Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The hills are alive

I went to see God’s Own Country last weekend, and found it a rare treat.  It wasn’t just the same-sex love story at the film’s heart – though god knows it’s a relief to see a film where gay characters get to do more than nobly triumph over homophobia – but also the bleak but ultimately uplifting portrayal of family and subsistence farming in the hills of West Yorkshire.

Alongside the slow-burn relationship between taciturn farmer Johnny and Romanian hired hand Gheorghe, the film charts the physical decline of Johnny’s father’s, debilitated by two strokes, and shows the unsentimental despatching of sick animals. But the stolid landscape of mud, rock and moorland, the backdrop to these scenes of decay and death, endures in the watery spring daylight.  It’s beautiful, Georghe says to Johnny as they tackle the sisyphean task of repairing a dry stone wall, but lonely too.

A few years ago, recovering from illness but still fearful, I went walking in the Chilterns, the hills of my childhood.  Up above Princes Risborough, I felt a curious elation. These hills, these chalk markings, these beech trees that were here when I visited as a child, they would still be here after my death.  They were completely indifferent to my existence. But their indifference was not daunting, like the vastness of the universe, but comforting, of human scale, an assurance of a future beyond my life.

I felt something like that watching the film. The West Yorkshire hills would still be there when all the characters had gone, as would the dry stone walls and farm buildings. The landscape is indifferent, but not unaffected; the human touch is everywhere – either visibly in built structures or implicitly in patterns of cultivation. And perhaps it is in these landscapes, in the dry stone walls and the cairns assembled by walkers on hill paths, that we non-architects gain some measure of longevity, of immortality even, some sense of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph ‘si monumentum requiris, circumpsice’ – if you are seeking a memorial, look around you.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Transport of no delight

When does 'disruption' tip over into irresponsibility? That was one of the fundamental tensions underpinning the tech manifesto published by Centre for London, with Tech London Advocates and London First, in February 2016. The row over Uber's licence suspension in London shows that we are still some way from an answer.

The Tech Manifesto argued for an approach that balanced "open innovation, with consideration of citizens' needs", and identified "the disruption to the private hire markets caused by the introduction of Uber in London [as] a prime example of regulators failing to keep pace with the scale and speed of a particular innovation".

On Friday, it felt like regulators finally caught up, when Transport for London announced that Uber's licence to operate in London would be revoked from the end of September. But the racing metaphor quickly implodes: the events of the last few days look like an object lesson in how not to do digital regulation. Transport for London's decision to pull Uber's licence appears to have come out of the blue, with little opportunity for Uber to address the concerns about driver and passenger safety that have been raised.  At the same time, Uber, so rich in political networks, has responded with petitions and media campaigns about its 40,000 workers and millions of customers, blowing squid ink rather than trying to engage with the concerns about its systems and policies.

It may be that TfL has announced the 'surprise' revocation to force the pace with a company that would otherwise happily deploy lobbyists and lawyers to haggle for months over sanctions and compliance, and it may also be that Uber is sincere in the sentiment expressed by its CEO in a tweet on Saturday, asking London to "work with us to make things right".

But this clash - more interesting because it is more textured than other cities' decision to ban Uber outright - does not inspire much faith in the future for intelligent discussions about regulating the digital economy. We cannot preserve business as usual for every element of city services, but we shouldn't give 'disruption' a free pass an unalloyed benefit to urban life - individually or in aggregate - either.

Thursday, 1 June 2017


[Originally published in Telegraph, 31 May 2017]

Almost a year after the EU Referendum, two sets of figures released by the Office for National Statistics seem to reinforce the idea of London as a place apart from the rest of the UK. Dig a little deeper, however, and it is convergence and mutual dependence that come to the fore.

The data on regional fiscal balances drew a sharp contrasts between London and the South East, and the rest of the UK, with the former paying nearly £250 billion on taxes, and receiving services costing almost £50 billion less in 2015/16, while the balance was reversed elsewhere.  This translates to a per capita ‘subsidy’ of £3,000 in the year from London to the rest of the UK.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. The capital’s economy and its population have been growing as fast as ever since the financial crisis, fuelled by cheap money, openness to talent and growing trade in services. This economic growth means that London accounts for disproportionate levels of corporation tax, higher wages are reflected in higher income tax and national insurance payments, and soaring property prices are reflected in stamp duty receipts – half of which are derived in London.

