Cookie Notice

However, this blog is a US service and this site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services and analyze traffic. Your IP address and user-agent are shared with Google along with performance and security metrics to ensure quality of service, generate usage statistics, and to detect and address abuse.

Friday 24 November 2017

We're really best off out of the EU's publicity scam

The EU has twenty-seven nations and each has a capital city. If each takes it in turn to be Europe's Capital of Culture, a designation begun in 1986, the earliest - Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris - would now be in their second go. Except of course that Berlin wasn't Germany's capital in 1988 - it was the capital of a country called East Germany, which was not a member of the EU. 

Actually the programme wasn't called 'Capital of Culture' until 1999. Earlier, it was named 'City of Culture' so great cities such as Florence and Glasgow could be included. I think some 58 cities have enjoyed the designation since it was initiated.

But of course such is the fame and universal recognition that the award brings that all of Europe celebrates each year the designated places, and one can ask any person on the street the two cities so designated in 2017. Or rather you can't. I suspect that only wonks know that Aarhus and Paphos are this year's cities. I haven't visited or seen pictures of either, but I know with utter certainty that both will be absolutely smothered in those ghastly blue speckly flags that signal the dominion of the EU.

It's actually quite a clever scam. The cities pay for it all themselves; all it costs the other taxpayers of the EU is a bit of publicity and boozy lunches for a commissioner or two. In return the EU gets its sovereignty proclaimed in every single city in Europe in turn. Utterly irrespective of merit. It's Italy's turn again in 2033 and if the failing, mafia-dominated crime ridden slums of Gela in Sicily, one of Europe's most dangerous, uncultured and unattractive conurbations, are chosen I would not be at all surprised. 

Now they've kicked us out we ought to set up our own scheme - 'Partner City of Light' or some such, in which we pick one Euro city a year to host joint visits, artistic events, royal ballet show, talks arranged by the British Council, pictures from the national gallery sort of thing, sweetened with a bung of say £1m. In return we'd get one city a year smothered in Union flags to which we can introduce the wonders of Gregg's sausage rolls. 

Gela preparing for 2033 - the speckly flags will arrive later

Thursday 23 November 2017

I have to admit to a sense of deju vu in reading these documents. In May 2006 I was at the QEII centre for the launch of Helena Kennedy's Power Enquiry report, the result of a far reaching and comprehensive consultation into what even then was clear as a critical democratic deficit in the UK. Amongst the Enquiry's recommendations was that all public bodies must meet a duty of public involvement in their decision and policy making processes. Progress towards this aim since 2006 has been precisely zero.

The Power Enquiry adopted a somewhat wider, more inclusive and nuanced approach than that advocated here; they recognised that participatory democracy should augment rather than replace our existing systems of representative democracy; they valued highly the people's rights of universal suffrage and the secret ballot as the ultimate safeguard against anti-democracy and they included direct democratic processes amongst the extensions and innovations of democratic practice. Otherwise citizens' juries, participatory budgeting and the like were all there.

Again, it has been many years since I was thrilled and excited at the publication of Simon Jenkins' 'Big Bang Localism' and progress towards many of those goals and recommendations has also been precisely zero. Jenkins recognised that processes such as participatory budgeting simply did not go far enough in devolving power from the centre. Yet it's all that has happened, where it has happened at all. All that has been devolved in the final (unpopular) rationing decision for a cake the size of which has already been determined centrally. And even that is limited to funding for the village scout hut and the like. Meaningful devolution of power means devolution of tax as well as spend decisions.  

We need real progress, but we must also be incredibidly careful and sensitive to countenancing no diminution of existing democratic rights. I am wary of formalising and institutionalising the role of 'experts' to bend and manipulate public opinion. At its worst it is positively Orwellian. Rather than inflicting establishment-approved 'experts' on consultative and participatory groups, far wiser to simply allow such groups at their own discretion to call upon such balance of expert opinion as they deem they need.

Having conducted several scheme and design development charettes over my career I know exactly how these things work, and the potential frustration of citizens who are told by experts that they can have any colour they like so long as it is black. Every single charette I chaired would have realised a better outcome without the architects being present. Every scheme design brief would have been more tightly focused, more prescriptive and more in tune with local expectations had it been developed in advance with those citizens.

You have a difficult task and a hard slog ahead. May I offer you my heartfelt goodwill and encouragement.

Perils of written German

Today I am trying to row-back on a business letter I sent yesterday. 

I intended to type "Sehr geehrte Herren" - Dear Sirs. What I actually sent them was "Sehr geehtrer Herren" - Very Horny Gentlemen.

It's genuinely excuciatingly embarrassing. They have absolutely no sense of humour. 

Oh well. 

Monday 20 November 2017

Localism will help build more houses

There are some facts from which we cannot escape. One is that the UK is short of housing. Not of bedspaces, mind, but dwellings. That this shortage is exacerbated both by migration and by migrants' desires to live in London and the South-East is also not in doubt. Whatever the arguments over the causes, we can agree that our young people should have easier access to their own homes, and that options of both renting and buying should be available. As neither markets nor central government are fulfilling this, we must look to alternatives. 

