Sunday, 31 July 2011

The space needed for a lunch...

So there we are sat on a couple of rocks, looking out at this view and enjoying our lunch - boiled eggs, ham, salami and a salad. Washed down with Lady Hebden tea.  And - among assorted bicyclists - two gentlemen stroll up. You know the cheery sort you seem only to meet while tramping o'er the hills. After greetings and spotting that we are lunching, one of the gentlemen comments that we had got the best place to eat dinner.

Some while later having finished our lunch, we set off further on our walk. And about a hundred yards further along the path sat the two gentlemen - having their lunch. With a wry smile one comments that they had to take second best in lunchtime location!

What struck me wasn't that the two men were chatty and cheery - that's pretty normal up on the hills. Rather, I was taken by their stopping far enough away from us not to be an intrusion. They'd obviously intended - like we had - to stop at the top for a sit down and some food but, seeing us ensconced at the highest point on the hill, chose to go out of our sight for their stop.

It was almost as if the space needed for a hill top picnic needs to be enough for each party to enjoy the view unmolested by other ill-dressed walkers doing the same.


Saturday, 30 July 2011

A defence of magic...

As the sun shines down on the fields, the air is filled with flies and moths – flitting here and there chased, as if for that purpose made, by the swallows that must gorge themselves ready for the long flight to the plains of Africa. A flight just a few weeks hence, a flight that some of those swallows have never made but that nature has programmed them to undertake.

This, my friends is the magic of life. Yet there remain some who are terrified of that magic – scared that to invoke such an idea if to bring evil spirits into the world. Such a narrow perspective,  such a misunderstanding of magic is found too often in those preaching an essentialist view of Christian teachings:

In the real world we know that evil spirits are able to bring about effects which cannot be brought about by any other created causes, and this preternatural activity could, if called upon, explain all that needs to be explained in the phenomena of the occult, spiritism and the like which is left unexplained by fraud. The discussion of magic in the Bible certainly suggests that the real-world necromancers, magicians, and mediums encountered in its pages are dependent upon evil spirits for whatever effective powers they may possess.

Do we know this? Or do we see the sins and evils of man ascribed to demons because it is convenient for us – an excuse, if you will. This is to misunderstand magic – indeed, it is to misrepresent magic. To suggest that it is a comprehensible, directed thing designed by devils to draw us from the path of righteousness.

Magic is as magic does – the magician does not draw on dark forces for his art but uses that which already is, the magic that is around us. Thus the wonders of nature serve us – and that is magic if we would only notice. Magic isn’t about casting spell or curses nor is it about power or control – magic is about amazement.

When the candles are lit, the incense wafts through the air and the choir gently sings there is magic present. Some would call it the ‘Holy Spirit’ but, regardless of the source we ascribe, it is magical. We are lifted, we feel able to get a deeper understanding and our hearts are lifted to the heavens. This is magic.

But that same magic is there when we stand looking out across England’s landscape – watching it grow and change. That magic is not evil spirit but the gods of the land reborn, telling us of what was before and what will be tomorrow. And man has used that magic, has shaped the land to his purpose and, in doing so, has revealed a greater wonder. A deeper magic.

The only evil is in men’s hearts – there are no demons. And magic breaks that evil by revealing the world’s beauty. And the magic works – not is the way of the book but in ways we only fathom as we look back.

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!


Let's hope the lad's value holds up....

In what must be one of the more bizarre twists in the story of the banking crisis Christiano Ronaldo is being used as collateral. Or so Süddeutsche Zeitung reports:

The daily reports that the Bankia group of savings banks, which financed Real Madrid’s acquisition of the Portuguese player, is now seeking to borrow funds from the European Central Bank. In response to the ECB’s demand for guarantees, Bankio are putting up… Ronaldo and the Brazilian Kaka, who also plays for the Madrid football club. In 2009, Real borrowed 76.5 million euros to pay transfer fees of 100 millions euros to Manchester United, and 60 million to Milan AC.

Which (and those who make comparisons between Manchester United's financial position and that of the two big Spanish clubs should note this) is a pretty sound bet since:

Bankia would first have to become insolvent. Thereafter, Real would have to default on its loans, which are secured by advertising and television revenues. It goes without saying that Real Madrid is in debt to the tune of several million euros. However, in Spain football clubs have a history of obtaining publicly funded bailouts — just like the country’s banks.”

Real Madrid are, just like those big banks, 'too big to fail' so Ronnie's as safe an asset as you can get (so long as he keeps playing).


