Sunday, 30 April 2017

Bars, birth rates and gentle decline - Europe's left behind places

Every Italy village has one of these. This one, Bar Centrale, is in Fontanelice a village in the Bolognese Appenines and it's pretty typical. Go inside and there's a bar (and a barman or waitress) dominated by the obligtory coffee machine and, sitting on the cheap plastic chairs around rickedy tables are a bunch of old men. They probably won't be drinking, it's not an Italian thing really, but may be playing cards, reading Corriere dello Sport or one of the seemingly endless local papers Italy enjoys, and talking in that 'putting the world to rights' way loved of men in bars everywhere.

The wall behind the bar will feature a large poster, maybe framed, of a football team - usually from some victorious season long, long ago rather than the current team. In Fontanelice it was a black and white framed photograph of a Juventus squad from (judging from the hairstyles) some time in the 1970s. I'm guessing that, like bar decor everywhere, it's just there not causing offence but gradually losing both definition and relevance as the years pass by.

Just as for us in England, the pub was the heart of the world, these bars represent that old Italy of community, the shared experience of the place we live. It's true that little Italian towns and villages also have trattoria and even full blown restaurants but the bar, its decor and regulars slowly fading, is the common factor, the thing that every little place has. And I guess that, just like the English pub, these bars are finding times tough. I'd note that the slightly posher place we stayed - Dozza just outside Imola - didn't have a bar of this sort in the old town (an osteria served this function in the evening but during the day there was just the cafe and gelateria in the public park).

There are lots of demographic factors driving this decline - the bars may still be there but for how much longer? The most important though, like a lot of other places in Europe, is that Italians are quite literally dying out:
Italy’s birth rate has more halved since the ‘baby boom’ of the 1960s, with the number of births falling to 488,000 in 2015 – fewer than in any other years since the modern state was formed in 1861.

“If we carry on as we are and fail to reverse the trend, there will be fewer than 350,000 births a year in 10 years’ time, 40 percent less than in 2010 — an apocalypse,” the minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, said in an interview with La Repubblica on Sunday.

“In five years we have lost more than 66,000 births (per year) — that is the equivalent of a city the size of Siena,” the minister added. “If we link this to the increasing number of old and chronically ill people, we have a picture of a moribund country.”
Italy has Western Europe's lowest birth rate - just 1.39 well below the accepted replacement level of 2.1 - which is why you see so few children in these little towns and villages. The wonderful culture of these places - relaxed, welcoming - that us visitors want to celebrate is threatened by this low birth rate. And the result - just as we've seen in Japan - is that villages and small towns depopulate and are eventually abandoned:
The phenomenon is happening across the country, from mountain-top villages in the Alps and the Apennines to tiny terracotta-roofed hamlets in the sun-baked valleys of Sicily and Sardinia.

Nearly 2,500 villages are at risk of turning into ghost communities, with a startling two million homes abandoned or left empty by their owners, according to the report, which was compiled with the help of the National Association of Italian Councils.
We will see this process repeated elsewhere in Europe, at least in places that either don't attract or don't welcome immigrants. And, as we know, the problem with those immigrants is that they arrive without the cultural legacy that might sustain the bar, the cafe and the pub. Moreover they're not heading to those deep rural areas of Europe but to the towns, resorts and cities that provide the work they came here for. In France it's clear:
The visible decline of so many historic city centers is intertwined with these anxieties. Losing the ancient French provincial capital is another blow to Frenchness — tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago. A survey of French towns found that commercial vacancies have almost doubled to 10.4 percent in the past 15 years. As these towns have declined, voters have often turned sharply rightward. Albi is traditionally centrist, but the same conditions of decline and political anxiety are present, too.
Politics aside (although this sense of decline is an important factor in the kick-back against the Great City of the West and its denizens) we're seeing the same problems. A glance at the people walking the high street - older, wearier, less content - in an English provincial town will be matched in France, Spain and in that lovely little bar in Fontanelice. We tend to talk of these people as 'left behind' which is unkind and largely untrue. What we should talk about is how the places themselves are left behind, victims of the ageing population, too few young people, out-of-town shops and the World Wide Web.

In Italy, with a sclerotic economy, high unemployment and Europe's lowest female participation rate (just 37%), the problems are reflected everywhere - in the deathly quiet daytime streets of small towns, in the industrial zones littered with empty factories, rotting teeth in the once mighty bite of Italian manufacturing, and it the desperation of a government offering payments of eighty Euros a month as a 'Baby Bonus' for new mums.

