Blog entries 2009-2011

Ban the lorries (again!)  7 March 2011

It’s beginning to look increasingly likely that Bath is going to take steps to substantially reduce the number of lorries going through the town by slapping an 18-tonne limit on Cleveland Bridge (just before the Fire Station), effectively stopping lorries from connecting between the A36 and A46 via the City centre & London Road. (See Bath Chronicle story from 24 February here.)

Pressure is building once again to make this happen, with local residents urging that support be given to Wiltshire Council to effect roadworks to the A350 in order to accommodate the extra traffic. Not surprisingly, local residents’ groups in Bath do not appear to be unduly concerned about the impact the changes they seek would have on local communities in Wiltshire.

This has to be of particular concern to the residents of Limpley Stoke, as well as Bradford on Avon. We’ve been here before, time and again, over the past 20 years. We may have to ramp up the rhetoric again to ensure that BoA and neighbouring villages do not attract more wayward HGVs… And the answer is NOT a Bradford on Avon bypass – it’s not practical, affordable, pragmatic or realistic. A complete dead end that skirts round the issues.

But this must be a topic of greater concern than one or other individual community. We need Wiltshire and BANES to work together to resolve this festering sore!! We need some joined-up thinking about how to facilitate the movement of goods without simply shifting the pain from one community to another…

I shall raise the issue at next week’s Board meeting of the Mid Wilts Economic Partnership…

 

Louis de Berniéres and our small towns 6 March 2011

Have finally got around to reading ‘Notwithstanding’ by Louis de Berniéres, a charming selection of tales from a rural community on the Surrey-Sussex border. It’s based on memories of the village in which the author lived as a child…

I grew up in rural Sussex at about the same time. Ours was called a linear village – it had evolved long and thin along a main road. But when my parents moved there in 1952 (just 50 miles from London) there was perhaps just one car an hour going past the house.

There are lots of elements in the stories that strike a chord … such as the character who keeps popping up doing his job of clearing the ditches and cutting the verges. No-one seems to know who he works for or who pays him… I well remember watching these people wielding their sickles. They demonstrated considerable skill – as well as an innate understanding of the land they were managing – occasionally keeping a willow whip and planting it in a way that would in time add to the landscape and also take water from the ditches.

The life described by de Berniéres is not some Arcadian idyll, it’s rooted in the memory of many of us. So where did it go? Clearly the rise in power of the supermarkets has much to do with it. As does the dominance of the financial services industry. The massive increase in the price of land has had a pernicious effect. So much government and vested interest energy has gone into promoting cities as the most effective working and living environment, yet a massive majority of city dwellers would apparently prefer to live in the country.

The way England has turned its back on Europe and has wed itself to all things American (from policing to culture), has also had a massive impact. Nothing new in saying that England has lost (if it ever had it) a sense of its own identity. But it has been losing its roots. That’s one reason why it’s so important to revive our small towns. The boom in technology has demonstrated not only that there is thirst for community, but also that our existing smaller communities can be revived thanks to that same technology.

The Localism Bill has plenty in it to make us wary. But it may also offer an opportunity for small towns to reassert their identity, to reclaim the power to decide. Some of the small towns around here have had charters for a thousand years. The past 60 years of obsession with hyper-consumerism and non-productive financial engineering is but a blip given that timeframe. It’s worth reading Louis de Berniéres with more than the usual pleasure. His gentle tales in ‘Notwithstanding’ have much to tell us about who we are today, who we have been and who we might be again.

 

The new way of car sharing… 27 February 2011

Another link from Rachel Botsman’s book…

Streetcar has cars parked in a dense network of dedicated spaces across London and several other UK cities, typically within a few minutes walk of your home or work. You can use one for as little as 30 minutes or as long as 6 months. They are reserved online or by phone, and can be collected and returned 24/7 using one of our high-tech smartcards. Our fleet is made up of brand new Volkswagen Golfs, Polo BlueMotions and BMWs (new in 2010). We also have vans if you need to move bulkier items, and 7-seaters when you need a few more seats. The cost of your usage is based on how long you have the car and how far you drive but unless you’re a heavy car user, the annual cost of Streetcar will be dramatically less than owning a car and with lots of the hassle of car ownership removed.”

There are seven sights currently in Bristol… and hiring costs from just £4.95 an hour!

 

Anyone for crowdsourcing on a national scale? 27 February 2011

Quoting from a wonderful website: www.letsdoitworld.org, which I came across in Rachel Botsman’s book ‘What’s Mine is Yours’ (see link to right).

“Let’s do it! initiative was born in a tiny country of Estonia, situated in northern Europe at the autumn of 2007. The idea was born in a conversation between few friends who realized that the roots of the massive illegal dumping habit lie in the lack of responsibility on every level. Things needed to get turned around for the better.

“There and then the ‘one day, one country’ concept was born. Instead of dividing the efforts over an extended period of time, it was time to act now and act together! Co-operation throughout the whole society – involving the state, NGO-s, private enterprises and vast number of active citizens, united the nation and on 3rd of May 2008 more than 50,000 people and hundreds of organizations together cleaned more than 10,000 tons of illegal garbage from the territory of Estonia.

“From there, neighbouring countries Latvia and Lithuania decided to join in and since then, more and more brave and inspired people from different countries have decided to make it happen for themselves and their people.”

There are now variations of this being brought together in a number of countries worldwide – including Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia,  Portugal, India, Ukraine, Brazil and the Netherlands. What a brilliant way of bringing people together – gives a whole new perspective on crowdsourcing!

 

Small towns offering answers to big questions 24 February 2011

I attended my first meeting on Monday as chairman of a new national policy forum called Small Towns for Tomorrow. This was originally set up four years ago but has only really got going in the past year, after one of its originators, Action for Market Towns, was awarded National Lottery funding for a number of projects.

One of the core issues we are dealing with is a problem highlighted by the Commission for Rural Communities: that towns are the ‘missing link’ in England’s spatial geography. Simply put, official statistics do not have a category for small towns. Those with a small population are placed in the rural category, while larger small towns are included in the general urban category. Small towns are diverse, generally with long histories, and arguably the backbone of the country. But the current status means that research and policies that affect about 1,600 communities – home to 11 million people (more than 21% of the English population) – are not defined according to the needs and specific attributes of these communities.

We need to change that approach, not least because, in my view, small towns have an unprecedented opportunity to flourish, thanks to three elements – the Localism agenda (which is being designed to allow communities to take the lead in planning and shaping the future of the places where they live), the opportunities arising out of the requirements of the Climate Change Act (reduction of 34% in emissions by 2020), and the availability (in theory!) of information and communication technologies. If we are going to move towards a low carbon economy, with a greater dependence on local produce and employment, then small towns offer an ideal solution.

The challenge is significant. A couple of days ago a lady from Eye, in Suffolk, wrote this to the Telegraph:

“SIR – Is there anyone out there who can help us? Eye is a small town. The council has taken away our youth club, is closing our recycling site and wants to close our library. The old people’s home is for sale, and our pub and public loo are closed. In exchange, we are offered a huge incinerator plant and new roads for all the lorries that will need to keep it full of toxic waste. Those in their glass tower in Ipswich, counting their golden perks, don’t seem to care for the small people. We pay taxes, break no laws, volunteer to decorate the town hall, litter pick, raise funds for churches and support our local schools. Life just does not seem fair.”

Small towns need to be at the heart of our future. A great opportunity, but much to be done!

 

Are we ready to return the calender to Bradford on Avon? 20 February 2011

Lurking in the stores of the Bristol Industrial Museum are bits and pieces of magnificent Victorian ironwork. Put together, they make an important piece of national industrial heritage – the first calender to be built in the UK under order from Stephen Moulton, who brought rubber processing technology to England in 1849 when he set up in business in Bradford on Avon.

A calender is a series of hard pressure rollers used to form or smooth a sheet of material. This particular model is 2.6m long, 1.8m deep and 2.5m high. Its weight is measured in tons, not pounds! (see photo). For the past few decades, this magnificent pioneering piece of machinery has been lingering, in pieces, in Bristol. Now they want to return it to us, but first we have to see how much it will cost… one estimate is that it could be as much as £250,000! A meeting takes place of interested parties tomorrow evening, so we’ll see what happens. It would be a significant piece of urban art/heritage/archeology in the heart of the town. So let’s hope an answer can be found that is practical and, somehow, affordable. Watch this space.

 

The soul of the corporation and the soul of the organisation 17 February 2011

Just received copy of the 2nd edition of Corporate Social Responsibility: the Corporate Governance of the 21st Century, published by the International Bar Association (‘the global voice of the legal profession’) and Wolters Kluwer – and edited by senior international lawyer Ramon Mullerat… 600 pages of wisdom described in the foreword as “a thoughtful and provocative work as well as a multi-faceted and professional tool for all those interested in keeping pace with today’s evolving business climate”.

I was invited to contribute chapter four: ‘The soul of the corporation’.  Sample paragraph: “For too long, business leaders have hidden behind the carapace of process and function. Happy to adopt common sense solutions at home, they have forgotten how to trust their common sense at work. They have ignored or forgotten one of the most fundamental of human values – do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. Thankfully however, there are business leaders who recognize that, if for no other reason than self-interest, they must move out of the usual tramlines of thought. They are learning to listen to their intuition, seeking to understand their role in a world that we must all share.”

Serious and intensive amount of material within its pages… yours from Amazon for £167.20, discounted from the publisher’s price of £176!!