Friday, 29 July 2011

Friday Fungus: some mushrooms stories

A few links and such on mushroom matters:

What if you could take 1 million pounds of waste that was heading towards landfill and repurpose it to grow food? Well, that’s exactly what two recent UC Berkeley graduates are doing with their company Back to the Roots.

Founders, Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez started a 100% sustainable urban mushroom farm that transforms coffee ground waste into the growing medium for gourmet mushrooms.

Strange-looking pink and yellow mushrooms are set to liven up the vegetable aisle when they go on sale. The exotic mushrooms are not grown in some far-flung part of the world, but in a small village in Lancashire. 

(They're not that exotic - just oyster mushrooms!)

A fungus that makes biodiesel as part of its natural lifecycle has attracted the attention of American scientists wishing to tap into its potential.
Told you mushrooms are amazing!

And in Reading they eat your drive:

A couple were left baffled when their driveway started to erupt only to find it was caused by a crop of mushrooms.

A little taste there of the weird fungal world - a world that contains the world's biggest, oldest and fastest growing living things, a world of things that eat rubbish,  clear up dead stuff and - most importantly - give us beer, bread and wine.

Here's to fungi!


Ah yes, that epidemic of teenage drinking?


Or maybe not:

There have been falls in the numbers of teenagers drinking, smoking and taking drugs in England, a survey suggests. Between 2009 and 2010 the percentage of 11-15 year olds who had tried alcohol fell from 51% to 45%. And 27% of pupils said they had smoked at least once, while 18% had tried drugs. The NHS Information Centre figures also suggested "a shrinking number think that drinking and drunkenness is acceptable".

Shows - yet again - that the strategy of having aliberal and open approach to drugs and alcohol works. We don't need minimum prices, advertising bans or any of the other "denormalisation" tactics of the New Puritans.


Kirkgate Market - a great place that Leeds City Council plans to ruin

OK, I'm from Bradford and the goings on in Leeds are none of my business. But it makes me angry to see Leeds making the mistakes Bradford made in times past particularly where they concern one of the wonders of that City - Kirkgate Market.

Put simply the Council thinks that the future for Kirkgate Market lies in it becoming a sanitised version of the Borough Market in South London. And this will mean the end to the exciting, vibrant ethnic and flea market that has grown up in the dingy area between the listed market building and the bus station. This part of the market is what they're about - not fancy food emporia trading on five-year leases in a listed building.

However, Leeds' bosses are too bought into the shiny Leeds idea. Here's Cllr Richard Lewis:

The strategy needs to be implemented if the market is to take advantage of the proposed Eastgate development.

Got that - the proposals are about John Lewis rather than about encouraging the fantastic, vibrant interchange that a market provides. I'm as foodie as anyone but the market shouldn't be some sort of yuppy magnet but a place for everyone. For the Somali immigrant and Pakistani mum as much as for the locavores of North Leeds.

I've written before on this - pointing out that it's the 'down-market' end of the market that is thriving, crammed with customers and full of fascination (and bargains). So it is both wrong and stupid for Cllr Lewis to get rid of that bit and keep the bit that's managed as a shopping centre rather than a market hall.


Thursday, 28 July 2011

And so it begins...denormalising food

And the first target is the humble hotdog:

...a new billboard erected near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway issues a stark warning to the legions of weiner lovers who show up for races.

The sign, erected by a watchdog group that has long promoted vegan diets, shows hot dogs poking out of a cigarette package emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and reads "Warning: Hot dogs can wreck your health".

And there it is the poster of hotdogs made to look like cigarettes with the packet emblazoned with a skull and crossed bones - hot dogs kill!

The poster - billboard to the yanks - is the work of a group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Nannying fussbucketry US-style!

"A hot dog a day could send you to an early grave," Susan Levin, a registered dietitian who serves as nutrition education director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said in a written statement.

"Processed meats like hot dogs can increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and various types of cancer. Like cigarettes, hot dogs should come with a warning label that helps racing fans and other consumers understand the health risk."

And so the process begins - this warning advertising will be followed by calls for advertising bans to children, then a wider ban, followed of course by stopping the terrible link between healthy sport and toxic hotdogs. And the nannying fussbuckets at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - and elsewhere - will still demand more until hotdogs are no longer. The choice to eat processed pig meat dripping with fat in a dry long bud and smeared with something approximating to mustard will be taken from us - only the evilly irresponsible with indulge and that will be out of sight where they can't corrupt the rest of us clean living folk. Especially the children.

