We're parking up the wrong tree

With air pollution linked to nearly 40,000 deaths every year, tackling London’s air quality crisis will be one of new Mayor Sadiq Khan’s biggest priorities. It’s a shame then to see that he’s neglected one free market solution on offer. Using market demand to set parking charges could bring emissions down by reducing congestion and encouraging more people to use public transport. It’d also raise more revenue for Borough councils, allowing them to bring council tax rates down.

People often talk about parking spaces as if they were public goods, yet as MarketUrbanism’s Emily Washington points out, parking spaces are not a public good like clean air. By breathing in clean air I don’t diminish the amount of clean air available for you, yet this isn’t the case with parking: every person who parks deprives everyone else of that parking space. Giving away a scarce resource for free should be anathema to conservatives, yet bizarrely it’s often Conservative politicians who make the case for either free or heavily underpriced parking. As UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup keenly observed “Staunch conservatives often become ardent communists when it comes to parking”

For example, last year former Community Secretary (and former ardent communist) Eric Pickles imposed a series of regulations on local councils, making it harder for them to raise revenue from parking charges, with restrictions on parking enforcement and ring-fencing for what the money raised by parking charges can be spent on. Pickles argues that keeping the cost of parking low will benefit both motorists and the high street.

But, the evidence doesn’t stand up. What underpricing parking actually causes is excessive congestion as the scarcity of parking spaces encourages drivers to cruise around looking for an empty space. Prof. Shoup looked at sixteen different studies, which measured cruising behaviour in the central business districts of major cities. He found that they average time spent cruising for a parking space was around 8 minutes, and that at any one time 30% of cars in the traffic flow were cruising for a parking space.

This is no less true when the parking is provided by a council, and not a private landowner or business—we should want government organisations to ape private firms by using prices to clear markets as much as possible.

Cruising isn’t the only way underpriced parking causes congestion. Cheap pricing acts as a subsidy to motorists at the expense of the tax payer. 95% of parking away from home is free to the motorist, and households spend on average £47 a year on parking, a very small fraction of the £1,600 per vehicle spent on fuel each year.  Yet Shoup’s research suggests that the value of a parking space in a major city, is something in the range of tens of thousands of pounds. If motorists bore the true costs of car travel, they’d be much less likely to use their car and more likely to switch to public transport, further reducing congestion.

This reduces air pollution in two ways. By reducing both the total number of cars emitting fumes and the amount of fumes each car emits. As cars stuck in slow-moving traffic emit more than those in free-flow.

What about the risk to the high street? Advocates of free parking argue that charging more for parking will hit high street retailers and further contributing to the long term decline in high street retail. But the evidence is weak. Free parking advocates typically rely on surveys of what drivers say they would do if parking prices change, however as economists frequently find out, revealed preferences can differ widely from stated preferences. 

One study in the German city of Herford found that when free parking was introduced it had no effect on overall sales, but did increase traffic. Shoup’s own research suggests free parking can actually reduce the number of visitors to an area, as free parking encourages long parking stays restricting the number of visitors who can actually park. In fact, in many cases it’s the local workers who take advantage of the free parking spaces., reducing the number of spaces available for consumers.

Pricing parking based on market demand would encourage a more efficient allocation of a scarce resource. It would mean less congestion, cut air pollution, and reduced taxes for Londoners. It wouldn’t hurt high streets and with new technology, it’s easier than ever before.

Architectural Ivory Tower Blocks

Goethe famously wrote that architecture is frozen music. It is a compelling metaphor but if architecture really was music then we would all be able to choose to inhabit an urban environment composed entirely of buildings of beautiful, picturesque or sublime quality.  With all other art forms, you can seek out what is good and shun the rest.... but escaping bad architecture is much more difficult. You may even, if you are unlucky, have to live in it.

