Friday, 25 May 2018

A less authoritarian Tory Party would have fewer authoritarian policies. Why doesn't it?

There appears to be something of a splurge of thinking in the Conservative Party. I'm keen on this especially given we're also in government making it much harder to leading figures to burst into thoughtful song - the dour, dull business of government 'twas ever a drag on ideas. The thinking seems to revolve around three themes: being altogether jollier, escaping the legacy of Thatcherism, and making a 21st century case for capitalism.

Now this all sound like a slightly updated version of Reaganism (for the record, the USA's best post-war president and a man whose ideas still resonate in their defence of freedom, community and a sunnier life) but underneath is covers over the gaping chasm in the UK's Conservative Party. This isn't a matter of policy nuance but something much more fundamental, a sort of cavaliers and roundheads divide between those wanting a stern parental grip on society and those who think a load more freedom is a great idea.

It's true to say that Conservatives have a sort of on/off love affair with liberalism - David Cameron famously described himself as a 'liberal conservative', a tag that raised the ire of the more autocratically-inclined in the party despite Cameron repeatedly demonstrating his illiberalism. Elsewhere - in what is probably the mainstream of the party - support for illiberal ideas like ID cards, stricter licensing laws, minimum pricing for alcohol, chasing immigrants about with slightly racist posters, and wanting controls on the Internet in the vain hope they will stop teenaged boys looking at pornography.

So when Ruth Davidson, probably the most shining champion of Cameron's liberal conservatism says:
“We look a bit joyless, to be fair. A bit authoritarian, sometimes”.
I have two conflicting reactions. The first is positive, fist-pumping agreement - we really need to stop nannying and fussing over the public as if they're unable to make any decisions at all without the gentle guiding (big stick wielding) hand to the paternal state. So well said, Ruth, well said.

The second reaction is that Ruth is a raging hypocrite - after all:
“Support for alcohol minimum pricing represents a major policy shift for the Scottish Conservatives. It follows my commitment as leader to undertake a widespread review of policy.

“I am delighted that we have managed to secure two major concessions which will reassure the retail industry following productive negotiations with the Health Secretary.”
Here's a policy that is harmful and stupid in equal measure, is the epitome of joyless authoritarianism and Ruth Davidson walked her Scottish Tories into voting for it.

If the future for the Party lies in being more fun, less fussy and more libertarian (a view that seems to have its champion more in Liz Truss than Ruth Davidson) then we need to put an end to things like minimum pricing, sugar taxes, aggressive benefit sanctions, ever expanding demands for ID, and stupid immigration policies that prevent businesses getting the skilled labour they need to compete in the global race David Cameron was always banging on about. Above all we should start treating the British public as adult friends and neighbours who we want to help get along, support when they're in trouble and care for when upset or ill. What we're getting instead is rampant fussbucketry that seems to view people as slightly retarded eleven-year-olds who can only survive under the benign, authoritarian gaze of a nanny state.

Ruth Davidson is right, the Conservative Party needs to be less authoritarian. To to this we should start by not proposing authoritarian policies. It might just help!


Monday, 21 May 2018

Paint, tiles, flower pots and park benches - lessons from Estepona's regeneration

I've always been a little doubtful about the "let's be like Barcelona" school of urban regeneration. This leads to enthusiastic proclamations about how Bradford will be the "Shoreditch of the North", as if this is somehow either achievable (Bradford's not two stops on the tube from the City of London, for a start) or desirable (why would we want a child free and expensive city filled with achingly trendy beards). I do think, however, that we can look at what other places have done successfully - even Shoreditch - and ask if some of what they've done can help make our place a better place.