It may take a while though if the reactions in Dallas are anything to go by:

Back at Coley’s Dallas eatery, Emily Comer is a weekly regular. She said moderation is her mantra and she’s not concerned.

“I couldn't care less,” she said.

Others in line seemed to agree.


So it might be something other than the drink?


Data from the Health Protection Agency suggests around 4,200 people could need a transplant owing to serious damage to their liver, with many unaware they have the condition at present.

Ah, yes! It's that "pandemic of binge-drinking" the doctors are on about isn't it?

It would seem not...

Experts estimate around 216,000 people in the UK are living with chronic hepatitis C, many of whom are currently undiagnosed. People can catch the disease through contact with the blood - and less commonly the bodily fluids - of an infected person.

Those who share needles and use unsterile drugs equipment are particularly at risk, although people who had a blood transfusion before 1991 or received blood products before 1986 have a higher chance, as well as those having treatments abroad.

Sharing toothbrushes, razors and scissors also heightens the risk, as does having tattoos.

So not just the drink then?


You see folks, CCTV really is useless...


Via the excellent JuliaM:

Amanda Wright, who runs Wright's Family Bakers in Walton on the Naze, Essex asked for the images after mindless vandals smashed the shop's front window.

But the baker was left gobsmacked when Tendring District Council bosses refused the request, saying it would be too expensive to retrieve footage.
And why exactly does the Council install CCTV? Clearly - and I could have told you that -  not for the purpose of catching criminals.

Mick and Gerard discuss the banking crisis...

Mick is a gardener – a fictional gardener to be sure but he could be real. Mick cuts grass, trims bushes, digs over and plants up flower beds and, for doing this, gets paid by grateful customers. Being an honest citizen, Mick tots up all he earns in a little book and subtracts from that the amount he spends – on diesel, maintenance and insurance for the pick-up, on gardening gloves, on the fuel for the mowers, on sharpening the tools (and replacing them when they’re broken or worn) and on a host of other bits and bobs he buys to do the job.

When he buys stuff for customers, maybe bedding plants or some compost, Mick adds a little margin for his trouble. Not a lot or else folk would stop asking him to buy things. And this is carefully recorded in his little book.

Once a year Mick gives the book (and a shoebox filled with receipts and so forth) to Gerard, his accountant, so the tax can be done. Gerard checks Mick’s adding up and subtracting, adds in a little advice (‘you do know you can claim for that, don’t you’) to justify the £300 he’s charging Mick (who will, of course, dutifully write that amount into his little book). Once all the form filling is done, Mick has a bill for taxes which he pays since, being sensible and organised, he’s set aside a little each week in anticipation of this tax bill.

With this done, and by way of thanks, Mick takes Gerard down to the pub for a celebratory (if the paying of taxes can ever be a celebration) pint or two. And they get to talking like you do when you’ve had a beer.

Now Mick knows that Gerard – unlike him – is an educated bloke, been to university and accountant school, knows some long words about money. And Mick, who as a good citizen, makes sure he watches the news most days, asks Gerard about the banking crisis. After all, not only is Gerard an educated bloke, but he’s an accountant. And that means money. Gerard must be able to explain what all went wrong.

However, Gerard isn’t at all sure. For him, the bank is just a place through which money flows – mostly away from him and his clients. For sure, Gerard knows about borrowing – paying a price for having something now rather than waiting until we can afford it was the way Gerard’s shopkeeper dad always described it. And he knows that the banking crisis is something to do with borrowing. Or rather, the consequence of borrowing – debt. So he tells Mick this.

Now Mick, too, understands borrowing and debt. He’s got a mortgage – not a big one – and he had to take out a loan to buy the pick-up he uses for work. Mick appreciates how borrowing means that – at a price – he can have something now, like the pick-up or somewhere to live that he would otherwise be unable to afford. But he has another question for Gerard: “where does the borrowing come from,” asks Mick?

Gerard takes a long sup of his pint – he would have sucked on the stem of his pipe but they banned that in pubs – and thinks. “Did you ever watch Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life”, asks Gerard?

“Oh yes,” said Mick, “one of my favourite films – a Christmas classic!”

“Good,” replied Gerard, “then you’ll remember the scene with the run on the bank when all the Savings & Loan customers crowd in to get their money out?”

“Absolutely, and at the end Jimmy Stewart and the others dance round the room with Papa Dollar and Mama Dollar in a wire paper tray!”

“Well during that scene, George Bailey – he’s the Jimmy Stewart character – explains to the crowd that the money isn’t in the bank, it’s in other people’s houses and businesses. It’s been lent out and these folk are paying it back with a little added as the price of having the money before you’re earned it.”

