China’s First Major European Highways Contract Goes Belly Up

When the Polish contract was awarded in 2008 to build two sections of motorway connecting Germany to Warsaw to a Chinese State Owned Company European competitors were deeply worried.  The bid was unbeatable – 60% less than the guide price, the fear was that Chinese workers would be brought in and bids were pushed down on other contracts because of the ‘chinese effect’. It was the first Chinese enterprise to win a large European highway contract.

However on the 16th the China Peoples Daily rep[orted that China Overseas Engineering Group (COVEC) is withdrawing from the $447 million highway construction project in Poland after incurring heavy losses.  The company said the total cost of the A2 highway construction will reach $786 million, 76 percent higher than the original estimate, as its Polish partner imposed a higher construction standard. Only 20% of the road is complete.

Chris Huhne Attacks Tory ‘deregulation zealots’

At a  conference of social democrats in his party, Huhne made it clear he is opposed to environmental protection laws such as the Climate Change Act, the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the National Parks Act being included in the government’s review of ‘red tape’ to be considered for scrapping.

 “Regulation can help make businesses globally competitive, drive down costs for consumers and realise benefits for the environment, society and the economy as a whole. Win, win, win. The argument shouldn’t be about regulation versus deregulation, more laws versus less. It’s about the kind of regulation we need.”

Whatever the good sense don’t expect Huhne to be a voice of good sense on planning.  He can NIMBY with the best of them.  Here opposing the site of the proposed Ecotown proposal at Hedge End, though he perceptively points out the reason why this was one of the few growth proposals to survive unscathed – the site is owned by Tory Hampshire County Council.  Who said that incentives don’t work

Andalusian Villages are White – not f####g Smurf Blue

Gross act of vandalism in the Spanish village of Juzcar, just to promote a movie about Belgian creatures that sing in Dutch.

Although Sony has vowed to restore Juzcar to its former white glory after the launch, canny residents are toying with the idea of keeping their village blue. With the huge following that smurfs, or pitufos, command, locals believe that Juzcar could become a tourist hot spot left in its new blue livery. It has been mooted that they create “La Ruta del Pitufo” creating a lively tourist industry in the heart of the village.

Reservoir drained after man urinates in it

According to Time

The Portland Water Bureau got pretty pissed off when cameras caught 21-year-old Josh Seater from Molalla, Oregon, urinating in a reservoir in Mount Tabor Park at about 1:30 am Wednesday morning. The Bureau spent about $36,000 to drain the 7.8 million-gallon open reservoir…
David Shaff, administrator of the Portland Water Bureau, argued that the draining was justified because the thought of someone whizzing in the water would make residents stop drinking tap water.
But fortunately for Portlanders, urine is pretty much chemically sterile, Dave Stone, assistant professor of Toxicology at Oregon State University told The Oregonian.
“It’s inappropriate behavior. But how many animals are doing that or birds?” he said. “I don’t want to second-guess the city, but I can’t think of anything chemically that would have me be concerned.”
Dr. Gary Oxman, the Multnomah County health officer who advises the city on infectious disease issues, also explained to the The Oregonian that the typical bladder holds a mere 6-8 ounces of water, which should quickly dilute in the reservoir and pose negligible health risks. That news should relieve Portland residents.

Privatising the Neighbourhood – the ideological origins of neighbourhood planning

Where do the ideas in ‘Open Source Planning‘ including the concept of Neighbourhood Plans, come from?

I would submit that that they clearly originate from a number of hard-right and vociferously anti-planning US think tanks, which have established links with some MPs.

Although the focus has been on Open Source Planning by John Howell MP he had earlier backed a report by the Bow Group in July 2009 called ‘Our Towns Our Cities: The Next Steps for Planning Reform’   Many of the ideas for changes, such as scrapping regional plans, was in here, but in sketchy form.  It did not include proposals for neighbourhood plans. This thinking came from the US.

Typical of this strain of thought is the article in 1999 in George West Review ‘Privatizing the Neighbourhood:  A Proposal to replace Zoning with Private Collective Property Eights to Existing Neighbourhoods’ by Robert H Nelson of US lobby Group the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  This has been cited nearly 120 times in various other papers, mostly published by right wing think tanks.  The arguments were expanded in a 2005 book Private Neighbourhoods And the Transformation of Local Government  here he argues that neighbourhoods should have the right to secede some services, as should schools, and that municipalities should have the right to merge some services to achieve economies of scale.  This tract was highly influential in uk conservative circles.  Oddly one radical idea that might have been progressive, that poor neighbourhoods such as Council Estates/Projects should be able to secede and sell their land, was ignored in the UK.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is strongly opposed to environmental education of children and is part of broader coalitions which deny global warming. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been a particularly aggressive advocate of the notion that global warming is a ‘theory not a fact.’   One ad it produced in 2006 stated that CO2 is misrepresented as a pollutant, saying that “it’s essential to life. We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in… They call it pollution. We call it life.’  (see Sourcewatch).  They seem to be writing the anti-evironmental copybook for Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

It is linked to the UK-based rightwing think tank, the International Policy Network, via shared staff and an identical US contact address.  The IPN ihas  set up the websites of certain “partner “organisations which have all the appearances of being African or Asian NGOs, but seem little more than satellite front organisations whose true identity is also hidden.It is a  first world corporate front organisation setting up websites for so-called third world organisations, who then attack western environmentalists for being Imperialists.