We've been visiting Estepona on Spain's Costa del Sol off and on for over a decade. And during that time, we watched the building explosion of the 2000s, fevered speculation about high speed railways and more recent twitchiness about Brexit, at least among ex-pat residents. Oh, and most of the local council went to jail:
The socialist mayor of Estepona, Antonio Barrientes, and ten other council officials have been arrested on corruption charges related to property development fraud.
It has dragged on a little too:
Since 2006 a judge has been diligently carrying out an investigation before bringing the case to trial. Some 113 witnesses have been interviewed, 26 police reports written, 800 volumes of documents have been collated and the final report ahead of the trial is 226 pages long. Of those questioned, 94 are still formally under investigation. The inquiry has taken so long that three people being investigated have died.
In and amongst all of this Estepona has slowly transformed as a place, mostly through old-fashioned place-making - public and private - and a realisation that today's Costa visitor is less interested in the flash night life of Puerto Banus (now a decidedly Russian affair albeit with the same number of Ferraris, Aston Martins and Lambos as ever) and wants a quieter, more-measured place to enjoy. We are, after all, ten years older, a little greyer and just a tad slower than we were when we first visited.

The result is a really lovely town where residents, businesses and the council (helped by a few dollops of EU cash) work together to keep it looking good:

The streets of the old town - like the one above feature coloured pots filled with geraniums. Every night in summer council workers water these pots - a pretty big commitment but it makes for a fantastic display:

What this investment - over about ten years - has done is encourage residents to add their own pots and plants to the show:

Each street has it's own colour schemes - red in one, yellow the next, one street has yellow with pink polka dots - and it melds into some brilliant public squares:

This square not only features a lovely stone elephant (alongside a lovely restaurant Casa Dona Jeronima) but some brilliant features and details:

The most recent public space - once a tatty square where the buses used to stop - not only has an underground car park (what a good use of the space) but more great planing as some lovely murals:

Most of the town is pedestrianised (or with access limited to residents) and has been gradually improved with the same palette of colours and materials mixing with creative tiling and mosaics to make a pleasant place for an evening stroll. The whole town centre has the feeling of a park albeit one where people live, where businesses are run and where visitors enjoy beer or tapas (often both). And on the back of this better public space, you get the refurbishment of great old buildings:

The result of this (and I've no doubt that thousands of Northern European visitors - semi-resident in many cases - is a factor in the town's success) is that the old chiringuitos are sharpening up their act to serve this affluent audience and not lose them all to traditional street cafes and restaurants in the town:

There's also investment in the beachfront (Estepona has an artificial beach but beyond the town itself the beaches are smaller and rockier) like this boardwalk:

To return to where I started, this isn't an argument for other places to do the same - that doesn't work. Rather it's for us to think how these relatively simple investments in the street scene, in features and details, and in soft elements such as plants or flowers make a place so much more effective. When I argue for us to treat city and town centres like parks rather than as CBDs or "economic drivers", it's this sort of work I'm talking about. Andalucia isn't a rich place (per capita income is lower than for Bradford) but this town has, having escaped from the mania and corruption of Spain's housing boom, focused its efforts on making what it has work well.

Of course, Bradford isn't the Costa del Sol any more than it's Shoreditch but I do think the lesson here is to step back from those voices telling us it's all about some sort of competitive race between different cities for investment, business attention and development. Perhaps we should think more about paint, flower pots and park benches than about whether one or other bunch of sharp-suited developers are going to arrive in town to build.


Monday, 14 May 2018

Farewell and thanks, Will Alsop. Bradford should belatedly implement your masterplan.

Will Alsop was a prophet. I don't say this lightly as much of the remembrance of him will focus on the architecture, his penchant for livening up urban design with giant teddy bears and his failed plans for northern cities.

I live in one of those northern cities, Bradford. And every time I look at our struggling - and let's be honest Bradfordians, it is struggling - city centre I think of what Alsop told us to do. I know everyone thinks about lakes and canals, sensory gardens and singing pillars but this wasn't what Will told us to do. Really, it wasn't.

What the Bradford Masterplan was about wasn't development either. Quite the opposite - Will's masterplan was an anti-development masterplan. "Knock down the crap", said Will, "and don't build anything in its place, make it a park." Now we can argue about whether the 'crap' is or isn't 'crap' (High Point anyone?) but Will Alsop's proposals were prophecy. What a different city we'd be had we done what he said - not built Broadway, not tried to attract whizzy developers to build speculative wonder buildings, not pretended that there was any land value in the city to be leveraged into development profit, and recognised that doing the same as everywhere else doesn't win you the game.