If we're seeking Europe's problems we shouldn't be looking at immigrant ghettoes in Montpelier or Rotterdam, nor should we be screeching about house prices in Central London or Barcelona, rather we should be turning our attention to the left behind provincial places where the things we treasure in our cuture are at their most profound. The slow death of the English pub, the struggles of the French provincial high street, and the decline of the Italian village's cafe-bar - these are what people see and don't understand even if, as we know, they are partly to blame.

International 'anywhere' people - Flat Earthers as geographer Harm de Blij called them - may be right about global trade and business (and my head tells me they are) but when I look at those quiet, backwater places once comfortable and thriving my heart tells me we've got something wrong. And worse that the only people talking about that feeling in my heart are those blaming others - immigrants, foreigners, Muslims, bankers - for the problem rather than looking for a way forward. If this doesn't change, if the Flat Earthers continue to see the Great City of the West as the answer, then Europe and America's political divisions will only worsen and deepen.


Brownfield Green Belt: A glimpse of the stupidity of England's planning system

Those of you who watched the Tour de Yorkshire might have caught a glimpse of Denholme as the cyclists swished through the little South Pennine village. It's not going to win any prizes for prettiness but nevertheless its a great little community. Now what you won't have spotted is this:

This, you'll agree, is a bit of an eyesore. A few years ago is was a stone mill owned an operated under the name Denholme Velvets but that business finished and the mill has gone - another footnote in the decline of traditional manufacturing employment up here in the South Pennine hills. Here's what it looked like.

The reason the site was cleared was because its owners had applied for and obtained planning permission for housing. This permission wasn't obtained in the teeth of NIMBY opposition but was welcomed as a good use of a site that wasn't going back to being a textile mill any time soon. One other thing - the mill (and subsequently the cleared site) are wholly in Bradford's precious 'Green Belt'. The problem is that Bradford's sluggish development market, the location and the site's size meant that the housing permission didn't get developed. Like a lot of undeveloped planning permissions in these sorts of place, this is about viability and demand rather than the evils of 'landbanking'.

Zooming forwards in time we get to the stage where a developer is now interested in the site to build forty or so affordable homes for rent and shared ownership. Just the sort of development that we're told we desperately need in a place where there isn't (unless I'm very mistaken) going to be any but the mildest of local objection. But there's a problem. The planning permission has expired and the now cleared site is in that precious 'Green Belt'. So the initial planning response goes like this:
The site is previously developed land; however the existing development is a cleared site (albeit with some relic structures including a hardstanding and parts of walls). Now that the old mill has been demolished any new houses on the site would have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt and the purpose of including land within it than the existing development.
I'm not criticising the planner who wrote this - he is just presenting what the rules say. As a cleared site in the 'Green Belt' you can't build on it without very special circumstances - but:
Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations. This is a very high bar to pass and it does not seem plausible that it could be passed in relation to the proposed development/ site.
We've a housing shortage (or so we're told all the time). We're urged to use previously-developed ('brownfield') sites rather than undeveloped ('greenfield') sites. And we hold a special love for affordable housing. Yet an unloved, unattractive site on the main A629 from Keighley to Denholme can't be developed despite ten years ago having a huge stone mill on it.

This may all get sorted out (we get to occult planning things like 'five year land supply' and 'SHLAA' considerations as well as the emerging local plan 'Allocations Development Plan Document') but it does remind us that our planning system is, at times, utterly and completely stupid.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The election - a few thoughts

So we've an election. Genuinely a surprise election (anyone pretending otherwise is probably fibbing) and one that's set fair for a large Conservative majority. Not, of course, that I'm making predictions as I'm not very good at them and there are hundreds of other places making election guesses.

The irony, of course, is that the Labour Party could - a few months ago - have prevented this election happening by simply saying that we don't need an election and they wouldn't vote for one in a necessary House of Commons vote. Instead Labour leaders, and not just Jeremy Corbyn, made clear that they believed Theresa May didn't have a "mandate", was "unelected" and that the Party was well up for an election. Having said all this, Labour had no choice but to go into the lobbies all turkey-like to support the Government motion on an election.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised in seeing the first salvo of the campaign being a barrage of essentially personal attacks on Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader. In one respect he brought this on himself by being altogether mealy-mouthed about LGBT issues but it is a reminder how difficult it is to be anything other than a Pretend Christian (a la Blair) in British politics. The questioning of Farron by quoting chunks of Leviticus at him presages an unpleasant approach from the media throughout the election.