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Spent today at a first-rate conference on community planning and the Localism agenda, organised by Creating Excellence (of which I am director)… Illuminating contributions from specialists at the Tipperary Institute with their own experiences of community planning within Ireland… Showed the great value of Creating Excellence in providing knowledge and know-how for people involved in regeneration and sustainable communities – including Design South West and the South West Design Review Panel. Most funding has been lost due to the abolition of the RDAs etc, but everyone involved is determined to keep the organisation going. Watch this space.

 

100 years later – and we’re all the poorer for the impact of Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management 14 February 2011

I’ve just been reading a fascinating little tome called The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford, who is both an academic and the owner of a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia (US). It’s a lament at the decline of what the Americans call ‘shop class’ – means training in things like woodworking, auto repair and metalworking – and the wider issue of how we have been systematically deprived of the need to think.

He quotes Frederick Winslow Taylor, who wrote The Principles of Scientific Management exactly 100 years ago. In the interests of scientific efficiency and cost, Taylor said that “All possible brainwork should be removed from the shop and centred in the planning or lay-out department.” Crawford also quotes Taylor as writing the the “full possibilities” of his system would not be “realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller calibre and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system”.

You realize how, despite what are frankly little more than cosmetic fripperies for today’s employees, the principle remains. Crawford notes that some Mercedes cars no longer have an oil dipstick. In one way it’s made life easier for the driver – an electronic message tells him ‘Service required’ and he outsources the labour of checking oil levels to others. But, more worryingly, it removes any sense of responsibility or interest between the driver and his machine. Instead it becomes the concern of the dealership who employs the service mechanic, “of Daimler AG, who hold the service plan warranty on their balance sheet; and finally Mercedes shareholders, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of your engine running low on oil. There are now layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your motor’s oil level, and no single person is responsible for it. If we understand this under the rubric of ‘globalization’, we see that the tentacles of that wondrous animal reach down into things that were once unambiguously our own: the amount of oil in a man’s crankcase”. The lack of a dipstick is not down to some new technical wizardry – running low on oil will still damage the engine. “The facts of physics have not changed,”, concludes Crawford. “What has changed is the place of those facts in our consciousness, and therewith the basic character of material culture”. It’s the difference between “active engagement and distracted consumption”.

Crawford concludes this appeal for a rethink… “We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power, with such devices as the separation of legislative, executive and judicial functions. But we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible… The consolation we seek in shopping serves only to narcotize us against a recognition of these facts… Too often, the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men. Having a few around requires an economy in which the virtue of independence is cultivated, and a diversity of human types can find work to which they are suited.”

Heady stuff – mixing tales of forensic wrenching of cylinder heads and intake manifolds with references to Heidegger, who, as of course you know (!) was celebrated for his “existential and phenomenological explorations of the question of Being“. But he does provide a demanding perspective on the way that work has evolved in the century since Frederick Winslow Taylor penned his monograph. Well worth the read and well worth thinking through the consequences of his argument…

 

Bring back the irreverence and originality…. 6 February 2011

Great story in today’s Observer that, as they say, reflects the early originality of the Internet… It’s by John Naughton. It includes the following:

“… A really good example of this kind of technological innovation was provided last week by Google engineers, who in a few days built a system that enabled protesters in Egypt to send tweets even though the internet in their country had been shut down. “Like many people”, they blogged, “we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we can do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service – the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.”

“They worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter and SayNow (a company Google recently acquired) to build the system. It provides three international phone numbers and anyone can tweet by leaving a voicemail. The tweets appear on twitter.com/speak2tweet.

“What’s exciting about this kind of development is that it harnesses the same kind of irrepressible, irreverent, geeky originality that characterised the early years of the internet, before the web arrived and big corporations started to get a grip on it. Events in Egypt make one realise how badly this kind of innovation is needed. The way in which the Mubarak regime was able to shut down the net provided a sobering reminder of the power of governments that are prepared to take extreme measures. As the country disappeared from cyberspace I was suddenly struck by the thought that if PCs still came with steam-age built-in dial-up modems, Egyptians could have logged on to servers abroad and stayed connected. The only way of stopping that would be to shut down the entire phone system. And even Mubarak might have balked at that.”

 

National award for Kingston Mills scheme 4 February 2011

Good news for the town… the Kingston Mills scheme won the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) 2010 Planning Award for Local Regeneration and Renewal, announced yesterday at a ceremony in London. Congrats to architects Nash Partnership, who submitted the entry. The judges comments read:

“The development will enhance the physical environment of this long-derelict site in the heart of historic Bradford on Avon, adding to the quality of the local townscape and increasing the attractiveness of the town centre for residents and visitors. The flood protection and energy generation proposals respond to climate change. In redeveloping a brownfield site and providing residential and business accommodation in the heart of the town, the development addresses important sustainable development issues. The approach to site planning and design is excellent, being both sensitive and creative in its response to the constraints of the site and its surroundings.”

This is an important endorsement for the site, which should generate additional interest, particularly in the commercial side of the scheme. It’s also an endorsement of the considerable work put in by the community over many, many years – going back to the closure of the site in 1994! I’ve been privileged to have led the community process since 2003, when the BoA Development Trust (which I was chairing at the time) obtained the help of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment in breaking the deadlock that had arisen between the town and the site’s then owners, Taylor Woodrow. (And none of that work could have been done without the massive help and support of Colin Johns, who co-instigated the Development Trust back in 2000 and who is one of the greatest unsung heroes of the town.)

In 2004, The Prince’s Foundation led an Enquiry by Design, at which agreement was found over a masterplan. A series of Stakeholder Meetings was agreed in order to provide a forum for discussion over progress for the site – and we have been meeting regularly ever since, with the most recent Stakeholder Meeting taking place just a couple of weeks ago. Linden acquired the site from Taylor Woodrow in 2007 and we have had an excellent relationship with them as the scheme has moved towards completion.

Of course, what we’ve ended up with has had to be a compromise. But now the scheme is making progress towards completion – and has received this accolade – we need to embrace it, make it our own and make it work.

 

Collective — or collaborative — consumption? 3 February 2011

Spent the past two days thinking and discussing a variety of design and masterplanning issues, in part connected to how we move forward the Six Towns and a Vale… agenda. At the same time, I’ve only just got round to reading the latest edition of the RSA Journal. There are several features looking at what the Big Society could mean, including one by architect John McAslan. He included the following comments:

“Our city centres, meanwhile, are becoming more closely controlled. Britain has the highest density of CCTV cameras in the world. In Manchester, the city core is effectively controlled by a private company funded by business and the city council, both of which want to create a secure, closely monitored, retail- and business-led zone. If this becomes normal in our towns and cities, will it be socially and culturally inclusive, or divisive? Is it civil, or eerily uncivil? How responsive can these approaches be to the multiple cultures and wide range of earning levels in a big town or a city? How do they unify people in ways other than promoting collective consumption?

“These are challenging questions. Constraint should force architects to maximise design possibilities. The starting point of design is about responding to the needs of the people who will use a building or place, and about working out how new buildings and places add to the vitality of the areas and activities around them. A nominal rise in living standards, supported by new buildings, is only meaningful if matched by an improvement in community life.”

I like that phrase ‘collective consumption’ but not what it represents. In the same issue of the Journal, there’s another article, by Rachel Botsman, who has been writing about collaborative consumption, typified by ventures such as parkatmyhouse.com. She’s just published a book on the subject ‘What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption‘.

Collective or collaborative consumption… that is increasingly a choice we will have to make… I’ll come back to this shortly…

 

Joined up thinking from the OECD 25 January 2011

The OECD today published one of its Rural Policy Reviews, on England. Among its recommendations:

  • Introduce a distinct rural component to the “city region” strategy or incorporate policies for those rural areas that fall outside of the city region approach. The city regions strategy—linking a major urban area with surrounding urban places and a rural hinterland—recognises the interconnections between places of different size. However, the current focus of the model is city-led development that presumes that future growth will spring from the urban core of the main city, suggesting a minor role for rural areas.
  • Strengthen the rural economy by joining up housing policy, planning policy and economic development strategies at the local level. Better consider the role of rural areas in the strategies to increase economic competiveness. Introduced diversity in employment choices by increasing employment and attracting new enterprises.
  • Broaden the focus beyond that of pure economic development to better identify new ways to enhance the competitiveness of the rural economy and reduce the number of government imposed restrictions on individual choice.

Sounds about right – particularly the bit about strengthening the rural economy by joining up housing, planning and economic development strategies – and by broadening the focus beyond pure economic development. Joined up thinking is the only way we’re going to succeed in moving towards sustainability. Needs closer reading… (You can get a non-printing pdf here, or buy a copy from OECD via their website).

 

JFK on Twitter 21 January 2011

Still on Kennedy, the JFK Library is running a project on Twitter following his thousand days in office, 50 years later and day by day. See the tweets here. It’ll be fascinating to see how they deal with the Cuba crisis and, of course, his death…

 

Another angle on civility… 20 January 2011

Following on from Obama’s comments about civility (see below), fifty years ago today President John Kennedy made the point succinctly and memorably:

“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

 

Six towns, the end of mass consumption and Bobby Kennedy 19 January 2011

Worth reading comment piece in today’s Guardian by Prof Richard Wolff: “The myth of ‘American exceptionalism’ implodes”. Writing about the US, he notes how, until the 1970s, the need for labour in the US kept wages rising. But by the 1970s all that changed as US employers turned to foreign labour and more women joined the labour force. The balance was tilted – no more shortage of labour, so wages started falling. He continues:

“Since the 1970s, most US workers postponed facing up to what capitalism had come to mean for them. They sent more family members to do more hours of paid labour, and they borrowed huge amounts. By exhausting themselves, stressing family life to the breaking point in many households, and by taking on unsustainable levels of debt, the US working class delayed the end of American exceptionalism – until the global crisis hit in 2007. By then, their buying power could no longer grow: rising unemployment kept wages flat, no more hours of work, nor more borrowing, were possible. Reckoning time had arrived. A US capitalism built on expanding mass consumption lost its foundation.”