Instead we took a radical - almost revolutionary - proposal for the city and spent two years turning it back into a boring, planner-friendly, same-old-same-old plan for a regeneration. A plan for a regeneration that never happened. A plan based on a misguided belief that Bradford could be a 'central business district' when Leeds is just nine miles away (and Manchester a mere thirty miles). A plan that ignored the biggest change in retail since the invention of the supermarket - for a mail order city to miss the arrival of mail order's triumph is spectacular.

Will Alsop's prophecy was that cities and town centres would be about play not work, trees not bricks, walking not parking. Turning most of Bradford city centre into a park was a brilliant idea and, you know, we can still do it. It just takes a little bravery from the council. Instead of spending £80 million on buying up property in the vain hope it will cover up our budget weaknesses maybe we should build Will Alsop's park - pedestrianise Market street and Princes Way, turn all that Council-owned land in the top of town into great public space, buy up and flatten Darley Street. Don't just admit defeat in the city centre rat race but celebrate this defeat. And if there's  little spare cash at the end, let's build a giant teddy bear to remember Will Alsop who dared us to be brave.


Saturday, 12 May 2018

Most argument is directed to fans not opponents...

Here's Arnold Kling:
...the principles of good intellectual debate are not that obscure. Just make arguments as if you were trying to change the mind of a reasonable person on the other side. I believe that the reason that we don’t observe much of this is that most people are trying to raise their status within their own tribe rather than engage in reasoned discourse. It’s sad that reasoned discourse does not raise one’s status as much as put-downs and expressions of outrage.
I suspect this isn't new - much debate (and not just political debate) is tribal. I guess Jonathan Swift made the point well:
Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy...
The other day - seeing as how I'd received a gift of £25 on a plastic card - I was wandering round Waterstones. It struck me then that many of the books on display are designed to appeal to a fan club rather than to present an argument for all - from Naomi Klein's latest poorly-research rant through books on Brexit written entirely to shore up one or other side's argument to the kind of flag-waving certainty given to us by pop psychology, lifestyle and self-help writers. And don't get me wrong, this makes complete sense - once you've got a bunch of unquestioning fans, writing to appeal to them is clearly the best option (assuming you want to sell loads of books and buy a new house or maybe a whole island). These books are, however, akin to those 'many hundred large volumes' that Gulliver was told about.


Effective measures to address social mobility and inequality are politically unpopular

A great deal is spoken about equality and, as a result, we have two concepts that are seen as core to the resolution of inequalities: social mobility and income redistribution. In the case of the latter, we've tended to look at redistribution in terms of social class but now there is a fashionable concern that that we should be looking at intergenerational inequalities:
But while there are strong grounds for optimism in some areas, pessimism dominates overall. Pessimists about young adults’ chances of improving on their parents’ lives outnumber optimists by two-to-one. That marks a dramatic, and very rapid, turnaround in outlook. As recently as 2003, optimists outnumbered pessimists by nearly four-to-one. The gloom that has settled across our society since then is common across advanced economies, though Britain is more pessimistic than most.
The Resolution Foundation's work is pretty comprehensive, so it's disappointing when their resolution to the problem identified (today's young people having a better life than their parents) is to give them £10,000 - collected by taxing the existing older population. For me this illustrates the problem we have with developing political solutions to core social problems like equality - the winners in the game of inequality these days want solutions that do not mean them giving up their advantage. You might be able to sell them the Resolution Foundation's bung (although the track record of political responses to inheritance taxes aren't good - as Ed Milliband and Theresa May have found out to their cost) but it really does little or nothing to address the central concern that young people won't be rich enough to buy a stake in our society.

The same applies to social mobility. This is pretty much the subject of Robert Putnam's Our Kids where he explores the barriers to social advancement faced by American young people - driven less by race or location and more by a reborn social class divide (Putnam uses parental education as a proxy so you could argue it's a test of education effect rather than class effect). It's hard to cram a whole book into a sentence or two but, it seems to me that Putnam's findings - for all that we can't get a perfect transfer to UK circumstances - are a better reflection of the social realities facing our next generation than those from the Resolution Foundation.

