Tories don’t understand the countryside

Tories are waging a bitter war against anything they see as damaging the countryside. Wind farms, high speed rail, and new housing developments are all encountering their organised resistance. This is because they have, dangerously and inaccurately, come to regard the countryside as a garden for their own enjoyment.

Prince Charles described wind farms as “a monstrous carbuncle”; his father just called them “a disgrace” (Wind farms are defended in the Mail article by fellow Lib Dem blogger Adam Bell!) The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is condemned on the basis that it might allow buildings to go up on green fields. The HS2 high speed rail link to the North is excoriated just for having the temerity to pass through the countryside. Forget the energy crisis, the housing crisis, the decades of underinvestment in the country’s infrastructure, these people say – what about our views of grass?

The countryside is not, and has never been, some kind of vast pleasure-garden. The countryside is about grinding a hard living from the soil, corralling and slaughtering beasts by their millions, blasting rock apart for its mineral wealth, gouging out solid energy from the earth’s crust. It is a landscape wholly created by industry and toil, girded all about by steel rails.

There is wild land that is wholly worth preserving as national park. But a national park has the same relation to the countryside as a city park has to its urban context: a necessary complement, but something fundamentally unlike its surroundings.

One of my favourite spots in the country, perhaps the world, is Stanton Moor in the Peak District, for its megaliths, its ecology, a curious folly commemorating the Reform Act of 1832, and because its height affords a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. That view is of working farms and working quarries – of toil. That doesn’t detract from the view any more than all those damn buildings detract from the view at the top of the London Eye. It is the view; it is the essence of it. The moor itself was shaped by its industrial history. You can’t walk anywhere in the Derbyshire countryside without seeing where our Bronze Age ancestors carved rocks from the earth, or the Romans dug for lead, or where Victorian Englishmen started a little thing called the industrial revolution.

These commuter Tories who escape to the country and buy up farmhouses to create a fundamentally suburban simulacrum of rural life misunderstand the element they are entering. They don the Barbour and attend the village fete and enjoy the view from their rustic-style barnconversion kitchen windows, but they misunderstand.

There is another moor that I love, just to the North of Stanton-in-the-Peak: Beeley Moor. From here you look down across an artificial rustic landscape – the Chatsworth House estate, with its Capability Brown gardens, neat turf and precisely-picturesque number of lambs. The fourth Duke of Devonshire went as far as to demolish the local village, Edensor, and have it rebuilt behind a convenient hill so that it would cease spoiling his view across the Derwent.

Now every two-bit Tory in the land thinks that they can act like this Duke and look out across a panorama of bucolic fakery. Never mind that this stops affordable housing development and drives up housing prices beyond the reach of real low-paid rural workers. Never mind that we’re dependent on Arab sheikhs for our energy security.

Tories of the shires: our countryside is not your frivolous playground. It is a serious place for serious work.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vélib and the Boris Bike: reasons to be optimistic

There has been some scepticism about the possibility of the Boris Bikes causing a critical mass of cycling that will turn our city into a pedal-powered Utopia. My experience of cycling in Paris this week suggests that it could. The Vélib hire-bikes are everywhere in Paris, and since their introduction the number of people cycling Parisians has increased hugely, despite physical conditions on a par with London.

Sceptics of vehicular cycling say: “The problem is not a lack of bikes, but that Londoners in the main don’t cycle because conditions for cycling in London as with the rest of the UK, are terrible when you compare them with Dutch cities. Londoners are scared to cycle and it’s quite obvious why. This problem cannot be resolved by making fractionally more bikes available. It can only be addressed by making conditions for cyclists better.”

I agree. But Paris shows that getting a critical mass of people on bikes can increase the number of people cycling, even if the infrastructure isn’t welcoming.

Paris is technically a horror for cyclists. Haussmann’s wide Boulevards are fast-moving, multi-lane roads that are frightening for cyclists to navigate. The boulevards meet at huge roundabouts like the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Bastille: chaotic, unmarked, terrifying wheels of death for a cyclist. Parisian drivers have scant regard for lane discipline even where there are road markings. The Byzantine one-way systems stymie each and every attempt to reach ones destination. There are very few advance stop lines for cyclists at traffic lights.

There are cycling routes across Paris, but not noticeably more useful than the ones in London. And the French attitude to cleaning and maintenance means that parts of the cycle paths are in a state of disrepair, blocked by rubbish and parked cars. Parking enforcement in general seems non-existent, with cars and vans casually abandoned all over the place (in one case, in the middle of a four-way intersection).

The Vélibs themselves are in a poor state of repair. Most had poor brakes and made concerning mechanical noises. Many in the stands were completely unusable- with flat tires, broken seats, no brakes at all. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of attention to moving the bikes around to where they are needed as there is in London. A lot of the stations were either completely full or totally empty – whichever was worse at the particular time.

