Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Inertia creeps

I was in Chicago last weekend, at an event sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy. The conference was about the challenges of city growth - housing, transport, environmental sustainability, government - and involved people from public and private sectors, academia, the military, and non-governmental organisations.

One theme that emerged was scepticism about the ability of elected city leaders to commit to long-term change, given the short-term imperative of electoral cycles. Some of us from public sector backgrounds suggested that this may not be as much of a problem as it seemed: given the much-criticised inertia of bureaucracies, 180-degree reverses in policy were much rarer than electoral rhetoric would suggest.

Which brings me to Boris Johnson's retreat from his plans to cancel the western extension of London's congestion charging zone. Despite commissioning a fresh consultation exercise, the capital costs of redrawing the zone, and the loss of revenue that would follow, clearly seemed too onerous. You can't imagine that any mayor other than Ken Livingstone would have introduced congestion charging in 2000, but now it is in place, it looks like it's here to stay.

Similarly, Labour did little to undo the Conservative settlement of the 1980s and 1990s, with the exception of some trade union legislation, and indeed built on many of the elements that they had most strenuously opposed in opposition. And you can only wonder whether an incoming Conservative administration would undo much of the current government's programme, from ID cards to Bank of England independence, against which they have so heartily inveighed.

Inertia is a mixed blessing. I railed against it when I was younger and today my views remain largely partisan (bureaucrats can be either valiant voices for common sense or obstructive dullards, depending on context). Famously frustrating to politicians like Tony Blair, inertia does perhaps serve to dissuade incoming governments from spending too much time unstitching their predecessors' policies.

Rather than an erratic see-saw of reversals, politics becomes a relatively smooth progression of cumulative change, for good or ill, moving on slowly. Perhaps, when Tony Blair complained of "scars on his back", it was a back-handed tribute to the ability of the civil service (where nobody ever gets sacked for doing nothing) to temper change with continuity, to save us from relentless alternation.

This is conservative, to be sure, but 'conservative' as eloquently defined by Michael Oakeshott, not as cooked up in crazy-eyed think tanks:
"To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss."

Thursday, 10 September 2009

To the valley below

Balcombe to Haywards Heath is only about two miles as the crow flies. I am not a crow, so this stage of the walk described a lazy s-shape, passing through the Ouse Valley and under the magnificent Ouse Valley Viaduct.

Leaving Balcombe south on the B2036, I escaped from the rattle of the rails down into a wooded valley swarming with pheasants, scurrying indignantly ahead of me, or squawking and rustling from the undergrowth. At the top of the valley, the landscape opened up, with a glimpse of the Viaduct in the distance. I joined the Sussex Ouse Valley Way and turned east towards the Viaduct, which emerged through a landscape that seemed almost unnaturally green in the late summer sun.

The view from the top of the Viaduct is, at any time of year, one of the highlights of the train journey from London to Brighton. Rushing past incongruous Palladian gatehouses and stone balustrades, rail passengers are treated to a panorama of timeless southern English countryside, with old brick farm buildings dotted throughout the wide and well-wooded valley, and the schools buildings of Ardingly College in the background.

Approaching the Viaduct from ground level, you become aware of the strength and grace of the structure. The 37 brick supports are hollow-centred, creating mesmerising patterns as they retreat up the slopes of the valley. Texture and depth is added by the different styles of brick that have been used to patch and maintain the Grade II-listed structure through its 170-year history - according to wikipedia, more than 100 trains a day pass over it.

Beyond the Viaduct, I took a short-cut through River's Wood, then rejoined the path, as it led through the pastel-shirted ersatz landscape of Haywards Heath Golf Club. Disorientated by its homgenised sandpits and ornamental tree-planting, I took a wrong turn and ended up on High Beach Lane, which led me into Haywards Heath past suburban villas and McMansions.

When I walked in to the Burrell Arms, opposite the station, I was grateful that I only had time for a quick half-pint. If this pub is not the worst in town, I shudder to think what its competition must be like.

Stats: 5.8 miles, 9.4km, 2 hours

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

For what it's Worth

Footpaths are elusive at Gatwick Airport, but if you walk south past the valet parking depot, the car hire desks and the smoking sheds full of re-dosing new arrivals, you eventually find a West Sussex County Council fingerpost, looking as alien as a pennyfarthing at the TT races.

The path winds between the long-term car parks, and crosses over the internal road system, encased all the way in a wire cage, as the planes roar in overhead. As the airport sprawled, someone presumably fought for the preservation of this right of way, but it makes you feel like a perimeter guard at a high security prison. After a surprisingly long time, we cleared the airport, spotting a fox cub and a muntjac on the way, then meandered back over the motorway to Shipley Bridge.

Turning south, we followed roads and footpaths through Copthorne, then entered the western fringes of Ashdown Forest ('home', its website earnestly informs us, of Winnie the Pooh). Police signs on the gates warned of malicious damage to flora and fauna - bear-of-little-brain-baiting, perhaps, or thistle-rustling? - but the tracks through the well-managed woods were almost deserted, decorated only by piles of logs and the occasional feral club chair.

Abruptly, the forest gave way to the lawns, playing fields and golf courses of Worth School, a Catholic boarding school boasting the grandiose but grim architecture in which such institutions specialise. We were a couple of weeks away from the beginning of term, but already lawn mowing and line painting was immaculate, ready for the onslaught of a new academic year.

A thirsty diversion west through more woods led to The Cowdray, a recently refurbished pub with a sunny beer garden full of families. A slow-moving elderly lady, looking down at a toddling infant, remarked with casual menace, "If you get in my way, I will tread on you, you know." Outraged expressions all round. The Cowdray's reinvention of the club sandwich was - as reinvented club sandwiches tend to be - perfectly pleasant in itself, but not a patch on the original.

The rest of the walk to Balcombe, along the busy B2036, was functional rather than scenic. Balcombe itself was full of blackberry pickers, looking on each other with a mixture of curiosity and paranoia as they hunted down the most fruitful and accessible branches.

Stats: 9.2 miles, 14.8 km, 4 hours