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. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Sorry, Europe, but our ways are simply better

The WEF, the World Economic Forum, has recently published its global competitiveness index. The overall rankings are pretty approximate - due to a misuse and misunderstanding of components such as productivity. No-one actually believes the UK is less productive than France. Their productivity measure doesn't include development or use of the world's biggest web platforms or apps, predominantly in English, nor many new IT driven services, just stuff like making widgets. EU nations with high productivity scores are generally late web and IT adopters with workforces poorly adapted to the coming AI challenges. No one will be re-writing software manuals in Czech or Hungarian, probably not even in French or German, so our EU chums had better either up their English classes or adopt AI translators to do the job for them. 

The real meat of the WEF report is in components such as the world ranking of Judicial Independence. Take a look yourself. We are 6th - Rwanda is 23rd, Germany 24th, France 28th, Saudi Arabia 30th, India 53rd, Spain 58th and Italy 65th. Telling us what we already knew - that the EU operate a system of political courts, where there is no real justice, just the judicial arm of the State. If the State is benign and acts in the interests of the people, the argument goes, there is no need for the courts to be independent. We have the Common Law and Equity - they have versions of the Code Napoleon. 

Likewise our constitution. We don't have one. We're not the nth Republic. We settled on our flag in 1703, not five minutes ago when their constitution was also written on a word processor. Fraser Nelson makes the point in the Telegraph - quoting a fatuous comment from the Dutcher Rutte, proving he, too, has no idea how the UK actually works.  

So when, as the Telegraph also reports, David Davis caught the heel of the jackboot in Germany yesterday, it doesn't mean what they think. David told his audience "Shared values are more important than our membership of particular institutions. Values of democracy, of the rule of law, of human rights", perhaps not quite meaning that the sharing was equal, implying perhaps that the EU had more to learn from the UK's shared values than we have from theirs. The German dogs barked. "If you are so committed to our common values, our common interests, our common approach, then why are you leaving the European Union?" demanded the moderator, Herr Krach. 

Because, Herr Krach, we're a mature and stable democracy whose people are committed to freedom of thought, to independent justice, to self-determination and to accountable government. Because when we uphold the idea of one man one vote we don't mean that the one man is Herr Juncker. Because, simply, our ways are better than yours but you don't realise it.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

If Tory Remoaners bring down the government, voters will tear the throat from the party

There must be a temptation amongst MPs closeted in the plush and rarefied atmosphere of Westminster to imagine themselves inviolable from the wrath of voters, immune from the tensions and passions in the nation clearly audible from social media. Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Antionette Sandbach, Dominic Grieve and others may even now be building their future infamy - a future of derision, loathing and contempt - if their jejune and anti-democratic posturing, their preening narcissistic self-regard, their contemptuous dismissal of the popular will, brings down this fragile government and disrupts the Brexit process.

If they do so, the people will turn upon the Conservative party and tear its throat out. Tories will be more rare in the Commons than LibDems. They will have consigned their own party to the dustbin of history, and destroyed for themselves and their families any personal prospect of help or support from their peers. They will be shunned like wet lepers, regarded more lowly than the ordure on our shoes, despised and scorned. 

They are playing not with their own pathetic petty careers, not with their own overweening mediocrity, but with the future of our nation. And that's bloody serious.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Venting popular steam and keeping the State under control

Each country has somewhere in its traditions, unless utterly repressed by a totalitarian state and its secret police, versions of letting off steam, of warning off the ruling classes or unpopular characters, and of reminding the authorities that democracy is a delicate bloom that must not be abused. In England this was traditionally 5th November; darkness, fires, masks and disguises so that participants can't be identified, and burning effigies. Today Lewes is the only one I know that maintains the full threat of years past - and I bet the local council are doing everything they can to close it down. 

Here the equivalent is Perchtennacht, the night of the Perchtenlauf or the run of the devils. The costumes are elaborate and frightening, there is a complete lack of English style health and safety, and the Perchten are violent and dangerous. They carry sticks, clubs and chains. Traditionally, this was when a village got rid of an unwanted member - a nonce, a cheat, a deviant - by hitting them with sticks, chains and whips. Hard. You see, not to be out and lining the route of the run is an admission that you're not part of the community, so it's obligatory to be there.  

In recent years most of the sting has been taken out of the tradition. Slightly anti-social offenders still get their knuckles sharply rapped with a stick, or get a poke in the kidneys as a gentle reminder, but death and serious injury are rare these days. Organisers are obliged to maintain an identity register, so miscreants can be named, and police maintain a presence. In V√∂lkermarkt last night, however, the old ways were back. It was a riot. Two people targeted by the Perchten were seriously injured and it took the police an hour to restore order. Other people were injured as they fled violent assaults. 

Because this is Austria, no-one is calling for Perchtennacht to be banned and many are speculating whether the targets will now quietly move. Here it's still a reminder to the authorities that if they don't act, if they ignore long-building public disquiet, then people will do the job themselves. It's also a reminder to everyone (including me) of the importance of spending lots of time in the pub, greeting and chatting to anyone you meet and building friendships and trust ... you're either a member of the community, or you aren't. 