It ought to be a nightmare – but somehow it works. The Vélib scheme doubled the amount of journeys taken by bike, and it shows. Cyclists, especially Vélibists, are everywhere. Presumably in consequence, motor-drivers seemed to understand how to share the road with bikes, and treated cyclists with more respect than the average London cabbie. Pedestrians were similarly understanding of cyclists mounting the pavement at the worst roundabouts and most inhumane stretches of road.

The Velib has performed a real modal shift in how Parisians get about. Paris has terrible cycling infrastructure on a par with London’s– so I’m optimistic that the Boris Bikes could be part of a similar revolution in our city.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

The park in the dark

Tower Hamlets’ zealous park wardens locked me inside Victoria Park (again), reminding me that Boris Johnson once said how disgraceful it is that every evening, thousands of acres of London are placed Strictly Off Limits to the public. As the evenings draw in, the amount of London available to us shrinks and shrinks. It is a shameful admission of failure by our society that the authorities refuse to guarantee the safety of citizens in parks after dusk, and rather than confronting this problem just lock us out.

Boris Johnson’s manifesto for public space London’s Great Outdoors says:

“Many of London’s larger public parks are fenced and locked at night. This can create severance as sections of the city are literally decommissioned. It can also turn many surrounding streets into inactive cul-de-sacs. The main reason for locking London’s parks at night is fear of crime and antisocial activities.

“However many parks, such as Highbury Fields and Streatham Common, are not fenced or gated. This suggests that 24-hour access could be made to work in more of our parks and green spaces with the right design and right lighting and management regimes. High quality, creative lighting can increase feelings of safety and encourage ownership and use.

“I want to ensure that access to public space is as unrestricted and unambiguous as possible. The needs of different users and age groups can be accommodated through intelligent design. With proper consideration at the outset of safety issues, the usage of public spaces can be extended well into the evening without the need for unnecessary barriers.”

This is absolutely correct, although I’m not sure much progress Boris has actually made.

It is only right that some green space is fenced off. It would probably be thought unfair to inhabitants of residential squares to encourage people to congregate outside their windows all night long. Where people do congregate at these residential squares, like they did at Percy Circus and Vernon Square near Kings Cross, the authorities are justified in dispersing them.

Highbury Fields isn’t fenced, and is safe to use and cross all night. Although in a distinctly less ritzy part of town, London Fields is also safe at night. It is well-lit, has clear lines of sight right across the park (at least it does until Hackney’s dreadful council goes through with its plans to astroturf, fence off, and plant up a good portion of the middle of the fields), and is therefore used as a route by pedestrians and cyclists 24 hours a day.

As in all cases, the best way to reduce crime and make somewhere safe it to make sure it is used. Victoria Park is getting a restoration in time for Olympics – I hope part of that is restoring the lovely gas lamps along its paths, and keeping it open into the evening. When places are treated by authorities as being unsafe, people use them less which leads to them actually being more unsafe.

Published in: on September 13, 2010 at 8:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Test Driving the Boris Bike

I tried out one of the new Boris Bikes yesterday! The Critical Mass ride seemed like a good chance to personally inaugurate this new era of public transport in London. In the event, teething troubles with the hire scheme meant that we were left behind as the bike ride swarmed off into the distance.

The pricing is structured so that while half an hour is free and an hour is only a pound, take it back after an hour and you have to pay a pretty steep £4. Hopping from bike to bike seems to be the only sensible way to get round this price, so that was our intention.

The first problem is that some of the cycle bays on the map that TfL sent with the key don’t exist. The map lied to us that there would be bays at County Hall and at Old Queen Street. So as the Critical Mass ride made its stately way around Parliament Square and up Whitehall, we dashed around trying to find somewhere to swap the bike, while the clock ticked down on our reasonably-priced hour. The Evening Standard have visited 374 sites on TfL’s official cycle hire map and found that only 284 docking stations appear to be complete, 34 were being built, and no work had been done at 56 sites. So don’t trust the map!

Second problem was that when we did find a docking bay on the Strand it was entirely full, so there was nowhere to park up. When that happens you can log into the terminal and it grants you another 15 minutes to whizz off to try and find another one.

So as the Critical Mass disappeared up the Mall we searched behind the National Gallery for a free bay, parked the bike, and tried to hire another to continue on our way. There seems to be a wait between stowing one bike and taking another – I’m not sure why that’s entirely necessary. But no matter how long we waited, another bike wouldn’t release.

We walked to another docking station (and there are plenty of them in central London), but still couldn’t get a bike to release. A phone call to the helpline revealed that a bike we tried at the National Gallery station had been hired but not returned. Turns out that our bike had been activated, but the green light hadn’t flashed and the bike hadn’t been unlocked properly.