If architecture is frozen music, how then might one characterize the architecture that was the concrete ‘muse’ of most European architects in the early post war era and still survives today as the urban environment for millions, especially in poorer areas? Step inside a UK architecture school to pose this question and you might get a shock. Particularly if your question relates to the so-called ‘fathers’ of the International Style in general and Le Corbusier in particular (he of the tabula rasa concept of urban renewal in which everywhere “must” be “totally rebuilt” using only concrete) and their legacy for the UK residential housing stock.

Architectural treasures are to be found across the globe and (in a Western context) from St Petersburg to Manhattan but I have a particular appetite for seeking out the finest frozen music of my own nation that still abounds despite the ravages of mid 20th century architectural vandalism. If UK property prices are any indication of perceived aesthetic value then the mature English suburb is highly prized architecture indeed. But try taking any of this as inspiration for your UK architecture school design project and you can expect an aesthetic dressing down from your tutors.  

To be fair to the profession, I would come to the defence of much of more recent public and commercial architecture in the UK - most of it by architects that the public has never heard of but also by famous ones like Norman Foster. (It is Foster’s verbalisations that irritate me, not his buildings.) Granted there are also the misconceived and perversely misplaced alien ‘carbuncles’ complete with impenetrable pseudo-intellectual rationales – the Liverpool Ferry Terminal Building, for example, (‘angular fun’ we are told) or Drakes Circus in Plymouth (just don’t go there!). And the recent past has not been such a bad time either for the UK built environment more generally, all things considered. It is important to remember that building - like art and music - never has been of a uniformly high standard and the search for some aesthetic final solution leads inexorably to something out of the set of a sci fi B movie. The aesthetic and build quality of mass speculative housing – typically‘traditional’ brick-clad boxes with pitched roofs laid out along residential roads and cul de sacs - may fall short of one’s ideal but it is probably as good now as in the 1930’s and certainly infinitely better than the 50’s to 80’s. 

Between the pre-war past and the reasonably benign present we had the Blitz – by which I mean the three decade long blitz - as the bombs of Modernism, social engineering and megalomaniac town planning rained down across poor war-weary Europe. At least it’s over now? Well, yes and no. Certainly the arrogant certainties of utopian collectivism mercifully crumbled in course of the 70’s. Almost everyone now understands that to give architects and town planners licence to decide wholesale what society’s ‘needs’ are and then dream up megalomaniac schemes for the wholesale satisfaction of these needs is akin to kitting your small child out with a set of power tools and a bag of cement and setting him loose to decide what your pride and joy home needs. Wiser people, of course, never stopped understanding this in the first place but their warnings were drowned out at the time and dismissed as ‘reactionary’ and insensitive of the supposed brave new 20th century zeitgeist.

Almost everyone now understands that the Le Corbusian legacy was entirely malign, even if they have never heard of the man himself. Everyone, that is, except in the ivory towers of architectural academe; its luminary authors of revered set texts and in the more high brow professional journals. I had first-hand experience of this at architecture school in the 1980’s. In my school, the status of ‘Corb’ (as we were encouraged to affectionately call him) as your ultimate architectural hero was, quite simply, a given and dissenting from this position was risky. Such is the power of group-think which universities are, sadly, no less prone to than anywhere else. To be fair, nobody was still plugging the megalomania aspect of their hero; his knock-down-the-centre-of-Paris side. All those undeniably God awful tower blocks for ‘rationally’ housing ‘the people’ that sprang up all over Europe in his name? Well, we were assured, they could not be blamed on ‘Corb’; it was just that his more pedestrian architectural acolytes hadn’t properly understood what he had meant. Anyway, all must be forgiven on account of him being such an innovative ‘genius’.  

The mind-boggling power and reach of the totalitarian intellectual mindset in academia in the middle decades of the 20th century is hard to overstate. The literature - in the field of architecture alone - is as vast as it is dispiriting; the pompous, vacuous theorising, the ‘we must totally and utterly’ manifestos, the arrogant, ivory tower intellectuals casting themselves as champions of ‘the people’.