The problem for the Resolution Foundation is less that working class kids are falling further and further behind middle class kids because of collapsing social capital (essentially Putnam's argument) and more that middle class kids can't afford to buy the assets - typically houses - that their parents were able to buy. For sure the report talks of pay stagnation and job insecurity but its primary thrust is that the resolution of the inequality (ie young people are less able to buy assets than their parents' or grandparents' generation) comes via higher taxes on wealth and specifically real estate wealth.

Not only do I think that the Resolution Foundation's answer is overcomplicated, state-driven and divisive, I'm also pretty sure it won't work. Young people may, at the end of it be a little better off but giving them £10,000 on their 25th birthday isn't going to get most of them onto the housing ladder. Moreover, the Resolution Foundation's proposals for dramatic hikes in property taxes will benefit squeezed local council budgets far more than they will the housing options of young people. And local councils - at least if what they say is a guide - are more interested in building council houses for rent than they are in helping young people buy houses. The result of the report's policies will be some cheery councillors not happier young people - this is not progress.

The problem we have is that the most obvious policy response to the problems of intergenerational inequality and social mobility are not politically easy to deliver. These might include:

Scrapping the strategic planning system including the 'green belt' - nearly everyone says there are too few houses, allowing people to build more homes seems an obvious solution. What would a world without planning look like?

Replacing locational bases for school place allocation with a lottery - most children are in urban areas but, even here, school allocation makes a huge difference. We know that when children from lower social class (as measured by parental education level) are educated alongside their middle class neighbours they achieve better. Our locational system of allocation results in social sortition and less social mobility

Making divorce more difficult and promoting a culture where the order is "get married, have children" not "have kids and maybe sometime later get married, perhaps if he's still around" - yes folks, the children of single parents and children born outside marriage do less well at school. This is the case even when we control for other variables (and, yes, not every child of a single parent fails, just on average such children are more likely to perform less well)

Tax incentives or subsidy for single income households - the effect of a household where one parent doesn't work is also positive. Just as we should encourage marriage, we should encourage stay at home mums or dads - pay them the money we're already allocating to childcare maybe?

Not sending so many young men to prison - Putman reports again and again that the struggling young people he interviews have a father in prison. Again the evidence tells us this forced form of family breakdown results in poorer achievement, lower income, increased child delinquency. It's also a disaster for the young men we lock up - instead of 90,000 in prison we should aim to (at least) half that number

You see the problem? Put forward a manifesto saying scrap the green belt, end parental choice in school places, make divorce harder, subsidise stay-at-home mums and stop locking up so many young men. Go on. It'll be fun. Except for your candidates. It's much simpler to say "my government will pay x to y" or "we'll make it easier to dump you hubby because he snores" or even "we'll tax an unspecified bunch of rich people and companies so we can give you a tasty little cash bribe". This doesn't solve the problem but is more likely to get you elected.


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Why has the left given up on free speech?

Over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend a lot of people who had nothing better to do with their lives (such as drink lager, have barbecues, watch cricket, sit in the garden) assembled in London on a rally for free speech: 
Protesters flying national flags and holding placards decrying limits to free expression rallied at Whitehall after marching through central London from Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, a location seen as emblematic of free speech that has been the scene of several recent far-right rallies.
Now, while there's an irony at a march protesting free speech proceeding more-or-less without the authorities doing anything other than watching, there's a point to all this that matters. It's not about whether or not the mobb allows Tommy Robinson to get permanently chucked off Twitter but rather about the manner in which the idea that we should be free to speak our minds is now considered to be a mad, bad and dangerous thing. Not just by authoritarians but by people who probably lay claim to the title 'liberal'. It seems that expressing support for free speech can now be categorised as supporting the "far right":
Claiming freedom of speech as a value is something the American far right has been doing for years (aided and abetted by liberal dupes, naturally)
Well I don't know about you but, for me, free speech is one of those inalienable right things and I thought that the left were committed to the idea that human rights merited vigorous defence? It would appear that today, in our crazed looking glass way, the centre-left - once the bastion of support for rights - has given up on the idea of free speech. In its place is a movable feast of allowed and disallowed ideas, concepts, theories and words - anything, presented by the wrong person in the wrong place can be described as 'hate speech', thereby providing the left its justification for restricting speech.