BBC London News are reporting today that this has been a recurring problem, with TfL cancelling the fine for a woman who was “billed for 11 hours’ use even though she could not get the cycle to unlock”. Luckily, we found out about the problem within twenty minutes.

To anyone trying to extricate a bike from the docking bay – lifting up the back wheel while pulling it seems to be required sometimes.

The Critical Mass well and truly lost, we settled on giving the Boris Bike our own test run.

They are little heavy to ride. I wouldn’t fancy cycling them up any sort of hill, so while I’d be happy to ride one from Angel into the City I wouldn’t fancy the return trip. It takes a lot of hard work pedalling furiously to get anywhere, even in the highest gear, and it’s hard getting up much speed on the flat. The basket is pointlessly small, and a bigger one would be welcome.

I still think the scheme is very exciting, and could potentially revolutionise public transport in London. Boris has admitted that there will be teething problems, and I hope they will be sorted out.

But for anyone living in London, it will still be better to own your own bike. The £45 you’d spend on Cycle Hire membership alone isn’t a lot less than buying a brand new bike. Nothing can match the convenience of your own bicycle, especially if using the Boris Bike will involve traipsing around the area looking for a free docking bay as the minutes tick on your affordable hour.

Riding the hire bike drew constant catcalls and hoots from excited pedestrians. And they weren’t yelling ‘Barclay’s Cycle Hire™!’ or ‘Ken may also have had this idea!’ – they were yelling, “Nice Boris Bike, Boris!” Looks like Mayor Johnson has his legacy sorted.

Published in: on July 31, 2010 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Save the whale?

My favourite quote of the last Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth came from Nick Clegg:  “You might not think we are exciting, but even the great mammals of the sea find the Liberal Democrats exciting!”  A female bottlenose called Gilbert had attempted to upstage us by appearing off the Bournemouth coast, and we laughed that a whale was trying to get into  conference.  Then Gilbert washed up dead, and unkind sketch writers spied a metaphor.

No dead whales washed up poetically on the beaches of Agadir in Morroco last month, but the talks of the International Whaling Commission foundered once again on the issue of the international moratorium on whaling that has been in force since 1986.

‘Save the Whales’ was an icon of the environmental movement, but our Government should base fisheries policy on sound science rather than sentiment.  Our credibility as environmentalists depends on it.

The whale population collapsed due to overfishing, but governments came together and saved them from the brink of extinction.  It was a monument to international cooperation and law achieving a concrete environmental goal – and as a result, there has been a 24-year moratorium on whaling, with only a few exceptions for indigenous peoples and scientific studies.

The most recent IWC meeting at Agadir seemed ready to overturn the moratorium, with a proposed deal to allow commercial whaling, under strict quotas.

Alongside the political body of the International Whaling Commission, a scientific committee was set up to monitor whale stocks and report on the commercial basis for whaling.  These scientists are saying that Minke whales are abundant in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean, and that many depleted stocks of other whale species are recovering at encouraging rates. Which is to say that the resource basis for whaling  can support exploitation, and is expanding. The IWC’s own scientific advisors are saying this – but our politicians are ignoring them in favour of sentimental vegetarian arguments.

The only way we can save the planet from the threat of disastrous climate change is by mobilising hard science to convince the public and international policy-makers that there is a real problem.  As environmentalists, we must also be scientists. If science disagrees with us on other issues and we distort or dismiss it, we lose all credibility where it matters most.

Anti-whaling members of the commission argue that not enough research has been done to convince them to establish catch limits other than zero. They demand further work on formulating inspection and observer systems.  This is as cynical as George W. Bush demanding further work on climate change, while accusing climate change campaigners of having ulterior motives.  And just like ex-President Bush, anti-whaling politicians are only doing so to please their constituents at home.

As one long-standing IWC Scientific Committee member, Dr. Peter Best, has argued, the moratorium continues in spite of science, rather than because of it. He wrote:

“Do I think in retrospect that the adoption of the moratorium was justified, on the grounds of prevailing uncertainties? Well, in the sense that the adoption of the moratorium forced the development of the Revised Management Procedure, which directly addressed scientific uncertainties in assessment, then I think it was justified. On the other hand, in the sense that the moratorium has become what we all feared it might, an indiscriminate and permanent ban on whaling, then I don’t think it was justified.”

The International Whaling Commission was set up not to enforce a ban on whaling, but to manage whale stocks.  It was established to protect whales from overfishing and regulate the number of whales that can be harpooned while safeguarding this natural resource for future generations.

The IWC is a law-creating body that binds member countries. But it is being used to satisfy an unscientific public mood in  countries that, in any case, don’t even have whaling industries or a desire to eat whales.  It looks unfair and cynical.  That undermines international law.

Marine resources should be harvested in a sustainable manner, and taking out one species for sentimental reasons is not constructive environmental policy.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment