Whitehall, City Hall, Localism and The Renaissance of Bogotà

In December 2011 I went to a talk by Professor Alan Gilbert of the UCL Geography Department, about the struggle for good governance in Colombia’s capital city, and posted about it on my local Forum, where the subsequent discussion can still be read.  It had a big impact on my thinking about localism, and I’ve referred back to it many times.  And again this morning, on reading this post by Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber

Business Rates: Hoorah! But Watch Out for Housing!

about which I’ll probably blog before long.  But here, for future reference, is what I wrote in 2011, lightly edited.

The story – although this was a proper academic talking, so giving an assessment rather than a comforting, easy to digest narrative – was of a developing world city which in 1992 was pretty awful, with stratospheric murder rates, getting to the point now where large numbers of its citizens feel proud to live there, and having a credit rating rather better than much of Western Europe.

Four points stood out for me, because they relate to various posts I have made on this Forum recently.

1. A single, powerful city wide mayor

Bogotà is much the same size as London, but there are no lower level political structures than the city government such as we have with our London Boroughs – and nobody much wants them other than political parties and their potential clients. As in London, most people aren’t that interested in politics, they just want good services. Compare to this post of mine on the ‘Campaigning for Ken’ thread.

2. Regular, independent assessments of the quality of public services

There is an independent private sector organisation which does regular credible surveys of satisfaction with different public services, and their reports are major stories in the local media. Council officers care very much about who well they are seen to be doing. Compare to this other post of mine on the ‘Campaigning for Ken’ thread.

3. Fiscal discipline

In 2011 it is Western Europe and the US which have borrowed up to the point where lenders don’t feel like lending them any more, and we are learning how this takes away our freedom to act as a society. It’s a lesson most of the developing world has learned the hard way over the last 20 years. And a good credit rating does help when it comes to raising money for new infrastructure.

4. No effective planning controls on the construction of new houses and lettings

There are some planning controls on where you can build houses, but they don’t get enforced, and in any case, they don’t apply in outer areas. So people just build their own homes, starting off looking like archetypical shanty towns, but being improved over time, with extra storeys added, perhaps for tenants just moved into the city. So the young and less well off do not get priced out of housing. See reference to US economist Ed Glaeser to OP on the Campaigning for Ken thread – although I should add Prof Gilbert doesn’t have too high an opinion of this author – or, I think, Prof Tony Travers, who I first heard mention this book at another meeting – on localism – that I went to earlier this year.

Contrast this with our situation in London, where central government is intensely suspicious of city wide government in London. Mrs Thatcher went so far as to abolish the GLC, and David Cameron reportedly sees Boris’ power base here as a long term threat to him. Meanwhile, in Whitehall the DCLG channels out money via the structures of London Boroughs, which few other than councillors, some local activists and local government policy wonks are interested in. And their solution to perceived weaknesses? Localism – hoping that somehow even smaller organisations will magic into existence to provide the sorts of effective public services people want.

And then shortly after

There’s an interesting article in this week’s Economist on local government finance – well, at least I find it interesting.

IT ALL seemed so simple 19 months ago when the new coalition announced a revolution in local-authority financing. The apron strings that tie local governments tightly to the centre were to be loosened. Councils were to gain new freedom to raise and spend money, and more responsibility for generating growth (as well as for making unpopular budget cuts). But what started as a straightforward bet on localism has become increasingly fraught, as the urgent need to spur the economy runs up against the equally urgent need to ensure that all councils have roughly enough money to look after their residents.

The particular issue here is business rates, which should now be retained by local councils, so creating an incentive for them to encourage business, develop a predictable revenue stream and so help them raise money for investment from new sources including the capital markets.

Unfortunately, although according to Tony Travers some

councils are already thoroughly pro-business and “would snap your arm off for a new source of jobs”


local authorities cannot be equally alluring to business, however hard they try. Although the rate of business taxation is set centrally (that will change if the government gets its way), the take varies hugely from place to place. Westminster, a rich London council, collected about 33 times as much as Middlesbrough in 2010-11. All will start out equal when the new provisions take effect in April 2013. But thereafter any incentive big enough to change councils’ behaviour leaves less revenue for redistribution. That would widen the gap between authorities capable of promoting growth (mainly in the south) and those where growth is slow or nonexistent.