In terms of expenditure, London costs more per head in terms of economic development, transport and technology costs, but significantly less in terms of social protection (ie, benefits). The balance between welfare costs and economic infrastructure costs is interesting, though there’s a limit to what you can conclude from a one-year snapshot of figures.

But, however successful London looks in terms of tax revenues, for many Londoners, the city’s gravity-defying boom feels like something that is happening to someone else.  The second set of figures, on gross disposable household income, seems at first to confirm the sense of London excpetionalism.  The figures, for 2015, show the average gross income of Londoners to be more than £30,000, almost twice as much as in the North East.  Taxes and benefits bring the numbers closer together: the London average is £25,000 and the North East average is £16,000. 

The gap is still significant.  But, as any Londoner or tourist will tell you, it’s amazing how fast the money goes. Throw housing costs into the mix – neither mortgage capital repayments nor rent are included in the figures – and the gap closes further.  Deducting the average 2015 rent for a one-bed flat in each region, you are left with residual income of £12,000 in London, and £11,000 in the North East. And that £1,000 ‘London premium’ will quickly be eaten by the higher costs of transport, childcare and beer in the capital. 

Life is tough for many people in London – and it’s been getting tougher as income grew more slowly between 2014 and 2015 than in other regions, even before spiralling rental costs were taken into account. Also, of course, there is no such person as an average Londoner, and the differences within the city are as stark as those between London and other regions.  Income per head (after taxes and benefits but before housing costs) in Kensington and Chelsea has nearly £60,000 per head, while the average resident of Barking and Dagenham has £16,500.

So these figures don’t show that Londoners are a bunch of effete metropolitans rolling in lucre, or that other UK regions are free-riding on the capital’s coat tails. But they do show, in line with Centre for London reports, the leading role played by housing costs in the persistent poverty that many Londoners face, and the importance to the whole UK of sustaining the openness to talent and trade that supports London’s growth. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Rule of 7

Does the sheer number of anniversaries being reported this year signify anything aside from the ever-declining staffing levels of newspapers? Looking back at 2007, 1997 and the before, there does seem to be a clustering of pivotal political and cultural events at the 7-years, though perhaps you could play the same parlour game with any other series.  So, here is my brief, partial and unashamedly teleological history of modern Britain in seven sevens. I haven’t bothered with links but Wikipedia is a major source.

In January 1957,  Harold Macmillan took over from Anthony Eden as Prime Minister. This was an aftershock of the disastrous atavistic adventurism of Suez in late 1956 – the moment when Britain could truly be said to have lost an empire but not yet found a role in the post-war world.  Macmillan, odd as it may seem 70 years later, was then a new breed of politician, avowedly modernist, relatively youthful, TV-friendly, telling the nation, "You've never had it so good!" As decolonisation accelerated, you could see the first cracks in the post-war edifice: the Wolfenden Report recommended partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in Liverpool a jazz club called The Cavern opened.

By 1967, Cavern veterans The Beatles were bigger than Jesus (as John Lennon had put it the previous year). Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a high watermark of the blend of experimentalism and faux-nostalgic whimsy that characterised English hippiedom (semi-ironic mourning for the lost certainties of the Edwardian era), while the arrest of the Rolling Stones after drugs raids became the subject of editorials in The Times. As Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins legalised homosexuality and abortion – two landmark acts of liberalism.  General de Gaulle blocked Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s bid to join the European Economic Community (though the unveiling of Concorde offered happier images of Anglo-French fraternity).

1977, the first of these years I can remember, looks unremittingly grim by contrast with the swinging sunshine of ten years earlier: industrial disputes, inflation, IRA bombs in London, pitched battles with the National Front in the streets. The corporatist consensus of the post-war years was fracturing. The Yorkshire Ripper was at large and the Jeremy Thorpe (elected as leader of the Liberal Party ten years earlier) was accused of conspiracy to murder his lover. Depending on your tastes, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, debut albums by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and the UK release of Star Wars were the only glimmers of light.

