Friday, 22 June 2018

Urban wilderness anyone?

From a comment on an earlier post about some bright spark suggesting Birmingham should be a national park:
I naturally don't agree with creating a new national park there (?) but a rethinking of the value of "brownfield" sites would be welcome, as such sites are often much more ecologically valuable than "greenfield" sites which have been ploughed for decades or centuries; is such a (heavily subsidised) place really worth more than a stand of self-seeding trees along the canal?
I think this is a cracking idea, not only is my commenter (Asquith) spot on about the ecological desert that is agricultural monoculture but a lot of former industrial sites in the urban north (Mr A lives in Stoke, not so very different than Bradford) have no intrinsic value as development land - indeed, in many cases, the cost of remidiation and decontamination vastly exceeds any assumed land value.

Near where I was brought up is the South Norwood Country Park. When I was a kid it was called "the sewage farm". It seems to me that rewilding inner urban areas is not only ecologically valuable but also creates new leisure spaces helping raise the value possibilities of those urban places.

Urban wilderness?

Thursday, 21 June 2018

More truth - governments are bureacracies first and democracies (a distant) second

From Paul Marks at Samizdata:
To most governments and the witchdoctors in universities and media – and the establishment generally, rights are goods and services from government – not limits on the size and scope of government. They may or may not believe that there should be 13 Departments of State seeking to produce “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” like Bentham – they may believe they should be 11 Departments of State controlling society or 14 or some other number, but they agree that there should be a permanent bureaucracy which is neither elected or appointed by people who are elected (thus making elections to some extent a sham) dedicated to the Progressive agenda of spending ever more money and imposing ever more regulations.
We spend a great deal of time, effort and money fretting ourselves into a funk over how we are to influence this bureaucracy. This may be "Holding Them To Account", usually by writing letters, waving banners or signing petitions. Or it's undertaken via a process of electing representatives who, we believe, have the job to do that "Holding To Account" for us. These representatives spend a lot of time looking like they're doing that, certainly this is what they tell us (using our money to do so) but the evidence - at least to me - suggest that it goes more like this:
"One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account. This principle is justified by the excellence of the entire organization and is also necessary if matters are to be discharged with the utmost rapidity. So Sordini couldn’t inquire in other departments, besides those departments wouldn’t have answered, since they would have noticed right away that he was investigating the possibility of an error."
So the Chairman told K. And I fear this is what government is like for most people when they encounter its foibles. Bear in mind that, most of the time (this may come as a surprise to some of those witchdoctors in the media) most of the people are not remotely interested in, or engaged with, politics. You might think this terrible - in that pompous Eleanor Roosevelt "great minds discuss ideas" manner - but I think it is brilliant that we should have a society where many people really don't have to fuss themselves with what the government is doing right now. And, since you ask, I'd like even more of this - we should aspire to being able to live our whole lives free from petty regulation, clip-board waving officials, machine-minded bureaucrats with chewed pens, from the whole ghastly panoply of modern government.

Maybe a revolution would work...except, as Kafka again reminds us:
“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”


A new National Park? Where would you suggest?

Sometimes I wonder. Think about a National Park for a second - you might come up with images of the Lake District, a grand Cairngorm or Sussex's rolling downs. Maybe your thoughts stray a little further to embrace a wilderness park like Yellowstone or even the Serengeti. I think of the Andalucian Sierras towering over the assorted Costas where we lounge, drink, eat and get sunburned.

But none of you thought of Birmingham!

"I think we have an extraordinary landscape here waiting to be discovered by millions,” says landscape architect Kathryn Moore, unrolling a jauntily coloured map of her visionary new park in a Birmingham City University office. The professor isn’t talking about of Cumbria, Umbria, Snowdonia or Amazonia. She’s talking about the touristic potential of the West Midlands plateau, the heart of England that threw itself into the fiery crucible of the Industrial Revolution and still bears sacrificial scars. It is here that Professor Moore wants to create the United Kingdom’s 16th national park.

Now I'm pretty sure that there's some great stuff about the 'west midlands plateau' but I'm also sure that it's importance isn't about its landscape, wildlife or ecology but rather the glimpses of industrial heritage, the prospect of culture and the attractions of the city. These aren't the stuff of national parks.

Why do people dream up this nonsense?


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Truth - everyone is doing better here than anybody has ever done

I'll admit to finding Jordan Peterson a little irritating (and maybe a tad puritan) but this is absolutely true:
"Everyone is doing better here than anybody has ever done on the face of the planet throughout recorded history, and the whole West is like that!" he told me. "To call that all a tyrannical patriarchy is indicative of a very deep resentment and ahistorical ignorance that's so profound that it's indistinguishable from willful blindness."
Amidst all the cries of poverty and austerity, we should keep reminding ourselves - as Barak Obama observed - that if someone in the West is given the whole of history to choose the best time to be born, they should choose now. We have become trapped in a sort of depressive ennui about our societies, focused only on their failings and, worse still, blaming those failings on the success.

Every problem from teenage pregnancy through drug addiction to problems with train timetables is blamed on capitalism, neoliberalism or austerity. It's probably not true that any of these things are to blame but it sets a tone that, if we smash the golden egg that made us rich (free market capitalism), all these things will go away. The problem is that the people waving the hammers at that egg want to replace it with a different, rotten, egg called socialism - something we know creates inequality, division, death and starvation.


