Friday, 30 September 2016

Friday Fungus: council estate mushrooms

The Lismore Circus Estate at Gospel Oak in Camden isn't the most obvious location for a new horticultural enterprise. This - described as "(l)ong sleek apartment blocks (Ludham and Waxham) designed by the firm of Frederick McManus and Partners as part of the Lismore Circus estate" - is the location:

In the basement of this block developers are, however, proposing just such a horticultural enterprise - a mushroom farm:
London could become home to a new mushroom farm capable of growing three quarters of a ton every month using waste materials such as coffee grounds.

Eco start-up Article No. 25 wants to set up the farm in the basement of a block of Seventies council flats in Gospel Oak, and Camden council is considering a planning application.

The mushrooms would grow on a form of compost made from waste materials including coffee grounds and newspapers mixed with straw.
Two important points to make here - firstly this is a great use of essentially redundant space (the unused garages in the image) and secondly it opens up new uses for food waste.

Plus, of course, mushrooms are nutricious and flavoursome!


Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A note on transparency in public contracts

Once the contract is agreed how much government pays to suppliers should be a matter of public record. Yet government - especially local government - still hides behind the provision in the 1972 Local Government Act allowing secrecy in the case of 'commercial confidentiality'.

Here Transparency International reports a couple of pretty shocking examples:
Transparency International cited Hackney London Borough Council as one case where redactions had made scrutiny difficult. In one month alone the council reported £14m worth of redacted transaction data that did not identify suppliers.

It also reported that Lancashire CC redacted numerous payments for a multi-billion pound PFI scheme, leaving no information about the name of the contractor, and Nottingham CC redacted the details of £10m - worth of expenditure.
The provision in the Act, in my view, is there to allow fair negotiation of contracts not to privilege price information about public contracts. It is in everyone's interests - the public, organisations competing for public contracts, public employees - for this information to be available for scrutiny.


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Megacities and the Dick Whittington Principle - agglomeration versus central place

The world's most powerful drivers of change - economic, social, cultural and political - are large cities. We don't have to like all this change - Mike Bloomberg's fussbucketry being a case in point - to appreciate that this dynamic is very real. I'm not saying that everything is invented and every innovation takes place in developed world megacities but the evidence does suggest that disproportionately this is the nature of modern development.

I noted this a short while ago in observing that the 'London Problem' isn't really a problem just of London - it started with this Peter Thiel quote:
“If you are a very talented person, you have a choice: You either go to New York or you go to Silicon Valley.”
The same, of course, goes for London - let's call it the Dick Whittington Principle where ambitious, clever people go to where there are lots of other ambitious and clever people because they're more likely to succeed. This Dick Whittington Principle is at the heart of the idea in economic geography of 'agglomeration' where a critical mass of people (or resource availability) drive innovation and through this economic growth. The result is the idea that we need to use attractors for those people - given that, these days, most growth is driven by people not by the availability of other resources. These attractors include universities and research institutes, high technology businesses and cultural industries.

Now this approach produces problems - it runs counter to the idea that growth needs to be inclusive and results in some places being, as it were, left behind. It is this concern that sits behind the RSA's 'inclusive growth' work and the alternative economic models promoted by advocates of new localist approaches such as this from New Start Magazine:
But this agglomeration model – the dominant local economic model for UK cities – creates as many losers as winners and is an outdated approach to city economies that are currently experiencing huge social, technological and environmental change. This dominant model favours city centre economies, skilled workers and high-end jobs. It starts with the physical – buildings and infrastructure – rather than the needs of people. It encourages people to move or commute to areas of opportunity rather than creating jobs close to the neighbourhoods in which they live.
The result, so these people argue, is illustrated by a place such as Greater Manchester where a successful centre in Manchester and Salford contrasts with slightly tatty and declining mill or mining towns like Oldham, Rochdale and Wigan. The success of the city centre simply isn't delivering growth on the periphery of the Greater Manchester urban agglomeration. This same pattern will be seen in West Yorkshire, in Birmingham and on Tyneside.