The effect of all this is to make the Liberal Democrat leader look old-fashioned without the benefit of being a Tory. Instead of Farron's intended launch involving the endless repetition of the mantra "Brexit, Brexit is bad", we've the spectacle of atheist Liberal Democrats trying to explain evangelical Christian theology without actually admitting that, yes, lots of Christians (and Muslims for that matter) do believe homosexual sex is a sin. But then the same goes for (many such folk believe) sex outside marriage, abortion, female immodesty, and drunkenness. I would wish the Liberal Democrats well in this defence were it not almost entirely hypocritical.

Gazing into the fog of the campaign it seems to me that the media will be the shock troops of attack politics this time. Fed a line, as they were with Farron's Christianity, they will lead on their own attacks: Corbyn's IRA links or Tory election expenses. The actual issues will, as ever these days, get subsumed in agitated questioning about minor verbal errors or historical indiscretions. Most of this really won't achieve anything for anyone's campaign - it's like the Eton wall game, lots of shouting, mud thrown, accusations, eye-gouging and general mayhem but nobody scores.

I have a feeling that, for many voters away from this hubbub, their decision on who to support will be set by a combination of historical habit and their vote on 23 June 2016. It's hard to see a Leave voter, having been called all the names under the sun by Remain Ultras, voting for a party that wants to overturn the Brexit decision. Expect the more ardent Remain Ultras to face this dilemma as their opponents focus on this issue. And expect the use of 'Stop Brexit' as a campaign strategy to be pretty ineffective other than in a very few constituencies.

For Labour their problem is threefold - they've got an incompetent leadership, they're hopelessly divided on Brexit (the biggest issue of the election), and the public would rather trust the economy to a couple of old blokes down the pub that with Corbyn and McDonnell. The Party knows this can't be fixed even if Corbyn falls on his sword and has to deal with facing the prospect of an historic defeat. Some people, with good reason, suggest this is similar to the 1983 election but it seems to me that the better comparison is 1997, at least in terms of expectations and party morale.

For my Party the risks are complacency - not just in campaigners but in our voters. Right now our campaigning capacity is as good as it has ever been. We target better, have learned the Liberal Democrat trick of moving campaigners to where their most needed, and have a consistency of brand and message as strong as at any time in my 40 years as an active member. The weakness is that the political message is unexciting, more about being a safe pair of hands in challenging times than about what Britain should be like post-Brexit. Conservatives have an urgent need to get beyond mere competence and to talk about a positive, exciting future for the nation.

I won't be conducting a running commentary on the election and you know how I'll be voting. But if you meet candidates ask them for a positive view of tomorrow and how they will try and make this happen. Look beyond the Brexit negotiations and there's an exciting future - the biggest transport technology change since the internal combustion engine, the challenge of robots, how to deal with longevity and greater leisure time, and the decoupling of economic growth from resource consumption.

In the meantime, enjoy the election. I hope to. And the result, of course.


Sunday, 16 April 2017

If we can't charge for park runs, what is the point of a local council?

Yesterday lots of people were running around smiling because of an announcement from the Government:
Councils in England will be banned from charging people to take part in weekend fun runs under rules being proposed by the government.

Free events, organised by the Parkrun group to encourage fitness, attract thousands of runners on 5km courses (3 miles) in parks across the country.

A parish council near Bristol last year proposed charging entrants £1 each, citing the cost of upkeep of paths.
And, of course, you all think it absolutely right that politicians in London ban Councils from deciding on things like what they can and cannot charge people or organisations for doing. Don't get me wrong here, I don't particularly think Councils should charge for park runs (although please note that crown green bowlers, cricketers and football players are charged to use facilities in public parks) but I do think that if we are to go to the trouble of electing local councillors to make decisions we should actually let them make those decisions. And, yes, that might include charging for a park run. If you don't like the decision you get the chance to vote out the people who made that decision. This is how the representative democracy lark works.

Except it doesn't really. I thought through the things we do as a local council - care for the elderly, look after the disabled, protect children, fix the roads, collect your rubbish, pick up the litter you drop, provide parks and hundreds of other services large and small. In every case the degree of genuine local control gets less and less each passing year. Our care services are determined by central government means tests, our children's services by national legislation and the threat of intervention, highways maintenance by centrally determined capital programmes, waste management by onerous EU regulations and, now it seems, Government wants to decide through legislation what we can and cannot do with the parks we manage.

