Friday, 24 October 2014

Values? The one that really matters is freedom...

Queueing for bread - socialist values in action

This is a pretty typical framing of a left wing values statement - from Julian Dobson:

And that brings us back to values. Do we want a society that turns competitiveness into a totem, blames individuals for social problems and judges success on earnings and rates of return? Or are we looking for something more inclusive and creative, places that recognise the value generated by people’s imagination and relationships and passion for the common good? 

And the typical slightly green, middle-class leftie will feel a little shudder of affirmation through the bones at this statement. Absolutely, our lefty might say, this statement clearly separates the uncaring, individualist from the caring, sharing collectivist. They might add little mutterings about 'trickle down' or 'profits' before smiling again as the high plateau of collaborative, cooperative glory comes into view.

The problem with all this is that it is a delusion, a deliberate self-deception. All this enthusiasts for ending the dark and evil neo-liberal world and ignorant of its central truth - that far more than the state-directed, protectionist systems our caring lefties aspire to create, free market systems are absolutely about inclusion, creativity, passion value generation, imagination and mutual benefit. The secret lies in that magic word 'free' and it is all that freedom that gave us the wealth to ponder such matters as 'values'.

Once the matter of values was something for priests and philosophers. Most ordinary people - and this still stands for a great deal of today's world - were way too busy keeping body and soul together to bother about what it all meant. Then something happened. It wasn't a planned economy, it was a spark of liberty that set us free. And we became free because the trap of subsistence was removed, we could lift our head up from the daily drudge and think about those values, about what we thought the world should be like.

And the match that ignited those flames of freedom wasn't a law, it was capitalism, the liberal enlightenment that opened up trade and allowed business to innovate, to create and to transform - in just a few decades - the entire world.When the likes of Julian Dobson paint free markets in negative terms, when they demonise the idea of choice by talking about competition as a negative, and when they dismiss individual material success as somehow distasteful or exploitative, what these people do is build a mighty man of straw, a grand lie.

This lie is essential to socialism - without that mighty straw man representing capitalism's sins the logic of the left collapses into the terrible reality of a place where people queue for seven hours to buy some flour and some milk. This, rather than sunlit uplands, is the consequence of that focus on the "common good" - for there is no common good other than that determined by the interactions, transactions and exchanges of the people. And the best way to get those mutual benefits isn't through committees, co-operatives and regulations but through free exchanges in a free market. That is why the left must make a demon of liberty because they can't admit that free choice, free exchange and free speech is the best road to a good society, to a place where those values they prattle on about are met for everyone.

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More nonsense about urban farming...

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Urban farming, some believe, is the solution to all our problems. Rather than shifting food from distant locations to the urban communities where we live, we farm the corners, roundabouts and gardens and cultivate diused land so as to feed ourselves. It's all terribly jolly and green, typified by the Incredible Edible programme in Todmorden. I love it, the randomness, the cheeky nature of swooping on a little patch of urban green and seeding it with herbs is great.

However, when people start taking this stuff seriously they start talking nonsense. Here's a report from some professors at Sheffield University:

THE COUNTRY may only have 100 harvests left because of intensive over farming unless drastic action is taken, according to university scientists

They say the problem has depleted the soil of the nutrients needed to grow crops and suggest converting parts of the UK’s towns and cities into new farmyards.

Scientists from Sheffield University warn that a lack of bio-diversity is causing a dramatic fall in the country ‘s wildlife populations.

A study by Dr Jill Edmondson has also found that soils under Britain’s allotments are significantly healthier than soils that have been intensively farmed.

Now I'm going to take the scientists' information at face value - it really isn't surprising that the soil in allotments, lovingly and intensively managed by the hobby horticulturalist, is better than the soil on the typical commercial farm. But that really doesn't make it either sensible of viable to replace the production from farmland with production from gardens or allotments. More significantly, yields from commercial farming as vastly higher than yields from hobby farming. Despite stagnant yields in some crops, there's not much evidence to suggest that the dire predictions from the Sheffield University team will come to pass.

However there's another important point to be made here which is about land use and land values. We know that urban and rural land values are massively different. According to Savills the average value for farmland in Great Britain is £9,750 per acre whereas residential development land can be values at £900,000 per acre of higher. Quite obviously there is no way in which the value of the land for other uses (housing, parkland, highway, commercial or industrial) can be substituted for agricultural use and for the farmer to be able to recover his outlay from the profits generated by growing stuff.

As one comment on urban agriculture put it:

What today’s enthusiastic locavores ultimately fail to understand is that their “innovative” ideas are not only up against the Monsantos of this world, but also in a direct collision course with regional advantages for certain types of food production, economies of scale of various kinds in all lines of work and the fact that pretty much anything they can achieve in urban environments can be replicated at lower costs in the countryside. These basic realities defeated sophisticated local food production systems in the past and will do so again in the foreseeable future.