This displacement - a sort of negative hysteresis - doesn't just create problems for economies but also underlies social disconnection. Although the debate about the 'left behind' and populist politics is a little overblown, the spatial distribution of support for such campaigns is hard to dispute.

The issue, however, is that whether we adopt the leftist approach of New Start or the sort of populist approach of Trump, Farage or Le Pen, the solutions on offer result - assuming we accept agglomeration theory - in a sub-optimal outcome. We get lower rates of growth because we want to equalise that growth across every community - preventing (if we can) Dick Whittington from going to London doesn't just mean Dick has less opportunity but, by not bringing together others like Dick, society as a whole is poorer.
Here is what the populists are sadly getting wrong: While cities and rural areas are — and have long been — politically competitive, they are in fact economically complementary.
This thesis - that rural areas (and suburbs for that matter) need cities and vice versa - draws on another central idea of economic geography: central place theory. Here's the basics:
The German geographer Walter Christaller introduced central-place theory in his book entitled Central Places in Southern Germany (1933). The primary purpose of a settlement or market town, according to central-place theory, is the provision of goods and services for the surrounding market area. Such towns are centrally located and may be called central places.
Now leaving aside that Christaller was quite an enthusiastic Nazi, we can see that the central ideas of his work remain perhaps the dominant thesis in modern spatial planning. Anyone close to the UK's local plan process will be familiar with concepts like 'settlement hierarchy' and 'rural service centre' that draw directly from European location theories. It is perhaps time, in economies dominated by services, to start questioning the use of central place theories based on economies dominated by trade in goods. And rather than trying to shoehorn agglomeration theory into the same box as central place theory, we should be seeing them as competing views of modern regional development.

The presumptions that underpin the European single market (and other customs unions) are that central place ideas are correct. By granting the megacities (and Europe really has only one - London) a place on the top of a classic hierarchy of settlements with each dependent on the settlements below, we acknowledge that removing barriers to trade in (primarily) goods results in more economic growth.

If, however, agglomeration theory is correct then this requirement carries less weight. The megacity - London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo - is divorced from its hinterland. It may be convenient to trade with that hinterland but it is neither necessary or contributing to the success of the megacity. In this model, London's success isn't connected at all to its position at the top of a settlement hierarchy but rather to its capture of the modern world's most important resource - ambitious, clever people. As a global city, Europe needs London but London doesn't need Europe.

It's probably more nuanced than this and the question of what happens in the rest of England remains but, from the perspective of economic geography, the answer to agglomeration or central place gives you the answer to that other question: will Brexit work? And partly this is about the theories in question and their relevance but it's also about policy choices. Regardless of trade deals the UK government has to work out how to capture as much of the modern economy's key resource - human innovation - so as to ensure we get the greatest benefit from agglomeration.


Sunday, 25 September 2016

More evidence we've reached Peak Car?

America is car central, the nation most wedded to the wonders of the private motor vehicle. The target of this sort of hyperbole:

Cars for everyone was one of the most stupid promises politicians ever made. Cars are meant to meet a simple need: quick and efficient mobility. Observe an urban artery during the school run, or a trunk road on a bank holiday weekend, and ask yourself whether the current system meets that need. The vast expanse of road space, the massive investment in metal and fossil fuel, has delivered the freedom to sit fuming in a toxic cloud as your life ticks by.
Now, leaving aside that politicians never promises cars for all - the market delivered cars for everyone all by itself - this is a typical reaction. George Monbiot even uses the phrase "carmaggedon" to describe how the ever increasing numbers of cars is destroying our health and the planet.

I've mentioned 'Peak Car' before and there's an ongoing debate in the USA about whether total car mileage is rising or falling. Nevertheless, in a land designed around the car, this is significant:
About 87 percent of 19-year-olds in 1983 had their licenses, but more than 30 years later, that percentage had dropped to 69 percent. Other teen driving groups have also declined: 18-year-olds fell from 80 percent in 1983 to 60 percent in 2014, 17-year-olds decreased from 69 percent to 45 percent, and 16-year-olds plummeted from 46 percent to 24 percent.

