Three Conflagrations

notre dame

Notre Dame is not just Paris’s cathedral; culturally, and almost geographically, it is the centre of France. Distances to and from Paris have always been measured from the parvis de Notre Dame, the area outside her doors – which, in the crowded mediaeval city, was one of the few public spaces open to Parisians. For over nine centuries her giant hull has been seen above the roofs of Paris, presiding over all of the cataclysmic events in that great city’s turbulent past; symbolic of its constancy and its strength.

By the time most of us in the UK heard about the fire, yesterday evening, it was already well under way. Media images showed flames leaping from the roof. We remembered, with a sick feeling of dread, the similar disasters at York Minster and the Glasgow School of Art. There is a sense of disbelief when something this dreadful happens. Surely, surely, something that is so much loved could not simply be obliterated?

Before nightfall, the spire fell, full of flames, breaking and collapsing, in a ghastly recreation of the scenes that we have cheered so often on Bonfire Night. The whole of the 12th-century interior structure was in flames. The roof was engulfed. I could turn away, but some Parisians stood in horror and watched Notre-Dame burn – like Mary herself in the traditional depiction of the Crucifixion, wishing, with every fibre of their being, that what they were witnessing was not happening, but feeling an obligation to stay. Some wept openly. Some sang the Ave Maria, some prayed. Some could only watch.

She had survived the turbulence of the European Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century, which, in Paris, meant massacre and siege. Her stones were put up for sale in the Revolution, but she survived due to Robespierre’s fall. She was spared in the tragedy of the brief civil war between the Communards and the Versaillais in 1871, when the Tuileries palace fell; in the bloody destructiveness of the First World War and the Nazi occupation of the Second.

Then, late in the evening, it was reported that the main structure had been saved. Soon after that, the first pictures came out: the vast nave, knee-deep in water, with a great pile of rubble in front of the high altar – but – intact. Damaged, not sunk.

This morning, it was said that if the firefighters had not entered the burning building, at great risk to themselves, the structure of the building would in all probability have been lost. Notre-Dame’s iconic towers and her fabulous rose windows could not have survived; this morning she would have been a blackened shell. The whole world owes them a debt of gratitude.

It reminded me painfully of the accounts of another conflagration, where the official response was very different: the Great Fire of London itself.

In the early hours of Sunday 2nd September, 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. The Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth, was called to inspect the fire, but was unimpressed. “Pish!” he famously commented, “a woman could piss it out.”
The following day, while the Fire was spreading beyond its origin, some soldiers offered to blow up houses in the fire’s path; but Bludworth refused to allow it, saying that the owners would demand compensation, “and who will pay the charge?” Observers thought that the authorities were doing nothing.

Meanwhile, Samuel Pepys had taken a boat upriver to the court at Whitehall, and informed the King, who offered to provide soldiers to help. But when he returned with the message to Bludworth, Pepys says, “he cried like a fainting woman, “Lord, what can I do? I am spent. People will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses. But the fire overtakes me faster than we can do it.” That he needed no more soldiers; and that for himself, he must go and refresh himself, having been up all night.”

A few hours later, overriding the Lord Mayor’s authority – a risky move – the King took charge. Monarchy, by the way, is an awful way of choosing a government. In undemocratic societies, a fairly common pattern is for some thug to take over, suppress a country for the rest of his life, and then pass on the reins to a spoilt and incompetent son. But occasionally, by chance, it happens that a person becomes a monarch who is worthy of that role; and Charles II, whom I love, I think, above all other historical figures, was such a person.

Over the dreadful days that followed, Charles and his brother James were almost constantly present. They organised parties of soldiers to demolish some houses to create fire breaks, and douse others with water. Charles rode around the crowds with a bag of silver coins, exhorting people to join the firefighting. At one point, James and his men had to run for it as fierce winds blew the flames so that they were nearly surrounded. Contemporaries described the brothers “handling the water in buckets while they stood up to the ankles deep in water, and playing the engines for many hours together.”

Bludworth’s inaction cost the city dear. The fire had already taken hold, and it continued to spread for the next two days; four-fifths of London was lost. But the firefighters were able to curtail and slow its rage. They saved the Tower of London, the Middle Temple Hall, and, perhaps as importantly, the houses of hundreds of people.

I move on now to a third conflagration. It is not really a single conflagration, but billions of them – many small burnings, over the last few hundred years, in furnaces and stoves, in internal combustion engines and cement kilns; and many larger ones in rainforests, Greek shrubland and Saddleworth Moor. It is much more of a danger to life than not only the Great Fire (which killed few) but the Great Plague which preceded it. It is more of a danger to culture and civilisation than the fire which threatened Notre Dame, multiplied across every town and city of this globe.

When Extinction Rebellion began to stage protests in city centres, and when Greta Thunberg shot to fame for her – at first, solitary – school strike, some climate scientists wept with relief. Their entire careers had been spent discovering more and more alarming tendencies in global climate patterns, while the governments of the world and much of the public ignored them, and while their predictions of rising temperatures, floods and droughts were not just borne out but surpassed. Never can it have been so bitter to have been proven right. They, like me, have been given hope and strength by the sight of people willing to stand up for what they believe in – not just in meeting rooms and lecture theatres, but outside Shell’s headquarters, atop trucks on fracking sites, and in the middle of Westminster Bridge. Extinction Rebellion join those planners, politicians, engineers and reformers who for years have been working tirelessly to reduce carbon emissions and deal with their consequences.

There is, however, a small but infuriating group of people who, having successfully ignored the threat of climate change for decades, have moved straight on to saying “Oh, well, it’s too late now.” It cuts no ice with them to point out that climate change is a continuum, not an absolute, and that concerted action to reduce greenhouse gases now could, at the very least, buy our children a little more time to adapt. Like Sir Thomas Bludworth, they have gone straight from outright denial – “A woman could piss it out!” to the fatalistic “Lord, what can I do? The fire overtakes me faster than I can do it!”

Because, otherwise, they might have to get their hands on a bucket of water themselves.

In a crisis, we all have a choice. If the international scientific community is the messenger with news of a terrible fire, we can choose, like Bludworth, to do nothing. Or we can stand with Charles, James and the sapeurs-pompiers of Notre-Dame.

 

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The Green Grass Code: a satire

lawn

In the early years of the twentieth century, there was a great interest in the scientific advancement of agriculture and horticulture. Perhaps nobody foresaw the cataclysm of the Great War; but governments were aware that it might be useful to have some wonder crops up their sleeves, should a need for internal food security arise.

When “Wondergrass” was first developed, it was hailed as a breakthrough for pasturing. Tough and able to thrive in many types of soil, it had the unusual property of being able to suppress weed species.

Sadly, it turned out to be toxic to cattle and sheep. But its developers found a ready market in the homes and gardens of wealthier people, and some private schools, who were able to pay for the rather expensive seeds and meet Wondergrass’s requirement to be top-dressed each year with fossilised guano, then obtainable from Shetland.

After the second world war, efficiency measures and improved breeding brought the price of Wondergrass down, while new sources of fossilised guano were found in post-colonial Africa. The expanding middle classes, who, restored to peaceful prosperity, were taking an interest in gardening, embraced it. Soon many homes boasted a Wondergrass lawn, and those who did not began to look a bit shabby.

There were concerns, even then. A number of tragic cases were known to have occurred in which children fell into piles of grass clippings, or adults inhaled while mowing, and were found dead. Others, similarly afflicted, ended up with septicaemia; some lost limbs, or suffered brain damage. Meanwhile, there were mutterings about how the race to exploit guano had distorted the politics of some African states. Puppet rulers had been put in place by guano companies, and peoples had been evicted from their land where it contained reserves of guano.