I’ve always seen the credit crunch and the problems we have in the UK in those terms. Which is why the work of bodies such as the New Economics Foundation is so important and why in theory it’s a good thing that Cameron is wanting to understand issues around gross national happiness. And note how Bobby Kennedy’s famous assertion about gross national product  measuring everything “except that which makes life worthwhile” has become mainstream again.

Which brings me back to the Six Towns and a Vale… initiative. Now that we have some funding in place, we can get on with the task of tapping into new thinking to bring fresh energy, dynamism and employment to our small towns…

 

The cold light of day… 14 January 2011

Now for the sobering reality of US politics… This from Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times:

“On Wednesday, President Obama called on Americans to ‘expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.’

“But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time… Today’s G.O.P. sees much of what the modern federal government does as illegitimate; today’s Democratic Party does not. When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

“Right now, each side in that debate passionately believes that the other side is wrong. And it’s all right for them to say that. What’s not acceptable is the kind of violence and eliminationist rhetoric encouraging violence that has become all too common these past two years… We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law.”

So will the events of the last week make a difference? Whatever happens will impact on us…

 

“We should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.” 13 January 2011

In the week after the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the shock jocks did their worst. Sarah Palin tried to appear presidential but came across as mean-spirited and small-minded. And then Barrack Obama produces a speech that transcends the lot of them.

It’s worth watching the full 33 mins (see it here). It’s calm, measured, precise, emotional, gentle, focused and way beyond politics – and yet makes the point about the appalling state of US politics searingly. Here are some of the final lines. He’s talking about 9-year old Christina Taylor Green, killed with others at the shooting in Tucson. By one of those extraordinary twists of fate, she was born on 11 September 2001 (9/11).

“And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle…

“Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

“I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

“Make your actions reflect your words”

It reminds me of the words of Severn Cullis-Suzuki. In June 1992, aged just 12, she and three friends took a stand at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. They caught the attention of the organizers and Severn was invited to address the full plenary session. She told the hundreds of adults present (including heads of corporations and governments) what they needed to hear, but were sometimes too wrapped up in their own processes to listen to.

She concluded: “I am only a child. Yet I know that if all the money spent on war was spent on ending poverty and finding environmental answers, what a wonderful place this would be. In school you teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share, not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do? You grownups say you love us, but I challenge you, please, to make your actions reflect your words”.

 

So far so good – Town Council rejects housing application 11 January 2011

Good news. The Town Council voted unanimously to recommend rejection of the planning application for houses on the Mill Lane car park site… Thanks to the local people who came along and spoke in favour of what we’re trying to achieve!! We’ll keep building our case to take to Wiltshire Council – watch this space for more…

 

Seven private houses or a town quarter revived? 8 January 2011

Battle lines are being drawn over a space off Silver Street, in the town centre. The Mill Lane car park is an area of ground that was once the walled gardens for Manvers House and has never been built on. That the ground has been level for a long time is evidenced by the height of the north retaining wall – presumably made from Georgian brick and almost 6m high. Although covered for the last few decades in tarmac and used as a car park for the Kingston Mills site down the hill, its situation as an open space in the heart of the town is part of BoA’s built environment heritage.

Although Avon moved on from BoA a few years ago, they still own the land. But now a London-based speculative developer has put in a planning application to build seven houses on the land, ruining the contiguity of the space and contributing nothing to the town. The worst kind of speculative infill.

The Bradford on Avon Development Trust (which I’ve helped relaunch and have become CEO) is leading the fight to get the application rejected on principle (the same developer tried before, in 2008, and was rebuffed then). But we’re not just opposing. We’re also putting together a proposal to acquire the car park and turn it into a much needed public pay-and-display car park for ±30 cars – the only one north of the river. As a second stage we want to build artists’s workshops on the space in a low-carbon mews-style development with undercroft parking – and to landscape the car park so that it carries an echo of its past as a walled garden. In so doing, we can also provide access to a neighbouring yard which will unlock the potential for some 5,000 sqft of employment space that is currently empty and difficult to let or sell because of access problems.

So the choice is simple: do we allow one individual speculator who has no interest in the town to profit by building on this land to the private benefit of half a dozen new homeowners? Or do we get hold of the land as a community asset, unlock the opportunity and the space for several dozen new jobs, deliver vitally needed public car parking to the benefit of local people and retailers, and in so doing also provide a public space that reflects the heritage of the area? Let’s hope the planning officers agree with our logic – then it’s full steam ahead to raise funds and get the scheme on the road!

 

Pump priming economic growth in West Wiltshire 6 January 2011

Long time since I added to these pages… But now back with some good news for the new year!

The Board of West Wiltshire Enterprise Limited (WWE) has agreed to “substantially support” bid proposals from business members of the Mid Wiltshire Economic Partnership (MWEP – which initiated the Six Towns and a Vale… programme – see www.sixtownsandavale.org) that are designed to play a critical role in resolving deep-rooted issues that are undermining the ability of Wiltshire to meet its long-term strategic economic requirements. Specifically, the Board of WWE has agreed to allocate £34,225 towards the cost of a six-stage programme designed to deliver business community leadership of the long-term restructuring of the economy of the five towns covered by the former West Wiltshire District Council (Bradford on Avon, Melksham, Trowbridge, Warminster and Westbury).

The programme as proposed is based on six elements:

  1. That the name of West Wiltshire Enterprise Limited be changed to Mid Wiltshire Enterprise Limited (MWEL) and that new Board members be sought. Crucially, the changes will make it possible to search for grant funding from sources other than Wiltshire Council (which has funded the three economic partnerships in Wiltshire) – something that is effectively not possible for MWEP in its current guise. This doesn’t mean that MWEP will not need continued funding from Wiltshire Council in order to cover the day-to-day work of the Partnership. But it does open the door for us to become more proactive in driving change.
  2. Commissioning of a database-driven website to focus on the arguments for a sustainable, resilient, low carbon and high value added economy – highlighting successes and delivering up-to-date information on opportunities for investment, pitched at a professional business level.
  3. Support to Melksham and Bradford on Avon for the production of town plans, conditional on the inclusion in the agenda on pursuit of a sustainable, resilient, low carbon and high value added economy. We propose also providing non-financial support to Trowbridge, Warminster and Westbury (where town plans are already in production) in pursuit of the same aims.
  4. Running of two workshops to provide hard evidence for the promotion of a sustainable, resilient, low carbon and high value added economy. They will include a planned mix of business innovators and young people, who will be asked to explore how we can effect change and what kind of change is needed.
  5. Using a proportion of the requested funds as an investment to pump-prime a project in Trowbridge along the lines of Coexist in Bristol (www.coexistuk.org). This will involve finding a suitable property, partners to fund the launch of the enterprise, and attracting occupants. The property will offer low rental easy-in/easy-out workspace, events space and community space. It will become a creative hub for the town, spawning new businesses and eventually offering mentoring and business advice. We envisage using this project to enable us to reinvest in similar schemes in other towns in the West Wiltshire area.
  6. A small sum of core funding to contribute to the workload of what has the scope of becoming an exciting and proactive response to Wiltshire’s strategic economic ambitions.

The original programme requested £41,000, and we have been promised £34,225. Decisions will have to be taken on how we cut the programme to match the funding. But this is a significant opportunity to the benefit of the West Wiltshire towns – so thank you West Wiltshire Enterprise!!

 

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger…” 27 May 2010

Wise words from an email sent by Practical Action (the organisation that, since 1966, has been working with poor people to develop the sustainable skills and technology that will enable them to build a better future):

“So, there’s a new Con-Lib coalition in government in the UK.  We are all wondering what it will mean, if anything for Practical Action’s work in the developing world. We hope our new government will continue to take a principled stance and provide leadership on poverty reduction and climate change, and that they will value working with people in the developing world rather than imposing solutions.

Practical Action was founded by Ernst Schumacher who wrote the book that turned into the familiar phrase Small is Beautiful. He said: ‘Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction’. Let’s hope our politicians can take that to heart.”

 

Wow! Apple overtakes Microsoft 26 May 2010

From New York Times this evening (26 May):

“Apple, the maker of iPods, iPhones and iPads, overtook Microsoft, the computer software giant, on Wednesday to become the world’s most valuable technology company. In intraday trading in the afternoon session, Apple shares rose 1.8 percent, which gave the company a value of $227.1 billion. Shares of Microsoft declined about 1 percent, giving the company a market capitalization of $226.3 billion.

“This changing of the guard caps one of the most stunning turnarounds in business history, as Apple had been given up for dead only a decade earlier. But the rapidly rising value attached to Apple by investors also heralds a cultural shift: Consumer tastes have overtaken the needs of business as the leading force shaping technology.”

 

How Govt can get £53bn without cutting any services 26 May 2010

We’re struggling to get Wiltshire Council to use joined-up thinking to resolve issues of concern here in BoA. But how about government showing some joined-up thinking? There’s a letter in The Times today from our favourites of the moment, the New Economics Foundation (Elizabeth Cox of nef talked at the second MWEP/RSA debate earlier this month):

Sir, While your leading article (“Cuts and the coalition”, May 25) hails the “restoration of the public finances” through the cuts announced on Monday, it is important to remember that this is not an expenditure crisis, it’s a revenue crisis caused by the behaviour of the banks. Failure to tackle the bank issue will inevitably lead to the same situation remerging all too soon.

Government should, as a first step, look to rein in the money it is already owed. In November last year the Treasury Select Committee reported that HM Revenue and Customs was sitting on £28 billion of unpaid tax bills that had been agreed but not settled. A further £25 billion could be sourced by plugging tax loopholes that the Government considers contravene the spirit of the law.