However, for those in their late 50s and older, the proportion of those with driver's licenses is up about 12 percentage points since 1983—although down more than two percentage points since 2008. The only age group to show a slight increase since 2008 is the 70-and-older crowd. 
The cost of cars and the concentration of young people in ever denser cities means that those generations simply aren't bothering with the expense at all. It would be helped if cities liberated public transport from unions, special interests and the antediluvian thinking of authorities but this shows that cost and convenience still lead to different decisions. We may indeed have passed Peak Car.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Scribblings VI: Old lags, metaphysics, arts funding, pubs and public health

Trying to keep up with assorted Scribblers is challenging and this is a selection that tries to avoid stuff about the US Presidential Elections, Brexit and the leadership of the Labour Party. Not that these things are unimportant but that they've a tendency to crowd out other stuff that's just as interesting (and maybe important).

On the latter point, this post from Anna Raccoon is definitely important - what do we do with elderly and ill (even terminally ill) prisoners?
The number of older prisoners in the UK has more than doubled in the last decade, with the greatest increases amongst those over 70. Around 40% of older prisoners are sex offenders, many of whom are in prison for the first time due to historic abuse. Longer sentences and more stringent release criteria mean that increasing numbers of ‘anticipated deaths’ in prison are predicted.
Fascinating - especially the issues with painkilling drugs (most of which are, from a different angle, narcotics).

Meanwhile the Flaxen Saxon is getting all metaphysical:

Philosophers as far back as Plato (see the allegory of the cave) have reasoned that what we perceive is not reality. With the advent of computers and especially the stupendous increase in computing power, we have to ask ourselves- are we part of a huge computer simulation? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? Perhaps, but there are serious professional physicists and philosophers out there who consider the concept not only plausible, but likely. And no, these folk are not inmates of a secure mental health facility, they are, in the main, tenured academics.

As I commented on the blog - all reminds me of Brian Aldiss's 'Report on Probability A'. Which rather takes us to that age old question as to whether we can, in the manner of Azimov's 'psychohistory' break everything down into equations, algorithms and metrics. As Demetrius asks in talking about arts funding:
So many of us ask for the arts to have some funding and support to ensure their survival and continuance in a difficult world. Now it seems that this can only be if extensive management is applied to the distribution and assessment of those which are being assisted.
Having just re-read Yevgeny Zamyatin's 'We' (written in 1921 as a critique of Taylorism but banned by the Soviets as it applies as well to Scientific Marxism) it's clear that this breaking down of everything into numbers and measurements remains a challenge to civilisation.

Indeed there's a part of this problem displayed in the endeavours of public health to use science to promote their rather joyless ideology of wellbeing. And both Frank Davis and Paul Barnes pick up on this. First Paul on Stop Smoking Services (SSS) and e-cigs:
This is where I begin to have a niggly problem with SSS. I don’t knock the work they do, but nine times out of ten when a positive article appears in the press there is always this cessation approach – the “they can help you quit smoking” – type line. Broadly speaking that statement is true, but e-cigarettes are substantially more than just a bloody quit aid.
And Frank on 'junk food':
My conclusion is that “junk food” is perfectly good food, but “disapproved food”. It’s food that’s been labelled as “junk”, and most likely libelled as “junk”. And there is no rhyme or reason for this disapproval, much like there is no rhyme or reason for the disapproval of everything else the disapprovers disapprove.
Only approved pleasures are allowed, citizen!

But we like pubs, of course. Pubs are about community - wholesome, clean, caring community. And we should save them. Old Mudgie takes issue with this simple mantra as promoted by Greg Mulholland MP:
Now, I recognise that pubs can have a value as community resources that transcends narrow financial considerations, and that ACV listings, if properly applied, can give them a valuable stay of execution if they are threatened. I’d also support pubs being given protection from being turned into shops or offices without needing planning permission, subject to a reasonable minimum time limit of trading as pub.