In the 1970s, it was discovered that the toxic effects of Wondergrass were more significant than had been supposed. Under certain circumstances – when it was wet, when it had just been cut, or when guano had just been applied – the toxic particles within it which suppressed the weeds became extremely volatile. After a few well-publicised cases in which whole families died, there was a general consensus that something should be done about it.

Some people said that Wondergrass was simply dangerous, and shouldn’t be allowed. But the government took a more cautious approach. The use of Wondergrass would be monitored for a year. In the meantime, to protect children, they promoted the use of the Green Grass Code. When considering whether to play on the grass, children were to consider:

G: Has Guano recently been applied?
R: Has it recently been Raining?
E: Is it Early in the morning, and hence, still dewy?
E: Are there a lot of cut Ends?
N: Never forget your Green Grass Code!

Everyone agreed that this was a sensible way to protect children for the time being. Parents and teachers liked it, because they knew what to do. Children liked having a simple mnemonic to learn. Householders were glad they didn’t have to rip their lawns up. And the Wondergrass Company, of course, was glad not to have been put out of business.

The situation in Ireland was a little different, because the Catholic Church happened to own large tracts of land in Nabderia which had been seized by Global Guano, with the tacit approval of the government. The Pope issued a Bull condemning the seizure and the companies that benefited from it, including Wondergrass; and the Irish government put significant restrictions on its import. Soon, Wondergrass was no longer so popular in Ireland, and therefore the Green Grass Code never really took hold.

Years passed. The first generation of children to learn the Green Grass Code grew up and some of them had children. They recited the Green Grass Code to them before they could so much as toddle. Parents, grandparents and teachers all ensured that no child was unaware of it.

Of course, little children couldn’t be expected to carry out the required risk assessment themselves, and so their parents had to talk them through it, so that did mean that younger children weren’t generally allowed to play in gardens, playing fields, or parks without supervision. When older people said they remembered being able to play all by themselves, people laughed: how criminally careless parents were back then!

More years passed. A few more issues arose. It was also found that the chemicals leaching from Wondergrass had, over the years, had a cumulative effect upon global ecosystems; many important food crops were showing reduced yields, and many habitats were known to be in danger.

Epidemiologists discovered an upsurge in serious lung infections and associated deaths in areas with large areas of lawns and parks, but not in rural areas, and speculated that this might be to do with Wondergrass. There were also a number of tragic accidents involving grass clippings. When four-year-old Asma Falls was hit by a bucketload of jettisoned clippings thrown onto the pavement by a keen gardener, and died instantly in front of her horrified mother, spitting blood, most people were at least surprised to see that he walked free from court. But after a while, people said “Well, I suppose that could have happened to anyone”. After this, when parents had to walk anywhere with their children, they held their hands tightly, and kept a watchful eye out for any careless person with a lawnmower.

At this point some parents started to say “Wasn’t it better when we didn’t have to follow the Green Grass Code? Couldn’t we have stopped using Wondergrass instead?”

People were shocked. “It’s basic parenting!” they were told. “It’s your responsibility to keep your children safe. I expect you just let them play in the garden by themselves? God! It’s not just Wondergrass they’ve got to be scared of. Anything might happen. They might .. fall over.”

“But children play by themselves in Ireland,” the beleaguered heretics said. “Oh, Ireland!” they were told. “They’re different there. Haven’t you ever heard of the Emerald Isle? They’re proud of their own kind of grass. It’s cultural. Anyway, this is Newcastle, not Dublin. And you should be ashamed of yourself.” Those who feared being thought to be Bad Mums – which is most of us – soon learnt to keep quiet.

And, although every week, thirty or so people died in accidents involving Wondergrass, parents continued to pride themselves on knowing, and passing on, the Green Grass Code. It was the only responsible thing to do.

The Cool Cyclist

In Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” the fascinating antiheroine, Amy, describes the “Cool Girl” – the archetype of a young woman who schools herself to be a cheerful exemplar of female perfection, so far as men are concerned. The Cool Girl is:

“a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes and burping..jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2..Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”

Amy takes the rejection of the Cool Girl role too far, as you may know from the book or the film. However, surely any feminist would agree that she is right to reject it: “You don’t get what you want. It’s pretty clear. Sure, he may be happy, he may say you’re the coolest girl ever, but he’s saying that because he got his way.”

Why, then, would anyone take on the Cool Girl role? To hook your man, of course; but I think there’s another aspect to it. We are tribal. We seek to ingratiate ourselves with those in power, and that often means aligning our beliefs and behaviours with theirs. As men get further up the hierarchy at work, they leave their jeans and T-shirts behind and go to work in suits. People change their accents to match those with the greatest clout, whether that means the working-class boy gaining a few aitches when he goes to work in the City, or the reverse process happening when a gently-reared child goes up to Big School.

Thus we see the phenomenon of the Cool Cyclist. The Cool Cyclist is cheerfully accepting of the parlous lack of safe routes for cyclists on the roads today. He (and it normally is a he) states that everyone is responsible for his or her own safety, and that if you cycle with care and attention and the appropriate protective equipment, you should be safe. Or at least, reasonably safe; accidents will happen, he says – in the same kind of tone that you’d use when telling a child, “Now I told you not to play with doors, didn’t I?” when he’s talking about some poor woman being flattened by a HGV. He quite understands how people might object to money being spent on new cycle infrastructure; after all, governments have to prioritise. He nods along sagely when people complain about “bloody cyclists”, being the first to loudly condemn those who break the rules, real or imaginary. “I’m not that sort of cyclist,” says the Cool Cyclist. “I’m no trouble.”

It’s particularly troubling when children are taught to be Cool Cyclists. Last December, a video appeared on the BBC website. It featured a young girl called Maisie with a horrifying story to tell. Cycling to school – along the pavement, as there were no safe cycle paths – she fell, at a junction, into the path of a car which simply drove straight over her. She suffered horrendous injuries; her pelvis was broken in four places.

Maisie’s message to the public? Not that streets should be designed to be safer, nor even that drivers should take more care at junctions – but that cycle helmets should be compulsory. She had, you see, been told that her helmet had saved her life. It was presumably thought to be too much of a Big Ask for a child to expect not to be run over at all. In this mindset, a smashed pelvis is just the consequence that you must accept as punishment for not being in a car; you’re lucky not to be killed. You were asking for it.

Cyclists are doubly disenfranchised. Firstly, we are at unacceptable risk of death or injury. Secondly, the public is encouraged to believe that we are the villains of the piece. We are both victimised and demonised, as out-groups often are.

Recently, the DfT published statistics about road casualties in 2017. Last year, 1793 people died in traffic incidents in the UK, of which 470 were pedestrians (a rise of 5% since last year) and 101 cyclists.  The DfT classifies them both as “vulnerable user groups” since the number of injuries and deaths, per billion miles travelled, is many times higher than for other vehicles.

Three of the pedestrians were killed in incidents involving cyclists; blame is not allocated in the statistics. Since death is unlikely to occur in a collision between two pedestrians, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that collisions with motor vehicles caused the rest.

This didn’t stop several papers from leading on the idea that cyclists were dangerous, and it hasn’t stopped the Government from launching a review of cycle safety which somehow turned into a “review into dangerous cycling” with mutterings about new laws to crack down on it. And again and again and again, when a cyclist is killed, people blame them for being dead.

It’s rather as if the Home Office, when investigating domestic violence (which also kills a hundred or so people a year), were to decide that the most important problem is dangerous women.