Stewart Wallis, Executive Director, New Economics Foundation

Oh for some intelligent joined-up thinking from our new lords and masters!

Talking of which, did you hear this morning on ‘Today’, that the new post of Communications Director for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is up for grabs, with a salary up to £85,000. That’s £20,000 MORE than an MP is paid. Barking mad – absolutely barking mad!

 

May 25 — Africa Day & Kofi reports on progress 25 May 2010

The Africa Progress Report 2010 was published today on Africa Day – five years since the Panel was set up in the wake of the Commission for Africa and the Gleneagles G8 meeting.

“This landmark report argues that Africa’s future is in its own hands, but that success in managing its own affairs depends on supportive global policies and agreements,” chairman of the panel Kofi Annan (former UN boss) said. “There is no lack of resources, no deficiency of knowledge and no shortage of plans. Africa’s progress rests above all else on the mobilisation of political will, both on the continent and internationally.” Worth reading to get an inkling of what’s going on in this magical continent…

 

What have MDGs to do with mid-Wiltshire? 25 May 2010

I went to a briefing this morning from Business in the Community International on the Millennium Development Goals, the set of targets agreed by 189 countries at the UN in 2000 and due to be met by 2015. There are eight targets:  1. Eradicate extreme poverty & hunger; 2. Achieve universal primary education; 3. Promote gender equality & empower women; 4. Reduce child mortality; 5. Improve maternal health; 6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria & other diseases; 7. Ensure environmental sustainability; 8. Develop a global partnership for development.

Progress is being made, but there is still a great deal to be done – particularly in Africa. However, it was heartening this morning to hear from three global companies – Cisco, Unilever and KPMG – about how they’re working with the people of developing nations to deliver improvements. You can read more about the MDGs at www.endpoverty2015.org. You can also see how Africa is changing next week on a series of three programmes made by the BBC with Jonathan Dimbleby, designed to offer “Africa in a new and refreshing light”.

I went along this morning to get myself up-to-date (I was quite heavily involved in development in 2005 when I published a series of essays on telecoms and development that was distributed to prime ministers at the 2005 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting) but also to see how we can learn from some of the very exciting changes that are beginning to happen in Africa – and tie that into the evolution of the economies of the mid-Wiltshire towns and communities (back to the ‘Six Towns and a Vale’ initiative – see below)! There is huge latent entrepreneurial energy across sub-Saharan Africa. It will be interesting to explore how we might link into some of that energy and generate real, constructive conversations. Watch this space…

 

Why Wilfred did not deserve to be elected… 9 May 2010

Wilfred Emmanuel Jones has sent a note to supporters in the Chippenham constituency (including Bradford on Avon) after his failed bid to get elected on behalf of the Conservatives. Duncan Hames won with a majority of 2,470 (23,970 vs. 21,500 and 6,915 others, with a massive 72.7% turnout).

Wilfred has just had this to say in his missive to supporters: “Finally, while I congratulate Duncan Hames, I would ask him to remember that although this country will be going through difficult times, this part of Wiltshire needs a strong voice and a fighter to represent its needs so I look forward to seeing him fighting our corner in the Commons. The people of this constituency have given you their trust – please don’t let them down because you will have me to answer to!” (My italics.)

If there is going to be any kind of arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, then perhaps it’s a good thing that Wilfred was defeated… That last – frankly, patronising – remark of his is scarcely the kind that encourages any sense of working together, with its implicit question-mark over Duncan’s integrity…

 

Six towns and a vale – next RSA debate 18 May Bradford on Avon 5 May 2010

Back after a break in southern Brittany … great weather, great food, great company … perfect cruise back from St Malo… Good to have a break but also time for loads of reading for the Six Towns & A Vale project… On Tuesday week (18 May) we now have a stellar group of speakers who will challenge, inspire and make you want change! (You can see more details and book a free place at the event here.)

Chairing the event will be Charles Landry. His ‘The Art of City Making‘ is a must-read. He may talk of ‘cities’, but his words are entirely relevant to our towns (and a vale). For example: “The older fabric with which European cities can work is a true gift. It gives far greater scope to mould cultural resources. You can work with layers of history and the patina of ages, blending old and new… Yet finding novel, vibrant roles and purposes for the more ancient European towns, beyond keeping them pretty for tourists, is hard.”

Or try this: “Every place can make more out of its potential if the preconditions to think, plan and act with imagination are present. The imagination of people, combined with other qualities such as tenacity and courage, is our greatest resource.”

Our second speaker is Elizabeth Cox, Head of Connected Economies at the New Economics Foundation (nef). She is working with communities in the UK and internationally to support practical action for a more sustainable and just future. Nef believes that “local businesses should be at the heart of all regeneration projects”. They produce research, policies, programmes and training “which help communities protect the diversity of their high streets and the growth of independent enterprise. We also help communities to reinvent their local economy in response to climate change, seeking a new low carbon, high well-being model of local economic development.”

From nef‘s ‘Good Foundations‘ report: “Urban design policies have tended to focus on the regeneration of town and metropolitan centres in the promotion of retail and tourist attractions as a means of developing the local economy. This has resulted in the privatisation of previously public space… There is a pressing need to connect the planning, design and building of place to meaningful objectives – the enjoyment of good lives for inhabitants now and in the future.”

Our third speaker is Dominic Murphy, exec director of Creating Excellence, the Taunton-based body that provides knowledge and know-how for people involved in regeneration and sustainability in south-west England. Dominic is chair of the national Sustainable Communities Excellence Network.

Over almost six years, Creating Excellence has offered new opportunities for learning about neighbourhood renewal, design, community empowerment, funding, the use of evidence and local economic development. Among other things, they set up and run the South West Design Review Panel, affiliated to CABE. Over a career spanning 25 years as a regeneration practitioner, Dominic has worked for a community-based housing association, two local authorities, a citywide regeneration partnership and led a New Deal for Communities’ scheme. He’s developed an enviable track record in designing, funding and operating regeneration programmes.

So – that’s the line up … over the next few days I’ll share some more thoughts for the second debate – and then we look forward to the third debate, on 17 June, when we’ll hear from Forum for the Future.

 

What next for Bradford on Avon’s bridge? 23 April 2010

So Bradford Bridge Concern won their poll. More than 1,900 people voted out of an electorate for the town of some 7,500. The results were:

In favour of going ahead with the cable stay BoA bridge (561) = 29% of vote; 7.4% of electorate.

Against going ahead with the cable stay BoA bridge (1356) = 70.7% of vote; 17.99% of electorate.

What next? Watch this space.

 

We need the cable-stay bridge 22 April 2010

The Bradford on Avon cable-stay bridge will be striking. Its cost is probably in the mid-range – in other words, there are cheaper options, but also other options that would be a lot more expensive. It is ambitious & visionary. It is aesthetically striking and will provide a much needed safe and pleasant link between the south-east and north-east parts of the town. The Kingston Mills roads will offer shared space between people and vehicles. We need this bridge. And we need to start work on it now.

 

It’s all about conversations 21 April 2010

Couple of quotes that give some idea of direction on the idea of the ‘Six towns and a vale’ project…

“Successful innovation comes from a creative conversation between people who combine their different skills, insights and knowledge to explore a problem.” (We-Think: Charles Leadbetter, Profile Books.)

“The future of businesses that have a future will be about subtle differences, not wholesale conformity; about diversity, not homogeneity; about breaking rules, not enforcing them; about pushing the envelope, not punching the clock; about invitation, not protection; about doing it first, not doing it ‘right’; about making it better, not making it perfect; about telling the truth, not spinning bigger lies; about turning people on, not ‘packaging’ them; and perhaps above all, about building convivial communities and knowledge ecologies, not leveraging demographic sectors.” (Seminal work – The Cluetrain Manifesto: R.Levine, C.Locke, D.Searle, D.Weinberger. Pearson Education 2000.)

“We only progress through a series of regulated errors. Every move is a partial failure, to be corrected by the next one. Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step.” (Took this off a TV programme that other night – only problem is I cannot remember which – but it’s a great comment…)

 

Nick Clegg’s great great aunt the Russian Mata Hari! 21 April 2010

Reading Fay Weldon in today’s Guardian, it turns out that Nick Clegg’s great great aunt was Moura Budberg, known apparently as the Mata Hari of Russia. According to Wikipedia, “Countess, later Baroness, Moura (Maria Ignatievna Zakrevskaya Benckendorff) Budberg (c. 1891-1974) was the Ukrainian-born wife of Count Djon (Johann) Benckendorff, a high-ranking Czarist diplomat whom she married in 1911. He was shot dead in 1919 (by a peasant). Later she was briefly married to Baron Nikolai von Budberg-Bönningshausen, and was at various times the mistress of Sir R. H. Bruce Lockhart, Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells.”

Incidentally, when in my mid twenties, I met Fay Weldon at the launch party for one of the first environmental magazines, Vole, started by the writer Richard Boston, funded by Python Terry Jones and responsible for raising awareness of Green politics. Sadly the magazine only lasted from 1977 to 1980, but it was refreshing and eccentric in many wonderful ways. I had early ideas about writing novels and while at the Vole party, got some advice from Fay Weldon (who, as an advertising copywriter, wrote the line ‘Go to work on an egg’ but who, of course, became one of our finest novelists) that was to be reflected in a famous advertising line (not hers) 20 years later – “Just do it,” she said. I never did complete that novel…

I’d got to know Richard Boston, who wrote in The Guardian on beer and was one of the early catalysts for the Campaign for Real Ale, because I was working with brewers Watneys, the devil incarnate as far as CAMRA was concerned. Boston is described by Wikipedia as “an English journalist and author, a rigorous dissenter and a belligerent pacifist. An anarchist, toper, raconteur, marathon runner and practical joker”. On the button.