“Oh yes,” smiled Mick, “and George used his wedding cash to pay out on the run and the Savings & Loan stayed open.”

“Correct, correct,” Gerard leant back on his chair beginning to relish the explanation, “the problem is that modern banks – unlike that in the film – have made a really big bet. They’ve bet that everyone won’t arrive at once asking for their deposits back and have lent £10 for every £1 they have on deposit. In effect they’ve magicked 90% of the money we use from out of thin air.”

“But people still pay back,” Mick was fascinated by this exposition, “so the new money isn’t a problem until that stops?”

“Yes, or until people want to take more money out. You need another pint?”

“I think so,” Mick’s mind was spinning a little – he could see how his little business worked. And even how the bank’s role in lending money worked – but how could they lend so much?

Gerard returned from the bar and Mick was straight in, “but how could the bank take such a big risk, make such a massive bet?”

“I think,” said Gerard, “that it’s to do with deposit protection. In the film, the deposits were at risk, people stood to lose their savings if the bank closed. Today, the Government guarantees the deposits in banks – your and my money simply isn’t at risk so the bank can take whatever big bet it wants with the money.”

“So it wasn’t just the banks, it was government too,” spluttered Mick.

“And there’s more,” explained Gerard, “not only did government guarantee the deposits so banks could lend £10 for every £1 they had on deposit, most of that extra money wasn’t lent to folk like you to buy pick-ups and houses but was lent to the government. The same government who set the rules that made the lending possible.”

“Now you’re losing me,” Mick frowned, “the government gets all those taxes from people like me, why does it need to borrow?”

“You know you keep that little book, the one you give to me once a year so I can prepare your accounts and your tax return?”


“You know how you’re very careful to make sure that what you take in exceeds what you spend?”

“Absolutely, I’d go bust otherwise.”

“Well the government doesn’t think it has to do that..."

"You what?"

"...most years in recent times governments, here in Britain, in the US and in Europe, have spent more than they raised in taxes. I know that’s hard to comprehend given how much we pay in tax – nearly half of all we earn – but governments didn’t think they had to worry because they’d set the rules so those nice banks would provide the cash. Government simply borrowed more and more each year.”

“So the government fixed the banking system so the banks could lend more, then borrowed that money to fill in the hole in their budget? Sounds like a criminal enterprise to me! Why did it go wrong?”

“Just like in the film, people started wanting their money out. The banks all lent money backwards and forwards between them – like a carousel with dollars on. One day some of them decided to stop the carousel, to stop passing the money round.”


“The system seized up. Banks were threatened, for a minute the whole thing looked like it might collapse. But the governments had a plan, instead of getting the banks to create new money by lending £10 for every £1, they would simply make up some new money of their own, give it to the banks and then borrow it back.”

“Sorry, say that again,” Mick was amazed

“Yes,” said Gerard, “they called it ‘quantitative easing’ but all it did was provide cash for the banks so they didn’t have to stop lending. And the government needed that lending, not to help your business like they said, but because otherwise they’d need to make big cuts in public spending or have a huge increase in taxes.”

“So let me get this right, the government allowed banks to lend more money than they had on deposit by protecting those deposits, then when people wanted their money out, the government printed more money and put it into the banks so the same government could go on borrowing? Where do we live, fairy land?”

The mournful sound of the pub bell sounded as the landlord called time.

“Guess I’d better scoot,” said Gerard, “been great talking and thanks for the beer.”

“Cheers," said Mick, “I’m hoping for some afters so I’ll stick around. There’s a couple of people here I’d like a word with and the place needs all the cash it can earn to keep going. One last question.”


“So all this inventing of money by the banks and the government,” muses Mick, “at some point it has to be earned by someone doesn’t it?”

“I suppose so. Probably us. We’ll be paying a load of taxes just to pay the banks back for lending the government all that money the government gave to the banks to keep them lending.”

Gerard smiled wryly, stood up and left. Mick was left wondering. Maybe Gerard was wrong, perhaps the chatty bloke on the telly from the Bank of England was right and we’ve nothing to fret about, there’ll be some hard times but it will turn out OK. But maybe not, maybe if all the money goes on paying back yesterday's debts, if the government keeps on borrowing and even printing more cash, maybe we’ll never pay it back. And that would be wrong Mick thought. We have to pay our debts.


Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A depressing thought for those who like the North...

