaks during their 12 hour day.  The solitude and silence were supposedly instrumental in helping inmates reflect and atone for their sins.  During the 12 hour days, the inmates worked in a trade such as shoe making or weaving or prayed.

solitary confinement cell

ESP is an impressive structure even today as it lies in ruins.  It has been a tourist destination from the beginning because of its novel approach and gigantic structure. You can see Philadelphia’s skyline in the distance over the ruins of the buildings.

philadelphia skyline rises over eastern penitentiary

The original cellblocks work like the spokes of a wheel off a central round room.  Guards could stay in the round room and see down the lengths of each of the cellblocks.  Originally the cellblocks were only one floor high and could accommodate 450 prisoners.  With the increase in the prisoner population, however, later cellblocks were made to be two floors high.  The halls were long and the ceilings vaulted – an architectural design meant to convey the feeling of being in church and inspiring penitence.  By the early 20th century, isolation was no longer a feasible option and the cells contained 2-3 men each.

a cell block at eastern penitentiary

This gate lead to the hospital ward.  One of ESP’s famous prisoners, Chicago mob boss, Al Capone, had his tonsils removed here.

the hospital block at eastern penitentiary

The outside of ESP is built like a medieval fortress – impregnable and impressive.  Note the murder slits in the towers – a detail from medieval times which in 19th century Philadelphia was merely decorative.  The slits don’t go all the way back to the other side of the wall.  The whole complex was supposed to inspire fear in anyone who thought about breaking the law.

turret at eastern penitentiary

ESP is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the world.  Presumably many of its inmates went mad after years of prolonged isolation.  An early famous visitor in 1842, Charles Dickens, thought the system was well-intentioned but a form of torture which messed with a human being’s mind.

door to an inmate's cell

Children under 7 years old are not allowed to tour ESP.  I had not planned on taking my 8 year old son on the ESP tour but he found it fascinating.  Originally he was supposed to be at sleep away camp, but he broke his arm, and spent the summer hanging out with me. A natural chatterbox, he found the concept of not speaking to anyone really hard to understand.  There is a audio tour guide narrated by the actor Steve Buscemi which provides really interesting narrative and background on ESP.  He was fascinated with the stories told on the tour guide and we had some interesting things to discuss afterwards.

original cell block

ESP is today run as a museum which is open most of the year.  They run a well-received Halloween haunted house spectacular every autumn.  The site has been used in various television and film projects such as Brad Pitt’s 1995 film Twelve Monkeys and the 2008 Transformers sequel.

cell block highway

ESP is a fascinating look at historical means of achieving punishment and redemption.  We clearly are still grappling with the same issues although I think we have veered far towards punishment and pretty much forgotten redemption as shown by the film, The Life and Mind of Mark Defriest, I have posted about earlier.

What do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

dove mosaic

A Rocky Road in More Ways Than One

Ever been to the American International Church in London?  It’s a huge building across from one of my favourite interiors stores in London, Heals, on Tottenham Court Road.

boy scout cap

Last week, we went with my son’s cub scout troop to visit the Soup Kitchen run out of the side of the church.  His scout troop brought presents (warm socks) and baked goods for the people who get their one meal a day from the Soup Kitchen.  They are considered homeless and marginally homeless (those people who have housing which is inadequate or temporary).  The boys sang some Christmas carols while the food was being served.



The baked goods were definitely appreciated as were the socks.  For our contribution, my children and I made Rocky Road Crunch from the BBC Food website which is adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Express cookbook.  The recipe is incredibly easy to make and requires no baking.  I put the rocky road mixture in silicone baking trays to get the Christmas tree and gingerbread men shapes.

rocky road

Established in 1986, the Soup Kitchen provides free meals for 70 people a day for five days a week. Information on the soup kitchen can be found on their web page as well as how you can volunteer your time or donate money and other items.  Most of the homeless are men but there are a handful of women as well.


The American scouts have been involved with the American Church for some time.  Last year, one of the boys scouts for his Eagle Scout project redid the side courtyard with mosaics and planting. This project won first prize from the European boy scout council for his efforts.