He was always great fun, charming and a pleasure to be with. I lost touch with him when I left the brewing industry in 1981. He died in 2006 – a real loss.

 

“You are what you share…” 18 April 2010

Reading Charles Leadbeater‘s 2009 book ‘We-Think‘ – described as a guide to the new culture of mass participation and innovation. Bravely, he put the first draft online and invited comments (he wasn’t disappointed)… I’m particularly interested in what he has to say in the context of how we engage the mid-Wiltshire six towns and a vale in the project to get the economies humming. But remember, we’re not looking for traditional growth (particularly not led by retail and leisure). I want to tackle this along the lines of the Forum for the Future’s five capitals – natural, social, human, manufactured and financial – and to focus on well-being. If we get the well-being bit right and firmly embedded, then the rest should follow. Couple of quotes from Charles Leadbeater give you an idea of his thinking… which I absolutely endorse:

“In most fields – science, culture, business, academia – creativity emerges when people with different vantage points, skills and know-how combine their ideas to produce something new. The web provides a platform for us to be creative together on a scale previously unimaginable. It is changing how we share ideas and so how we think.

“For Descartes, thinking ordered ideas inside our heads. When We-Think takes hold, what matters is social organisation: how we publish, debate, test, refine and reject ideas so that we think together… Our capacity for collaborative creativity will become ever more powerful because the opportunities to engage with others in creative interaction are expanding.

“In the 20th century we were identified by what we owned; in the 21st century we will also be defined by how we share and what we give away.”

Of course, there are already examples of collaborative creativity in action, not only through the web. For example, the Glove Factory Studios in Holt is becoming a hotbed of creativity as it attracts people running their own businesses who thrive on collaborating. But we need to take the idea away from the web and from the traditional ‘creative sector’ (i.e. graphic design, web design, copywriting, marketing etc).

I’d value anyone’s thoughts on how we take this forward into manufacturing, for instance. I’m convinced we in mid-Wiltshire have the opportunity to leapfrog other business communities with some truly radical creative routes for change. I’ll come back to leapfrog shortly…

 

“Six towns and a vale in search of an economic future” 16 April 2010

So, the weeks have quickly gone by without any comment from me… I’ve been up to my eyes in getting ready for the launch of ‘Six towns and a vale in search of an economic future’. Last night we had the first of three debates, led by RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor… More than 100 people turned up at the Wiltshire Music Centre to hear Matthew together with Trevor Cherrett from the Commission for Rural Communities and Ian McInroy, who runs an organisation called the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. Matthew had written about the initiative on his blog yesterday morning.

The towns and communities involved are Bradford on Avon, Devizes, Melksham, Trowbridge, Warminster, Westbury and the vale of Pewsey.

The debates are designed to address a number of questions and set the agenda for a series of workshops, leading to a week-long collaborative event that will determine a series of actions to deliver an environment in which the Six towns and a vale can find new economic purpose. We aim to share our approach with communities facing similar challenges. These questions are:

• What are market and country towns for?
• How can they be both economically viable and sustainable?
• Do they have to resign themselves to being little more than dormitory towns for the major cities, with small amounts of local shopping and services as the principle business activity, and even as chocolate box “destination venues” for city dwellers?
• Can they deliver high added value and economic well-being?
• Can they complement rather than serve adjoining cities and city regions?
• Can they balance natural capital, social capital, human capital, manufactured capital and financial capital to create a resilient and local virtual economic area?

We want to explore how market and country towns can deliver to the needs of people, planet and profit through sustainability and economic well-being. Working with local businesses and communities, we aim to set a path for the future — based on raising skill levels, while attracting high value added and innovative businesses. We want the towns and business communities in the heart of Wiltshire to be adept at collaborating as well as competing with the Bristol/Bath and Swindon city regions.

The clear issue that came out of last night’s debate was the need for engagement and exploration of how we can get people to raise their ambitions and their self-belief – that they can make change happen by being more creative and collaborative.

• We’ll be addressing this at the next debate, on 18 May, will be chaired by CHARLES LANDRY, a global authority on the use of creativity in urban innovation. A couple of comments from Charles Landry’s book ‘The Art of City Making’ gives an idea of the kind of thinking he will be following: “Every place can make more out of its potential if the preconditions to think, plan and act with imagination are present. The imagination of people, combined with other qualities such as tenacity and courage, is our greatest resource…”… And: “Foster civic creativity as the ethos of your city/town. Civic creativity is imaginative problem-solving applied to public good objectives. It involves the public being more entrepreneurial within accountability principles and the private sector being more aware of its responsibilities to the collective whole.” You can reserve a place at the lecture here. Should be lively and provocative…

• The third debate, on 17 June, will be chaired by PETER MADDEN, chief executive of Forum for the Future. The panel will discuss how the Forum’s ‘Five Capitals’ framework for sustainability might be used as a foundation for creating synergy and direction in market and country town economies.

More will be appearing on the Mid-Wiltshire website and you can comment on Twitter at 6townsandavale.

 

Amartya Sen @ Demos 15 March 11 March 2010

Fascinating evening coming up next week as Demos hold their annual lecture… Prof Amartya Sen will be giving a lecture on the themes of power, justice and capabilities. Responses will be provided by Baroness Shirley Williams, Ed Milliband MP and Aryeh Neier of the Open Society Institute. The event will be streamed live on the Demos site.

Prof Sen’s latest book is called The Idea of Justice, published by Allen Lane. He discussed it at The Third Penguin Annual Lecture last year in Kolkata. The organisers had this to say about the book:

“What is justice? Is it an ideal, forever beyond our grasp, or something that may actually guide our practical decisions and enhance our lives? Amartya Sen presents an alternative approach to mainstream theories of justice which, despite their many specific achievements, have taken us, he argues, in the wrong direction in general.

“While most contemporary theorists of justice have been concerned primarily with identifying what perfectly just social arrangements might be, following the hypothetical ‘social contract’ pursued by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, Professor Sen’s analysis significantly advances the other Enlightenment tradition of reducing injustice pursued in different ways by Smith, Condorcet, Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Mill and Marx. At the heart of Amartya Sen’s argument is his insistence on the role of public reason in establishing what can make societies less unjust. His aim is to construct an inclusive theory of justice that can absorb polarities and divergent points of view. He also shows how concern about the principles of justice in the modern world must avoid parochialism, and further, address questions of global injustice.”

Heavy stuff but probably riveting argument… hopefully Ed Milliband will be taking some thoughts back to cabinet….

 

Bradford on Avon in 2015 7 March 2010

I spoke to the Bradford on Avon Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, setting out a very broad-brush vision for how I anticipate the town to have changed by 2015. You can see what I had to say here: CoC 3Mar10

 

Creative thinking needed for the six towns 6 March 2010

I’ve been busy the past few days immersed in my alter ego as a corporate writer, but also planning a series of debates on sustainability and market/country towns that is set to run from next month. Details of speakers to follow, but it should be high profile across Wiltshire and the southwest…

The subject reverts back to earlier writings about what on earth our towns are for? Are governments of whatever stripe going to persist in the belief that the future lies within cities and city/regions? That doesn’t make sense… The six towns in mid-Wiltshire (Bradford on Avon, Devizes, Melksham, Trowbridge, Warminster and Westbury) have histories going back centuries. They were among the wealthiest towns in the region.

One of the problems we need to tackle is the fact that high, and increasing numbers of people living in this area (as in the rest of Wiltshire, but the six towns area has the highest incidence) out-commute to higher paid jobs in adjoining, as well as more distant, urban areas. Put another way the high value added sector of the economy is substantially under-represented. This is exacerbated by a lack of suitable employment sites and premises.

It’s a classic Catch-22. We need to generate more of the jobs that match the skills of the people that live in the area, but there is a shortage of suitable workspace. That’s because investors don’t see demand for high value added workspace. We need to find a way to encourage more investment in high value-added employment, not least because that will surely create additional demand for lower value added employment. We also need to re-assess the stories and messages that the six towns convey to ourselves and people outside.

We need some smart, creative thinking – and we need to find the best way of involving the people who live in the area. We need to raise people’s expectations, ambitions … and open up some pathways so we can get the six towns humming like the well-oiled machines that made the towns successful in the first place. Suggestions welcome!

 

Martial USA … are we moving the same way? 28 February 2010

“The American people and the governing class have accepted that war has become a permanent condition. Protracted war has become a widely accepted part of our politics.”

Andrew Bacevich, retired US Army colonel, on how eight years of war have affected American foreign policy. Source: The Washington Post … quoted in Sojourners Magazine

I once raised the question of how the US was essentially a martial country with the lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith (founder and director of Reprieve). He was quick to remind me that Britain is just as much a martial country as is the US … and the two main political parties don’t seem to think differently on the subject. More food for thought over what we expect of our political leaders…

 

Questions for the powerful… 28 February 2010

Tony Benn once said we should ask five questions of anyone we meet who is powerful: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?”

 

The roots of culture as it should be … 28 February 2010

Musician Brian Eno has a brief regular column in Prospect Magazine. This month it’s headed “Let’s carnival”. Eno is brilliant at making us think at a tangent from the obvious:

“… What makes for a great carnival? … My conclusions: carnival is good when the number of participants isn’t grossly outweighed by the number of spectators, and when it’s easy for the “spectators” to join in (dancing and singing along).

“Carnival is good when the participants exhibit a range of skills from the absolutely minimal to the absolutely astonishing (the first being an invitation not to be intimidated—“Hey! I could do that!”—and the second an invitation to be amazed). Carnival is good when people of all ages, races, shapes, sizes, beauties and inclinations can get involved.