The big difference is that, while you cannot literally choose not to be a woman, you can choose not to be a cyclist. And in 98% of trips in the UK, that’s what we do. Why would we put ourselves into such a position? When cyclists are the victims, but presented as the villains? When the roads that our taxes contribute towards don’t make provision for us, but the Transport Secretary himself perpetuates the myth that drivers alone fund the road through what he calls “car tax“?

Any cyclist, surely, should be up in arms at this – but not the Cool Cyclist. He is not marching on Parliament to demand justice for the dead, or clamouring for safer streets, or complaining to the ombudsman about inaccurate reporting, because, like the Cool Girl, the Cool Cyclist never complains.  The powerful, you see, don’t always hate the less powerful. They are sometimes quite happy for them to exist, as long as they don’t answer back. And they’re even happier to accept the ones who support their own disempowerment. No greater enemy of freedom than a happy slave.

If all women were Cool Girls we’d never have got the vote. If all cyclists are Cool Cyclists, most people will choose not to be cyclists, and those of us who do will continue to be killed.

The Dinosaur Department for Transport

A letter to the Secretary of State for Transport

Dear Mr Grayling

I expect that, if the DfT contains competent and professional civil servants, they will have informed you of the following:

  • that significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary to keep climate change below “dangerous and irreversible” levels
  • that local air pollution is thought to lead to 40,000 early deaths per year and the Government’s attempts to address this issue have been repeatedly found inadequate in court
  • that increasing road capacity does not tend to lead to measurable economic growth
  • that increasing road capacity leads to additional traffic
  • that levels of cycling and walking are suppressed due to a lack of safe and convenient cycle routes, in contrast to the situation in many European countries
  • that private cars are a vastly inefficient use of road space and that, therefore, bringing about modal shift to cycling, walking and public transport can benefit all road users
  • that transport demand can be affected by the location and design of new development.

Yet you produce a Transport Investment Strategy which is essentially geared towards spending a great deal of money on increasing the road network for motorised vehicles.

It acknowledges that there has been a 23% increase in traffic since 1993, but only sees this as a justification for increasing road capacity, rather than a pressing indication that modal shift is necessary.

It acknowledges that increased capacity can “make possible new trips that were previously impractical” but does not acknowledge that this increased trip demand leads to an increase in greenhouse gas and local air pollutant emissions, congestion, noise pollution, severance, and so on.

It acknowledges that, while greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors of the economy have decreased substantially since 1990, this has not been the case for transport due to increasing mileage; but the only suggestion to address this is to make “virtually all” vehicles zero-emission by 2050. That is, it makes no commitment to action on climate change for thirty-three years.

It continues to repeat the canard that more roads mean more economic growth.

It completely fails to mention the impact of road-building upon landscape, townscape, societies and habitats.

It barely mentions sustainable transport modes – cycling, walking, and local public transport; from the overall investment in transport, the investment in walking and cycling represents 0.49% of the total.

Its only concern, with regard to new built development, is that there should be sufficient roads to carry newly-generated traffic.

In all, it is a 1980s throwback: a dinosaur document, based on predict-and-provide principles that were proven to be damaging decades ago; ignoring the unpleasant reality of climate change; ignoring the damage that has already been done to our towns, cities and landscape by our excessive reliance on the private car.

And it is a counsel of despair. It ignores the possibility of movement towards a genuinely sustainable transport system, which meets the needs of all people – including the 40% of UK households without access to a car – without killing people through respiratory illnesses, enforced sedentary lifestyles and road traffic accidents; and which limits the UK’s contribution towards climate change.

It would appear that the Magic Money Tree, which proved itself to be fruitful when the Conservatives needed to make up the numbers for a government, is even more fruitful when it is needed to appease the motor lobby – the AA and RAC, who have endorsed this strategy; the latter of which, I note, gift you honorary membership valued at £1,600 per annum.

It is to be hoped that the lifespan of this despicable document is short.

Yours sincerely

Josephine Ellis MRTPI

A Busy Citizen’s Guide to the Planning System

Commissioned by SPACE for Gosforth

As the title implies, this is not a detailed analysis of the planning system. Nor is it a guide for householders or business people wishing to carry out a development, or wanting to find out whether planning permission is needed for a given project – although excellent, bespoke advice and support from project planning to application is available from Blue Kayak at very reasonable prices. It is a brief for those who wish to have an input on matters relating to land use and built development, either with regard to a specific proposal or in more general terms.

What is the planning system, and why should we care?

For most of human history, if you wanted to build a house (say) and had rights over the intended site, you would simply do so. During the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, however, as the population expanded and the Industrial Revolution happened, concerns began to be voiced: firstly, about the growth of slums in the new industrial cities; secondly, about the extension of towns and cities into the surrounding countryside.

The solution – reached in 1947 with the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act – was simple and radical, and has essentially remained in force since then. Anyone wishing to build anything would have to seek permission from the relevant local authority. For its part, the local authority would have to produce a development plan stating what sort of development would be permitted, and where.

What has changed since 1947 is that local authorities in the UK do not, by and large, build very much themselves. Phrases such as “planners will be expected to deliver x houses in the next 10 years” or “planners wish to build a new shopping centre..” are often used but are shorthand for the process that actually exists, in which planners decide that, should a proposal to build the desired houses or shopping centre be made by a third party, it would be approved. They may, of course, discuss the proposals with developers, but have no power to make them carry them out.

Planning has become one of the key elements of local democracy. Local planning decisions are made in public, by elected politicians, throughout the year, in a forum where any citizen may attend and comment. The decisions don’t just affect what towns, cities and the countryside look like. They affect the way in which places function – whether they support social justice and environmental sustainability, whether enterprise can succeed, and whether people have access to accommodation and employment.

Policy: what decisions are based on

Theoretically, whether a development is permitted or not should depend upon whether it is in accordance with national and local policy.

National policy is summarised within a terse document called the National Planning Policy Framework, which falls within a Web-based resource called Planning Practice Guidance. These can be accessed here.

Just about every new government makes changes to the way local planning policy is produced; since the process for producing it is lengthy and involves several stages of public consultation, this means that in terms of its format, it is nearly always out of date. However, a council’s planning policy – currently called, imaginatively, a Local Plan – always consists of a document or documents, accompanied by maps, describing the type, quantity and location of development that the authority would be willing to permit, over a given period of time (normally 20 years).

Newcastle City Council has published a number of documents which make up its Local Plan; the most important one is the Core Strategy, which can be accessed here.

Any factor which may be considered in a planning decision is called a “material consideration”; these may include things that aren’t specifically mentioned within local or national policy. However, certain things are “non-material considerations” which may not be taken into account. By and large, these involve effects upon a neighbour where it is only in his private interest, rather than the public interest, that his objection should be upheld. So a proposal may not be opposed on the grounds that it would devalue a neighbour’s house, or that a new business would compete with existing ones. (Since, however, obstructing light is a material consideration, whereas spoiling a view is non-material, the distinction may not always be obvious!)

The Application Process

Certain types of development – small extensions and garden sheds, for example – can be carried out without planning permission. These are “permitted development”; the easiest guide to what is and what is not permitted development can be found here.

Anyone wishing to build anything else must submit an application. The amount of information required will depend upon the scale of development, and its likely impacts – so a large housing development may be accompanied not just by site plans and drawings of the proposed houses but also by flood risk assessments, wildlife surveys, and so on.

The local authority must publicise planning applications – in general, all are publicised online and may be viewed at local authority offices; they may also be publicised via notices placed on the development site, letters to neighbours and other concerned parties, and/or advertisements in the local press.