The mosaics and planting still look fabulous and, hopefully, will brighten up this corner of the urban jungle for years to come.

It’s not just the homeless, the marginally homeless or Nigella who have rocky roads to walk.  We all go through tough times at some point in our life and, hopefully, it doesn’t get so low that you are homeless or dragged through the court of public opinion.  Especially at Christmas, it’s good to remember a little support and sympathy can go a long way.

Elvis Barbecue

Post Update: Modern Dollhouse Auction for KIDS

We saw a sneak preview of some modern dollhouses designed by currently practicing architects and designers at an event held by Domus during Clerkenwell Design Week.  Fast forward to London Design Week and Modus were displaying several of the completed dollhouses in their new showroom in the West End.

The doll houses  are going to be sold to raise funds for Kids, the disabled children’s charity.  Twenty prominent architects and designers, such as Zaha Hadid Architects, Adjaye Associates, Studio Egret West and Glen Howells, agreed to join this charity event.  The specially-set up website for this auction has a full list of the architects.

It is interesting to see the different interpretations made by the same brief.  Here are some of the dollhouses I saw:

FAT Architecture in collaboration with artist, Grayson Perry

This design looks imposing on the outside.  A careful look, however, reveals lots of cubby holes to open and some gorgeous miniature artwork on the inside.

DRMM with Richard Woods Studio and Grymsdyke Farm

In my opinion, this beautiful design is more of an architectural model than a dollhouse.   No child will be able to reach inside to move the people around for pretend play.  Yes, I realise these dollhouses will be auctioned for lots of money and will never have grubby little chlld hands touch them.  I think, however, any design should maintain the pretence of being a child’s toy.


The finised Elvis doll house from Amodels is even more fantastical than the prototype they showed at Clerkenwell Design Week.

Make Architects

My favourite dollhouse on display was by Make Architects.  There was so much interest in this project at Make that their architects made individual cubes that can be slotted together to make different shaped buildings.  Called the Jigsaw House, each cube has an activity or a textural interest to engage the child.

Dexter Moran Associates

The Dexter Moran dollhouse was a series of white cubes each with a different sensory experience.  For example, one cube had a working doorbell and another had a textured floor.  The finishing touches to the dollhouse were being made in the showroom while I was there.  Although simple in appearance, the structure had lots of activity areas and was intricate to assemble.

As with many building projects, I couldn’t see many of the finished dollhouses because they were running late!  Anyone who has had building work done will agree that meeting deadlines up to wire is a common scenario whether in dollhouses or real houses.

The dollhouses are now available online for preview and early bidding.  On November 11th, they will be exhibited and sold in a live auction by Bonhams.  Take a look and be amazed by the creativity on display!

Of Hens and Houses

My friends who live a couple of streets away from us raise hens in their back yard.  Yes, we’re still talking zone 2 of London here.  The local urban foxes probably salivate over these beautiful birds but they are safeguarded by an intricate security system.  Over the last 2 years, only 1 hen has been snatched.  The parents love having fresh eggs and the children like feeding the hens.


I thought of these hens when I went to RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show last week because the show featured 6 celebrity-decorated henhouses.  Sponsored in conjunction with Country Living Magazine, the henhouses were donated by Flyte So Fancy.  They will be auctioned off on Ebay with the proceeds to benefit charity by the 28th of July.

Sophie Conran

Cookbook author and designer, Sophie Conran, customised a pretty henhouse for which currently the bidding stands at £360.  It’s classically pretty with its white coloured background and pastel and bright colours.


David Domoney

Gardener and broadcaster, David Domoney, created a fairly wacky henhouse which befits his quirky style.  I like the blue colour.  I can’t say I’m enamoured of the fried eggs on the side.  As a chicken, I’d be traumatised to see my eggs splattered across my house.  But, hey, this is the guy who gave viagra to his plants.  I am clearly too conventional for his style. Bidding currently stands at £186.


