Tuesday, 14 June 2011

What doesn't make for the good city?

Yesterday morning was enlivened by a discussion on Radio 4's Start the Week - about what makes for the good city.

To be honest, and across the West, you're hard pushed not to single out and identify the many ways in which planners, developers, builders and traffic engineers can build the bad city.

Richard Sennett
(above), prodigious spokesman for a certain type of left-learning urban theorist, was easily the most incisive and analytical contributor to Andrew Marr's radio show. And what did he say? The good city integrates the pavement and the building; it allows you to pass through the permeable membrane between them. Insides open into and spill out onto outsides; workers and passers-by mingle; sitting talking and sitting meeting fade into one another. Overall frowny-faced, blocky great walls, closed-off glass towers and the straight lines of both modernity and post-modernity are to be dissauded.

Not rocket science, really. And indeed all of a piece with Richard Rogers' 'Towards an Urban Renaissance', published way back in 1999 - an era that feels like a lifetime ago in terms of optimism about government action and public space.

But never really implemented. For all its praise of Brighton's Lanes, or Leeds' redevelpoed canals, there's still far too much 'absolute' or 'catastrophic' money on show when we come to build and rebuild our urban spaces. So Sennett and Rogers have often been frustrated.

Instead we're treated to disastrous macro-structures born of Sennett's 'accelerated, febrile capitalism'. I live in Bristol, where the most famous edifice of recent times (often praised as regenerating the city centre) is Cabot Circus. It's not bad on the inside, really, all vaulting glass roof, proper street names and higgledy-piggledy angles. But on the outside there's a huge curtain wall cutting it off from the rest of the city, presenting you with a medieval citadel when you drive into the city, and generally obliterating a sense of continuity and fluidity throughout the city centre - casting half a billion pounds worth of blight and ruin outside its hallowed halls. Just a few narrow alleyways run out of it apart from towards the 'old' post-war shopping area of Broadmead - straight into empty areas of urban dereliction or onto great big roads. 'Urban design' and 'inclusivity' aren't phrases that spring to mind.

What doesn't make for the good city? Come to Cabot Circus.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Was there a Labour route to victory in 2010?

So much in politics relies on a narrative of inevitability. Consider these ones that crowd the intellectual landscape at the moment:

So in the end a Labour General Election defeat was 'inevitable'. Hence the present coalition and all its works.

Right? Wrong.

David Cameron was in deep trouble in 2007, and only Gordon Brown's vacillation allowed him to escape from his manifold problems. Gordon Brown was not as hated as many people make out - though it's hard to peer through the data sometimes. Labour didn't 'run out of money', as any decent economic historian will tell you. And a small group of News International Executives overcame Rupert Murdoch's initial scepticism about David Cameron and secured The Sun's and The Times' backing for the Conservatives.

Change any of these variables and a Labour win in 2010 was highly possible.

So was there a Labour route to victory in 2010? Yes. But what would they have needed?

The answer is: just a one per cent or so further swing swing back from their terrible poll lows in 2008-2009. Holding on to seats like Kingswood, Thurrock, City of Lincoln and Leicestershire North West - mostly lost on huge swings. Clinging on to just a few more seats - say the 15 within a few thousand votes of their grasp - would have meant that they, the Liberal Democrats, the SDLP and the Northern Ireland Alliance (the SDLP takes the Labour Whip and the Alliance MP is 'affiliated' to the Lib Dems) would have had 334 seats.

If we exclude the Sinn Fein MPs who don't take up their seats, that's a working majority over all other parties of 23.

Think the Lib Dems would have formed a government with the Conservatives on these numbers? No, me neither. So everything has hung on a tiny thread - just a few votes in a few seats.

And the lesson? Nothing's inevitable in politics. Or history.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Being Leader of the Opposition isn't easy, you know...

So everyone agrees, from the left-leaning New Statesman to Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, that yesterday's performance from Ed Miliband (above) at Prime Minister's Questions was a disaster.

The Government is mired in so many u-turns it's practically spinning like a top. Easier sentencing for people who admit their crimes? No, they're running away from that. Top-slicing education budgets to pay for new Academies? Er, no, sorry, they've thought again. Giving GP consortia control of the NHS budget? Hmm. No, they've listened and they're just going to recreate Primary Care Trusts with a different name.

But could Ed land a blow? Not a bit of it. He flailed at thin air. Have a watch, if you can bear it.