The IPN has particularly close links to the Institute of Economic Affairs who regular complaints about the costs and burdens of the UK planning system feature in the coalition governments ‘regulatory impact assessments’ without any comment, challenge or analysis.

In privatizing the Neighbourhood Robert H Nelson argued that private homeowner associations were a viable alternative to zoning.  Such associations date back to the 19th Century and many had racial motivations.  Many early covenants and deed restrictions enforced by associations were exclusionary in origin, and in the first half of the 20th century many were racially motivated.  For example, a racial covenant in a Seattle, Washington neighborhood stated, “No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic race.”   Zoning consents in the US are often accomplished by conditioning plat or other approval on the creation of amenities such as roads, open areas, water retention basins, etc. and an obligation to maintain them. In towns where such regulations exist, people who wish to purchase a home have no choice but to live in a Home Owner Association.Voting in a homeowner association is based on property ownership, only property owners are eligible to vote in elections.

Parts of the US have no zoning laws.  The largest example is Houston Texas. Although it does not have zoning laws it does have many many Home Owner Associations enforcing controls on the use of land in their areas.  It is a misnomer though to say Houston has no planning laws, it has 19 planning ordnances, it does have subdivision laws for example, prohibiting choice of houisng and promoting sprawl by setting minimum plot sizes.  There are also strict minimum parking standards.  The city has even introduced the equivalent of conservation areas in 1995.

None the less Robert H Nelson and a raft of other extreme right commentators in the US has looming argued that planning should be ‘privatised’ and that planning by neighbourhoods (i.e. property owners) is the alternative.

These groups are highly organised, and have recently tapped into the Tea Party movement.  Wendell Cox and Randal O’Toole are prominent writers, frequently acting as ‘hired guns’ for road organisations opposing public transport measures and property developers opposing smart growth controls.

It should be noted that Nelsons proposals were immediately criticised by some other commentators who considered that it would restrict property rights.  For example William A. Fischel in the next issue of the Journal argued that neighbourhoods would become dominated by new residents who would take over the machinery of neighbourhoods to protect their property values and that Nimbyism would restrict new development.  Fischer is noted for his ‘Homevoter’ thesis that local government will tend to be dominated by those seeking to protect the values of their homes as their main assets and that NIMBYism is a natural response to this.  A response to the risk of house prices falling, which being an uninsured risk is viewed disproportionately.

This has spawned quite a literature in the States on how this risk could be ‘compensated’, whether uplifts in land value can be used towards this (was has influenced ideas on neighbourhood CIL payments), and whether this would work at all as NIMBYs facing uncertainty over the scale of land value devaluations are likely to not be influenced by incentives unless these approached the full value of their homes.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier #10 The Blessing of the Rains

Ideas on the climate during the end of the last glacial age (the era between the Pleistocene the modern Holecene era the last 11,000 years) and have been central to different theories on the origins of agriculture.

In the last glacial age the earth was dry. During the Last Glacial Maximum the Sahara desert was much larger than today extending into areas today covered by tropical forests. The waxing and waning of the Sahara provides the basis of the ‘Sahara Pump‘ theory of how during harsh times it drove waves of emigration ‘Out of Africa’ including of course Man.

Vast stocks of the earth’s water was trapped in ice during glacial ages. Furthermore permafrost locked up much of the earths CO2 in terms of frozen vegetation and gases from the previous interglacial.  These two factors meant that the earth was not as lush a place as it is today.  Lack of rain and CO2, and sharp changes in climate over short time periods.  restricted the pattern of growth of vegetation, especially at the termperate fringes most conducive to easy habitation today.  Steppe tundra dominated latitudes away from the tropics, covering much larger areas than today.   Intense sunlight during summers and loess soils encouraged mosses, lichens, grasses, and low shrubs that fed mammoths, horses, bison, giant deer, aurochs and reindeer.  Such plants were less suited to the stomachs of humans who evolved to eat berries and meat on the savannah and forest edge.  So man was forced to hunt magafauna and gather what berries and edible plants they could at temperate latitudes.

As the ice retreated the earth became an increasingly lush, and wet planet with greater humidity and CO2. The earth quite literally became a greenhouse leading to increased potential for plant growth – we call these phases pluvial periods. During the Pleistocene, CO2 levels were less than 200 parts per million, this rose to above 250 ppm as the earth pulled out of the glacial age. This may have increased plant productivity by up to fifty percent

This scenario, derived from modern data from ice and ocean cores, is the precise opposite to the ‘Oasis Theory’ (V.G.Childe) of the origins of agriculture, of the post glacial period being dry with humans and animals forced into contact around retreating sources of water. It also challenges the ‘Tuber Theory’ that these conditions favoured annual plants which die off in the long dry season, leaving a dormant seed or tuber. These plants put more energy into producing seeds than into woody growth.

These ideas are more applicable to dry periods, starting around 3,900 BC, when the ‘Green Sahara’ subsided and deserts advanced. Climate change at this time may help explain the origins of civilisation, but not the origins of agriculture which best estimates show occurred during a pluvial period at the beginning of the Holcene.

We tend to discuss a ‘neolithic revolution’ – a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period.  Whilst not disputing the revolutionary changes that occurred in this period the term ‘neolithic revolution’ can confuse the issues.  It is important to look at the relationship and different pressures and paces of the different but related transitions, from hunting and gathering to cultivation and domestication of animals, from nomadism to settlement.  The problem with the catch all phrase the ‘neolithic revolution’ is that it can easily lead to a caricature of before the revolution hunting and gathering after agriculture and settlement.

To such a sudden shift of all social relations and ways of subsistence one would have to ask why would people choose to undertake such a change, some have argued that it is by no means obvious that such a shift had obvious benefits – indeed Jared Diamond has called it ‘The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’.  We are wrong if we assume that the change from hunter gathering to farming bought an improvement in the quality of the human life or in the humans themselves. Skeletal evidence reveals that hunter gatherers were in fact, taller, better nourished, suffered less disease and lived longer than farmers. The gathering of wild grains produces more calories of food for each calorie of energy invested than any form of agriculture. Settled agriculturists can survive at higher population densities estimated to be 10-100 times greater than hunter-gatherers.  So the question is what population pressures and pressures for resources led to higher population densities requiring agriculture.

The ‘worst mistake’ conceptualisation I believe is wrong but understanding why you need to unpick the separate strands, why for example there were a transition to pastoral nomadism, rather than settled agrarianism, in some areas, and what are the connections between the origins of agriculture and the origins of settlement?

The term ‘neolithic revolution’ (again a phrase from  Vere Gordon Childe in the 1920s) also confuses the key changes we believe began during the beginning of the  Holecene era  (which began at the end of the last glacial age around 11,700 years ago) from those that fully evolved during the Meolithic (Middle Stone Age 10,000 years ago, to around 6,000 years ago), and into the Neolithic that followed.  Rather than a single revolution there were a series of changes which helped trigger each other and came to fruition in the Neolithic.  By the Neolithic only one of the several sub-species of humans has survived.

Humans in many different areas of the earth took up farming in what is, set against the 500,000 year age span of modern humans, a very short time.  There may even have been independent discovery in some regions. This is the most compelling evidence that global climate change, and the resultant adaptations by vegetation, were the key trigger to the beginning of agriculture.

Peter Richerson, Robert Boyd, and Robert Bettinger. have advanced the thesis that agriculture was impossible during the pleistocene but mandatory during the Holocene “Was Agriculture Impossible during the Pleistocene but Mandatory during the Holocene?“. ( Richerson, Peter J.; et al. (2001) American Antiquity 66 (3): 387–411)) This hypothesis has been widely popularised in Ronald Wrigtht’s Book ‘A Short History of Progress‘.

I believe this thesis to be essentially correct but incomplete.  It needs to be underpinned it needs to be underpinned by a hard nosed understanding of pressure on resources and demographic and technological change, and in particular a parallel analysis of the origins of social control and political power.  In other words reconstructing political economy from the origins of human societies.

‘Gnarrism’ – politics by people opposed to politics

The Observer has an interesting piece on the anti-politics movement that has taken over Reykjavik city hall.

Jón Gnarr the Mayor said he knew nothing of politics apart from the Wire and ruled out from coalition anyone who had not seen all 5 seasons.

He describes himself as an anarchist, inspired by Gandhi, Tolstoy, Bakunin and the British punk band, Crass. …. “I just love fucking with narrow-minded people who take themselves too seriously. I really like to irritate arrogant people, all those authoritarian people who want to control what we say and do.”

He has banned religious groups from city schools, dressed in drag to mark gay pride, and had the city’s sky-blue crest tattooed on his left forearm. After his summer holiday, he plans to paint his nails, wear lipstick and campaign for great apes to be given human rights. “I might try resigning on a really minor issue that I get wrong, since no one here has resigned for all the huge things that went wrong.”