Unless you have - as I was at architecture school - been force-fed the Le Corbusier mythology, you might well struggle to comprehend just how bizarre is the basis of his iconic status. The man himself - according to a fairly typical 1988 assessment in the architectural literary canon - "ranks with Darwin, Freud (and) Einstein among major figures who have ever affected the world to which we belong.” 

So here are a few snippets of the great man’s thinking: 

“the plan must rule, the street must disappear” (especially all those Parisian street cafes) 

“we must create a state of mind for living in mass production housing”, 

“man must be built upon this axis....in perfect agreement with nature and probably, the universe.”

......Come again??

The fallacious nature of all such prescriptive moralising about architecture was laid bare in David Watkin’s seminal work: Morality and Architecture (1977); a ground breaking scholarly analysis of its whole history, from Pugin, to Le Corbusier and Pevsner. 

The Modernist utopian, collectivist fallacy may have eventually been debunked in the course of the 1970s but – in addition to the ‘Corb’ hero worship - two related and cancerous aspects of the faux radical mindset have survived intact in our schools of architecture. One of them is the idea that an architect aspiring to greatness must also aspire to novelty.  The other is the idea that building design has sociological, psychological and macro-economic dimensions which the architect – simply by virtue of his being an architect – is competent to judge.  What really matters to your average architecture student is drawing - but they are emphatically not deep-thinking psychologists, not economists and not sociologists and never will be because, for the most part, they are not really that interested in these disciplines. Which is fine and just as it should be until, that is, the idea is implanted that their drawings represent some kind of implicit vision for mankind.  If architects are in need of a statement of their mission they need look no further than Vitruvius’s ancient and eloquent aphorism - Firmness, Commodity and Delight – which still stands as a sufficient theoretical basis for any architectural project. But a required part of any architecture student’s design presentation, these days, mustinclude a verbal rationale – often post hoc and invariably half-baked - of how the form, massing and materials of the design are expressive of such imponderables as the supposed psychological ‘needs’ and ‘aspirations’ of the users and the wider ‘community’ which the building is to serve. I wish I could recall some of these comically glib and shallow rationales from my own student days but, of course, the memory has a natural tendency to consign trash to its trash can. The students were, in any case, simply reciting the bogus language of their tutors - in which buildings might be said to be ‘fun’, ‘thought provoking’, ‘democratic’, ‘inclusive’ and other such nonsense. 

In a similarly glib fashion, tradition was, by the late 1980’s, once again recognised as an important aspect of an architect’s education – at least in theory. Of course, by then had come a visceral reaction in society against crass modernity – especially tower block utopia – and Conservation was fast becoming the new vogue. In architecture-school-speak, however, respect for tradition does not mean quite what you might imagine; it might mean, for example, that you still propose to insert some manifestly alien infill development into a gap in a row of period terraced houses - perhaps even the proverbial upended shark, at least metaphorically if not literally. But crucially now, instead of bragging of your iconoclasm, you would go to equally verbose lengths to demonstrate that you were merely respectfully ‘reinterpreting’ the traditional forms. Architects now ‘must’ reinterpret tradition, with ‘must’ being the operative word. I have known of architects who feel compelled to add ‘contemporary’ sticky-on-bits (onto what are, in all other respects, traditional pitched-roof, brick-walled dwellings), for no better reason than their belief that this somehow lifts them above the level of mere speculative housing and into the more rarefied realm of ‘contemporary architecture’. There is of course nothing wrong with innovation per se; it is the knee jerk compulsion to innovate, or ‘reinterpret’ - as a kind of moral imperative - that is the malign 20th century aesthetic legacy. So beware of architectural academics espousing ‘tradition’.

You might think architectural academia’s saving grace is its very isolation from the real world and note that most practising architects ditch much of its baggage when faced with the need to make a living. Partly true - but the persistence of this quaint reverence for octogenarian ‘Modernism’ is symptomatic of a much broader malaise – the persistence (in large measure) in our academic institutions of the kind of cultural Marxist/social engineering assumption currently manifest in Jeremy Corbyn and his devotees.  