A decision should be made within 8 weeks of a complete application being received – 13 weeks in the case of large or complex proposals. Theoretically, the decision rests with the Planning Committee – a group of councillors chosen for this purpose – but in practice most proposals, particularly less significant ones, go back to planning officers to decide and are therefore “delegated” decisions.

Appeals

If a proposal is rejected, the applicant may appeal against the decision. The proposal will then be re-examined by an independent inspector, who may either approve it or uphold the rejection.

There is no third-party right of appeal against an approved proposal.

How you can get involved

There are two main points at which any citizen may get involved in the planning process: when a Local Plan is being put together, and when a specific application is being determined.

A Local Plan should be extensively publicised through online consultations, public meetings, exhibitions, etc. These should culminate in an Examination in Public – a series of meetings, chaired by an outside Planning Inspector, at which interested parties may speak.

I’d argue that taking part in this process is more important than commenting on individual planning applications. A Plan sets the rules for how all applications should be treated; if the approved Plan doesn’t put rules in place to make sure that new development is attractive, environmentally sound, and meets the needs of the community, then developers don’t have a strong incentive to design projects that are like that, and the local authority doesn’t have strong grounds for resisting those that aren’t. Besides, the impacts – good and bad – of development may be cumulative: better to establish a principle that (say) sprawl will be resisted, than to argue against many small projects, each of which will be relatively harmless on its own.

Anyone may comment on a planning application for 21 days (often longer) after it is made public. In Newcastle, the easiest way to find out what applications have been received, and to comment on them, is to look online here.

You can also sign up to receive alerts if an application is made in your area.

If a proposal is determined at a meeting of the planning committee, objectors and supporters have a right to speak at the meeting. Generally, only a short amount of time will be allotted for this purpose, to be divided between all those who wish to speak on the same “side”; if there are many, it would be advisable to pick one or two people to speak for everyone.

You may, of course, appoint a planning consultant to object to a proposal in writing, and/ or to speak on your behalf at a planning committee meeting. The advantages of doing so are, firstly, that it saves you the trouble of having to go through the various documents yourself to determine where, and whether, the proposal accords or otherwise with local or national policy; secondly, a consultant will have a better idea of what factors should be emphasised in the submission.

Other consultants besides Blue Kayak are available, but they aren’t writing this article, and in any case would, I’m sure, fail to exhibit the same level of detailed analysis and expressive-yet-factual turn of phrase.

Closing remarks

The planning system is supposed to serve the public good. It isn’t supposed to serve the narrow interests of those who wish to see no change at all in their area even if it means people are homeless, nor the narrow interests of developers and landowners who wish to make money even if it harms societies and landscapes. Planners, of course, have a difficult job balancing up the competing requirements of different groups of people and of the environment; most of the time they more or less succeed; we tend to hear about it when they don’t.

We do not have a perfect planning system, but we do have a process which provides everyone with a real opportunity to comment on the way our towns and cities develop; and, theoretically at least, the more people do so, the better the places we create will serve us.

A few useful concepts

Developer contributions: these are sums paid by a developer to the local authority where the proposed development is thought to make certain social works necessary – things like highway improvements, schools and affordable (i.e. social) housing. By and large, developers will try to argue that they can’t afford them.

There are two main mechanisms by which developer contributions are paid: Section 106 Agreements – agreements made on a case-by-case basis between the local authority and the developer – and Community Infrastructure Levies – a blanket fee levied on all applications which meet certain criteria. The advent of CIL was supposed to make things simpler, because setting up two different systems to do the same thing generally does have that effect.

Planning conditions: these are requirements set by the local authority when they permit an application. They may, for example, require a landscaping scheme to be submitted and approved before the development goes ahead.

Green Belt: this is an area around a town or city, specifically designated as a place where new development will not generally be permitted. The main purpose is to stop the outward growth of urban areas. Green Belts should not be confused either with “greenfield sites” – i.e. sites which have not been developed in the past – or the open countryside as a whole.

5-year land supply: local authorities are required to show, on a rolling basis, that there is enough suitable land within their area where they would permit housing if it were proposed, to meet the needs of the population for five years. This is important because, if the 5-year land supply doesn’t exist and a housing proposal is rejected, an inspector may approve it even if it conflicts with other policies.

Sustainable Travel and the Limits to Viator Economicus

A lecture given to Explore Lifelong Learning, 24th May 2017

I’m a planner with an interest in sustainable transport, and so when I was given the task of doing a lecture on the theme of “Exiles and Pilgrims” it struck me that the unifying characteristic of both exiles and pilgrims is that they go on a journey.

Sustainable transport is concerned with how transport systems and practices can be managed in such a way as to enable people to access the services and opportunities they desire while minimising the impacts of transport upon environment and society. Last week we discussed climate change; in my current interesting condition I winced to imagine “the next generation” in a state of destruction.

Martin, John, 1789-1854; The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Obviously greenhouse gas emissions come from many sources; transport is only one. However, it is a significant one, responsible for 23% of UK emissions in 2016; because journeys and miles keep on rising, efficiency savings do not mean that total emissions are reducing (1)(2). Although no journey is entirely emission-free, the single-occupancy or average-occupancy petrol or diesel car is a pretty energy-inefficient way of getting travellers from A to B. (3)

And of course greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the only problem caused by transport. There are the effects of air pollution: nitrogen oxides and particulates are thought to cause 23,500 and 29,000 deaths per year respectively. (4)

Then there’s the social impact of road traffic accidents, firstly in terms of direct impacts upon the injured, and then in terms of the way people alter their behaviour to avoid risk.

Then there’s the physical impact upon our towns and cities and upon our landscape. This was the issue that really got me into sustainable transport as a teenager in the early- to mid-1990s when anti-roads protests sprung up around the UK. Private cars are an inefficient use of road space, as this graphic shows (5); therefore, they will tend to be a major contributor to congestion in busy areas and to stimulate demand for new road infrastructure.

buses cycle cars road space

Specifically with regard to cars, it’s worth noting that something like 40% of households in the UK haven’t got access to a car, and these tend to be poorer, older or younger households; therefore a driver-focused society will tend to add to the exclusion these households already face. (6)

Now, those of us who get up in the morning and jump into our cars to get to work aren’t doing so out of malevolence or a lack of concern for those around them. Many factors go into the decision-making process regarding journeys. We consider things like speed, convenience, safety, and cost, and also the benefits of the destination – whether it’s worth the effort to get there. So if we live four miles from our destination and it’s too far to walk but there isn’t a safe cycle route or a reliable public transport system, it’s only logical to drive.

We know this because whenever a given transport mode becomes more convenient, cheap or reliable than its competitors, then, if it isn’t unacceptably unsafe or uncomfortable, people will start to transfer to it – sometimes in large numbers. When public transport services are withdrawn, people will tend to transfer to the car. When cycle routes are safe and convenient, large numbers of people will use them – so 43% of people in the Netherlands cycle daily, as opposed to 4% in the UK. (7), (8) When new road space is provided in order to “ease congestion”, the amount of traffic on the relevant route increases by, on average, about 20% – thus, in some cases, negating the congestion gains entirely and leading to calls for even more new roads. (9) (10) (11)

There is a myth that users of different modes are tribes who are inevitably in competition with one another over the division of road space. In fact we are all just travellers who may put ourselves in one modal category in one set of circumstances, and in another in a different case.

Viator Economicus

heathrobinson

What I’ve expounded here is a model which describes all travellers as if we were perfectly rational beings making choices according to a sound and reasoned analysis of what’s best for us. You may be conversant with the concept of Homo Economicus – an idealised decision-maker who makes choices about consumption, lifestyle, work, and so on, for entirely rational reasons. Actually, we’re not really like that: we do silly things, like thinking we’ve got to have something because the adverts say so, or throwing out perfectly good clothes because they’re wildly out of fashion.