Philippa Forrester

Television and radio presenter and author, Philippa Forrester, created a classic country design which would fit well into most spaces.  Cream and silver with with inspirational words – probably a very soothing space to lay eggs.  It’s a good thing hens don’t have body issues because they are being called fat, big-bottomed and skinny in the same breadth. Bidding for this coop currently stands at £210.


Kate Humble

Television presenter, Kate Humble, created a hen house with planters on the side.  Its a good design for a garden that is short on space and needs to make every space count.  I wish she’d painted the house though.  Bidding currently stands at £260.


There are lots, and lots, of heart cut-outs.  The basic design these coops started with have a heart over the door.  Kate Humble seems to have run with the heart theme.  I guess she was going for a rustic style but it just looks unfinished to me.


Deborah Meaden

Businesswoman and Dragon’s Den investor, Deborah Meaden, has created a hen house full of personality, complete with a carved dragon on top.  The teal, plum and grey is a very on-trend colour combination.  Even if the hens can’t read, the owners of these coops will appreciate their sense of humour.


She has stepped away from the country theme and added a dash of humour. I can see this chicken coop in the back garden of a trendy eco-friendly Islington banker’s family.  Bidding currently stands at £255.


Nikki Tibbles

Florist and owner of Wild at Heart, Nikki Tibbles, has created a floral fantasy hen house.  I love the hot pink and pale pink floral colour combination which really pop against with the grey paint.

Nikki Tibbles Hen House

Both the outside and the inside are bedecked with rosies, peonies, hydrangea and dahlias.  Clearly, this design is not meant to be practical or probably even used.  A chicken coop for those without chickens.  Bidding currently stands at £102.

Nikki Tibbles Hen House

These chicken coops started all started from a basic model and have turned out very differently.  Their style vary among suburban, country and urban.  Which one’s your favourite?  Would you consider raising hens?  Even if we had the space in our garden, I feel like I have my hands full with 2 children and a dog.

Design-Lead Modern Dollhouses for KIDS

If some of the most innovative and creative contemporary architects created dollhouses, what would it look like?dollhouse_plan

At Clerkenwell Design Week, I had a preview of the answer at an event hosted by Domus Tiles.   I went to the launch of a miniature dollhouse preview by Cathedral Group (a property developer) for KIDS.  KIDS is a national charity supporting disabled children and their families in England.dollhouse_plan

Cathedral Group decided to get involved with KIDS when one of their own staff members had a child with a disability.  They are devoted to raising GBP 100,000 for this charity.  So far, they have raised GBP 23,000.  You can check out their story, their money raising efforts and their progress to date on their website.

Martyn Evans, the Creative Directive for Cathedral, has come up with a creative way of fundraising for kids.  He has approached 21 well-known designers and architects make modern dollhouses to be sold at a charity auction at Bonhams this November.  The designers involved include Zaha Hadid, David Adjaye, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Phil Coffey, Christophe Egret and Christian Spencer Davies.  The latter 3 designers gave a small presentation on the progress of their dollhouses.

Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects has created a concrete dollhouse that can go in the garden.  He had listened to evidence from the Joseph Rowntree foundation which found that disabled children like having outside space in a home because it was usually hard to get to the park.  The concrete dollhouse also has a little herb garden of its own in order to stimulate the children’s senses of touch, taste and smell.


Christophe Egret of Studio Egret West came up with something completely different.  He has created 7 objects that can be placed together using magnets for a child to create their own house.  The child can use their imagination as well as learn about composition and aggregation.  The objects can be dismantled and tidied up at night in case space is tight.

Egret's design

Interestingly, while the adults congregated around the Elvis Treehouse (below), the only child at the event couldn’t stop playing with the Egret prototype.

Egret with prototype

Christian Spencer Davis of A-Models created a completely wacky doll’s treehouse primarily because Christian asked himself what a child would want in a house.  He decided a child’s dream house would have slides, trampolines, televisions and other fun stuff.  He created a dollhouse that is on a scale designed for Playmobil people (in his case, he had an Elvis Playmobil person to hand).

The treehouse is supposed to be stimulating and engaging visually and physically. It definitely has a lot going on – pools, cars, TV’s etc.