While no one argues against the notion that our modern food production system can be improved, and entrepreneurs are always searching how to do so, the desire to make urban agricultural a viable commercial reality distracts from more serious issues such as international trade barriers and counterproductive domestic agricultural subsidies. The sooner well-intentioned activists understand these realities, the better. 

The right response is to work on either protecting biodiversity and soil quality in intensive agriculture or at opening up more land (not just in the UK, America and Europe but in Africa and Asia) to productive agricultural uses. Suggesting that Sheffield's twee Love Square - or any similar sort of project - is any kind of solution to food supply challenges is arrant nonsense. But it's so much more fun to play at farmer in our spare time and to prattle on about urban food production.

Hardly a day passes without some further argument support intensification and densification within urban communities. It's as if that science fiction image of cities captured in biodomes, self-sufficient and shiny but surrounded by wilderness, has become the real ambition of the green movement. What they miss is that the image was always a convenient plot structure rather than a painting of a real future, a way for the writer to explore the logical conclusions - good and bad - of urban living.

The sad part of this green myth-making is the seriousness with which some folk treat it - they seem unconnected to economic reality as they pretend their sweet world of sustainable towns peopled by walking, cycling allotment owners is anything but a greenwashed version of subsistance agriculture - the very form of poverty that we escaped from by moving to cities and creating the modern capitalist society.

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Modern urbanism defined - build places people don't want to live in and call it 'sustainable development'

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I can understand dense urban development when there's not a lot of spare land and values are very high. But sometimes it just reveals the ideology of urbanists to be unpleasantly directing and controlling. Here's an example - the relocation of the Swedish town of Kiruna:

“Either the mine must stop digging, creating mass unemployment, or the city has to move – or else face certain destruction. It’s an existential predicament.”

So Kiruna (familiar to us 'A' level geography students as the best example of a town that simply wouldn't be there were it not for an essential natural resource - iron ore) needs to move. But the proposed replacement is a classic example of what you get when trendy architects meet 'sustainable development' and state control:

The current town is a sprawling suburban network of winding streets, home to detached houses with gardens. White’s plan incorporates a much higher-density arrangement of multistorey apartment blocks around shared courtyards, lining straight axial boulevards, down which the icy winds will surge.

It is an opportunity, say the architects, for Kiruna to “reinvent itself” into a model of sustainable development, attracting young people who wouldn’t have stayed in the town before, with new cultural facilities and “visionary” things such as a cable car bobbing above the high street. But it is a vision that many of the existing residents seem unlikely to be able to afford.

Kiruna is in the middle of nowhere - quite literally. It only exists because of the reserves of magnetite and, if you don't want to stay and dig the stuff up, you're going to head south pretty sharpish. Why on earth would young people stay in a small town where it's dark for half the year when they can go to Stockholm?

There was no need at all to build this sort of trendy version of 'Stalinist Baroque' - the authorities could have simply parcelled up and handed out building plots to residents. But that would have been too free, open and democratic for the urbanists. They'd much prefer some choice and living room but will be getting the high rise, high rent apartments the state dictates. This is the sort of world the fans of garden cities and sustainable living want. It's not what people want.  But what do we get?

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Jay Rayner, millionaire food snob, tells poor families their food is too cheap...

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It has become something of a trend - millionaire cultural lefties popping up to tell poor folk that they are paying too much for stuff. The other day it was Vivienne Westwood railing about capitalism while charging over a grand for a handbag. Now it's 'masterchef judge' Jay Rayner - the doyenne of Guardian-reading food snobs - who is telling the poor they should pay more for their dinner:

Families need to pay more for food and have become 'far too used to paying too little', Masterchef judge Jay Rayner told MPs today.

The food critic and author told a parliamentary committee that food was too cheap to support British farmers.

He said: 'We pay too little. We're far too used to paying too little. And the only way we have at our disposal, I think, to secure a robust food supply is by investing in British farming and that does mean consumers pay more and look for that label.'

Rayner even explained that food poverty was nothing to do with real poverty:

'Yes, we do need to pay more for food but if you focus on a thing called food poverty then you're not going to be looking at the bigger picture involving the whole population.'

So we're to have more expensive food because British farmers can't compete with farmers somewhere else in producing the cheap food that people want to buy. And Rayner - who has no qualifications on this matter besides having a famous mum and a cushy job being paid by newspapers and magazines to eat overpriced restaurant food - latches on the familiar set of supposed concerns - the size of the supermarkets, the concept of 'food security' and some sort of wibble about sustainability.