But it has to be accepted that society changes and moves on over time, and that most of the current issues around planning and redevelopment are symptoms of the general decline in the demand for pubs, not its cause.
The idea - as Mulholland has promoted in Otley - that every single pub (there are over 20 in Otley) merits protection is hard to defend. Helping locals save the only village pub is a great idea but using planning and regulation as a stick to beat PubCos really won't work if the pub isn't viable in the first place.

Perhaps, if we're concerned about community, we need to ask about how councils, police and fire services are stopping local events unless they pay up or provide their own security (at great cost). Here's Julia:
So....what's happened here is the council get to shrug their shoulders and say 'Toree cutz, mate, innit?' Because that's easier than changing the event into something more manageable.

Friday, 23 September 2016

We'd be a better world with a little more geography and a little less economics.

Two things happened recently that reminded me of how we have pushed geography to the margins of learning. And that this is pretty much a disaster.

The first is a comment on my blog from by sister, Frances Coppola:
On a larger scale, the same thing is happening in the EU periphery. Whole countries are becoming ghettos of the elderly, sick, disabled and those trapped by low skills and lack of money, while the young and skilled migrate to the core in search of better-paid work. I wrote about this a few years ago. I won't post the links here, but if you want to look the posts up they are called "the creeping desert", and (rather more upbeat) "in the countries of the old". You might also like to look up Paul Krugman's work on social geography. He won a Nobel for it, if I recall correctly.
The point Frances makes isn't relevant to what I'm saying here as what interests me is the last two sentences. Paul Krugman is, of course, a Nobel Prize winning economist. There are no Nobel Prizes for geography.

Mr. Krugman received the award for his work on international trade and economic geography. In particular, the prize committee lauded his work for “having shown the effects of economies of scale on trade patterns and on the location of economic activity.” He has developed models that explain observed patterns of trade between countries, as well as what goods are produced where and why.

Now I'm not going to start an argument about what is geography and what is economics but I spent my childhood reading (well more than was healthy) Stamp's Commercial Geography - the 1935 edition. And it was and I guess still is about "the location of economic activity". These days, however, it's so much sexier to call yourself an economist even if what you're doing is geography.

The second event was a visit to a book shop. Indeed to perhaps the best looking book shop anywhere in the world, Waterstone's Bradford:

Filling in some spare time usefully by wandering around this wonderful shop I noticed that while there's a politics section, a history section and a social science section there's no geography section. OK there's some shelves labelled travel but these are almost entirely guides. What there isn't is any attempt to bring together books about geography - the modern day descendants of that Stamp's Commercial Geography.

Our problem is that, while we festishise history and drool over economics, geography's mainly treated as either shopping studies or quiz questions. And the result of this is that it's not taught enough (and perhaps not well enough):
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and National Geographic have commissioned a survey to gauge what young people educated in American colleges and universities know about geography, the environment, demographics, U.S. foreign policy, recent international events, and economics. The survey, conducted in May 2016 among 1,203 respondents aged eighteen to twenty-six, revealed significant gaps between what young people understand about today’s world and what they need to know to successfully navigate and compete in it. The average score on the survey’s knowledge questions was only 55 percent correct, and just 29 percent of respondents earned a minimal pass—66 percent correct or better.
In know this is America, famous for not knowing any geography, but I'm pretty sure we'd find a similar ignorance were we to survey students in European universities. We gleefully proclaim the importance of 'location' (even 'location, location, location') but then allow children to leave school knowing next to nothing about their world, barely able to comprehend a map, and incapable of seeing the connection between culture, economics and the physical world.

There's nothing new in this - the first edition of the National Geographic (published 128 years ago today) included this grumble:
Davis also takes time to bemoan the lack of geographic knowledge among the public: "It makes one grieve to think of the opportunity for mental enjoyment that is lost because of the failure of education in this respect."
I remain of the view that we'd be a better world if we focused a little more on geography and a little less on economics.