From a conversation this evening:

All the professional jobs in the North are in the public sector or in businesses servicing the public sector. If you want a good job in the private sector you have to look in the South East

I don't know if this is entirely true - although a quick scan of jobs websites does show a real paucity of professional jobs outside London and the South East.

If this is true - and it could well be - then there's no doubt at all that the public sector continues to throttle the private sector, to push it aside. There has to be a way out from under this problem but I'm absolutely sure it isn't through resolutions of councils, through economic development strategies or through another round of regional initiatives.

Perhaps we should try a little less government?


Sorry, Dame Stella, but you're wrong about children reading - and about social media

Dame Stella Rimmington, former head girl and ex-spy is chairing the judging panel for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I suspect that part of the job description for this chairing role is to say something controversial about literature or reading or the general state of the world through the eyes of bookish folk. And Dame Stella has obliged with a gentle rant about twitter:

Dame Stella said that while she was confident a market for fiction would still exist in 100 years, she feared many children were not growing up to be book lovers. “I think much of the Twittering and emailing and texting and all that sort of stuff that children go in for now may be taking their eyes off reading fiction. When I was young we read more than the average child reads now.”

Now I don’t wish to be too critical of such an eminent lady but she’s talking nonsense:

In the UK, the value of publishers’ sales of children’s books actually increased in 2010 by 2%, to £242m. The report shows that the value of publishers’ UK sales has been increasing year on year over the last three years, from £236m in 2008.

And this represents some 60 million books sold which makes for five books on average for each of the UK’s roughly 12 million children. OK, the kids aren’t devouring hundreds of books in the manner that Dame Stella doubtless did as a girl but they are definitely reading.

More importantly however social media – all that twittering, emailing and texting – means that children are doing something we never did (and which I suspect Dame Stella’s contemporaries didn’t do either). Children are writing to eachother. OK, they’re writing in a language that only just approximates to English and is replete with acronyms, shortened words and peculiar codes but it is written communication.

If – twenty years ago - we’d have said that the most common form of communication between young people would be written communication, the experts would have looked at us, shaken their heads and called for the men in white coats. Yet that is the reality – we have replaced the verbal communication, whether directly or via the telephone, that was the dominant feature of the decades from the 1960s to the 1990s with a mish-mash of written forms.

It seems to me that, regardless of the oddity of language involved, the growth of social media forms – facebook, twitter and so forth – makes a positive contribution to the literacy levels of young people. After all you can't play in the sandpit of social media if you can’t read or write can you!

Dame Stella’s comments reveal yet again the extent to which the literary elite are out of touch – not just with the facts about books and literacy but with what interests and excites young people about reading and writing. Yet again much chatter will be expended on the Man Booker Prize – chatter that will sail completely by the majority of folk. Why?

Because the literature involved presents an impenetrable arrogance that covers up the deeper truth – it is indulgent literary fiction that is dying out not reading. And this is because the books promoted by the literary elite are not what most people want to read. If the Man Booker Prize is to mean more it has to break out from the narrow genre into which is has crawled – it has to embrace popular fiction and recognise that just because a book doesn’t use three words that aren’t in the Concise Oxford Dictionary on the first page and has fun things like spies or wizards or vampires in it, that doesn’t make it a bad book.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A successful North - we'd love it but not that way Julian!

Julian Dobson, on his Living with Rats blog, wrestles with the long-standing – and seemingly intractable problem of the relative underperformance of England’s Northern counties.

Julian asks us what a successful North of England economy would look like and sets out a ten-point descriptor – covering the offering of opportunities to everyone, not compromising on “sustainability”, encouraging distinctiveness and diversity, valuing the contribution of the “voluntary and community sector” and, of course, a local ownership approach founded on mutual and co-operative approaches. It is a delightful collectivist paradise described by Julian and this Shangri la will doubtless be peopled by selfless men and women sacrificing their own individual success to the collective whole. Commonweal will be all!

I was tempted to carefully dissect what’s wrong with all this item by item but there was one of Julian’s ten points that stood out above all the others as something the would shackle the North to a permanent dawdle behind more successful places:

A successful northern economy is one that reduces its dependency on other parts of the world and on national government support. This means ensuring our money supports local and regional businesses, and strengthening links between the north’s businesses and communities. There should be a clear correlation between incentives for business and firms‘contribution to local training, skills development and community wellbeing.

In this we see – and I could cry – the ‘import substitution’ approach to economic development being rolled out. This is the strategy that blighted Latin America as they cowered behind high tariff barriers and anti-yankee policies. The most successful places are places that are open to trade – even in a world where free trade is compromised by restrictions on free movement and a dysfunctional system of development finance.