So the grand concept of localising business rates is being hedged round with levies, tariffs, top-ups and resets.

By London standards, measured by how well it does to attract business, we here in Lewisham have a failing Council – with few excuses such as the long term decline of heavy industry provides for Middlesborough. So Whitehall is reinventing a complex system of welfare dependency to support our Council and other under-performers across London. Against this background, it is hard to see Lewisham ever developing a revenue stream to allow it to raise money for new investment from the markets.

The revenue base for an expanded London-wide government would be another story. Lewisham residents may not work here so much, but we do in other parts of London, so contributing to the business rates paid there, and so London as a whole would have an interest in supporting the sort of investment we need here. Further, economies of scale are likely to make its management easier. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but – as may be noticed – I’m becoming more and more convinced that localism has to be focused on natural political and economic localities, and in London, that means London.

Since housing is, economically, a luxury good, why not tax it more?

An exchange in comments on a recent blog by Jolyon Maugham about the difficulties of structuring a sin tax


reminded me of a posting I made in June 2014 on my local forum, but which is now only visible to registered users.  Jolyon’s blog showed the normal regressive pattern for indirect taxes of the two UK taxes most usually considered as being on sin

taking his numbers from an ONS spreadsheet.

As someone who can be quite moralistic about burning fossil fuels, and imagining that richer people might spend more on them in proportion to their income, I wondered whether the pattern would be different.  In fact it isn’t –  ‘Duty on hydrocarbon oils & Vehicle Excise Duty’ behaves by income quintile much like alcohol duties, but raising about twice as much.

So let’s drop the moralising, and ask what are luxury goods in the sense that

demand increases more than proportionally as income rises, and is a contrast to a “necessity good”, for which demand increases proportionally less than income

Source Wikipedia

That ONS spreadsheet has a detailed breakdown of income by quintiles, but nothing about expenditure, other than forms of expenditure with special taxes, such as alcohol.  It would be interesting to see such a cross-sectional study, but my local Forum posting I referred to commented on a longitudinal study for the US

written up in The Atlantic

How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget

At the time I wrote

… this chart shows food as a necessity, and entertainment as a luxury – which is what you’d expect. Spending on healthcare as a proportion of income has increased a bit with the explosion of prosperity of the last 100 years, so counts as a luxury on this definition too – but that will be mainly just expenditure in the last few years of life, Overwhelmingly, however, it’s housing which has become the major apparently luxury expenditure item. Partly this will be because much spending on housing really is luxury, as economists understand it – if most of us have a bit more money, we probably will spend it on making our houses nicer. Even so, it feels too much to me, and I suspect reflects the unnecessary expense of housing as people have moved to cities where excessive constraints have been put on the expansion of the housing supply, so pushing up prices.

but in the context of tax policy, if there have to be indirect taxes, only those on property taxes can be significant and progressive.

A conversation in Birmingham Museum

I had 45 minutes before rejoining family members in the Edwardian Tea Rooms. I can’t say I like Pre-Raphaelites much, but their presence in Birmingham Museum felt like a clue to imagining how life felt in the Chamberlains’ era of high civic pride.  It was Art, intense, and obviously with a meaning.

Looking at Holman Hunt’s portrait of Rossetti

a complete stranger, in his mid thirties, approached me and started talking about the paintings, and his feelings about them.  His favourite was a huge landscape, with mountains which reminded him of Kashmir – I guess this one

in the rotunda, before the Pre-Raphaelite rooms.  I said I’d never seen the Himalayas, although this year I had been to Almaty, over looked by the perpetual snow of the mountains on the other side of the Tibetan plateau.

But he went on to mention the religious paintings around us, and that he enjoyed going into churches, even though such paintings were not allowed in his religion. I mentioned that in Almaty I’d been inside a mosque – and he wanted to know how I had found it.  It was modern, and impressive, part paid for by Saudis, I think, and there was no special event going on.  It seemed very calm and relaxed, with a few men sitting round the edges, or lying down.  Only after a while had it dawned on me that there were no women.  I told him how afterwards my wife described the women’s entrance, and the limited space allowed them, and that this was a bit disturbing.