Marches and rallies are professions of faith not mere political acts

In his novel 'Necromancer', Gordon Dickson explored the differing traits in human personality. The book acts as a prequal to Dickson's best known work, the Dorsai trilogy. One of the traits or types - alongside military, spiritual and scientific - was one based on faith. In 'Soldier, Ask Not' the second in the Dorsai trilogy, Dickson casts this 'trait of faith' in the manner of a sombre, puritan religion and explores ideas of unquestioning loyalty, community and conformity to rules.

But the origins of these 'Friendlies' that Dickson sets out in ' Necromancer' were what he called marching societies a group of cults whose typical modus operandi was to march through the streets chanting slogans. Now while the book paints these marchers as religious in motivation, Dickson is clear that the link is faith - undoubting belief that something is true regardless of criticism, evidence or argument:

“Let me attest as if it were only for myself. Suppose that you could give me proof that all our Elders lied, that our very Covenant was false. Suppose that you could prove to me”—his face lifted to mine and his voice drove at me—“that all was perversion and falsehood, and nowhere among the Chosen, not even in the house of my father, was there faith or hope! If you could prove to me that no miracle could save me, that no soul stood with me, and that opposed were all the legions of the universe, still I, I alone, Mr. Olyn, would go forward as I have been commanded, to the end of the universe, to the culmination of eternity. For without my faith I am but common earth. But with my faith, there is no power can stay me!”

It's important that, in understanding politics, we appreciate that this faith is as important as the measured, supposedly rational debate that we pretend motivates the politically active. It has, for me at least, been a matter of curiosity why thousands of people who are otherwise pretty normal feel the need to gather in rallies, to stage protests and to march - like Dickson's cults - along the streets waving banners while shouting slogans. When we look back at the Labour leadership campaign, we see the clash of these two approaches to politics - cynical triangulation set against a cult-like certainty of the truth in those chanted slogans. As Nick Cohen argues in this week's Spectator:

Utopias are always banal. Corbyn's Utopia allows his supporters to wallow in the warmth of self-righteousness. They want to end austerity. Stop greed. Bring peace. How they do it is not their concern. Practicalities are dangerous. They take you away from Utopia and back into the messy, Blairite realm of compromises and second-bests.

The problem is (and Cohen - along with many others - misses this) that the Blairite realm has no appeal to the political. It is essentially anti-politics at least in how it deals with the traditional certainties of the left's world view. Those traditional certainties - capitalism exploits workers, socialism is good, businessmen are greedy, Tories are uncaring - are a mantra, exclamations of faith and without them the thing that drives the activist is gone. Without them the left has no purpose and is simply a pale imitation of the cynical, corrupt Tory Party.

If this mantra of socialism, so the left believes, is shouted loudly enough and often enough its message will be heard and the workers' Utopia will come to pass. And, just as in the quote above from 'Soldier, Ask Not', it doesn't matter how often the terrible truth of that Utopia is shown the marchers simply march more and shout louder. The mounds of dead in Soviet Russia and Maoist China make no difference. The warning words in '1984', 'We' and 'Brave new World' don't dent the commitment of the faithful. Riots and bread queues in Caracas merely result in a renewed condemnation of the rich and the greedy.

The rally and the march - things that seem strange and even sinister to most people - serve the same purpose as the Sunday service does to the evangelical. They are shared proclamations of faith, occasions when the believers gather to affirm that belief. These events are as much about this shared experience as they are about changing anything - the 'Save the NHS' march doesn't do anything to achieve that aim but instead brings together the faithful in publicly professing their faith.

Today, with what's called the 'populist' right, we're seeing similar attitudes emerging blinking and unpolished from the right. This isn't really that new - the extreme right has always been a twisted reflection of the far left - except in that there's numbers and momentum. Trump, Le Pen - even Nigel Farage - use that same rhythm of repeated slogans to provide a catechism for the faithful to use. And they use the same targets as the left too - greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, the rich elites and globalisation. There's an appetite for this because the processes of democracy became the realm of marketing rather than debate or discussion. And marketing suits the simple slogans of the faithful far more than the nuanced ideas of the intellectual.