Julian, like so many of the left, thinks that there is a way to ‘collectivise’ the free market and a means by which it will be civilized (at least in their terms) and controlled by “the community”. By taking this view, we are led inexorably towards state direction and a society where economic activity is categorised into “good business” and “bad business”. The little local co-operative – even if like the Meriden Motorcycle plant a co-operative that destroys value – represents the former while an industrial complex manufacturing parts for power stations and managed by a multinational PLC represents the latter.

The problem with Julian’s utopia is that it would place an intolerable burden on those wishing to do business and most importantly those wanting to do business that involves something other than a grand scale taking in of each other’s washing – a business that exports.

Since Julian asks though I’d better set out how we get to a successful Northern economy (perhaps more valid than what that economy might look like when we get there). For me success lies in people being empowered consumers – in us having the wealth and income to consume the things we want to consume. After all we live to consume (in its widest sense) rather than to produce!

Getting to success must be founded on:

Low taxes on personal and business income
No or very low tariffs and duties
A regulatory environment that encourages choice and flexibility in employment
A pro-business and pro-development planning regime
Priority for infrastructure investment that support growth – roads, ports, broadband
An education system focused on core skills and employability

Aside from infrastructure this is all about less intrusive government, about a tax system that avoids disincentives and an education system that works.

And what would be my measure of success? Aside from us all being healthier and wealthier, I guess the ultimately successful North of England would be a place that looked at itself and decided it didn’t need government any more.


Update: Seems I'm not the only person who finds Julian's prescription a little unworkable. Here's Tim Worstall on the subject:

Apart from the fact that high speed broadband (as opposed to the dial up/ broadband difference) doesn’t make any difference at all, it’s just the usual ritual cant about inclusiveness isn’t it?
There’s three things that are wrong with the “northern” economy.

1) The exchange rate’s too high.
2) Wages in one sector of the economy are too high.
3) The private sector is getting crowded out.

The solution is to cut government, cut wages (and taxes) and the exchange rate, well that’s more difficult.


Why Labour is wrong (apart from on VAT) about 'saving the high street'

The Labour Party is setting out to “Save our High Street”. And it has a four-point plan to do so. Now one of the points – cutting VAT would make a difference (nothing like a price cut to stimulate spending). The rest are eyewash, anti-competitive or downright stupid.

Introduce a retail diversity planning clause, putting communities in charge of the future of their local high streets. Local people and local retailers would have a say on any retail plans for their area, giving them the power to put the heart back into the high street.

This is about stopping the further development of those dreadful supermarkets (although Labour should bear in mind that, for most supermarket developments, public opinion is pretty evenly split). However, it also hands to businesses the opportunity to prevent competition. This rather reminds me of the retired shopkeeper who once told me that “they shouldn’t allow” two shops selling a similar range in a high street. And it certainly reminds me of the way in which the National Market Traders Federation has browbeaten markets operators to do just that.

Create a ‘competition test’ in the planning system, leading to greater choice and lower prices for shoppers. The test would ensure a level playing field between small and large shops.

No I haven’t any idea what this means – except that it doesn’t seem to mean more competition or for competition to be effective. Translated it appears to mean – again – saying no to supermarkets. Now this might be a good thing – I have some sympathy with those who dislike supermarkets – but it will not lead to “greater choice and lower prices for shoppers”.

The problem with these proposals is that they are – as is too often the case – intended more to get the right headline than to look at what might be done to “save” the high street. There is no analysis, no appraisal of the retail markets just banal (and dangerous – putting retailers ‘in charge’ of retail planning, that’s a great idea) comments.

The problem with ‘our’ high streets is that:

  1. People like to take their car to go shopping – it’s convenient with those heavy bags – and town centres have hard to access parking that costs too much.  Out-of-town retailing has ample, surface car parking that’s usually free. Unless Labour are planning to ban cars (or maybe just car parking) this will not change – people will continue to prefer out-of-town to the high street
  2. Even lazier folk have discovered the Internet and on-line shopping! Without leaving the cosy comfort of my house I can purchase – and have delivered to my door – all the good things I want.  Good things that, in times past, I had to go to the high street to buy. Whatever you do with the planning system – short of banning home delivery or shutting of the Internet – the growth in on-line retail isn’t going to stop
 It really is as simple as this – yet Councils and their planners continue to make it ever harder for people to get their cars into town centres. And this means those people choose differently – they don’t do what the planners want and hop on the bus, they take the car to Bluewater, Lakeside, Trafford Park or Meadowhall.