Of all the Modernist fallacies, perhaps the greatest was lumping together all building types into a single mould. Many people, including myself, are quite happy to be dazzled by steel and glass in their airport or corporate HQ but not in their residential neighbourhood. A person’s relationship to their home is a unique and complex psychology, well beyond the grasp of crass architectural theorising. If an individual desires to inhabit a dramatic spaceship of steel and glass, then that is fine – providing that they don’t insist on plonking it on your cherished avenue of period Edwardian villas. I am fond of the print on my wall of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and can imagine it being someone’s dream home. For the great majority however, their dream of domestic bliss is located in some-or-other variant of an archetypal pitched roofed dwelling house – and it is this that deserves to be ‘respected’. To insist that the aesthetics of dwelling ‘must’ be ‘modernised’ to suit some perceived advancing zeitgeist is almost as absurd as proposing that any of life’s simple pleasures ‘must’ be modernised; that maybe even sexuality be modernised? Come to think of it though, I do believe there are some in our society today who may indeed be advocating something just along those lines too.

Graham Cunningham March 2016  

This isn't a reason to be against Brexit, far from it

As all will have noted there's an awful lot of propaganda flying around about this Brexit, this idea that Britain might leap free from the clutches of the European superstate (not that we want to hide our opinion here). It is sadly true though that quite some measure of that shrieking and wailing in the headlines doesn't actually tell the story being indicated. Take this for example, that Brexit would lead to a fall in the pound, a rise in inflation and thus a rise in interest rates:

The Bank of England will need to raise its key interest rate or Bank Rate to 3.5pc by the end of next year if Britain votes to leave the EU, the newest recruit to the Monetary Policy Committee has warned privately.

Michael Saunders, who was chief economist at Citibank, and will join the rate-setting MPC in August, said the drastic rise would be needed because Brexit would cause the pound to collapse, which would send inflation sharply higher.

That does sound oh so terrible, yes. But then consider for a moment what recent economic policy has been. Something, anything, to get the pound down and the inflation rate up. For that's the mechanism by which expansionary austerity might work, as it did back in the 1930s. That's how to square that circle of having a contractionary fiscal policy: by having a massively expansionary monetary one through the exchange rate. 

We've been doing this to the point that the Bank of England currently owns some £400 billion or so of the government's debt. Really, they've been tossing in the kitchen sink and inventing new tricks to try and bring about this situation. Quite why it's a bad thing if we leap free but a good thing if it's done deliberately is hard to fathom.

No, we would not say that this in itself is a good enough reason to vote leave:  our point here is rather about how confused some of the boosters of remain are becoming. We are supposed to be scared of this outcome? The one which government policy has been aimed at for a near a decade already?

Interestingly, assume that it did happen: it wouldn't actually be necessary to raise interest rates in quite that manner anyway. It would provide an interesting opportunity to unwind QE though.

Are we doomed to eternal student living?

Back in April a housing association called ‘The Collective’ launched a new concept property which Vice described as “a sort of all-in halls-of-residence-for-grown-ups where they do your laundry and deliver your sheets and pay for your Wi-Fi but you live in a small bleak white room to justify it all”. The tiny rooms, just 10 sq meters, are available for the eye watering price of £1,083 a month – which as the Guardian noted is about half the average Londoner’s take home pay.

Boasting a space invaders themed communal area and using the term ‘Twodio’ to describe rooms so small you can’t even fit a four ring hob in it, would usually signal that those signing up to the new Old Oak development were a group ripe for ridicule – but they’re not.

At the moment most Londoners are paying just under half of their take home pay on their rent, and that’s before bills. The average rent in London increased a further £17 last year to £298 per week, which starts to make The Collective’s shoeboxes look like more of a bargain.

Private renting now accounts for 27% of all residential accommodation in the capital according to the latest English Housing Survey, and it’s a sector that will continue to grow rapidly with more Londoners renting from a private landlord than owning their own home by 2025.

New mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who’ll have the happy task of trying to control the problem, focused heavily on the housing crisis throughout his campaign. But one of the less publicised proposals of Sadiq’s is the idea to give the London Mayor the ability to cap rents, and this is where we start to disagree.