As I've written many times before, Localism doesn't just mean making the final unpopular rationing decision in dividing a cake whose size has already been determined by central government. Localism means having tax as well as spend powers. Sure, having a tax levied in Manchester that is not charged in Middlesborough leads to what the Daily Mail derides as a 'postcode lottery' in its support for central Statism, but sometimes local solutions can meet local problems. 

You can't go far in Vienna without seeing the familiar red lettering on a building's upper stories that proclaims it as a Council House (gemeindebau). The huge wave of housebuilding in the 1920s has left a legacy of some 600k people, around a third of Vienna's population, still living today in rented city-council housing. And they're not all poor, by any means. Some of those Alfred Loos designed apartment blocks have the same cachet as Dolphin Square. 

Their construction was originally funded by a city-wide Housing Tax and Luxury Tax, and they were allocated on the basis of need, with rents restricted to a proportion of average income. 

With the construction cost of a new house (excluding land, VAT and stamp duty, fees, cost of money etc) at (very roughly) £150k, it will take a lot of cash to build 300,000 new dwellings nationally. But break that figure down between public and private, and then down to locality, and it becomes manageable. Tax and land concessions together with penalty charges for unoccupied homes and delayed development, some suspensions of RTB in some council areas (e.g in all London boroughs), low cost finance through the Public Works Loan Board and a mix of other stick-and-carrot measures that would usefully include limited local taxation can facilitate new housing without additional burdens on the Treasury. 

I've little hope that Hammond, a grey and modest man of no real quality or ability, can display the imagination required, but we'll have to wait until Wednesday to see.  


Sunday 19 November 2017

The love of alcohol

Over my life I've watched as several valued friends and many acquaintances have destroyed their lives with alcohol. All the while I've thanked providence for an immunity to addiction; whilst I'm quite happy with a three-day bender (though stamina flags with age) or a bottle every evening, I find that sometimes I go for days, even weeks without a drink; not intentional abstinence, just casual disuse. Yet I'm always up for a session - it being the prospect of good well lubricated company rather than the booze that attracts. 

The casualties have fallen away. An exceptional raconteur and indefatigable drinker, a man of warmth humour and erudition, lost first his solicitor's partnership then his marriage. Another collapsed in debt. A girlfriend who was a secretive and devious drunk and though I loved her it destroyed us. Dan Farson, Bacon's biographer, immensely talented, was a monster anytime after 11.00am. I think it was Farson who recounted the anecdote about he and Bacon visiting a subterranean afternoon drinking club in Soho; as they descended into the noxious gloom one of their party asked "What's that smell?" "Failure" responded Bacon, quick as a whip. And indeed the Colony Room Club, the French House and those other Soho haunts that have given me so much joy, such gales of laughter, such fine friends and lovers, are also peopled with the flotsam and jetsam of lives sunk by alcohol. 

Many men find a sort of semi-disciplined equilibrium with booze, like a car with engine running continuously at idle. But it never takes much for them to hit the gas and I've delighted in many unexpected and ad-hoc sessions this way; we seem to recognise eachother in much the same way that I suppose homosexuals do, and in no time you get a trio, a four, a sextet of middle aged men with voices rich as dundee cake and gravelly with smoke all equipped with a full wallet and an inexhaustible supply of quips, anecdotes, bonhomie and smile-creased eyes all chuckling and boozing away at half throttle as we create our own club wherever we are.   

Those that remember the days when pubs had to close by law in the afternoon - a pernicious restriction and a needless one - may also recall the few remaining signs in bars that ordered 'No Treating'. I was puzzled for years as to the meaning of that until I found in the PRO, whilst looking for something else, the original 1915 Alcohol Control Orders and correspondence. The same laws that closed pubs in the afternoon also banned the buying of drinks for others, rounds or 'treating', all in an effort to reduce alcohol consumption. One of the cases in the file referred to the prosecution by the police of a man who had bought a drink for his wife.   

It didn't have to be like this, our joy constrained by Great War measures to keep munitions workers sober, as I found as a youngster when I visited a chum newly up at Edinburgh University. He met my London sleeper at Waverley Street and at 8am, not five minutes from the platform, we were in the Halfway House, drinking dark ale and scotch chasers in a throat-stinging fug of smoke. Lazy afternoons, when English pubs were closed, were spent in bars around the Regency new town watching videos and quaffing. I was blown away by Scots liberality - this truly was the city of the Enlightenment, whilst my poor England was like some Calvinist theocracy.    

But no longer. 

Over more than forty years of drinking, years during which alcohol has been a good friend to me (given my immunity to its addictive effects), when alcohol has enabled, coloured, enhanced every major event of note in my life, I cannot think of any circumstance in which minimum pricing would have lowered consumption, either mine or of those about me. It will work no better than did those 1915 measures - when also, incidentally, spirits were reduced in strength by law down to 40% abv. That's still one century-old restriction with which we are lumbered.