He wanted to apologise, and say there was nothing in the Quran to say things had to be like that, and went on, not thinking that I would have heard of her, to tell me about the bravery of Malala.  He wanted to explain that details of Islamic practice, such as men being allowed up to four wives, needed to be understood in historical context, since prior to Islam, women’s lot was far worse.  Did I know that the veil was pre-Islamic? As it happens, I did, thanks to watching the recent Amanda Foreman series, the Ascent of Woman.  I asked him if he had seen it too, but it seems not.

I remembered a Holman Hunt painting I’d just seen in the previous room, “The Lantern Maker’s Courtship, A Street Scene in Cairo”

which I’d just read as depicting, more than 100 years ago, a challenge to the Islamic code.  Had he seen it?  Apparently not, so we went back to look at it.  Next to it, and dominating the room, was another Holman Hunt, Oil Painting – The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple

I explained that the woman in grey was Bibi Maryam, and the story of Jesus in the Temple – which as spelt out on the frame around the painting, in gothic letters and the old-fashioned language of the King James Version – “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business”.  He responded with a story of Mary being condemned for being pregnant without being married, and unable to defend herself, except by appealing to Jesus within her womb, who was miraculously able to speak out, and justify his mother.

Imagining, through attitudes to art, how life felt 130 years ago is one thing, but imagining how it feels to be a thoughtful Muslim today is another – not necessarily more difficult, but rather more urgent. I thought of giving him an email address, to stay in touch, but I didn’t, and allowed myself to submit to family duty, and a cheerful pot of tea with carrot cake back in the Edwardian Tea room.

I wonder why I was chosen for this conversation.  Maybe he has collared many other people in this way, but even so, it felt as if he was in some kind of agony; I know I would be if I could not find people with whom to exchange ideas.  I hope he can find a place for his thoughts, and I’m struck that, little as I like the Pre-Raphaelites, they still work as public art.

Astana waste ground flora

Maybe just because I’d never been in Central Asia before, I was amazed at the bio-diversity of some waste ground between our flat and the major road nearby in Astana.  I’ve had a go at identifying the genera at least, but I’m not up to this for most of the grasses.

Was this recently turned ground, revealing the flora of the original steppe?  Where had it come from?

Charyn canyon geology

To help make sense of the geology, the best source I can find on line is this

Geology of Charyn Canyon / Dolina Zamkov area, Kazakhstan

and also this series of diagrams illustrating the geological history by the same author, Dr. Stefan Lang

Geologic history of Charyn Canyon

which include links to some more photos.  From a research home page for Dr. Lang, it seems he was studying the geology here between 1996 & 2001

Here are my photos as a NextGen gallery of reduced images for easier loading.  Originals available.

Charyn canyon flora

I’ve never been in a place like the Charyn Canyon before, and all the flora was new to me.  I think I know the genus for some, but that’s about all.  I avoided the plants near the campsite, since these were obvious introduced, but I suspect some others are as well – one looks like a Californian Poppy – Eschscholtzia – but on googling it seems this is only native to California & Mexico.

Here they are as a NextGen gallery.  I’ve reducing the size so they won’t be too slow loading, but if anyone wants to help me identify them, I can send the originals.

Perry Vale park trees

Export as KML for Google Earth/Google MapsOpen standalone map in fullscreen modeCreate QR code image for standalone map in fullscreen modeExport as GeoJSONExport as GeoRSSExport as ARML for Wikitude Augmented-Reality browser
Lewisham trees

loading map - please wait...