When, in the years after the German surrender, this part of Austria was occupied by the British army, a local maid and a lad from the Inniskillings fell in love. When his battalion was due to return home, he deserted. The whole community including the Mayor conspired to hide him until the end of the occupation, when they married and he spent the rest of his life here, dying only very recently. I talk to his daughter most mornings as she walks the dog. 

This is still a country in which local communities are not scared of their own power. I wish my England were the same. 

Saturday, 11 November 2017

All that glitters is not Green

You may have accidentally encountered recently one the many saccharine encomia gushingly worshipping at the feet of Norman Foster's new Bloomberg building in London. If so, you will have been covered in all the ordure of 'sustainability' and 'most environmentally friendly building in London'. It's mostly utter bull. 

Sure, the building has the very highest BREEAM rating, but BREEAM only measures environmental cost in use. I know both this and its partner civils assessment CEEQUAL well - in fact I'm a qualified CEEQUAL assessor, so know the devil in the detail. Neither scheme counts the construction cost, or rather, where this is acknowledged, it can be negated by petty measures such as reducing site waste or ensuring local waterways are protected during construction. You see, steel and concrete are the grossest environmental offenders in terms of manufacturing CO2 cost. They're also critical to new construction.

Bloomberg himself, a zealous Remoaner, also campaigns for the closure of coal-fired power stations. Now, I can't suggest that there's any numerical equivalent between the carbon cost of his new building and the 37m. tonne / pa CO2 output of the UK's  coal power stations, but his own contribution is not insignificant. His building used 15,500 tonnes of steel - twice the steel in the Eiffel Tower - 65,000 cu.m of concrete, 600 tonnes of bronze and 450 tonnes of aluminium. The carbon cost will be close to 250,000 tonnes of CO2. Yet in the Guardian, Rowan Moore almost achieves orgasm in his praise for the behemoth;
This is not just an office building, or rather two buildings joined by a glass link. It’s a full-spectrum chthonic-to-celestial, cultural-social-technological, natural-synthetic, virtual-real, analogue-digital phenomenon....Metaphors and allusions come easily enough – it is Starship Enterprise and baroque palazzo at once, somewhat Ian Fleming, the interior of the personal volcano of a benign Blofeld. There are those aquariums and, behind a big glass wall, a majestic view of St Paul’s, as if it were itself a great stone fish captured and put in a tank....creates a sort of field of art, in which different elements of a single artist’s work reappear in different parts of the building. It reinforces the field-like properties of the complex as a whole, the sense of a pervasive intelligence, a Kirk-Spock figure controlling the art, architecture, technology, sustainability, catering and wellbeing strategies.
Now this isn't a piece about AGW or the effects of CO2. It's a piece about hypocrisy; the hypocrisy of my industry which does everything it can to discount the environmental cost of its activities, and the hypocrisy of the Bloomberg apologists, who praise the great man's fight against CO2. The CO2 cost of new construction doesn't even necessarily count against the UK's total; usefully, CO2 is accounted at the place of manufacture of the materials and components. So Bloomberg's carbon could well be part of China's or Thailand's total. This allows the West both to splurge on high-carbon new buildings and blame the $10-a-day economies for polluting our environment. 

If this building 'saves' 250 tonnes a year of CO2 from its energy efficiency, it will still take 1,000 years to pay-back the construction cost before there's any net advantage. The building has an economic life of 75 years. 

There's little structurally wrong with the 1970s office blocks that are now being destroyed wholesale in order to give our big name architects new pictures for next decade's portfolios. And as long as global corporates are driven by vanity, our cityscape will get these self-indulgences, like Onan's seed falling fruitlessly to earth. 

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The more shrilly the EU begs for money, the longer we should hold out

Herr Barnier has been at it again. This time his shrill demands for money are accompanied by threats to 'shake the tree' to force businesses to relocate from the UK to the EU. This, of course, is a delusion common amongst unelected bureaucrats and petty demagogues who don't understand quite how business makes decisions. It is, however, revealing of Herr Barnier's attitude - and a taste of what we can expect after Brexit.

If the EU is planning how to discriminate against firms headquartered in the UK - even those trading with the EU on WTO terms - it is pretty certain that those measures will be implemented anyway post-Brexit. They will be faced with a nation that has two key weapons in her armoury - corporate tax rates, and state aid. When no longer constrained after Brexit from using these tools, the UK can also apply reciprocal constraints against EU firms, excluding them for example from bidding for government work and so on. A mixture of economic liberalism and targeted protectionism. 

The fact is that the EU are quite desperate for British money. They will beg and whine and try all sorts of blackmail in order to force an undertaking from us. Our tactic must be quite clear; no trade deal, no money. And  if we need to write-in clauses constraining Herr Barnier's tree shaking, that's useful to know.