If you want to ‘save the high street’, you have to start with what it’s for – is it the place we go for everyday shopping or is it a destination for leisure and pleasure? It seems to me that the days of the high street as a place for convenience shopping were numbers when, in 1968, planners in Sussex allowed Tesco to build their first out-of-town supermarket in Crawley. And once the principle was established in one place, for one set of goods the genie was out and away – out-of-town shopping had won. We should accept this reality.

But surely town centres will be kept going by all those workers who trail in and out of town every day? Partly, yes but only partly - next time you’re on the edge of town look at the tenants moving onto business parks. Where once there were just low added value operations – call centres, back office paperwork farms and warehousing – now we see front of house functions, lawyers, accountants and others who once dominated the commercial sector in town. The convenience of free parking combined with lower rents (and other benefits such as staff safety) sees business moving out from town centres into these out-of-town locations.

So what to do with the town centre? The answer lies with leisure – with the fact that we need a location to play out our celebrations, that we like to wander and admire nice buildings, that we enjoy culture – theatre, galleries, museums, and that we enjoy down time in a pleasant place. When Will Alsop published his Bradford masterplan with its park, with a lake and with an anti-development theme, people scoffed, called it madness. And tried then to turn it into a traditional, development-led masterplan founded on property values.

Looking back, I have come to the view that Alsop was right – Bradford needed less development to make it succeed not more development. We did need to clear out the horrible 1960s buildings that stood in homage to the failures of the City’s past dreams. We did need a park – including, if you will, a great lake. What we didn’t need was a soul-less commercial approach to the problem. We needed to make Bradford a destination.

And that is what we should be doing with town centres – giving people a good reason to go there rather than trying to stop us having the convenience of shopping out-of-town. The Labour proposals are pretty thin – rather than creating places people want to visit, they want to prevent development, stifle change and reduce competition. All for the sake of a cheap and easy headline.

Our high streets deserve better than this, they deserve some real thought based on a fuller understand of the social changes that drive the decline of in-town retailing rather than the sad, sourness of “we hate supermarkets”.


Still think planners aren't anti-business - try this then...


From one of the usual culprits no doubt:

Speaking to Surveyor on the condition of anonymity, due to being involved in discussions with government surrounding the framework, one senior source said: 'We are concerned about de-regulation. The various leaked versions that have circulated appear to withdraw the onus on reducing car journeys and maximising the use of sustainable transport.'

The source added: 'With the agenda of localism and removing standards, I worry about the affect the framework might have on the real need for an effective planning system.'

You see they don't think people are able to order their own lives and business manage their own affairs!


Monday, 25 July 2011

A loud celebration of being right wing...

Disraeli - a great right winger!
I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few. (Benjamin Disraeli)

A while back I penned a little joyful celebration of being “Tory Scum”:

For me, yelling “Tory Scum, Here We Come” is an admission once again of socialism’s defeat. There is no rational, intelligent argument in this dystopic, dehumanising creed’s favour so its advocates must resort to insult – to hurling abuse, to fear, aggression and destruction as a substitute for debate and discussion.
Socialism died in 1989 – us “Tory Scum” were proved right. And when I hear it now, I smile.

I forgot, in writing this, that there is a wider problem for the failure that is Labour – the need to condemn its enemy, anyone who disagrees with the numbing, controlling, interfering, mistrusting and uncaring “democratic socialism”. And the way this is done is – along with thinking it cool to attack people personally for believing in free markets and independence – to use the dread term “right wing”. Especially when that term can link free marketer libertarians with state-loving fascists.

The problems with this position are two-fold – firstly, it represents an act of desperation by social democrats. The term “right wing” represents (in the mind of the social democrat) all that is bad an evil – Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, these are the incarnate representatives of what it means to right wing. And it is but a short journey from not actually supporting social democracy to building gas chambers or machine gunning children.

Secondly – and most importantly – Fascism, in whatever incarnation we chose, is not right-wing but is the bastard child of Fabian social democracy. Yes the social democracy was corrupted, forced into a marriage with militarism (rather as we see with Castro, with Ortega and with Chavez) and made to serve aggressive nationalism. But, in the end, it is socialism – the idea that the state could perfect man – that sits in the middle of fascism. No observer free from the left’s prejudice could describe National Socialism as ‘right wing’.