“Carnival is good when there’s too much to look at and everything’s mixed up and you have to sort it all out for yourself. Carnival is good when it dignifies and rewards all sorts of abilities—singing, jumping, laughing infectiously, writing the hit song of the carnival, wiggling your backside, standing on a soapbox praising Jesus or the local hardware store, frying salt fish over an oil drum in public, inventing symphonic arrangements for steel bands, building fabulously impossible things just for a day.

“Carnival is good when people try to outdo each other, and then applaud with delight those who in turn outdo them. Carnival is good when it gives people an alibi to experiment with being someone different. Carnival is good when it lets people present the best part of themselves, and be, for a little while, as they’d like to be all the time.

“Carnival is good when it gives people the feeling that they’re really lucky to be alive right now. Carnival is good when it leaves people feeling that life in all its manifestations is unbeatably lovely and touching and funny and worthwhile.

“Now substitute ‘culture’ for ‘carnival’. There’s a vision for the future of culture.”

[Apologies to Prospect & Brian Eno if they feel any breach of copyright.]

 

Prosperity without growth? 24 February 2010

Last year the Sustainable Development Commission, at the time chaired by Jonathan Porritt, published a report by Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and Director of the ESRC Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment, as well as being leader of the SDC’s Economics group.

Called “Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy” (and downloadable here), this is an in-depth questioning of the way the world has blindly accepted economic growth as the most important policy goal of all. His response is that government needs to change the economic model that has assumed consumption can grow endlessly; to build people’s capabilities to flourish and protect those capabilities; and to establish ecological limits. Professor Jackson has been talking about the report at the RSA this evening — a recording of the talk should be available here in the next couple of days.

While the policy demands of the analysis are at governmental level, the messages that come from Professor Jackson’s work can surely be used to shape how we evolve our economy at a more local level. This is one of the strands I looking at in the next few days as we shape the project to help the market towns of mid-Wiltshire find a sustainable future for their economies. I’ll come back to this again early next week.

 

Where Africa is leading the way… 20 February 2010

Just reading a short but wonderfully energetic book called SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa (published by Pambazuka Press). It’s a bunch of essays written by Africans who are using mobile phone technologies* for social change. As one of the contributors points out:

“To all but the most entrenched old guard in the developed world, the term ‘networked public sphere’ connotes a more plentiful public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation of all kinds. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where artificial borders and legacies of ethnic strife have yet to solidify many countries into nations, the narrative is more complicated… (However) the internet and mobile phones have lowered the barriers to participation and increased the opportunities for many-to-many communication.”

Of particular interest is the development of Ushahidi, a web tool launched by concerned citizens in response to the violence that followed the Kenyan elections in January 2008. It’s what’s described as a ‘mash-up’… a blending of two internet applications to present information in a compelling way. The designers behind Ushahidi mixed Google maps with a tool letting users report incidents of violence, add photos and reports — providing eye-witness detailed accounts of violence. The inspiration was based on long-term need: “For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out”.

The idea followed in the steps of another project started in 2006 by concerned young students in Kenya, frustrated at not being able to hold their MPs accountable because of the lack of information about the work of the Kenyan Parliament. They set up Mzalendo, a volunteer project that started as a simple blog.

I first came across their work in 2007 when I was chairing a session on media and new technology at a Polis/LSE conference on Development, Governance and the Media. A report based on the conference was published after the event and is available through the Polis website. The report notes that the students set up Mzalendo “because the technology gave them a way to get past what they describe as a closed society that works on a presumption ‘that the public does not have the right to know unless they have special permission’. In other words, they did it because they could and they gave themselves permission.”

Back to Ushahidi. Initial deployment of the web app was used by 45,000 people in Kenya. Within a matter of months, it had been adopted by a group in South Africa to map incidents of xenophobic violence. A grant allowed the team to rebuild the platform for more widespread use. Subsequently it has been used by Al Jazeera during the War on GazaVote Report India (to monitor the recent local elections) and Pak Voices (to map incidents of violence in Pakistan). Today the software can be downloaded for free, allowing anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. The goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response — a benefit that is still proving of great value in Haiti.

Next on my reading list (after a diversion for John Irving’s latest, Last Night in Twisted River) is Science and Innovation for Development, written by Gordon Conway and Jeff Waage with Sara Delaney, and published by the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences.

* In Africa, according to The Guardian, “average mobile penetration stands at more than a third of the population… Gabon, the Seychelles and South Africa now boast almost 100% penetration. Only five African countries – Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia – still have a penetration of less than 10 per 100 inhabitants. (In) Uganda, the first African country to have more mobiles than fixed telephones … penetration has risen from 0.2% in 1995 to 23% in 2008… Street vendors offer mobile access on a per-call basis. They also invite those without access to electricity to charge their phones using car batteries. Popular mobile services include money transfers, allowing people without bank accounts to send money by text message. Many farmers use mobiles to trade and check market prices.”

 

Robin Hood meets Jeffrey Sachs 17 February 2010

The excellent publicity garnered already for the variation on the Tobin Tax launched as the ‘Robin Hood tax‘ by the team behind ‘Make Poverty History’ gets more great coverage next Tuesday (23 Feb) with an RSA debate featuring Prof Jeffrey Sachs (author of ‘The End of Poverty’ and  Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University), Prof Stephany Griffith-Jones (Financial Markets Program Director at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University), with the involvement also of Richard Curtis and Bill Nighy, who made the launch filmlet on the website…

If you can’t make the debate (it’s at 9:00am), you can hear it live on audio…

 

This crazy world of “pathological greed” 17 February 2010

The supermarkets may be fair game in their approach to market saturation, but the financial greed that we’ve recently associated with the City continues infect other sectors… and it’s not appreciated… A recent correspondent in The Guardian had this to say about the new M&S CEO: “… after Marc Bolland’s £15m golden hello, I’m selling my shares and will no longer give M&S my custom. That Bolland has the interests of the company at heart really stretches credibility. To demand that much of the profits before he joins the firm reflects pathological greed”.

Much positive work around these issues is being completed by the think tank Tomorrow’s Company, which is succeeding in getting a growing number of boards and investors to think about stewardship.

However, in a note sent out in late January, Mark Goyder, Founder Director of Tomorrow’s Company, said that “to us the really worrying lesson from the Cadbury experience is that all the new commitment to stewardship will count for very little if in the course of a takeover bid, everything is reduced to a single number, and the perceived value of that single number is at the mercy of market sentiment and emotion. Acquiring companies should be required by the government to justify their bid against stewardship criteria. Boards considering a bid should be required to explain if they think the bidders have satisfied them on each of these criteria. We need more transparency on the plans of the acquirer and the reasoning of the acquiree.”  He pursued the same angle in an article in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. But of course Cadbury and the Government both rolled over with concern only for the shareholders.

More craziness has become apparent involving the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, the body to be responsible for the handling of salaries and expenses of MPs. According to the Government website, the chair will be paid up to £100,000 in his first year, while MPs are paid 35% less — £64,766. Crazy or what?

 

We need vibrant independents in the high street 16 February 2010

The Lib Dems have just launched a new policy paper entitled ‘Vibrant local high streets‘. The party’s news release outlines “proposals to:

  • Encourage the development of a PostBank and free the Post Office from the Royal Mail to enable it to develop new business.
  • Introduce a local competition test for all planning applications for new retail developments to establish a fairer balance between local independent stores and large supermarkets.
  • Establish a system of Local Enterprise Funds and regional stock exchanges to ensure small businesses get access to cost effective equity that meets their needs.”

I’m particularly interested in the bit about “creating a fair marketplace”. The proposals are not extensively set out, so as usual, we would have to wait for the detail. However, the paper notes that the Lib Dems “would require each local planning authority to produce a plan of retail development in their area (to) provide a safeguard against the over expansion of large supermarkets”. The party would introduce ” local competition test for all planning applications for new retail developments, requiring that they show beneficial effects”.

One can easily imagine the serried ranks of supermarket lawyers arguing forcefully about the “beneficial effects” that another massive store would provide. But if anything good is going to come out of the last couple of years’ pain, we have to massively adjust the balance between the major supermarkets and the rest. In Trowbridge (four miles south of Bradford on Avon), Tesco has probably doubled in size in the last few years. A new Sainsbury’s superstore is now under construction there as well. A massive new Asda is going up in Melksham (just six miles from Trowbridge and from BoA), as well as a Waitrose – and Sainsbury’s want an extension to an existing store there as well. Eight miles to the west, in Bath, there is a Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Morrisons.

I remember reading some years ago of Tesco’s intent that no-one in the UK (except in far-flung places such as the Highlands) should be more than 10 minutes’ drive from one of their stores. No question that the other supermarkets have had similar intentions, more or less. The result has been immense damage to our high streets, as what starts out as a food store competes with everything else in the high street – pharmacy, clothes shop, electrical shop, hardware shop, kitchen shop, bookshop, stationers, off-licence and now bank. The result is an emasculated high street struggling for survival in every part of the country. Ah, but it’s all down to consumer choice, the supermarkets tell us. Rubbish… the major supermarkets’ hold on the food market is a classic oligopoly… able to maximise profits, set prices and introduce high barriers to entry.You know that, I know that, the supermarkets know that…

So well done the Lib Dems for raising the subject. And well done also for their idea of encouraging the return of regional stock exchanges, to match local investors with local fledgling growth businesses. Now that would be localism…

 

Bradford on Avon: it’s time to move on 11 February 2010

There is a tension that underlies many conversations in Bradford on Avon about the way forward. For some, it came to the fore with the arguments over the proposed foot/cycle bridge connecting the north and south sides of the town to the east of the Grade 1 Town Bridge. Last night, Wiltshire Council planning committee voted 8-3 in favour of the application for the Mark Lovell design for a single sided cabled stayed bridge with an inclined mast and near vertical ties. The application was prepared and submitted by the Town Council.