Monday, 18 June 2018

Historical revisionism - ideology trumps scholarship

A depressing article about his dissertation from Jack Morgan Jones. I accept it's a one-sided piece but it sets out how a simple proposal to look at something that fascinates the author became a piece of boilerplate leftist nonsense. The idea of students having real autonomy in study is undermined, the article is worth a read for that alone, but worse it shines a light on leftist revisionism:
I meet with my dissertation supervisor for the first time. She insists that the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s was not totalitarian, and that using totalitarianism as an analytical framework has long since been dismantled by revisionist scholarship.
That's right folks, all those years you've been labouring under the misconception that Finer's definition of totalitarianism applied (in spades) to the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Jack goes on:
My supervisor seems peculiarly determined to render it obsolete. She firmly advises me against making totalitarianism the focus of my dissertation. She makes her case with emphatic certainty—the scholarship on this matter, she tells me, is settled. She is so dismissive that I begin to feel foolish for having even proposed it.
The scholarship is settled! So much for the spirit of enquiry, the joy of research - 1930s Russia wasn't totalitarian! I'm guessing Jack's supervisor and her pals see the Soviet Union of Stalin, with its gulags, state sponsored starvation, pogroms, murders, intrusive secret police and atmosphere of fear, as some sort of cuddly bear that we've all misunderstood. Seems to me that ideology is trumping scholarship here.


So there isn't a Brexit Dividend? (Or maybe there is...)

The decision to announce a huge bus-driven bung to the NHS has resulted less in a debate as to whether this is a good idea, if it's too much or too little cash, or cynical politics than one about whether there is (or isn't) a Brexit Dividend.

Seems to me there are three ways of looking at this question.

1. We pay over a significant sum to the European Union. For the sake of argument, let's call it £350m per week. When we leave the EU, we won't be paying over this sum of money so it stands to reason that money is available to spend on other priorities like the NHS. The only question that follows from this gives us the second way of looking at this issue.

2. Yes we won't be sending that £350m each week to Brussels but, after Brexit, we won't have all that money to bung at the NHS. In the short term there will be transitional costs, we have to consider what, if anything, replaces the agriculture subsidies, the regional development grants, and the social policy money. We also have a border to staff up, a trade department to run and ongoing costs where we decide to buy into EU programmes like Erasmus. In the short run - maybe five to ten years - there simply won't be a Brexit Dividend. It all makes some sort of sense - unlike the third argument.

3. There'll be no Brexit Dividend because government revenues will be lower as a result of Brexit. Now, leaving aside that this implies an actual decline in GDP rather than a drop in GDP growth, the truth about this argument is that it can't be refuted as it is based on the comparison of an educated guess - 'growth will be X post-Brexit' - and an actual number - 'GDP growth was X'. The problem is that the forecasters, for all their big machines and grand degree, are always wrong. And, during the debate around Brexit, have always been wrong in direction of doom and gloom. This argument can be set out simply as "we said, on very little basis or evidence, that we'd have £110 for every £100 we had back than, we've only £105 so therefore we're worse off." It isn't a good argument.


Friday, 15 June 2018

Imagining the city as a garden (without cars)

Most of us will have paid a visit to one of England's stately homes and wandered round the gardens. Many of these gardens are designed as a set of distinct spaces - 'rooms' - each with a different sort of planting. This allows for (given enough space) everything from formal box hedge gardens though ponds and cottage gardens to the walled kitchen garden or the long vista of a herbaceous border. As you move round these gardens you'll see that each 'room' is designed to give the visitor a tantalising glimpse of the 'room' beyond.

We need to begin thinking of our urban spaces in the same way. Not just to see these spaces as places of leisure and pleasure rather than work and commerce but to play the game of tempting the visitor from space to space using the same design ideas as the gardeners who laid out the attractions of our stately homes. Urban designers have already grasped the importance of water - fountains, pools, river banks - but the idea that city spaces should be intimate but linked is too often drowned in what are seen as essential, pragmatic things like bus access, traffic controls and the panoply of instructions beloved of the urban manager.

Part (but not all) of the problem is the car. We live in a world where people want to drop their child off right next to his school desk, where the prospect of walking 400 yards says "we won't park there", and where swooshing dual carriageways bang in the centre of town are seen as essential features of the civilised city. Now I understand the psychology of all this - we're lazy animals - but I don't see why we should make so much else less pleasant just to indulge this laziness. Especially when that laziness, combined with the mobile phone, is killing the traditional role of the town centre.

Kracow, probably more by luck than judgement, has most of the old city pedestrianised and surrounded by a circular park marking the route of the old walls. Visit Lucca (with walls designed by Leonardo da Vinci that form a strolling park around the city) and, although there's some cars, the bulk of the city is pedestrianised and blessedly free from the need to give over huge spaces to buses. Why do so many cities - like Bradford - persist in the myth that you can't get traffic out from the centre because then people won't visit. If you move the bus stops to the purpose built bus station, all of a sudden folk will stop coming because they've to walk that extra 400 yards?

If you get rid of the roads in a place like Bradford, you create the chance to start thinking of our city as a garden, as a set of rooms each offering a different experience - some formal, some laid back, some for kids, some for the old or cool, all for everyone. Right now - just as with so many other places - the visitor is put off by huge roads filled with buses, taxis, delivery vans and cars all that have to be negotiated. Let's stop all this and make our city and town centres places where people can dwell a little, stroll, meander, smile and relax; a urban version of the gardens at those stately homes.