It is obvious that we need to alleviate the pressures on renters in London but it’s important not to get into the habit of sticking regulatory plasters all over what is in fact a huge gapping oozing wound created in the large part by the planning system.

Putting a price ceiling on any product below the market rate causes shortages: demand outstrips supply. Landlords will remove their investments if their returns are capped, consequently shrinking the choice of rental properties, but also flooding the housing market and causing a sudden fall in house prices.

There are further potential repercussions which hurt those they mean to serve, such as limited tenancies. If you’re capping increases in rent during a tenancy, then landlords are likely to have a much higher turnover of renters in their property so as to keep up with market value – not compatible with the three-year standard lease Labour are looking for.

Capping also runs the risk of limiting social mobility as people locked into low rent contracts will find it costlier than they otherwise would to move. This may not sound important, but lowered housing mobility causes higher unemployment as people are less ready to move to find new jobs.

The best way to reduce the cost of housing is to build more, not stifle the supply. And we need to build a lot of new homes if we’re going to make any significant impact. As we’ve argued before, building on just 20,000 acres of the Metropolitan Green Belt (roughly 3.7%) would create room for the 1m new homes needed, estimating 50 houses per acre; nearly all of which could be built within 10 minute’s walk of a station.

If we don’t start building soon, we may just be subjecting ourselves to an eternity of passive aggressive conversation across a communal dining table with our 451 flat mates.

So just how badly is the economy doing? Pretty well actually

So just how badly is the economy doing? Pretty well actually

We're generally told that the entire economy is slipping down that slope to hell in that proverbial handbasket. and yet when we go and look at what people are saying, away from the politically oriented opinion pages, in those very same newspapers we find rather a different story. Things seem to be getting better, perhaps not as fast as we would like, but better they are indeed getting. From the Guardian

How Houston densified beautifully through markets

I recently came upon a 2011 document (pdf) from a local architect working in a suburb of Houston that I have become somewhat obsessed with. Basically, it's a pictorial account of how Houston—which has practically no land-use regulations at all—has developed as a city.

First, it sprawled outwards, but as the sprawl and population growth created more economic activity, and agglomeration benefits, the demand for housing near the centre rose and rose. Since there was no restriction on simply adding a few floors to buildings, and filling in gaps between them, to maximise the value of plots, and how many people they could accommodate, developers simply did this. And they did it beautifully and harmoniously, rippling outwards to make Houston denser and better.

Houses like these...

Houses like these...

...quickly become houses like these

...quickly become houses like these

The document, by architect Barbara Tennant, mainly tells its picture through stories, so you should check out the whole thing, as they say. But it has a few key lessons, repeated throughout: restrictions were minimal, with no height limits, freedom of style and design, and only a few rules on setbacks (how far properties must be from the street).

The results are impressive. Houston is cheap, diverse, rich, and growing, and this policy experiment should make us more sanguine about the results to London's skyline if we drastically reduced land-use regulations. The results of private development seem to be very attractive; by contrast planning restrictions seem to make things uglier and less popular.



...and dense beauty

...and dense beauty

Happy 117th birthday, Hayek

F A Hayek, the Anglo-Austrian Nobel economist and liberal thinker, was born yesterday in 1899.
Hayek’s economic works in the 1930s, researched with his mentor Ludwig von Mises, showed how boom and bust cycles arose from the inept government manipulation of credit; and he became the leading critic of collectivism, central planning and the expansionist interventionism of John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), arguing that the latter would lead to inflation and economic dislocation. 

The Second World War turned his attention to political science, and his bestselling The Road to Serfdom (1944) traced the roots of totalitarianism, arguing that central planning, being counterproductive, requires increasing compulsion to maintain. 

In The Constitution of Liberty (1960), he set out ideas for a free social and economic order. He updated the classical liberal idea of self-regulating, spontaneous social orders, showing how they emerge from the regular behaviour (or ‘rules’) followed by individuals. He argued that these orders, though unplanned, could process a huge amount of knowledge – held by individuals but dispersed, partial, personal and often ephemeral – more knowledge that any planning agency could process, even if it could access it. 

In The Fatal Conceit (1988), he argues that it is a delusion to imagine that we could shape such complex orders using the tools of the physical sciences, and that conscious attempts to redesign them would destabilise them and lead to social and economic disaster. 

Hayek also founded of the Mont Pelerin Society, which has become a powerful international forum for classical liberal thinking.

Eamonn Butler is author of Friedrich Hayek – His Ideas and Influence.

The Panama Papers manifesto

The leaker who hacked Mossack Fonseca and thus led to the massive leak of sensitive information (for example, did you know that the British Prime Minister pays all the taxes he owes? In full and on time?) has released his manifesto. Or at least his justification for his actions. It does appear that he is rather remarkably mal-informed about matters:

Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. It affects all of us, the world over. The debate over its sudden acceleration has raged for years, with politicians, academics and activists alike helpless to stop its steady growth despite countless speeches, statistical analyses, a few meagre protests, and the occasional documentary. Still, questions remain: why? And why now?

The Panama Papers provide a compelling answer to these questions: massive, pervasive corruption.

That's his opening and it's just plain flat out wrong.

We agree that within country inequality has risen in recent decades just as global inequality has fallen. But this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any secrecy nor use of offshore. For the quite simple reason that the inequality we're measuring does not include any effects of secrecy or offshore. Because, you see, things that are secret are not included in public information and calculations, and things that are offshore are not included in estimations of in country inequality.

That is, the information revealed has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the thing being complained about, that already measured inequality.

This is, by the whistleblower, logic worth of Richard Murphy. Sadly, the manifesto is, logic and facts aside, too well composed for it to have come from that source so we're still left wondering who it is.


How a poverty meme gets created

We're privileged to be at the birth of a new poverty meme. We can actually watch how it is done. First, you create your own definition of some form of poverty. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have done here. They define destitution as being the following:

The number of destitute people in the UK isn’t measured officially, despite growing concerns about rising use of food banks, homelessness and other indicators of severe poverty in recent years. In fact, when we started this research we found there wasn’t even a widely accepted definition of destitution which we could apply to everyone in the UK. The research team at Heriot-Watt University worked with experts to develop a robust definition, which was then tested with the general public.  Using this, we define destitution as being when someone lacks two or more basic essentials in one month, and so has experienced two or more of the following; slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, gone without weather-appropriate clothes or gone without basic toiletries.

We agree, those are not things which should be happening to people in a rich country. We would also note that the major cause of all and any of these things is the incompetence of the anti-poverty bureaucracy run by the government. But do note that there is an important point about the numbers here:

This week we have published the first comprehensive study into destitution in the UK, which shows that 1.25 million people, including over 300,000 children, were destitute over the course of 2015. 

I any one month the number being failed by that State is some 100,000 people. 100,000 too many, of course, but it is 100,000 who experience perhaps a couple of days of that "destitution" in any one month.

And then, only a week later, see how this meme has subtly altered in the popular press (to the extent that The Guardian is popular of course):

This is what destitution looks like. More than 1 million people in the UK are so poor they can’t afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry, according to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). What’s emerging in austerity Britain is a new level of class inequality: not simply between the wealthy and the poor, but between people who have enough money to buy toilet rolls and cook a hot meal and people who don’t.

They're referring to the very same report. And yet that meaning has hugely changed, hasn't it? From this destitution being a brief period for that 1 million over the course of a year to something that is happening to that 1 million all year.

And thus are memes created. Invent your own definition, however reasonable, attach a caveat, a qualification, and watch everyone run with the uncaveated, unqualified, extreme version. This has been done for decades now with the definition of poverty itself: the modern definition means "not as much as others" rather than the older meaning of poverty of "not much". 

We don't hold with it ourselves, think this is tantamount to lying to us all. But just look around, it's a very common tactic.