So let us rescue being right wing from this corrupted view of the left wing commentariat, let us set out what is really means to be right wing:

·         For the right “caring” doesn’t mean raising taxes from the relatively poor, paying them to middle class professionals who then ‘care’ for the poor. Caring is something we do personally – it is an individual act, done without looking to a nice salary and an index-linked public pension. Right wingers do not view charity as a sin
·         Right wing people seek out independence and self-reliance – our aspiration is to provide for ourselves, to care (that word again) for our families, to look out for our friends and to pay our way in the world without recourse to the support of the state
·         As right wingers we do not see the words ‘business’ and ‘enterprise’ as problematic or slippery  terms only salvageable through the appending of the word ‘social’ – these words are central of belief that, left to their own devices, people will take advantage of the market’s natural laws to better themselves and, in doing so, better society
·         Right wing people recognise the importance of place – not as something to be managed, let alone created, by the agents of government but as the mud on our boots, the soil in which we have settled and grown strong. And the right to own that place – to be able to use our property as we see fit – is essential to that understanding. Place without private property is serfdom
·         And lastly those of us on the right doubt and question the role and purpose of government. It is not simply to echo Ronald Reagan’s joke – the most frightening words in the English Language, “I from the government and I’m here to help”- but to believe that independence, enterprise and the busy-ness of hard work are driving betterment and that the state is, most of the time, a barrier to a better place, a better society and happier people

This is what is means to be right wing. It is to be celebrated not muttered secretly behind our hands in case some BBC executive or Guardian columnist hears and points the finger crying; "look they admit to being right wing, they must be stopped before terrible things happen".

And those terrible things? Ah yes – peace, freedom, democracy, self-reliance, independence and the ownership of place.

Whatever the Guardian and the BBC may say, whatever lies they made spread, never forget....

...being right wing is good, you’re helping save the world from the controlling state, you’re making it better, cleaner, wealthier and safer for everyone.


Making hay while the sun shines...

Sunday - a day worshipping the wonders of nature. And where better to do that than in Swaledale one of the northenmost of Yorkshire's dales. The walk from Muker along the Swale takes in the hay meadows - perhaps past their best now if you're a wild flower fan (but maybe not so bad if, like me, you're a hayfever sufferer) and you can wind onto the top of the hill there to look back down the valley. A dale that shifts - almost abruptly -  from steep-sided, wooded and close to wide, sleepy slow and sheep grazed.

And it was busy. Not just with the walkers and trial bikers. Nor even with the lazier tourists enjoying the sunshine in Swaledale's villages. But with hay-making. From the top of the hill you could look over the fields below and in every direction - as if in some competition - hay was being made. Tractors scuttling up and the fields, cutting, turning and baling the hay - the food for all those sheep and cows looking on with their perennially bemused expressions from neighbouring fields.

All this - the meadows, the sheep, the walls, the paths. And especially the tractors making hay. All this reminds us that the beauty of this dale is not just a random bounty from nature but has been shaped by man. Indeed, is still being shaped by man as we look after the paths, add new fences, plants woods and make sure the river stays in its banks through the villages. Nature needs business - the frantic scrabbling of humans - for it to show its wonders best. Just as the gardener carefully tends the rose so it shows best, the farmer, gamekeeper and forester shape the countryside's beauty in a way that makes for what we cherish.

And we get it for free. Perhaps we should consider that more when we're stuck behind a tractor or help up by some sheep or when the muckspreading leaves a little odour hanging in the air. Without these things, would those places - that countryside - be quite as wonderful?


Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sharks? Of course not, this is Yorkshire - we have sheep!

And what a fine sheep it is too - perched atop the HQ of Swaledale Woollens. Better than those sharks that folk down south like on their roofs!


Saturday, 23 July 2011

Ars longa, vita brevis...(a thought about Amy Winehouse)

Much will be said about the death of Amy Winehouse. I think of her friends, her family and what we will miss of her genius – of her wonderful voice. Others will take the chance to lecture us on the evils of drugs – to wag fingers and make judgmental statements about Amy Winehouse’s values.

Instead let’s think of just one thing – in her short, painful life, Amy Winehouse left something behind. In thirty years time – maybe longer – people will still listen to her songs.

When I heard the news my first thoughts were of others who took the same path to immortality in death – Jimi Hendrix, Phil Lynott and the incomparable Charlie Parker. And, for all the tragedy of early death, I can turn to my music or visit YouTube and find these great artists’ legacy – captured for all time.

Just as James Dean left a legacy of film and image, as Van Gogh bequeathed the brightness of his painting – these musicians still inspire us with their music. And, as we get up to dance or lean back in our chair to let the sound wash over us, do we think about their tragic life? Or do we just enjoy the bounty they left behind?