PerryVale-00294: 51.428991, -0.050136
PerryVale-00328: 51.429307, -0.051407
PerryVale-00939: 51.429266, -0.050090
PerryVale-00941: 51.428672, -0.047099
PerryVale-00942: 51.428647, -0.047049
PerryVale-00943: 51.428609, -0.046965
PerryVale-00944: 51.428661, -0.046963
PerryVale-00945: 51.428718, -0.046868
PerryVale-00946: 51.428757, -0.046988
PerryVale-00947: 51.428824, -0.046830
PerryVale-00948: 51.428953, -0.046815
PerryVale-00949: 51.428989, -0.046904
PerryVale-00950: 51.429023, -0.047024
PerryVale-00951: 51.429103, -0.047155
PerryVale-00952: 51.429159, -0.047306
PerryVale-00953: 51.430453, -0.046550
PerryVale-00954: 51.429774, -0.046710
PerryVale-00955: 51.429708, -0.046716
PerryVale-00956: 51.429518, -0.046727
PerryVale-00957: 51.429249, -0.047405
PerryVale-00958: 51.429258, -0.047198
PerryVale-00959: 51.429314, -0.047417
PerryVale-00960: 51.429436, -0.047249
PerryVale-00961: 51.429536, -0.047223
PerryVale-00962: 51.429531, -0.047395
PerryVale-00963: 51.429355, -0.047547
PerryVale-00964: 51.429416, -0.047512
PerryVale-00965: 51.429457, -0.047584
PerryVale-00966: 51.429549, -0.047639
PerryVale-00967: 51.429715, -0.047687
PerryVale-00968: 51.429858, -0.047683
PerryVale-00969: 51.430001, -0.047659
PerryVale-00970: 51.429834, -0.047361
PerryVale-00971: 51.429938, -0.047289
PerryVale-00972: 51.430068, -0.047379
PerryVale-00973: 51.430089, -0.047187
PerryVale-00974: 51.430067, -0.047186
PerryVale-00975: 51.430131, -0.047245
PerryVale-00976: 51.430158, -0.047275
PerryVale-00977: 51.430059, -0.046991
PerryVale-00978: 51.430182, -0.046946
PerryVale-00979: 51.430229, -0.047500
PerryVale-00980: 51.430230, -0.047384
PerryVale-00981: 51.430307, -0.047361
PerryVale-00982: 51.430308, -0.047211
PerryVale-00983: 51.430366, -0.047230
PerryVale-00984: 51.430411, -0.047081
PerryVale-00985: 51.430445, -0.046906
PerryVale-00986: 51.430436, -0.046566
PerryVale-00987: 51.430570, -0.046557
PerryVale-00988: 51.430658, -0.046549
PerryVale-00989: 51.430723, -0.046541
PerryVale-00990: 51.430726, -0.046702
PerryVale-00991: 51.430518, -0.046920
PerryVale-00992: 51.430517, -0.046986
PerryVale-00993: 51.430509, -0.047128
PerryVale-00994: 51.430330, -0.047532
PerryVale-00995: 51.430129, -0.047698
PerryVale-00996: 51.430404, -0.047591
PerryVale-00997: 51.430465, -0.047462
PerryVale-00998: 51.430519, -0.047888
PerryVale-00999: 51.430459, -0.047829
PerryVale-01000: 51.430671, -0.047532
PerryVale-01001: 51.430598, -0.047835
PerryVale-01002: 51.430442, -0.048042
PerryVale-01003: 51.430507, -0.048186
PerryVale-01004: 51.430423, -0.048338
PerryVale-01005: 51.430554, -0.048322
PerryVale-01006: 51.430488, -0.048516
PerryVale-01007: 51.430601, -0.048486
PerryVale-01008: 51.430526, -0.048632
PerryVale-01009: 51.430630, -0.048628
PerryVale-01010: 51.430684, -0.049093
PerryVale-01011: 51.430608, -0.049272
PerryVale-01012: 51.430651, -0.049514
PerryVale-01013: 51.430711, -0.049718
PerryVale-01014: 51.430714, -0.049894
PerryVale-01015: 51.430666, -0.050149
PerryVale-01016: 51.430566, -0.050362
PerryVale-01017: 51.430721, -0.050503
PerryVale-01018: 51.430811, -0.050357
PerryVale-01019: 51.430845, -0.050070
PerryVale-01020: 51.430818, -0.049148