We might call my imaginary rational traveller “Viator Economicus.” Despite the examples I’ve given, I’d argue that Viator Economicus is also an only partially adequate model for how we make transport choices. I’d argue that there are other things going on as well.

Before I was a planner I studied linguistics, and at Newcastle that means, or used to, that you would learn about Middle English via Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Which takes us neatly back to pilgrims.

chaucer1

The point of the Prologue, if you haven’t read it, is to tell us that there’s a bit of a motley crew of people from all walks of life who are thrown together by circumstance. They define themselves, in terms of their social status and their moral standing, by their clothing and their behaviour and so on, so you’ve got the verray parfit gentil knight whose horse were good, but he was not gay, and the Wife of Bath lumbering along on her ambler in her red stockings, and the genteel Prioresse doting on her little dogs. Then they all define themselves all over again by the stories they tell, whether they concern courtly love or people sticking their backsides out of windows (12).

For the purposes of this lecture it would have been nice if Chaucer had dwelt on the kind of horses ridden by each of his pilgrims to show some people defining themselves by their mode of transport. However, he didn’t know I was going to do this lecture and he only makes a few references to horses; I suppose they just weren’t his thing. But the principle that journeys can be an act of self-definition holds good.

I think there are certain qualitative concepts which travellers take into consideration alongside the perhaps more measureable, or rationally assessable, ones that would be covered by Viator Economicus.

Status

the-centurion

The first is status, or prestige. It takes into account power, and money, and how much a person is afforded respect by those around them. These things don’t often correlate, but they often do, and, while it isn’t always the case that everyone wants to be known to be rich, nobody ever wants to be a person whom nobody respects.

The picture above shows the first-class waiting room at Newcastle Central Station – the Centurion, as you might know it.

In the early nineteenth century the railways weren’t a prestigious entity. The first railways  – Stockton and Darlington, Liverpool and Manchester – were Northern, industrial, and associated with the transport of goods. They were dirty and noisy. When they expanded into passenger transport, the railway companies knew they had to keep the upper and middle classes on side, to be able to tell them that, yes, they were being drawn by heavy machinery, but that didn’t mean they were so many ingots of pig iron. So they did two things: they invented first, second and third-class carriages to keep the upper classes from the hoi polloi (they also provided carriage trucks to enable wealthy passengers to travel in their own carriages) and they built immensely grand new stations, prestigious environments in which to receive their valued customers.

The first-class waiting room wasn’t fitted until 1893, by which time everyone of every class was used to the concept of rail travel; but, while rail travel was still unaffordable for many in its early years, by the later nineteenth century third-class passengers were the most numerous class by far. So efforts still had to be made to make the first-class passengers feel special at every stage of their journey. (13)

It’s fairly obvious to see the “status” message in car adverts and the styling of the non-budget airlines, and so on: those who sell travel continue to put forward the idea that the journey is an expression of prestige.

Power and Control

turner

Status, as I’ve said, is associated with power and control, and that’s another thing that we tend to associate with private cars. I was at a lecture on autonomous vehicles recently at which the lecturer said: “One of the barriers to acceptance might be that, for many people, the drive to work is the only part of the day over which they have complete control.” Of course, they don’t, not really: their journeys are determined by the configuration of the road, the locations of origin and destination, road signals and other traffic; but, even though there might only be one sensible thing to do, the driver is still the one making the car do it. The converse would be what the French, I understand, call “metro-boulot-dodo” – metro, work, sleep – the entirely controlled life of the stereotypical city-dweller. Or the characters in the Divine Comedy’s song “National Express” if you remember it:

“Take the National Express/ When your life’s in a mess/ It’ll make you smile”.

Neil Hannon then goes on to describe the passengers, in affectionate, but satirical terms. Unlike Chaucer, however, although he says “All human life is there”, he knows it isn’t. The people whose life isn’t in a mess – the executives and decision-makers, those in control – are not.

For some time traffic guidance which acknowledges the need to bring about modal shift has appealed to the notion of a hierarchy of road users, in which most consideration is given to those who need it most. The most vulnerable and least polluting – pedestrians, then cyclists – are at the top, with motorised vehicles further down.

The problem is that that’s the absolute reverse of what actually happens, not necessarily in policy, but certainly in practice. One response to vulnerability is for more vulnerable road users to simply absent themselves – or, in the case of children, be absented – and that’s because the actual, physical power of a Range Rover is greater than that of a child. Without significant intervention, the power, and therefore the status, remains with motorised vehicles. And this has got to mean the stigmatisation of other transport modes. There are areas of Newcastle within a few miles of the city centre where car ownership is low and public transport poor; Viator Economicus would cycle in, but the statistics show that Walker Man doesn’t (14); and I’ve heard anecdotally that, in certain quarters, anyway, people “wouldn’t be seen dead on a bike”.

Gender

Women_bicycle_1901

You can’t talk about prestige and power and liberation without talking about gender, and there’s some interesting things at play here. The first thing is that society has always tried to curtail women’s movements “for their own good”, whether “good” meant safety, or propriety. Before any of the men bristle and call me a misandrist, it’s only fair to note that it’s quite often been the women putting pressure on other women to “behave”. So you’ve got the famous situation in Pride and Prejudice where Lizzie Bennett is roundly criticised for walking cross-country to see her sister..by the women. (15) (I also, however, get people who have never inhabited a female body at all, let alone been pregnant, telling me that I oughtn’t to be riding a bike at the moment. As if you need a Y chromosome to make an informed decision.)

The other thing is that there’s been an assumption that mobility is the realm of men. Not just in the sense that boys like trains and cars. There’s an assumption that men are the ones in control. All of Fielding’s coachmen are male, so is Thomas the Tank Engine. Ships are “she” but they are, as Donne might’ve put it, by rather a lot of men mann’d. The makers of the Flintstones assumed that a 1950s American family transported backto the Stone Age might start dressing in skins and throwing rocks but some things are sacred: Fred would still be the one behind the wheel of the car.

Which means that when women do take control of their own mobility, it’s, at first, notable. In “Lark Rise to Candleford”, Flora Thompson’s memoir of nineteenth-century rural life, she describes how women were granted mobility by the advent of the bicycle. Thompson says that men complained that the women were all out cycling and “Daddy’s in the kitchen a-cooking all the meals.” She comments, “And very good for Daddy it was, too.” (16)

The same was true when women started to drive. In this case, it didn’t only make them able to get around. It made them safe. It saved them from the vulnerability that women experience by virtue of being women and it therefore gave them not only the liberty but the invulnerability of men.