Food security is simply protectionism rebadged - we invent scary stories about how somehow we'll not be able to feed ourselves because of all that cheap food made somewhere else in the world and use those stories to justify trade barriers, protectionism and subsidy. Then, because the Asians and Africans who could produce all that fabulous cheap food don't due to protectionism, all Jay Rayner's pals on the Guardian and Channel 4 wangle trips to see the poor black people and to explain why evil western capitalism has condemned them to an eternal struggle against absolute poverty.

Let's be clear. Cheap food is a good thing. There is nothing at all that is wrong with you and me not having to pay as much to put food on the table. It is gross and immoral for rich people like Jay Rayner to say to poor people that they should have less food because they'd rather protect a few uneconomic farmers. Rayner has never had to make the choice between putting the heating on or having a meal - yet he wants to force that choice onto still more people. And Rayner isn't scratting on a Zambian farm hoping that the rains don't fail so he can feed his family - the other sort of uneconomic agriculture that the protectionism he espouses acts to sustain.

Rather than Rayner's snobbery and environmental protectionism, we should embrace the opportunity of cheap food - break down the barriers, encourage mass production and deliver nore people the wonderful benefits that come from cheap, abundent food in fantastic variety that we (mostly) enjoy in the UK. Above all can we stop saying - on clothes, on food, on energy - that making it more expensive is a good idea. It really, really isn't.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Twenty years serving Bingley Rural - a pleasure and I've done all right I hope


I've been the councillor for Bingley Rural for approaching twenty years. Come next year's elections it will be twenty years. And in that time I've helped, mostly in small ways, loads of people in the villages (at first four but, since 2004, five) with their issues. A lot of the time I get stuff sorted, grease the cogs of local government and allow people to get back to living their lives. Sometimes I fail, the problem isn't - or can't be - solved and this is as frustrating for me as it it for the people who've asked for my help.

When I look back, I remember the things that didn't work out - whether it's getting a beer garden approved for The George or trying to help a resident get permission for a hay store so she could better care for her motley collection of retired horses. And the bigger stuff like the planning permission at Crack Lane in Wilsden - a load of houses on a site that floods all the time and can only be accessed via the narrowest and steepest of rural roads. A planning consent rammed through by a Council seemingly obsessed with delivering on some sort of fictional housing need - macho planning at its worst.

Then I think about the things that aren't so straightforward - the traffic calming schemes that everyone wants until they're in place when everyone hates them. We really have to find a better way - the schemes going in today simply don't fit the bill. As one resident explained - he doesn't drive through Harden because his wife's bad back is exacerbated by the sleeping policemen in the village. Yet council officers are ever more defensive when challenged - pointing to "national guidance" and "good practice" to justify jarring, rattling physical speed controls. I'm minded not to support any more of these until this problem is sorted - the current schemes simply aren't right.

I was once asked - quite late in the evening when I was less than sober and in The Fleece in Cullingworth - "what have you done for me?" I stumbled over my answer but wish, in a classic piece of l'esprit d'escalier, that I'd responded with "what have you asked me to do for you?" But in the spirit of a genuine response here's a few of the big things I've help happen in Bingley Rural.

Parkside School - back in 1999 when Labour was doing its best to utterly ruin Bradford's education there was a schools reorganisation that abolished the middle school system the City had had since the 1960s. Had we not campaigned for a secondary school at Parkside, children from Cullingworth and Denholme would have been bused into Bradford or Keighley for school.

Manywells tip - the tip getting its permission was before I first joined the council but the efforts we've put in to stop the tip polluting the village and surrounding countryside have paid off. In time what was a smelly, fly-infested and bird-ridden rubbish dump will become a grassed and wooded hill above the village.

Buck Park Quarry - most of the credit goes to Denholme Residents Action Group (DRAG) but I've helped them through the long struggle to stop landfill at Buck Park. From the first application when, sat behind Cllr Harrison, I was muttering (as loud as possible) "refuse it David, refuse it" - it was turned down, the council didn't turn up at the public enquiry and the developer's failure to comply with conditions finally killed the idea of dumping putrid and toxic waste in Denholme

Cornerstones, Cottingley - I forget how many millions the development was but that probably doesn't matter. Again someone else, Cllr Baroness Eaton, had a bigger role but we bashed enough council heads together to get a fantastic community facility, a new church and a new medical centre for the village. I was talking to Irene, the chair or trustees recently and she reminisced about walking with Prince Charles (a long story) through the estate talking about what was needed. And we have what was need now.

Cullingworth Primary School - I was a governor at Cullingworth Primary during the incredibly protracted negotiations to get the land for the new primary in the village. I remember meeting with Philip Robinson, the Council Chief Executive at the time and him describing the land transaction as the most complicated and fraught he'd handled in 30 years as a council officer.