PerryVale-01021: 51.430367, -0.050528
PerryVale-01022: 51.430184, -0.050578
PerryVale-01023: 51.430055, -0.050536
PerryVale-01024: 51.429919, -0.050404
PerryVale-01025: 51.429858, -0.050312
PerryVale-01026: 51.429791, -0.050210
PerryVale-01027: 51.429747, -0.050097
PerryVale-01028: 51.429706, -0.049937
PerryVale-01029: 51.429671, -0.049783
PerryVale-01030: 51.429706, -0.049544
PerryVale-01031: 51.429693, -0.048964
PerryVale-01032: 51.429675, -0.048632
PerryVale-01033: 51.429711, -0.048416
PerryVale-01034: 51.429689, -0.048203
PerryVale-01035: 51.429832, -0.048007
PerryVale-01036: 51.429950, -0.047973
PerryVale-01037: 51.430275, -0.047859
PerryVale-01038: 51.429624, -0.047863
PerryVale-01039: 51.429615, -0.048011
PerryVale-01040: 51.429563, -0.048147
PerryVale-01041: 51.429500, -0.047930
PerryVale-01042: 51.429423, -0.047748
PerryVale-01044: 51.429277, -0.047676
PerryVale-01045: 51.429181, -0.047739
PerryVale-01046: 51.429288, -0.047749
PerryVale-01047: 51.429194, -0.047792
PerryVale-01048: 51.429157, -0.047794
PerryVale-01049: 51.429124, -0.047824
PerryVale-01050: 51.429100, -0.047845
PerryVale-01051: 51.429051, -0.047774
PerryVale-01052: 51.429073, -0.047846
PerryVale-01053: 51.429045, -0.047849
PerryVale-01054: 51.429053, -0.047876
PerryVale-01055: 51.429025, -0.047859
PerryVale-01056: 51.429112, -0.047661
PerryVale-01057: 51.428946, -0.047895
PerryVale-01058: 51.428947, -0.047759
PerryVale-01059: 51.429003, -0.047599
PerryVale-01060: 51.429045, -0.047474
PerryVale-01061: 51.428963, -0.047275
PerryVale-01062: 51.428941, -0.047326
PerryVale-01063: 51.428966, -0.047330
PerryVale-01064: 51.428951, -0.047346
PerryVale-01065: 51.428934, -0.047365
PerryVale-01066: 51.428972, -0.047387
PerryVale-01067: 51.428992, -0.047319
PerryVale-01068: 51.428952, -0.047465
PerryVale-01069: 51.428942, -0.047406
PerryVale-01070: 51.428985, -0.047421
PerryVale-01071: 51.428928, -0.047537
PerryVale-01072: 51.428947, -0.047545
PerryVale-01073: 51.428939, -0.047568
PerryVale-01074: 51.428901, -0.047614
PerryVale-01075: 51.428919, -0.047598
PerryVale-01076: 51.428928, -0.047617
PerryVale-01077: 51.428914, -0.047658
PerryVale-01078: 51.428896, -0.047660
PerryVale-01079: 51.428876, -0.047696
PerryVale-01080: 51.428901, -0.047709
PerryVale-01081: 51.428837, -0.047816
PerryVale-01082: 51.428900, -0.047976
PerryVale-01083: 51.428819, -0.047996
PerryVale-01084: 51.428827, -0.048044
PerryVale-01085: 51.428815, -0.048109
PerryVale-01086: 51.428865, -0.047832
PerryVale-01087: 51.428860, -0.047863
PerryVale-01088: 51.428817, -0.047879
PerryVale-01089: 51.428810, -0.047927
PerryVale-01090: 51.428793, -0.047968
PerryVale-01091: 51.428790, -0.048040
PerryVale-01092: 51.428793, -0.048070
PerryVale-01093: 51.428828, -0.048157
PerryVale-01094: 51.428806, -0.048195
PerryVale-01095: 51.428806, -0.048226
PerryVale-01096: 51.428819, -0.048264
PerryVale-01097: 51.428836, -0.048216
PerryVale-01098: 51.428840, -0.048269
PerryVale-01099: 51.428804, -0.048260
PerryVale-01100: 51.428846, -0.048385
PerryVale-01101: 51.428823, -0.048440
PerryVale-01102: 51.428841, -0.048442
PerryVale-01103: 51.428848, -0.048482
PerryVale-01104: 51.428977, -0.048562
PerryVale-01105: 51.428911, -0.048605
