Reforming the Greenbelt

Paul Cheshire, emeritus professor of economic geography, writes convincingly about the need for the Greenbelt to evolve to make more housing available:

As proposed by the original visionaries of town planning – most notably Ebenezer Howard – greenbelts would be an extensive ring of parkland surrounding towns in which citizens could walk their dogs, stroll with their children and exchange civilised gossip in the shade of handsome trees. What they have turned into is a combination of sacred cow and juggernaut: unstoppable in the damage they do to the housing market and beyond criticism in the popular media. They cover half again as much land as all towns and cities put together – about 15% of the surface of England – and have become a peculiarly English form of exclusionary zoning to keep unwashed urbanites corralled in their cities.

Of course parts of the greenbelts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Most…Greenbelt land, however, is intensively farmed with limited rights of access and has no amenity value at all. Recent studies have shown that its value is captured only by those who own houses within it, and that intensively farmed land has a negative environmental value. Apart from its value for producing food (and much greater value for dodging inheritance tax) the UK National Ecosystem Assessment in 2011 found that intensively farmed land generates more environmental costs than benefits. Yet whenever there is some public debate about reforming the planning system or building a few desperately needed houses on Greenbelt land, the bits we see on TV belong in some romanticised English Tourist Board poster. They are not representative of the reality of most greenbelt land.

So rather than building on school playing fields (can’t be done in my borough – they’ve all been built on already) or brownfield land such as on the Hoo Peninsula, where the largest concentration of Nightingales in the British Isles survive, there should be selective building on the least attractiveand lowest amenity parts of greenbelts.

Hat Tip: Duncan Stott

Tim Harford fisks Ed Miliband’s energy policy

TBH, I don’t think the downsides would necessarily be that great but as Harford observes the benefits certainly wouldn’t be very substantial either

What exactly do you think is wrong with a freeze?

Let’s start by acknowledging that this is economically a sideshow. If he is lucky, Mr Miliband’s 20-month cap (why 20 months?) will delay a price rise of 10 per cent or so. Energy spending comprises 5 per cent of the basket of goods used to calculate the consumer price index. So Mr Miliband will, on an optimistic view, postpone (not prevent) a 0.5 per cent rise in CPI. That will help some people but is trivial compared with what he might do with the tax or benefit system.

But it’s still something – so what’s the downside?

The first downside is that it makes UK energy policy look capricious, confrontational and juvenile. That matters because this country urgently needs new electricity generating capacity. If suppliers don’t expect to get the revenue they need to cover their costs, they won’t invest. It’s alarmist to suggest that Mr Miliband will simply scare them away and the lights will go out, but it’s reasonable to expect that they will need more convincing in the wake of his little pep talk at the Labour party conference, which can be summarised simply as: “Your customers vote and you don’t, and I’ll never forget that.” He has achieved the remarkable feat of damaging the country before becoming prime minister; most party leaders wait until they win an election before they start screwing it up.

Mr Miliband isn’t really very scary. Is that the only problem?

He is also ignoring climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions means conserving energy, and generating it using nuclear power and renewables, both of which are probably more uncertain and more expensive propositions than oil, gas and coal. Because of this, prices are rising as a matter of policy – policy that began under the last Labour government, in which Mr Miliband was, I seem to recall, the energy secretary.

Agents of SHIELD hits the ground strolling

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There is a dissonance between the hype around this season and its pedestrian opening episode. There were some good points – mostly odd pieces of dialogue or jokes – but the overall mix was pretty unengaging.

I’m a recent convert to the Whedonverse, so it’s not very long since I watched the opening episode of Buffy. And I couldn’t help comparing Whedon’s latest outing with the one that made his name. While on paper a lot less happens on the first trip to Sunnydale; it established a sense of forward narrative momentum, gave a strong sense of the key characters and ended on a cliffhanger. By contrast, Agents of SHIELD’s opening seemed rather limp: despite various mysteries being set up it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere, only Agent Coulson felt like a real character and that’s because he’d already been established in the films, and rather than a cliffhanger we got a corny conclusion with a flying car.

A difference between the two shows I’d particularly highlight was that while the action sequences in Buffy were surprisingly impressive for something on the small screen, the various fights and chases in Agents felt disposable. This matters because if action actually deflates tension stories are going to fizzle when they are supposed to be climaxing.

Still I’ll keep watching. Many good series had poor openings, and there is definitely the components of a decent program here if they are used right.

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The Oldest Building in the US is more than a millenia old

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A Pueblo Indian dwelling

Earlier this week I quoted from John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s book the Right Nation. I was rather sidetracked by the truth or otherwise about whether Galileo was offered a chair at Harvard. However, their larger point that America is actually a rather old country is clearly true. They make the observation that:

The historical hearts of Boston and Washington feel as old many European capitals (older in some ways because they weren’t bombed in World War II).

I’d add to Philadelphia and Charleston to the list of American cities that often feel like old European cities. However, if you want to see really old buildings in America, you don’t look to the European settlements on the East Coast. Rather you look inland to the impressive Native American buildings that still stand. These are the oldest buildings in America are more than a millennium old. The Cahokia Mounds were first occupied in 600 CE and there are Peublo dwellings in New Mexico dating back to 750 CE.

These grand aged buildings are remnants of equally venerable civilizations. I use that word in a deliberately old-fashioned sense as the opposite of ‘primitive’ because the people who inhabited America before Colmbus were a lot more advanced than they are normally given credit for.

Many of us have grown up with images of the hooting, hollering “red man” dancing around the camp fire by his tee-pee and sharpening his tomahawk for scalping the “white man”. These images have been spoon-fed to us by TV shows (e.g. Looney Tunes), sports teams (e.g. Redskins), and wild tales from USA folklore.

In reality, Native Americans were quite advanced. They had built towns. They played organized team sports. They excelled in hunting and fishing. They had somewhat democratic government structures. In farming they were experts. Women often held prominent roles in their society. They had medicine which they shared with the Europeans. They had sophisticated religion and theology which were a key part of their society. Cleanliness was important to them: in fact, they were more clean than the Europeans for whom bathing and clean clothes were not all that important. Their culture was centered on toleration and freedom. They avoided conflict when possible and abhorred devastating war. They had a sophisticated language. Monetary currency and economic systems were also present in their society.

America is a land with a long history. A great deal of time has passed since Europeans began settling and much longer still since humans first came their. And of course, young countries’ don’t have buildings that were standing in the time of Muhammed and Charlemagne.