My favourite part of these presentations was listening to the designers discuss their creative process.  All three people came up with completely different prototypes with the same brief.

More information on this exciting project will be available when its dedicated website ( launches in a couple of months.  I can’t wait to see what tweaks these three designs will have and what all the other architects produce!

So, what do you think?  Which one is your favourite?

Show Me the Money (Preferably Displaying a Female Historical Person)

Ever had a really good look at British bank notes?  One side displays the current reigning monarch and the other side shows a historically significant British person.  British bank notes are changed regularly and the historical personage chosen is at the discretion of the Bank of England.

British five ten and twenty pound notes

The current Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has announced recently that new GBP 5 notes printed as of 2016 will feature Winston Churchill (replacing social reformer Elisabeth Fry).  Fry and Florence Nightingale are the only 2 non-royal women who have ever featured on a British banknote.  Moreover, although Darwin’s image on the GBP 10 banknote is actually the oldest of the current crop of banknotes, his picture is not facing immediate replacement.

English: Bank of England, City of London EC3

English: Bank of England, City of London EC3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Concerned citizens have set up an online petition to reverse King’s decision at which has already received over 25,000 signatures.  No one disputes that Churchill is a worthy candidate to be featured on a banknote.  The issue, however, is about overlooking all the important women who have made significant contributions to Britain.

King’s response that a woman is represented on all the banknotes already (the Queen) is just plain condescending.  The monarch is always on the banknotes by virtue of his or her position.  The person on the other side is chosen for their achievements.

woman victorious

Out of the 4 banknotes that Britain has, surely one should be reserved for a woman?  Admittedly the list of qualified women is shorter than men because historically women have been limited to the domestic sphere.   There have been plenty of suggestions on significant women in British history to jog King’s memory along.   A Guardian poll asking the public  listed a diverse range of options, including Mary Wollstonecraft (author and philosopher), Jane Austen (author), Rosalind Franklin (scientist) and Mary Seacole (pioneer nurse).

Nouormand: Pliaque à Londres

Nouormand: Pliaque à Londres (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who would I vote for?  I have a soft spot for Octavia Hill primarily because I am a daily recipient of her foresight because I live near Hampstead Heath.

English: Footpath on Hampstead Heath. A footpa...

English: Footpath on Hampstead Heath. A footpath across Hampstead Heath running almost parallel to West Heath Road. The photo was taken looking almost due west. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Octavial Hill was another 19th century social reformer who had many charitable interests.  Born in the countryside into a family who believed in social reform, her family fell into straightened circumstances and moved to London.  She had no formal education and started working at the age of 14.  Her early years in the countryside left her with the strong belief that poor people would benefit from green spaces.  I am very grateful that she was instrumental in keeping Hampstead Heath and Highgate Woods as public open spaces instead of falling into the hands of developers.

English: View of Highgate from Hampstead Heath...

English: View of Highgate from Hampstead Heath, London, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She was also one of the 3 founders of the National Trust.  Through her work with the urban poor, she met John Ruskin who was an investor in the early form of social housing she set up.   In addition to collecting rents, Hill and her colleagues also set up a home visiting service for the tenants which would form the basis for modern social work.

social work

Tristram Hunt, politician and historian, wrote an article about Octavia Hill for The National Trust Magazine on the centenary of her death in 2012.

“In addition to founding the Trust, she was one of the greatest social entrepreneurs in British history.  From housing to philanthropy, arts policy to feminism, welfare reform to conservation, her legacy is all around us and, what is more, in current times, it is coming back into fashion.”

Tristram Hunt (2012)

I have a daughter who I am encouraging to be a strong, fearless female.  I hope she will be someone who will, in Sheryl Sandberg’s parlance, Lean In (if she chooses to) and take advantage of all the opportunities available to her (thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of generations of women who came before her).  Although many of those women are nameless, it’s not asking too much to honour one of the women we do know about alongside the other Great Britons represented on the banknotes.

If you care about this issue, please sign the petition at  and forward this post to other people who would do the same.