PerryVale-01106: 51.428887, -0.048616
PerryVale-01107: 51.428870, -0.048559
PerryVale-01108: 51.428859, -0.048505
PerryVale-01109: 51.428798, -0.048615
PerryVale-01110: 51.428796, -0.048658
PerryVale-01111: 51.428824, -0.048770
PerryVale-01112: 51.428859, -0.048774
PerryVale-01113: 51.428924, -0.048707
PerryVale-01114: 51.428958, -0.048741
PerryVale-01115: 51.428983, -0.048810
PerryVale-01116: 51.429083, -0.048686
PerryVale-01117: 51.429245, -0.048653
PerryVale-01118: 51.429383, -0.048603
PerryVale-01119: 51.429454, -0.048653
PerryVale-01120: 51.429410, -0.048442
PerryVale-01121: 51.429407, -0.048416
PerryVale-01122: 51.429411, -0.048374
PerryVale-01123: 51.429400, -0.048317
PerryVale-01124: 51.429397, -0.048256
PerryVale-01125: 51.429386, -0.048220
PerryVale-01126: 51.429381, -0.048179
PerryVale-01127: 51.429385, -0.048156
PerryVale-01128: 51.429377, -0.048163
PerryVale-01129: 51.429376, -0.048155
PerryVale-01130: 51.429375, -0.048144
PerryVale-01131: 51.429364, -0.048153
PerryVale-01132: 51.429354, -0.048082
PerryVale-01133: 51.429360, -0.048079
PerryVale-01134: 51.429353, -0.048071
PerryVale-01135: 51.429357, -0.048047
PerryVale-01136: 51.429347, -0.048033
PerryVale-01137: 51.429345, -0.047986
PerryVale-01138: 51.429344, -0.047957
PerryVale-01139: 51.429338, -0.047926
PerryVale-01140: 51.429336, -0.047896
PerryVale-01141: 51.429330, -0.047883
PerryVale-01142: 51.429326, -0.047864
PerryVale-01143: 51.429323, -0.047855
PerryVale-01144: 51.429330, -0.047851
PerryVale-01145: 51.429415, -0.047878
PerryVale-01146: 51.429467, -0.048028
PerryVale-01147: 51.429497, -0.048209
PerryVale-01148: 51.429532, -0.049086
PerryVale-01149: 51.429530, -0.049246
PerryVale-01150: 51.429415, -0.049353
PerryVale-01151: 51.429172, -0.049355
PerryVale-01152: 51.429210, -0.049204
PerryVale-01153: 51.429166, -0.048970
PerryVale-01154: 51.428843, -0.049059
PerryVale-01155: 51.428876, -0.049108
PerryVale-01156: 51.428880, -0.049133
PerryVale-01157: 51.428885, -0.049186
PerryVale-01158: 51.428883, -0.049218
PerryVale-01159: 51.428881, -0.049234
PerryVale-01160: 51.428879, -0.049255
PerryVale-01161: 51.428867, -0.049320
PerryVale-01162: 51.428878, -0.049375
PerryVale-01163: 51.428899, -0.049398
PerryVale-01164: 51.429114, -0.049141
PerryVale-01165: 51.429017, -0.049212
PerryVale-01166: 51.429061, -0.049418
PerryVale-01167: 51.428909, -0.049514
PerryVale-01168: 51.429182, -0.049613
PerryVale-01169: 51.429139, -0.049865
PerryVale-01170: 51.428858, -0.049140
PerryVale-01171: 51.428982, -0.050089
PerryVale-01172: 51.428997, -0.050452
PerryVale-01173: 51.429012, -0.050526
PerryVale-01174: 51.429033, -0.050474
PerryVale-01175: 51.429045, -0.050360
PerryVale-01176: 51.429076, -0.049973
PerryVale-01177: 51.429128, -0.050605
PerryVale-01178: 51.429079, -0.050669
PerryVale-01179: 51.429019, -0.050666
PerryVale-01180: 51.429082, -0.050772
PerryVale-01181: 51.429160, -0.050868
PerryVale-01182: 51.429072, -0.050922
PerryVale-01183: 51.429140, -0.050969
PerryVale-01184: 51.429124, -0.051009
PerryVale-01186: 51.429118, -0.051065
PerryVale-01187: 51.429127, -0.051103
PerryVale-01188: 51.429082, -0.051147
PerryVale-01189: 51.429129, -0.051134