A number of people in the town took exception to both the design and the cost of the bridge. That’s fine. No-one has a monopoly on aesthetics. And the cost has always to be seen in context. However, some of the tactics used by the protesters have been simply unacceptable. None more so than a letter sent to one of the Town Councillors involved in the project that appeared to be threatening in its intent.

There are extremely tight criteria which the Town Council has had to adhere to, set by bodies as diverse as the Environment Agency, English Heritage and Wiltshire Council itself. And, correctly in my view, the Town Council has sought to provide a bridge that will provide a strong statement of confidence in the future. Importantly, the Town Council and Mark Lovell both wanted a bridge that reflected the industrial past of the town.

Bradford on Avon has been stuck in a rut for the past 15 years. We have to move forward. And sometimes that means being brave and bold about the way we see things advancing. And it means respecting the views of others, particularly if those views are intellectually honest and honestly held. There is an enormous amount of new opportunity coming to Bradford on Avon in the next five or so years — resulting in more jobs, a revived public realm, a stronger retail presence in the heart of the town, and a determination to make motor traffic subservient to the needs of other road users, particularly pedestrians.

So the bridge has planning permission. It will provide a new, strong and dynamic link across the river, allowing people for the first time to cross through the Kingston Mills site. We can make it work. Together.

 

“Well-being is more than having more…” 9 February 2010

Dipped into Avner Offer’s book*, mentioned below in context of the RSA debate on 24 February. Some of his closing words are instructive:

“Well-being is much more than market power. Acceptance, autonomy, free expression, control, regard, free time, slack — these are all goods which the national accounts fail to capture….

“In Britain … after school is over, the convivial and social needs of young people are largely met at the street corner or (for teenagers) by the pub and alcohol industries. Instead of acquiring the tools of reciprocity and commitment, impressionable young people are exposed to intoxicating, short-term dissipation. There is no commercial profit in offering an alternative…

“Achieving well-being depends primarily on how (and how well) we understand ourselves. Well-being is more than having more. It is a balance between our own needs, and those of others, on whose goodwill and approbation our own well-being depends. I was not so clear in my mind about this when I set out on this investigation….”

If we’re going to succeed in building a sustainable economic future for the mid-Wilts area, we’re going to be exploring some complex and contentious issues. Explaining to businesses the broader issues and engaging them wholeheartedly in producing a route-map for the years ahead will be a challenge — at a time when their primary concern is a more visceral question of survival!

The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950. Avner Offer, Oxford University Press 2006.

 

RSA debate: GDP or wellbeing? 9 February 2010

The broad question of a sustainable economic future is being debated at the RSA on 24 February. They will be running a live audio feed. The blurb for the event says:

“Up until now GDP has been widely accepted as the primary indicator of national success, despite the fact that it does not take into account many elements that affect human welfare and wellbeing. However in recent months … leading figures on the world stage have raised their voices in a challenge to the dominant economic model… In the UK, the Sustainable Development Commission has added their voice to the debate, calling for a society, ‘whose primary goal should be the wellbeing of society itself and of the planetary resources and environment that sustains us all, with economic objectives shaped to support that central goal rather than the other way around’.

“But just how realistic is it to consider shifting from strongly growth-focused economic norms to a new and broader definition of prosperity and progress? And, despite the mounting evidence … is it still politically too risky to seriously question the goal of growth?”

Speakers: Tim Jackson – director of the Research Group on Lifestyles, Values and Environment at the University of Surrey; Avner Offer, Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford & author of The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950. Important debate. Details here.

 

Creating virtue from a virtual area 5 February 2010

So how do we take forward the idea of linking towns together…?

If we can create the idea of a virtual economic area, then we can build synergy and create a stronger focus for sustainable economic development. In practical terms, we can become a higher profile unit acting together. Rather than each town taking an introverted response to the need for sustainable growth and turning in on itself, the virtual economic area empowers the communities to work together for the benefit of the area as a whole, while always maintaining town-focused actions where that is more appropriate.

If we can find some solutions to this challenge, then we will raise the profile of the mid-Wiltshire area within the county and the region — and fight for the benefits of that higher profile through inward investment and job creation.

This approach falls within the mainstream of government thinking. The new PPS4 ‘Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth’, published at the end of 2009, implements recommendations of the ‘Taylor Review’ (2008), supporting traditional market town centres. Our concern is not only to build the economic and environmental sustainability of our towns (some of which received market town charters more than 800 years ago, as I said yesterday), but also to break new ground – and to use our experience to help other communities finding themselves in a similar position. More later.

 

What kind of future is there for market towns? 4 February 2010

I’m working with colleagues on an initiative to help our surrounding market and country towns adapt and prosper in the years ahead (let’s not use the word ‘regeneration’). Devizes received its first charter in 1141, Melksham in 1219, Westbury in 1252. Bradford on Avon has had industrial-scale manufacturing in the town for almost 800 years. During the Middle Ages Warminster was second only to Bristol in the West of England as a centre for corn trading. By 1820, Trowbridge was described as the “Manchester of the West” with more than 2,000 wool-producing factories.

So this area was once a key part of a great national economic powerhouse. But, in economic terms what’s it for now? What’s the economic function of each of our towns? How should market and country towns address the three ‘Ps’ of sustainability – people, planet and profits? Are communities sufficiently empowered to drive change? Can our towns build a sustainable economic future by acting as satellites to the city region of Bristol/Bath? Or are we condemned to a middling future as part dormitory/part retirement communities? What can we learn from (or teach) our continental counterparts? How can the experience of others be used to best advantage?

We tend to think of our own towns as individual communities, fighting our own corner. But supposing we started thinking about the towns in this part of Wiltshire as a cluster? “Every local area’s economy is shaped by links with neighbouring areas … parochialism is the enemy of prosperity”, saysWill Hutton in the foreword of a new report on northern city regions — but it’s just as true for smaller towns…

Tomorrow I’ll come back to how we’re taking this idea forward…

 

Lunch in Ghazni, Afghanistan 31 January 2010

Back to Hazel Wood’s 1970s trip to Afghanistan*, this time when she stopped in Ghazni, southwest of Kabul and embroiled in the current conflict: “We lunched in a run-down joint called Ferroki, renowned for its kebabs. However, being one of the three meatless days in the week, imposed by the neo-President, we had to make do with the other specialty of the house – a tasty mess of eggs, tomatoes and onions cooked in oil called Karoyi Kabab. This was eaten with one’s fingers, with the help of slabs of nan. Outside every eating house or humblest chaikhana was a tap for washing of hands, a rigorous performance both before and after a meal and especially necessary after a dish such as we had just eaten. At the more far-flung restaurants we visited, I was invariably the only woman present but my presence rarely caused comment or the raising of eyebrows, apart from occasionally being offered a spoon in lieu of fingers…
* From Whatever Next by Hazel Wood. Available through Amazon UK, UK booksellers or from me direct. Great stories…

Anyone been there more recently?

 

Afghanistan in earlier days… 28 January 2010

With the London conference on Afghanistan catching the news, I’ve turned back to the engaging account Hazel Wood wrote of her travels in ‘Whatever Next‘ (disclosure: I published the book). In 1968, Hazel and a couple of friends formed Specialtours. In 1973, Hazel went on a recce trip to Afghanistan with a view to starting cultural tours to the country, one of the first to do so. She was clearly transfixed by the country and its people and spent days travelling widely with a local driver and guide for company. Her anecdotes of the difficulties encountered in trying to fix a tour schedule are sympathetically and wittily told.

One of the highlights was undoubtedly her visit to the Bamiyan buddhas (sadly destroyed by the Taliban), but there was no shortage of entertainment and drama … including the time an eagle crashed into the car’s windscreen (and was promptly retrieved by the driver for onward sale) … or negotiation over the use of the toilet block in a yurt with a bunch of Japanese tourists … or encounters with nomadic tribes. Specialtours took three tours to the country, until stopped by the Russian invasion.

Hazel’s book covers a great many other travel tales, as well as her life as a FANY during the 39-45 war. Delightfully told, warm and generous of spirit.

 

“Extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness.” 25 January 2010

The New Economics Foundation has just published ‘Growth isn’t Possible: Why we need a new economic direction‘, affirming that endless economic growth isn’t possible when we’re faced with the threat of climate change and other critical environmental boundaries. The introduction put the point succinctly:

“From birth to puberty a hamster doubles its weight each week. If, then, instead of levelling-off in maturity as animals do, the hamster continued to double its weight each week, on its first birthday we would be facing a nine billion tonne hamster. If it kept eating at the same ratio of food to body weight, by then its daily intake would be greater than the total, annual amount of maize produced worldwide.6 There is a reason that in nature things do not grow indefinitely.”

The report quotes Kenneth E. Boulding, an Economist and co-founder of General Systems Theory: ”Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

And they quote our own Adair Turner,  chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority: “If you spend your time thinking that the most important objective of public policy is to get growth up from 1.9 per cent to 2 per cent and even better 2.1 per cent we’re pursuing a sort of false god there. We’re pursuing it first of all because if we accept that, we will do things to the climate that will be harmful, but also because all the evidence shows that beyond the sort of standard of living which Britain has now achieved, extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness.”

When the head of the FSA starts raising these questions, something is going on. And even the World Economic Forum’s Davos meeting this week is based around the theme  of  “Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild”. Is major change in the wind?