It would be possible to construct a case for cycling as the feminine counterpart of driving. Cyclists wear Lycra; they are more vulnerable and less powerful than motorised vehicles; they are slower and less noisy. And they are subject to victim-blaming. We’re getting better at not assuming that because a woman’s wearing a short skirt she’s asking for it, but we still get judges saying women shouldn’t go out and make themselves vulnerable by being drunk. Likewise, discussions of accidents involving cyclists reasonably often act as if it’s the cyclist’s fault. She can’t have been looking where she was going. The driver couldn’t have been expected to see her. She’d have been alright if she’d been wearing a helmet. Or she shouldn’t be cycling at all. In an online discussion recently, which started with the observation that a collision at 50mph is likely to kill, a (female) respondent argued that it would be unreasonable to “annoy” drivers by making them reduce their speeds, and that cycle lanes should not be provided alongside roads because “We just can’t carry on allowing people to do stupid things.” “Stupid things” didn’t seem, in this context, to include propelling heavy machinery around residential areas at speeds likely to kill. (17)

The problem with this is that in the UK, most cyclists are men, and the reason seems to be that because women are more risk-averse, they are more likely to be scared off the roads. So the metaphorical femininity of cyclists as opposed to “male” drivers contrasts with the actual masculinity of most cyclists and arguably, this has an effect upon cycling behaviour.  A thoughtful New York blogger who calls himself “Dosik” wrote recently that, following a minor altercation at the lights on his bike, he realised that he was behaving with exactly the same combination of aggression and a sense of entitlement that he recognises in motorists that try to scare him off the road. He refers to “toxic masculinity” – the pressure upon men to express their masculinity in negative ways. (18)

Tradition and Modernity

wilfred

The next pair of concepts I want to touch on are tradition and modernity. I think they have always been in tension, with some people being early adopters of new technologies and behaviours, and others tending to resist them. At some times, perhaps, the influential people in society were keener on being traditional than modern – at least, as far as was practical. The nineteenth century saw astonishing, unprecedented change – sociological, technological and intellectual. There were dark satanic mills. There were doubts about the afterlife at a time when death was still as omnipresent as it always had been. And, since anyone could make his fortune and buy his way into the middle classes, the superiority of the elites was called into question. Some, at least, reacted against this by a fetishisation of the middle ages, which Pugin and others believed was purer and more sincere than their own age. Going back to the earlier discussion of prestige, some tried to be as visibly Old Money as they could be. Recognising this, the railway companies made extensive use of pre-existing architectural styles in their new stations – neo-classical at Euston, Gothic at St Pancras, and “engineers’ Tudorbethan” at Bristol Temple Meads. This was partly just the way the Victorian era approached the arts – it didn’t discard, it just made its art more grandiose and better-engineered – but it also helped to reassure passengers that the new way of travelling wasn’t a complete break from the past.

There was less of the sort after the Second World War. In music and architecture and planning, there was a belief in casting off the superfluities of previous generations and creating from war-ravaged Europe a clean, modern and functional society. Although Modernist architecture and Serialism in music emerged well before the Second World War, they were embraced as part of this better society. Similarly, the private car was to be at the heart of Britain’s reconstructed cities and New Towns. Here’s Wilfred Burns’s vision for central Newcastle: we’re looking down Percy Street from just beyond the Haymarket. Broad new thoroughfares have been constructed for motorised transport, which run smoothly and withouth interruption through the city centre; pedestrians are kept apart. There is no provision for cyclists – presumably the assumption was that nobody who could drive a car would ride a bike – and, though Burns shows a bus or two, public transport wasn’t this era’s forte. It was the age of the Beeching Axe.

I think we’re in a rather neophilic age. Not in all respects. But advertisers have got us used to the idea that what is new is good, and there isn’t a past age that people tend to fetishise.

Normality

retro-car-ad-8-1000x802

Not that private cars are seen as “new” these days; they’re too ubiquitous for that. They are normal, and normality is that other concept I want to discuss. When more people can afford something, it can be marketed not as a luxury but as something that a functional person or family ought to have, and that’s what started to happen in the 1950s, and it became reinforced over the second half of the twentieth century by the prioritisation of car transport in policy-making and infrastructure, which contributes towards the fact that, if you’ve got a car, it is the cheapest, most convenient and quickest mode for many journeys.

When a pattern of behaviour becomes “normal”, not following it can come to be seen as “abnormal”. That can mean “shameful” – as when Margaret Thatcher said that anyone on a bus over the age of 30 had to be a failure in life. Or it can mean “suspicious” or “irresponsible”: my sister-in-law was told that she and her new-born baby couldn’t leave the hospital without a car seat, even though neither she nor her husband could drive. What if they’d been planning to walk home? Or take the bus?

It also contributes towards the belief that non-drivers are illegitimate users of road space. People still sometimes say “Cyclists can use the road when they pay road tax!” even though road tax, in the sense of a ring-fenced tax paid by drivers for road infrastructure, hasn’t existed since 1937, and we all pay for roads through general and local taxation. (19) The road system is an enormous, socialised, public asset, free at the point of use, unlike many other public assets: we all pay for it and we all have rights to it.

Where now?

We have seen that car journeys are seen as expressions of status, which is reinforced by the actual physical power of a motorised vehicle. They can be an expression of masculinity or an expression of emancipation. Car travel is seen as liberating; as modern; and as the normal, default choice of a functional member of society.

In public discourse, this makes it difficult to put measures in place which curtail or inconvenience drivers. It makes it difficult to resist calls for new roads – which end up being justified on the grounds that they will boost economic growth, even though the evidence suggests that they do not (11)– perhaps because of the equation of power and prestige with wealth. So more space in town centres is allocated to motorised vehicles, the Government won’t act on air pollution, road-building continues to take place, cycle routes are patchy, absent or unsafe, pedestrians sometimes still have to take the kind of unpleasant and roundabout routes exemplified by the crossings over the Central Motorway, and urban public transport ends up being the service for those whose life is “in a mess”.

Which has a knock-on, reinforcing effect upon social attitudes, resulting, as I’ve said, in victim-blaming, a reluctance to be seen cycling or taking public transport, and a belief that roads “belong to” drivers.

What should we do about it? Here’s a depiction of another pilgrimage – the one described in the Pilgrim’s Progress. How, in transport terms, do we get away from the City of (Environmental) Destruction and arrive at the Celestial City where everyone is able to go where he or she desires, but it’s not always easiest to drive?

Map-of-Pilgrims-Progress-1813

I would argue that public policy, environment and social attitudes are inter-related. All policy-makers, being only human, take on the attitudes of the society they’re in; and our attitudes are affected by the cues given to us from our environment.

I’m afraid, therefore, that despite the fact that this lecture has critiqued the concept of Viator Economicus, I’m forced to recommend a course of action as if he did exist: better and safer infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, better public transport, and legal and fiscal measures to ensure that we aren’t unfairly subsidising motorised transport. Changing the travel environment, I think, is the way to change attitudes. We need to stop creating urban environments which send out the message that the non-driver is an afterthought – someone to be thrown a few scraps of urban space, out of pity that his or her life is a mess. Because, I believe, otherwise, all of our lives will be.

  1. Department forTransport. Transport Statistics Great Britain 2016. 2016.
  2. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 2016 UK Provisional Greenhouse Gas Emissions: summary. 2016.
  3. Futuretravel. Statistics: Environment. Futuretravel: Investigating Sustainable Transport. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.] http://www.futuretravel.org.uk/statistics/.
  4. Follett, Tom. Air Necessities: Place-based approaches to a pollution crisis. s.l. : ResPublica, 2017.
  5. Walker, Jarrett. Human Transit. The photo that explains almost everything. [Online] 21 September 2012. [Cited: 23 May 2017.] http://humantransit.org/2012/09/the-photo-that-explains-almost-everything.html.
  6. Kay, Duncan. Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society. s.l. : Sustainable Development Commission, 2011.
  7. Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Barriers to cycling. [Online] 2017. [Cited: 23 May 2017.] https://www.cycling-embassy.org.uk/wiki/barriers-cycling.
  8. Cycling UK. Cycling UK. Cycling UK’s Cycling Statistics. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.] http://www.cyclinguk.org/resources/cycling-uk-cycling-statistics#How do the levels of cycling in the UK compare to those in other EU countries?.
  9. Mumford, Lewis. The Highway and the City. London : Secker & Warburg, 1964.
  10. Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Roads Assessment. Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic. London : The Department of Transport, 1994.
  11. Lynn Sloman, Lisa Hopkinson and Ian Taylor. The Impact of Road Projects in England. s.l. : Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2017.
  12. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. London : s.n., c. 1400.
  13. Brindle, Steven. Paddington Station: Its History and Architecture. Swindon : English Heritage, 2004.
  14. Office for National Statistics. NOMIS: official labour market statistics. [Online] [Cited: 24 May 2017.] NOMIS: official labour market statistics.
  15. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813.
  16. Thompson, Flora. Lark Rise to Candleford. 1945.
  17. Campaign for the New Urbanism. Auto-Pedestrian Crashes. Public Square. [Online] Campaign for the New Urbanism. [Cited: 23 May 2017.] https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2017/05/05/band-aid-or-coffin.
  18. Lee, Do. To Dismantle the Master’s Streets. Intersectional Riding. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.] http://www.intersectionalriding.com/2017/05/05/to-dismantle-the-masters-streets/.
  19. Reid, Carlton. I Pay Road Tax. [Online] [Cited: 24 May 2017.] http://ipayroadtax.com/.
  20. British Library. British Library Online. Poem by Wordsworth, Suggested by the Proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.] http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/kinggeorge/p/027add000044361u00278000.html.