Councils do a pretty good job - amidst a load of criticism - in administering the services we're asked to administer. And local councillors mostly do a great job (especially the Conservative ones) of helping people negotiate the nonsense of bureaucracy. We also provide a reality check on the innate daftness of government administrators. But these days our decision making is more and more limited to how we administer services within central government rules and trying to keep going the small number of non-statutory services such as allowing people to organise running round the park on a Sunday morning.

The park run case is about a council making a tricky decision about its budget. And then seeing a national organisation lobby central government to take away that council's right to make that tricky decision. So tell me, what is the point of a local council?


Thursday, 13 April 2017

London Habits - thoughts on the intellectuals' loathing of England

I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen.
I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen.
May this fair dear land we love so well
In dignity and freedom dwell.
Though worlds may change and go awry
While there is still one voice to cry
There'll always be an England
We know that there's a sort of intellectual that loathes England and the English, even while relishing the pleasures and treasures of the nation. George Orwell wrote about such people over seventy years ago and little has changed. What has happened is that many of these people have become essentially rootless, believing that they belong to some global patria - Harm de Blij's 'Flat Earthers' living in David Goodhart's 'Anywhere'.

What I don't understand is why the English members of that Laputan patria are so offended by the idea of England and Englishness. Not even the the football hooliganism bit of Englishness that causes us pain but the unchanging places of England's countryside, the market towns, cricket and the village pub. They've even found a name for it - Deep England:
Forget Little Englanders – Deep Englanders believe that life was better before the evils of industrialisation, foreign competition and, you know, immigration

Name: Deep England.

Born: In the good old days.

Appearance: A glass of warm ale, a sun-dappled larch on the village green, the thwack of leather on willow, a cheeky wink from the milkman.
To most of us this is just...well...England.  But the anonymously authored Guardian piece continues in this vein before concluding with telling us what we should say about this:
“Deep England is regressive and harmful for the population at large.”
You see my friends, those traditions of ours - village cricket, beer, church bells, morris dancing - along with the idea that you don't need to change something if it isn't broken, they are harmful. These are - our Guardian writer asserts - places that voted to leave the EU filled with terrible English people. England is a terrible place and we must stay in the EU so as to prevent England.

We have a rise in self-loathing bigotry among a class of mostly London-dwelling folk who aspire to be one of those 'Flat Earthers' living in 'Anywhere'. It hurts these England-deniers when they're reminded their near neighbours rather like where they live and also pretty much like the way it is right now. The 'Flat Earthers' pretend - contrary to the actual evidence from these places - that the folk living there are unfriendly, unwelcoming, suspicious of anyone who looks a little different.

These 'Flat Earthers' have developed an image of their enemy, a bigoted stereotype of the thick, fat, flushed Englishman - the corrupted image of Skegness's Jolly Fisherman adorning the front of these self-loathers house journal, New European sums up their ignorance and prejudice completely.

Look beyond the caricature here with it's UKIP scarf and spot instead at the discarded ice-cream cone, the litter on the beach and the brown sea. This is how the 'Flat Earthers' see the world outside their bubble - loud, lewd, dirty, common. What they don't see it that their world is closing in. The faces of the people outside that world are now pressed up against the bubble of 'Anywhere'. And the 'Flat Earthers' are scared. Scared of those ordinary folk who've suddenly realised they're just as important as the great and good in London.

I remember a boss of mine talking about visiting his soon-to-be wife's parents out in the sticks somewhere (Hampshire if I recall correctly). They'd had a lovely day, a pleasant evening, nice food, company and some wine. After everyone had gone to bed, Tom (my boss) was creeping along to his fiancees bedroom for a cuddle, only to hear his putative mother-in-law call out in a loud voice, "and we're not having any of those London habits here."

None of us provincials and suburbanites think everything is perfect or even that leaving the EU is some sort of panacea to society's ills. Rather, we would like to be seen as people rather than something to be either sneered at or patronised. Above all, as English men and women, we think our country is great, has done great things, and is worth preserving as a place rather than a mere brand in a nebulous, purposeless 'Anywhere'.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

My speech on Bradford City centre to Politics in the Pub

For those of you who missed last night's Bradford Politics in the Pub event, here is my short speech about the regeneration of our City centre and the Council's current proposals. We were asked "how do we solve a problem like Darley Street?"

"Forgive me for not answering your question. I really do think it’s the wrong question for all that we’re rightly concerned about the future of that street.

It’s more important, I feel, that we think about the longer term, about the future of the high street and the role of City Centres like Bradford.

When big and successful centres like Leeds and Manchester are starting to question the size of their retail footprint – about shrinking the centre, as it were – it seems silly of Bradford to think in a different direction.