Happiness is anything but a warm gun…

Talking of the NEF, I have only just come across a report they published in the middle of last year  — the Happy Planet Index. Perhaps surprisingly for anyone who doesn’t know the country, the Index put Costa Rica at the top of a list that ranked nations by mixing together their ecological footprint with the happiness of their citizens. The Index covers 99% of the world’s population.

Costa Rica scored 76.1 out of 100. Not surprising — as well as reporting the highest life satisfaction in the world, Costa Ricans also have the second-highest average life expectancy of the New World (second only to Canada). Costa Rica narrowly fails to achieve the goal of ‘one-planet living’: consuming its fair share of natural resources. They took the wonderful step of abolishing their army in 1949, freeing up government money to spend on social programmes — and today 99% of their energy comes from renewable resources!

Of the ten countries after Costa Rica in the Index, all but one is in Latin America. The highest ranking Group of 20 (G20) country in terms of HPI is Brazil, in 9th place out of 143. Together, Latin American and Caribbean nations have the highest mean HPI score for any region (59 out of 100).

The bottom ten HPI scores were all suffered by sub-Saharan African countries, with Zimbabwe bottom of the table with an HPI score of 16.6 out of 100. Rich developed nations fall somewhere in the middle. The highest-placed Western nation is the Netherlands – 43rd out of 143. The UK still ranks midway down the table – 74th, behind Germany, Italy and France. It is just pipped by Georgia and Slovakia, but beats Japan and Ireland. The USA comes a long way back in 114th place.

The Report is published on a dedicated site: www.happyplanetindex.org, According to the site, those who sign the site’s Charter for a Happy Planet believe that:

  • A new narrative of progress is required for the twenty-first century.
  • It is possible to have a good life without costing the Earth.
  • Over-consumption in rich countries represents one of the key barriers to sustainable well-being worldwide and that governments should strive to identify economic models that do not rely on constantly growing consumption to achieve stability and prosperity.

“They call for:

  • Governments to measure people’s well-being and environmental impact in a consistent and regular way, and to develop a framework of national accounts that considers the interaction between the two so as to guide us towards sustainable well-being.
  • Developed nations to set an HPI target of 89 by 2050 – this means reducing per capita footprint to 1.7 global hectares, increasing mean life satisfaction to eight (on a scale of 0 to 10) and continuing to increase mean life expectancy to reach 87 years.
  • Developed nations and the international community to support developing nations in achieving the same target by 2070.

“Times of crisis are times of opportunity. Now is the time for societies around the world to speak out for a happier planet, to identify a new vision of progress, and to demand new tools to help us work towards it. The HPI is one of these tools, but we also hope that it will inspire people to act.”

 

New year, new resolution 24 January 2010

Three months’ hiatus and frustration… Wiltshire Council’s Performance Reward Grant Scheme rejected BoA’s application for funding to prepare a Town plan. Their reasons for rejection didn’t make sense… for example, they suggested that the Town Plan would conflict with the work of the Town Council and Wiltshire Council’s own work on the Local Development Framework (LDF). Yet the Town Council was a joint applicant  and had written clearly why they wanted to see this happen. And the officer at Wiltshire Council responsible for pulling together the LDF had also provided his wholehearted support! No appeal process, it seems…

When you come up against an unexpected wall, the natural reaction is one of frustration and anger. And then you find a way round it. There’s going to be something like £70-80 million invested in the town in the next five years (mostly building developments, but also other initiatives which we’ll hear more about in the next year or so) … so we need a Town Plan for BoA and we must find a way of getting the cash together to do it. Otherwise we risk a lack of context in looking at new plans… and we’ll have no idea of what the community wants to see specific to the town in terms of new facilities etc… I’ve done the anger and frustration – now it’s time to find a way round the problem. And in the words of the great man: “Hang on, lads; I’ve got a great idea.”

 

The BoA jigsaw 31 October 2009

The heart of Bradford on Avon was badly scarred by the closure of the six-acre Avon site 15 years ago. 1200 people used to work there. It’s taken a lot of angst, anger & frustration to reach the point today where regeneration of the site has started. But started it has – and maybe we’re now beginning to make our own luck. We must be one of the few mixed development sites of its size in the UK which is going ahead.

With the town shattered 15 years ago, the pieces of the jigsaw needed to put back together a thriving working town have become clear and are beginning to fit into place. The climate in the town has changed – led in many instances by a an influx of young families and couples who have moved here in the past 2-3 years.

I’ll have news of some of the pieces of the jigsaw in the coming weeks. Meantime, the work of the Chamber of Commerce is one example – they’ve just won £10K of lottery money for a 10-day Christmas market. 2012 is the target date for assembly of the jigsaw – forget the Olympics – we’re going to have our own fest!!

 

Make fun=better life… who can argue with that? 31 October 2009

Thanks to Liz for the link… Volkswagen are behind a wacky idea that has a great point to make… As the site blurb says: “This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.” They’re running a competition for fun ideas – closing date 15 November, with winners announced a month later and picking up a prize of €2500.

Check out the website – and the idea of a staircase turned into a live piano keyboard, a rubbish bin with an endless drop and a fruit machine bottle bank… Now that’s what we need in Bradford on Avon!

 

Penelope Trunk, kairos, Wired and blogging 20 October 2009

My thanks to the wonderful Penelope Trunk for this link to an article by Clive Thompson in Wired magazine. Turns out Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, studied almost 15,000 samples of student writing, from assignments to tweats. She reckons “we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization”. It seems that technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it. There’s talk of kairos – the old Greek rhetorical trick of assessing your audience and adapting the way you write so that you get your message across.

Ms Trunk has been fighting the corner in support of young people for years through her blog – and now her online careers advisory service, Brazen Careerist, what she describes as the “career management tool for next generation professionals”. Caught up in the maelstrom of 9/11 (which gave rise to a memorable account), she has been blogging in one form or another for 10 years or so with candour, humour and a deceptively accurate understanding of what philosophers like to call “the human condition”. (Try this one, on taming materialism….)

Thompson ends his Wired piece with some sound advice for those who scoff at the way young people communicate today: “We think of writing as either good or bad. What today’s young people know is that knowing who you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.”

 

Trafigura, Twitter and free speech 13 October 2009

13:00. Great result. The block against The Guardian withdrawn (here). A few thousand tweets within a space of an hour or less… amazing…

Posted 12:33… Anyone doubting the potential value of Twitter should see the impact of the news that The Guardian has had a gagging order imposed preventing it from reporting the fact of a parliamentary question (here). Stephen Fry and others alerted the world to what’s going on and all tweets are going to #trafigura … the company at the heart of the row. Since I started writing these words, another 1000 tweets have arrived and they’re still pouring in…  So well done the lawyers – they’ve succeeded in ensuring everyone knows what’s going on… (irony)… Great stuff.

 

David Hockney iPhone originals 13 October 2009

Great piece in the current issue of New York Review of Books (here) about David Hockney’s new painting passion – using an app called Brushes (here) which allows you to create high colour images on the screen using your fingers. (Worth checking out the app site and their gallery. They also offer a viewer for Mac OS so you can see your artworks on your computer..)

Apparently he’s done hundreds of pictures and sent them to a group of about a dozen friends. He assumes they rapidly go out into the digital world. Anyone received an original Hockney this way?

 

“… there is so little local opportunity.” 12 October 2009

Will Hutton in The Observer (here) yesterday: “The reason why there is so much desperate poverty in towns round the country as disparate as Bognor Regis or Bradford – and why generation after generation depends on benefit – is that there is so little local opportunity. One council leader I met dared openly to say the unsayable – there was no initiative on benefit nor incentive to work that could break the cycle of welfare dependency because there was no local worthwhile work… Irreversible de-industrialisation meant his community was sunk.”

That’s the legacy Bradford on Avon was left with after Avon Tyres decamped. From a six-acre factory site employing 1,200 local people to nothing in 1994. And only today is a development just beginning on the site, after 15 years of struggle. We’re going to have to recreate a new working environment, a new office market – but we don’t have six acres or commercial use – most of it has gone to housing. Still, plans to be announced later this month will hopefully put new life into the town. By 2012, this town will be humming again… Just need to keep the energy focused….

 

“The very dust under your feet…” 11 October 2009

Chief Seattle, leader of the Squamish Tribe, described the relationship between native Americans and the white man in a speech to the Governor of the Washington Territory, in 1855.

“Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe… The very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.

“… when the last Red Man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among white men shall have become a myth, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the woods, they will not be alone. At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The white man will never be alone.”

Chief Seattle died in 1866 & is buried in sight of the city that bears his name. Access his speech here.

 

A mote of dust – that’s us 11 October 2009

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft went walkabout beyond the solar system, astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that the spacecraft was turned round to take a picture of Earth. What appeared was a tiny blue dot, no more than a pixel…  Sagan had this to say :

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know. Everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever WAS lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering , thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ’superstar’, every ’supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

 

“Survival is not mandatory” 7 October 2009

W. Edwards Deming, the US management guru who changed the way companies worked with his total quality management principles, apparently once wrote: “You don’t have to change. Survival is not mandatory“.

The quote appears in ‘A Renewable World’ (www.greenbooks.co.uk), a report for the World Future Council (www.worldfuturecouncil.org) published earlier this year and written by former Schumacher Society UK Chairman and founder of the World Future Council Herbert Girardet and sustainability specialist Miguel Mendonça.  According to the publishers, the book “explores proven and emerging solutions for building a global green energy economy as a basis for a prosperous and yet sustainable world”. Just about to read it, but sounds as if it should be an interesting complement to Jonathan Porritt’s ‘Capitalism: As if the World Matters’ (www.earthscan.co.uk).

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