“This Land is Your Land” versus “I am of this land”: a lecture given to Explore Lifelong Learning, March 2017


What can be owned? With some things, it’s easy. I don’t know who owns this building. It might be a person or an organisation. What I do know is that it’s going to be owned by someone. The same goes for just about any other building in this country (there may be some idiosyncratic exceptions). The same goes for arable fields.

But what about the streets? Who owns them? Well, the Council. But, I’d argue that our understanding of that sort of ownership differs from our understanding of ownership of a building. So people complain about the state of repair of the pavements, or they complain about the cameras on John Dobson Street. We believe that the Council has a duty to manage the streets for our benefit. Ownership, in this case, is not without responsibility.

What about a mountain? This is Blencathra. In 2014 it was announced that its owner, the Earl of Lonsdale, was putting it up for sale. It turned out that an entire mountain can be bought and sold, like a field or a suburban semi. So can an island: the historian and presenter Adam Nicolson inherited the Shiant islands in the Hebrides at the age of 18.

Blencathra

So what do we mean by ownership? In our society it is exclusive and (almost) absolute. A landowner may exploit his land or buildings for as much profit or benefit as he likes. (I’m going to keep on saying “he”; it isn’t always a “he”, of course, but historically it generally has been, and that’s a whole-nother subject area.) Anyone else on that land must have his permission to be there, and can be charged rent. In the absence of planning and environmental constraints, he isn’t obliged to do anything he doesn’t want to, and isn’t forbidden to do anything as long as it’s legal otherwise. He may sell the land, as a whole or in lots, or may pass it on to his heirs.

The picture above shows Mr and Mrs Andrews surveying their acres, painted by Gainsborough. Or rather, here’s Mr Andrews presented in the midst of all his possessions. It’s entirely deliberate. Ownership confers status.

So what’s wrong with the system we’ve got? It gives us an unprecedented level of freedom. Ownership is culturally important to us. An Englishman’s house is his castle. Across the pond, the American Dream of making your fortune through hard work on a plot of land is fundamental.

Well, the main problem with it is that ownership confers absolutely no responsibility towards anyone or anything apart from your own profit. Socially speaking, it’s bound to lead to inequalities: as we know from playing Monopoly, even if everyone starts off at the same point, within a relatively short space of time the assets become concentrated in the hands of certain people, and by the time we get to the next generation, those who didn’t inherit anything are losers to begin with. We’re seeing this happen at present. Some of the generation that came of age in the Second World War were able to buy their own houses after it – thus redistributing land across the population. So were their children and, depending on where they lived, their grandchildren. Then house prices shot up, so that an increased proportion of the country’s wealth became concentrated in the hands of those families who were already doing quite well. Meanwhile, since the social housing sector has been dismantled, if you are young, and aren’t lucky enough to be of one of those fortunate families, in some parts of the country you may be hard pressed to find anywhere affordable to live at all.

Environmentally speaking, absolute ownership is problematic for exactly the same reason – that lack of responsibility. When Andrew Robinson Stoney fraudulently married the heiress to Gibside in 1777, one of the first things he did was cut down the trees on the estate for timber. (The horrific story which follows indicates that he thought he owned his wife as much as he did her estate.) A landowner may build on his land, destroy all the habitats on it, mine its minerals or exhaust the soil by over-stocking. In the UK we have a set of planning and environmental regulations which restrict landowners’ rights for the public good, but some people resent or question them; while I was working as a planner for Durham County Council someone once said to me, “So, if I owned a field and I wanted to build a house on it, you could stop me? C’mon!”

If, at all levels of society, we believe that a landowner should have, as far as possible, absolute jurisdiction over his property, and that his rights should be curtailed as little as possible, we are going to find it hard to stand in the way of large-scale commercial projects, even if they are vastly damaging. Land can become commodity only, and can be bought and sold without any of the purchasers having any idea of putting it to use. We see this at present, when land suitable for housing is “banked” by developers and land managers. It was manifested on the island of Gigha, cited by Alistair McIntosh. Gigha’s owner went bankrupt; the liquidators wanted to make the most out of his landholdings; they were more profitable when vacant; so the tenants were evicted. They, the actual occupants and managers of the land, became the victims of a situation in which the island was seen only as an asset.

Mustn’t land be owned by someone? The historian Andro Linklater argued that, for most of the world, the idea of exclusive land ownership is really pretty recent. Until about 1800, most of the world’s grasslands were not understood to be individually owned. And even in mercantile Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, Rousseau argued: “You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to us all, and the Earth itself to nobody.”
So, what’s the alternative?

Perhaps the most primal relationship between man and land is the inversion of ours: not that we own land, but that we are of it. The “Bushmen” or San peoples of Southern Africa historically had no concept of land ownership at all. They were hunter-gatherers, intimately connected to the land, but they occupied rather than possessed it.

Now I would argue that some vestige of that ancestral attitude manifests itself with regard to mountains or, perhaps, streets. Blencathra belongs to the nation, people might have said before 2014, but they probably didn’t believe that any embodiment of the Nation was going to pop up and take it back. Likewise, I once saw a graffito in a subway that said “So-and-so of Benwell.” I don’t expect that he thought he owned the area as such, but he had enough of a sense of belonging to the place to want to write it in a subway.

So, what’s the problem with that? Well, practically speaking, the concept of “no ownership” doesn’t sit well with farming. You pick something where it grows and nobody may be very offended. You dig up your neighbour’s potatoes and there’s a fight on.

If you stick with hunter-gathering (and throughout history the decision to switch to farming has by no means always been an obvious one) then your population must be relatively low-density, so that you can find enough to eat. The Moriori people of the Chatham Islands are said to have kept the population static by castrating some male infants. Elsewhere, the population may have kept itself static naturally.

What eventually dealt a body blow to both the San and the Moriori cultures was that their lack of farming made them vulnerable to attack. Farming cultures are able to develop a surplus; they can therefore afford to have some people who aren’t actively engaged in food production; these can be engaged in warfare, or equipping others for it. And, since they do have a concept of land ownership, they will take whatever land they can. That’s what happened to the Moriori in 1835 when the Maori invaded. And here are the Dutch invaders in South Africa encountering the San – depicted, of course, by the winners. I don’t know how they treated them initially, but by the later 1800s the Dutch and British had killed or enslaved most of the San people.