The problem is that one person's 'hate' is another person's considered criticism of an ideology, attempt at argument or humour - preventing Jordan Peterson from speaking on US campuses, banning of Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, and the trial of comedians for making bad jokes about blowing up airports or Nazi dogs. We are reminded, yet again, that free speech has to be fought and won with each generation. For much of the last 100 years, most of the left has been on the side of the good guys, the folk who think free speech - the chance to say things that might hold those in power to account - is worth a bit of offence and upset. Today this isn't the case, now most of the left - not just the fascist style left of Momentum but the whole spectrum from centrist social democracts to old unreconstructed communists - are opposing free speech. For sure, in this they're joined by other cowardly centrists in all political parties, but the thrust of the campaign against free speech is coming from the left, from its obsession with identity, with 'shutting down' voices that touch on these issues in what the arbiter of good speech determines as the wrong way - whether it's gender, race or religion.

We are still, in the main, a society where people can speak freely but the decision of mainstream - and left wing - politicians to stress identity and the prevention of 'hate speech' above the idea of liberty has meant the cause of liberty, the case for free speech, now sits with people who can be caricatured as 'far right' (in truth, for every actual fascist, there are thousands of libertarians of left and right). The left has given up on free speech:
Freedom of speech is no longer a value. It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates. They are aided by the group I call useful liberals – the “defend to the death your right to say it” folk.
Like Thurber's very proper gander, today's left believes that anyone expressing any view they dislike must be hateful and, therefore, driven from civilised society. To justify this position, its advocates will seek out the most shocking examples of crass and offensive speech -"look!", they'll shout, "you're supporting this vile stuff". And us defenders of free speech are left spluttering - we're not fans of Tommy Robinson's views and think Milo is a dickhead, so our response is mostly to shuffle off to the side and say nothing.

The reason that the left used to defend free speech is because without it things like trade unions, women's suffrage, gay liberation and civil rights wouldn't have happened. All of these things required brave men and women to stand up, seize their right to speak, and tell the powerful that things had to change. This is why we have free speech - not to allow racists to be racist or sexists to be sexist but to give the powerless the right to their voice. I believe this is worth a few tears, a little offence, and I don't understand why the left has given up on free speech.


Sunday, 6 May 2018

Sorry Hugh, there is nowhere in England where people can't buy cheap fresh vegetables

And they're off again on the food deserts line - all as part of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's mission to lecture the life out of us about being chubby (and doubtless shift a few books while getting well paid to front a dire TV series):
When Julie, who collared me on the very first day of filming in Newcastle, took me to Church Walk in Walker, where she grew up, I began to get another insight into the problem. If you played a game of Hunt The Fresh Vegetables in this part of town, you could be looking for weeks.
This is the food desert lie. It has been around for a while - poor people are fat and ill because there are no shops selling fruit and veg on the corner. It is rubbish. Here's a handy little map showing why:

That's right folks - this terrible place with no fruit and veg is less than two miles from a massive ASDA super store. There's even a convenient bus service.

The rest of Fearnley-Whittingstall's argument is equally crass, featuring as it does the usual 'shoot the messenger' rubbish about advertising, a slew of snobbish nonsense about fast food takeaways, and an utterly ignorant reference to evolution. Even without the map, we know that the food deserts argument is rubbish because people have done the research:
When examined in a multi-level modeling framework, differential exposure to food outlets does not independently explain weight gain over time in this sample of elementary school-aged children. Variation in residential food outlet availability also does not explain socioeconomic and racial/ethnic differences. It may thus be important to reconsider whether food access is, in all settings, a salient factor in understanding obesity risk among young children.
This is from Helen Lee of the Public Policy Institute of California and, unlike Fearnley-Whittingstall's TV nonsense it's peer reviewed research in a top journal. She found that not only was there no link between child obesity and exposure to different sorts of food outlets but most poor communities had more choice and variety than upscale communities. If the kids are fat (and we can argue the point here) they're not fat because their mum can't buy a cabbage.