St Ives Country Park - Great place, isn't it? Well the refurbishment, the adventure playground, the new trails - these were a priority when I was Executive Member with the culture and regeneration portfolio. We now have a fantastic free facility for local people and visitors alike

Cullingworth Village Hall - just a month ago the planning committee agree to set aside £410,000 of s106 funding for a new village hall for Cullingworth. Again most of the credit is down to the Village Hall Renewal Committee but I helped - it is my pet scheme after all.

This is what Councillors do. It's not about debating the great issues of the day in the Council chambers or playing endless games of petty politics or in-party backstabbing. It's not the grand stuff but the every day things that bother ordinary people.

I think I've done all right. Perhaps my friends and neighbours in Bingley Rural will keep me on for another four years next May?

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Is it feminist to say rape is a male problem?

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We debated child sexual abuse at Bradford's full council meeting this evening. The debate was, as these things always are, something of a mixed bag. There's no doubt that we're all genuinely concerned about the problem - both the historic abuse and the real truth of continuing abuse in our city today.

I spoke and gave over part of my speech to the vexed matter of misogyny. After all 90% of the cases we're dealing with here involve the raping and repeated sexual abuse of teenaged girls. And I made the observation that this is about a culture that sees women as either distant and mysterious princesses or else as sluts, slaves and servants of male desire. In prosaic terms too many men see women as either wives or whores.

After the meeting I did a little interview. The interviewer asked me to go over the main points of my speech. Or rather, as she hesitatingly put it, my...er...feminist speech. I repeated my belief - stated in the speech that rape in a male problem and that men have to challenge the definition of women by their role rather than by their character. If it is women who set out that challenge then it's all to easy for the man to respond with 'you're a women, you would say that'. Making light of sexual violence needs to be challenged just as we would challenge any other glorification of violence. And it must be challenged by men.

Now I don't consider this a matter of feminism but rather that the idea of treating another person as merely an object of self-gratification is pretty repulsive. But I am curious how saying rape is a male problem - women don't ask to be raped however dressed, spoken or drunk - is somehow a reflection of feminism rather than a matter of how we make a better human society. Perhaps that's what feminism is about?

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Monday, 20 October 2014

There are more drunks in Blackpool than Barton-le-Clay

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Apparently it's a shocking discovery. There are huge regional variations in the incidence of liver disease:

The study uncovered a stark north-south divide, with more than four times as many male adults dying from the disease in Blackpool (58.4 per 100,000) than central Bedfordshire (13 per 100,000).

Predictably this has resulted in a call for more controls over alcohol - doubtless we'll get the familiar set of prescribed solutions: minimum unit pricing, advertising controls, bans on 'super-strength' beer and plain packaging or graphic health warnings. But look again at those figures and ask two questions.

Does it really surprise you that there are a lot more problem drinkers in Blackpool? It really doesn't surprise me and, without wishing to do down Blackpool, it is entirely in line with the town's demographics. I suspect you'll see more street drinkers in a day on Blackpool front than you will over half a year in Dunstable or Flitwick. And this is because Blackpool is where those people go. The town doesn't breed those street drinkers but it's where too many of them end up.

Secondly, we need to ask whether the rise in liver disease really is down to drinking - check out the figures:

The report, Deaths from Liver Disease – Implications for End of Life Care in England, showed that the north-west region had the highest liver disease death rate – 24 per 100,000, with 11.4 from alcohol complications. It was followed by the north-east with 21.9 and 10.1. The east of England had the lowest rate, 12.9 and 4.9, followed by the south-west, 14.3 and 6.4, and the south-east,14.8 and 5.8.

Nearly 60% of deaths from liver disease aren't due to alcohol. But whenever the statistics are quoted we get a splurge of anti-alcohol campaigning. I've noted before that there has been a rise in viral hepatitis cases and there has also been an increase in morbid obesity. And a good chunk of Blackpool's problem will be down to drug use rather than alcohol.

To put the problem in context, 0.0114% of the Blackpool population die as a result of liver disease caused by alcohol abuse. This is a big problem for those sixty or so people in Blackpool and we need to get better at dealing with this issue but it really isn't a massive public health problem.

But then, when the Guardian journalist starts with a blatant untruth there really isn't much hope is there:

The changes in pub opening hours and higher levels of alcohol consumption are directly linked to the “rapid and shocking” increase in death rates, according to Prof Julia Verne, who led the research for PHE.

Alcohol consumption has fallen by around 18% over the past decade and this decline matches (although I'm not saying it was caused by the change) the liberalising of licensing.

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