Harold Macmillan, the telegenic moderniser of 1957, was buried in January 1987, the year that Margaret Thatcher enjoyed her third election victory. With leftist bastions like the GLC and metropolitan councils abolished, the election heralded her imperial phase - ever more ambitious privatisation, and the dogmatic overreach of the poll tax. Stock markets, liberated by the previous year’s ‘big bang’ deregulation began to boom (with the temporary set-back of a ‘Black Monday’ crash in October), and the Lawson boom of the late eighties was underway.

Ten years later, in May 1997, Tony Blair arrived triumphant in Downing Street, his election putting a full stop to the limp coda of John Major’s government, and completing the transformation of the Labour Party that Neil Kinnock had struggled to achieve in the previous two elections. With Oasis’ leery revivalism still seeming fresh in the charts, Britain seems to be shrugging off the last bonds of imperial history: the UK relinquished Hong Kong, its last significant colony, and the IRA declared a ceasefire.

By 2007, the Iraq War had taken the shine of Tony Blair’s government, despite two further election victories.  The PM stood down in May, with Gordon Brown taking over for the remainder of the Parliament.  The financial exuberance of the previous two decades stuttered in September when Northern Rock sought emergency liquidity support from the Bank of England – the first shoe-drop of the financial crisis….

Sunday, 21 May 2017

You don't need a weatherman

At the end of 'manifesto week', it does seem as if a lacklustre election campaign has been overlaid on a significant shift in the centre of gravity of British political discourse. As John Prescott put it, what seems like an age ago, "the plates are shifting".

There's been a lot of debate, mainly from the originator of the term, about whether Theresa May is a 'Red Tory'. In an interview in today's Observer, Damian Green suggests something rather different. His old friend is not a great political theorist, he says, but a meteorologist, who can sense changes in the climate of public opinion and react to the modern world.

Many would argue that a leftward shift in public opinion is long overdue; the wonder is that it didn't happen earlier, given the crisis of financialised capitalism ten years ago, and the growing perception of inequality since then. We're through with shock, denial and anger, and are now ready for a new deal, which promises to tame and temper capitalism for the public good. Ten years may seem like a long time, but almost as many years passed between the crises of the late 1970s, and the emergence of purple period Thatcherism after the 1987 election.

And, of course, the shift in rhetoric and discourse may not signal an actual change in behaviour. Just as New Labour shrouded redistributive policies in veils of prudence, the Conservative government that most people expect to see elected in June may enact traditional Tory policies while paying lip service to kinder capitalism.

But the opinion polls published today give pause for thought. Labour still has a mountain to climb, but has narrowed the Conservatives lead from around 20 points to 13 or less. Labour has made much of the Conservative reforms of social care (a small shimmy in the right direction, imo), and perhaps this 'nasty party' framing is hitting home.

But I can't help wondering whether, in trying to colonise Labour territory, the Conservative manifesto hasn't scored a more significant own goal. In signalling a leftward shift, has the manifesto given voters permission to think what was once unthinkable, that free markets are not always the best guarantor of prosperity? And if you start thinking that way, you might even think a bit further: if you're going to clamp down on executive pay, why not think about setting ratios? If caps on fuel bills, then why not renationalisation? Just as Labour suffered, until John Major's goverment ran out of steam, from looking like a pale shadow of conservatism, why would people vote for a half-arsed version of the interventionist social democracy offered by Labour?

Friday, 16 December 2016

Slow train

Believe me, I do have the right thoughts and habits. I know that cars are locally and globally ruinous, polluting urban air, enabling sprawl and accelerating climate change. I am a public transport user, a walker and a cyclist (well, I don’t actually cycle or have a bike, but I’m a believer, if you see what I mean).

The day before yesterday, however, needing to be in London for a meeting, I got in my car and drove.  Door to door it was certainly quicker than the services of Southern Rail, even on a ‘good’ day.  It was probably cheaper too (depending how you count depreciation, and the cost of parking), and certainly less stressful than the perpetual nervousness about what trains if any may be operating. 

It’s not meant to be like this.  We’re meant to ‘let the train take the strain’, passing our time reading, working or simply daydreaming, as the train speeds under down and over weald, delivering us to our city centre destination swiftly and economically.