It's important to say that PMQs isn't everything and that, from a historical perspective, it often hasn't mattered that much. Wilson skewered poor Alec Douglas-Home nearly every week in 1963-64. Wilson dominated Heath at the despatch box in the late 1960s, his analytical mind allowing him to pull facts out of nowhere. Go back to Callaghan versus Thatcher between 1976 and 1979. Callaghan just managed to out-point the Lady most weeks, mobilising a home-spun avuncular normality that his prissy-sounding opponent couldn't match.

More recently, Hague made even Labour MPs laugh as he lampooned Tony Blair week after week. Michael Howard wasn't bad either.

What happened? With the exception of Wilson in 1964, they all lost the subsequent General Election. Even Wilson managed a paltry overall majority of three.

So Ed doesn't need to worry about PMQs alone. It's the image of his party with relatively conservative English voters, and his party's chronic inability to raise money from anyone but the trade unions, that should really keep him up at night. But that's another story...

Monday, 6 June 2011

First hints at a Treasury rethink

Has George Osborne just blinked?

Yesterday's letter from a number of leading economists and business commmentators urged the Chancellor (above) to reconsider his rapid cuts and to prepare for a soft, rather than a crash, landing. This morning he went on the Today programme and pointed out that he always said that 'automatic stabilisers' on spending would be allowed to work, and that he had given himself four or five years to obliterate the structural deficit. So (a) if the economy grows slower than it might otherwise have done, he's happier to get to balance more slowly, and (b) if there are unexpected crises or difficulties, he's also happy to get rid of the deficit that'd happen anyway in 'normal' times a bit later than declared.

This doesn't, of course, really address the major problem - that even given those two qualifications, no OECD country has ever managed or is even trying to reduce spending and raise taxes in this mix, this fast. And that hidden away in the Treasury's published calculations is the presumption that personal spending - and debt - will rise massively during this Parliament to plug the hole left by government spending. End of the age of debt? Don't you believe it.

So I doubt whether the Government will hit its targets anyway. Not that any such outcome would do them irreversible harm. There's a trap here for Labour, because they can shout about that as much as they want, but if the Chancellor wants to ease up and offer tax cuts in the spring of 2015, he can - even if there's a chunk of borrowing still hanging around. Will the markets then take fright? Unlikely - as the Chancellor in fact understands very well. And Mr Osborne will (he hopes) be able to point to a growing economy. All the detail, and all of the blame about whether we could have got there quicker, will be seen as yesterday's news. But that just points up the futility of Opposition - something Labour is going to have many, many years to get used to.

In the meantime, Mr Osborne has shown what a master of nuance and tactics he is. He's waved a pinkish flag at the critics while making sure it's got a great big blue reverse side that only his troops can see.

He hasn't blinked. He's suggested that he just might. But it's a slight change in stance that might have consequences.

There's no Plan B yet. But there might just be the beginnings of a Plan A (ii).

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Why do small islands seem so large?

So one of the reasons I've been silent has been that I've just spent a few days relaxing on St Agnes (above), one of the smallest, most isolated and quietest of the Isles of Scilly, just over thirty miles south-west of Land's End.

As I tramped around the island, home to just 72 people and just a couple of kilometres wide, the apparent enormity of what is really a tiny place struck me. From the Turk's Head pub on the north-easterly quay, to Troytown Farm on the other side of the island, down to Wingletang Down in the south of the island, and then round to the sandbar that connects St Agnes to the even smaller island of Gugh, came to seem like many miles. Every pool, rock and cove took on much greater significance than the shoreline of the much larger island of St Mary's ever seems to gather around itself.

Not for the first time, an observation from Adam Nicolson's beautiful book Sea Room comes to mind:

Something of the sense of holiness on islands comes... from [their] strange, elastic geography. Islands are made larger, paradoxically, by the scale of the sea that surrounds them. The element which might reduce them, which might be thought to besiege them, has the opposite effect. The sea elevates these few acres into something they would never be if hidden in the mass of the mainland. The sea makes islands significant. They are defined by it, both wedded to it and implacably set against it, both a creation and a rejection of the element which makes them what they are. They are the no-sea within the sea, standing against the sea's chaos and erosive power, but framed by it, enshrined by it. In that way, every island is an assertion in an ocean of denials, the one positive gesture against an almost overwhelming bleakness.

There's a fallacy here somewhere. We can't really say that geography explains everyhing about a state of mind. The English came to think that they were an 'island race', during a period when they demonstrably were not - sharing a land border with the Scots, for instance. How we imagine space is important, as Jonathan Scott's recent book on Britain and the maritime imagination has recently argued. But there is still an interaction between the conceptualised, 'constructed' outside world and the real hard rocks we stand on.

St Agnes helped me understand that more clearly. Perhaps travel really does broaden the mind.