Obviously I’m conflating two things here; just because hunter-gatherers tend to be vulnerable to attack doesn’t mean that their way of life is intrinsically flawed. However, in a world with a rapidly increasing population and, potentially, a decreasing amount of cultivable land, we need farming; and we need some concept of land stewardship, at least, to farm. What might that look like?

The obvious next step for a group of new farmers is to operate communally, so that everyone, theoretically, puts in the same amount of work, and gets the same benefits. This can apply to the whole operation – it can be a communal farm- or, more frequently, just to part of it. So, for centuries many English villages had, as well as fields, “commons” on which everyone was able to graze cattle, sheep and geese.

The most obvious and difficult problem with this is that known as the “Tragedy of the Commons”. Imagine that all villagers have access to a piece of common land and each household keeps two cows on it. However, Mr A owns a particularly fecund cow that keeps on producing calves. He has no incentive to curtail the increase of his herd, since feeding them costs him nothing, and soon he prospers by the sale of meat and cheese. Observing this, his neighbours follow suit – with the exception of Mr Z, who says that if everyone keeps that many cows, the common won’t be able to take it. As it happens, Mr Z is quite right: a few years later the grass on the common is exhausted and can’t regenerate; during a dry spell many of the cows die. Mr A, who started the whole thing off, is still better off than his neighbours, because he got in there first and has pursued his goal more aggressively. He is more likely to have retained a surplus. The community as a whole lose their common. The greatest loser is Mr Z, who failed to benefit from the good times when his neighbours did, and now suffers along with them.

Now, the Tragedy of the Commons is a really important principle in environmental philosophy, and can be applied to everything from air to bison to mineral resources: if a resource is free, then each individual is served best by getting as much as possible of it before it’s all gone, even though the interests of the community as a whole is best served by trying to conserve it.

It’s only fair to note that commons need not necessarily mean a tragedy. When agrarian villages had commons, many of them did have rules in place to avoid overstocking; and since everyone had to observe the rules, the community as a whole would have enforced them. Similarly, Linklater says that if the whole farm is managed communally, the main problem is that it requires policing so that everyone pulls his or her weight. It turns out that the hippy ideal of a co-operative means of production may not be entirely peaceable. However, again, the fact that a model requires policing doesn’t mean that it can’t be sustained.

Some cultures have developed various means of farming in which each household is in charge of what it produces, but the means by which they produce it are constrained by custom. The system we all know about is the mediaeval three-field system. Each household had a certain number of strips of land allocated within shared fields. Every year, everyone planted wheat or barley on their strips in one of the fields, oats, peas and beans in another field, and left the other field fallow.

Such systems can be very robust; the three-field system lasted for centuries. However, they are inflexible. The only thing that a peasant in a three-field system could do was grow the prescribed crops. Therefore, they can’t accommodate innovation. Although the principal motivation for enclosure – the reallocation of land into separate landholdings – was the enrichment of the principal landowners in each parish, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was given additional impetus by the development of new technologies and crops which permitted an enclosed farm to yield more crops.

Actually, though, there is room for flexibility in systems like this: take the example of allotment holders in many parts of the UK. They have free rein to plant what they like, but are subject to various rules: they must actually cultivate their land; they may not build on it; they must not keep pigs on it – etcetera.

Another model which has emerged, in various cultures, is tenant-landlord reciprocity. A landlord owns the land, and has tenants who pay him rent. However, his ownership is not absolute, because it’s also understood, firstly, that he has a duty of care towards his tenants (Linklater gives the example of a Vietnamese landlord who had a duty to provide for his tenants’ pregnancies), secondly, that there is security of tenure; thirdly, that people as a whole have various land rights which cannot be undermined. In certain places in England rights of pannage (the right to feed pigs on acorns) and of access, for example, still exist.

What’s the problem with this? Well, firstly, it obviously has inequality built into it. Secondly, it has a tendency to corrupt into outright ownership. This is what happened in the Highland Clearances. Lairds who had, ancestrally, ruled the lands of their clansmen, came to see themselves as owners; it was more profitable to keep sheep rather than house tenants; so the latter were evicted, often with great brutality. By the time the Highland Land League had succeeded in establishing the principle that tenants had security of tenure and no more could be evicted, it was several generations too late. Of all of those evicted in the notorious Sutherland Clearances, only one, who had been a baby when they occurred, eventually made her way back.

So, what now? We have seen that the concept of absolute land ownership is not innate and that different concepts of ownership have existed through time; that, on the one hand, absolute land ownership can have serious social and environmental consequences; but, on the other, that there never was a prelapsarian Golden Age. What can be done now?

I think we need to frame land usage differently. Rather than seeing it as land ownership, which confers absolute freedom, we ought to see it as land stewardship – the idea that he, or she, who manages land should do so not just for his own benefit, but for the longer-term benefit of society and the environment.

I don’t think this can be done without institutional interventions, though. People like me could pontificate as much as we like about the land belonging to all of us and most landowners would say, “That sounds lovely, but I’ve got a business to run.” Remember how, in the story of the Tragedy of the Commons, Mr Z, who withdrew himself from the rest of the villagers’ money-making practices, made no difference to anyone apart from himself. Socially and environmentally responsible behaviour needs to be enforced, or many (perhaps most) people will choose not to abide by it. Once responsibility becomes the norm, however, people come to resent those who don’t respect it. We have, after all, seen this happen in other areas of human activity. Most people, I think, accept by now that drinking and driving is wrong, whereas they would not have done even thirty years ago. To some extent, we get the laws we deserve and the laws generate the society they mean to.

What might these regulatory measures look like?

Well, some of them are already in place. Planning and environmental regulations have, to a certain extent, undermined the idea that a landowner can exploit his land as much as he likes, whatever the environmental consequences. Which is great. However, I’m not sure that that is sufficient to mean stewardship, as such; planning wouldn’t stop the owner of a Mayfair apartment block from leaving it empty while others went homeless; it wouldn’t compel a landowner to remove Japanese knotweed from his land; and it wouldn’t help the evicted tenants of Gigha. Nothing in planning questions a landowner’s right to make as much money as he likes, whatever the consequences for equity and social justice.

The journalist and author George Monbiot, citing Martin Adams, suggests that “those who use the land exclusively should pay a “community land contribution” as compensation. This could partly replace income and sales tax, prevent land hoarding and bring down land prices.”

This is reasonably close to what the radical Thomas Spence argued in the later eighteenth century: he suggested that the inhabitants of each parish should form themselves into a corporation and own the land. “The public is then Lord of the Manor.” Rents would be paid to the corporation and redistributed to the public.

Certainly, I think we need to remove the regulatory and tax mechanisms which at present enshrine the idea of absolute ownership. At present, if you purchase land, and do nothing with it, no mechanism exists to compel you either to act or to sell, whatever the pressures upon it. If the land increases astronomically in value, measures to capture the profit you make for the benefit of communities are inadequate. The RTPI, who are hardly lefty rabble-rousers, recently said that these would be “the single most useful instrument to channel more value generated by development towards public benefit investments such as social housing and good infrastructure, without incurring more public debt.”

But not all land needs to be owned in the same way. We already believe, I think, that things like parks and beaches and mountains belong to “all of us”, whatever the title deeds say. Up and down the country, the efforts of volunteers in these places demonstrate that we are prepared to contribute to their stewardship. “Friends Of” groups pick litter, and plant trees, and informally police the way other people use communal spaces.

Monbiot concludes: “Managing common resources means developing rules, values and traditions. It means, in some cases, re-embedding ourselves in the places in which we live. It means reshaping government to meet the needs of communities, not corporations. In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomising, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.”

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