But the seemingly endless succession of strike days, overtime bans and train crew shortages on Southern Rail has not just inconvenienced passengers (some of whom have lost jobs as a result), but has set the clock back decades.  It has confirmed the most insidious myth pedalled by the car lobby, that only as a solo buccaneer behind the wheel do you have grown-up control over your destiny – automobile autonomy.

Southern Rail has confirmed this myth by infantilising passengers, removing all sense of agency, and reducing us to childlike states of neediness and frustration.  No, sitting on the A23 in gridlocked traffic in South Norwood doesn’t bear much resemblance to the illusions of the open road that the car commercials spin, but it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than hovering anxiously by a departure board in a packed station, being barked at by specious pre-recorded ‘apologies’, and wondering whether to take a punt of a platform in the hope of getting a seat.  At least you get to listen to music you like.  Loud.

If the car lobby was looking for a way to undermine the case for public transport, it could hardly hope for anything better than the current Southern Rail debacle.  I just hope that is an awkward side-effect rather than a strategy.

Friday, 11 November 2016

He's Only Making Plans for London

[Written a few weeks ago, and published on MJ website 10.11.16]

Almost drowned out by the noise over airport expansion, Sadiq Khan issued A City for All Londoners this week, the vision document that will underpin the Mayors strategies, and in particular the London Plan, the citys spatial blueprint.

What then does this tell us about what we can expect from Sadiqs mayorality? The changes are subtle many paragraphs would not look out of place in Boris Johnson’s 2008 Planning for a Better London but they do signal shifts in emphasis and focus.

There is no change in the Mayors commitment to protecting the Green Belt, but theres a strong focus on the intensification of existing development, for example, in town centre locations and around transport hubs, with a particular focus on TfL and other public sector landholdings. Big sites and opportunity areas like Barking Riverside, which has been promising to deliver 10,000 homes for the past 15 years, are still part of the story, but as Centre for Londons report Going Large emphasises, these can be challenging to deliver. Looking at existing town centres and transport hubs for new growth opportunities acknowledges the limits of a big siteapproach in a city that is growing as fast as London.

Theres also a welcome emphasis not just on housing numbers, but on the creation of neighbourhoods. This includes reference to mixed-use development, and a good growthstrategy that encompasses affordability, quality of place, social infrastructure and zero-carbon initiatives. The document largely steers clear of the more controversial aspects of housing policy, with no mention of estate redevelopment (as discussed in Centre for Londons recent Another Storey), 50 per cent affordable housing presented as a long-term target rather than a day one stipulation, and only a cursory reference to lack of transparencyin foreign ownership (although an investigation into the latter is planned). 

A further subtle shift can be seen in Sadiqs proposals for economic development, as the self-styled most pro-business Mayor yet”.  While maintaining the strength of the central Londons business districts, including through opposing office to residential conversions, A City for All Londoners emphasises the potential for more development, including offices and hotels, in well-connected outer London centres.

Transport and environmental issues are discussed together, confirming pledges on air quality, and setting out a vision for healthy streets(using a pedestrianized Oxford Street as an example), which enable walking and cycling. Major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail 2, East London river crossings and the Bakerloo Line extension are plugged, with an emphasis on their integration with new development, as is the takeover of suburban rail that Centre for London proposed earlier this year in Turning South London Orange. But there is also a strong focus on behaviour change to reduce car use, and deliver a feet firstplan for central London.

The document also touches on some of the less tangible aspects of urban infrastructure, social cohesion, mental health, community safety, active citizenship, and volunteering. Theres a reference to economic inequality also, including the establishment of an Economic Fairness Team to push for better workplace standards. Cultural infrastructure from theatres and galleries to skate parks and gay pubs is presented as central to Londons success, and the Mayor argues for agent of changemeasures to ensure that long-standing clubs and music venues are protected from noise complaints from new residents.

Though it has dominated public life for five months, references to Brexit are few and far between. The EU referendum result is delicately described as not what I and many London businesses had hoped for, but the Mayor is cautious in pushing for special provisions for London. Fiscal devolution the focus of the reconvened London Finance Commissionis only mentioned in passing, and immigration is set aside as a matter for government despite recent publicity for the idea of regional visas. Understandably perhaps, the Mayor is avoiding self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, or grand claims for what he can deliver - particularly where this will need government agreement, or depend on the murky ebb and flow of Brexit policy and negotiation.