The idea that retail alone – or even in large part – can deliver a future city centre is, I fear, delusional. Those things in your pockets and handbags ensure you can buy stuff at the flip of a finger and have it delivered to your door – city centres will never compete with this shopping offer.

We need a different answer. One that works for Bradford.

14 years ago, Bradford asked Will Alsop to provide a city centre master plan. I posted the result – or at least the video that accompanied the plan – on the Politics in the Pub facebook page – if you’ve not seen it, it is easily googled.

Once you got past the teddy bears and blobby architecture, Alsop’s plan was genuinely radical.

So genuinely radical that we ignored it.

Alsop proposed an anti-development masterplan. A completely different take on a city centre. One that played to the uniqueness of Bradford as a place and to the city’s challenges with land values and investment.

Alsop said ‘knock down the ugly stuff, the results of Wardley’s 1960s redesign of the City Centre, and replace it with a park.’

That was pretty much it. For sure there were bits of detail. Some debate about whether there should be no planned new development or just very little.

It’s time for us to look again.

What are centres for?

Here’s a list from American ethnographers Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart:
“…dining; window shopping; strolling for relaxation; jogging for health reasons; pub crawls; wine tastings; book clubs; language clubs; craft guilds; charity events; art events; parades; demonstrations; mass celebrations following major sports victories; and meeting friends.”
You might care to add to this list but I do know that, when Bradford City are promoted to the Premiership it won’t be celebrated by buying stuff on Amazon – the flags, parades, banners and beer will be here in the city.

Imagine that in a place that’s like a park? For a fleeting moment Bradford has a glimpse of that dream.

But we put it away. Searched instead for “high value demographics”, “enhanced land values”, and “new investment profiles”. Development bollocks.

Bradford doesn’t have the values right now to deliver shiny retail, grade ‘A’ office space or high quality market housing. So simply moving bits of the city about – fixing Darley Street by shutting down the main generator of footfall in the ‘top of town’ seems to be simply robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So let’s do to the top of town what Alsop told us to do – turn it into a park. A destination. That might just work. It seems right now a better bet than waiting for millions of private investment in housing that probably isn’t going to arrive in Bradford city centre any time soon."


Saturday, 8 April 2017

"Tell 'em I lied". Why politicians aren't truthful.

It's usually attributed to Huey or Earl Long both, back in the day, Governor of Louisiana. Presented with the truth about a campaign pledge and after deciding to go back on this promise, the Governor says to his advisor, "tell 'em I lied". It sort of reinforces the public's opinion about what politicians will say to get elected - I'll fix that, stop this, build something, make something. Promises that, like April snow, vanish at the first ray of sunshine.

Seems there's a reason:
We know from public choice theory that lying is more rational for a politician than for individuals in other walks of life. A politician's lies are less likely to be noticed or remembered by the "rationally ignorant" voter. Rational ignorance means that the individual voter has little incentive to invest time and money in gathering and analyzing political information because he will not be able, with his single vote, to change the election result. The politician running for office also has an incentive to lie when deprecating his opponents' character. If he wins, there will be no way to know whether or not his opponents would have been as bad as he claimed. And since the politician has no property rights in his office, the discounted value of his political reputation over time is very low, giving him an incentive to trade long-term credibility for short-run victories.
This observation (from a super article by Pierre Lemieux) is compounded by two additional problems. The first is that the voter wants to be lied to, wants to believe that government can solve whatever problems that voter has in his or her life. And as politicians we are only to happy to indulge this delusion by saying "of course, do you want that in green or blue?". The second problem is that truth is, as anyone looking at 'fact check' websites will know, often a matter of degree or emphasis. There's a lot of shouting about 'post-truth' and 'fake news' but this anger is limited - it doesn't touch on things that aren't true but that the public really believes are true. Here's Tim Worstall:
Perhaps a red flashing cop light beside an article which contains any of the following lies?

The minimum wage does not cause job losses.

Corporations should pay more tax.

Global inequality is rising.

US child poverty is over 20%.

We have widespread poverty in the UK.

17% of UK families cannot afford enough food.
What? You think these things are true? You read angst-ridden articles about them in the Guardian? Us politicians lie because you think things like imports being bad and exports good, that 'dumping' steel or solar panels is bad for our economy, and that regulation supports markets.

If you want truth then the most grown up thing you can do as a voter is to assume that the government is not interested in making your life better, is not concerned about the things that you're concerned about, and has the primary function of sustaining its current size, structure and powers regardless of their actual value to society. And, that politicians lie because you want and expect them to lie.