Friday, 7 August 2020

A better solution to Britain's housing problem

 Earlier this week, Robert Jenrick (Conservative MP for Newark since 2014), the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, announced a major shake-up of planning laws to allow for housing to be built rapidly and quickly on brownfield sites and designated "growth sites", in response to Boris Johnson's wish to "build, build, build".

It cannot be denied that there is a housing shortage in Britain. However, the real reasons why it has occurred are the effects of Right to Buy from the late 1980s onwards, which has decimated Britain's social housing stock and stigmatised council housing, a lack of affordable homes, speculation on house prices, and one million empty homes which have been left unoccupied not being compulsorily purchased so they can be used for housing.

The planning reforms proposed by Mr Jenrick and co will make Britain's housing problem worse, not better. Here is why.

1. They will create, in effect, a new generation of slums. Brownfield sites are located in former industrial areas or land which has been previously built upon, hence the name. The pressure to build as many housing units as possible will mean that developers, who put profit above all other concerns, will build the smallest homes remotely marketable and liveable, which will be less than 40 square metres and be reminiscent of micro-flats in London.  As Stephen Fry's Second Book of General Ignorance stated, we already live in the smallest houses in Europe on average.

2. Local people could be left unable to object to developments or suggest alternative, better developments. The proposed reforms will mean that fast-tracked development on "growth sites" will be taken out of the hands of local councils, as they will receive automatic permission once designated as a growth site by the Secretary of State. This means people living on or near the proposed development in question would be unable to object or suggest a better alternatives, even if those developments result in spoiling an area's natural character or create heavy traffic and pollution problems.

3. The proposed removal of section 106 could exacerbate a lack of affordable housing, contrary to those claiming otherwise. The replacement infrastructure levy would not be enough for councils to ensure sufficient affordable housing, or social housing, both of which are desperately needed in this country.

So what is the solution, you ask?

The solution is to ensure that homes left completely unoccupied after six months without good cause are automatically compulsorily purchased by the local council in question, which will also solve the rising homelessness problem in Britain, to end "Right to Buy" completely, to ensure that there is a minimum quota of affordable housing nationally, to stop speculation on house prices, and as a side measure to bring council tax bands up to date, since council tax bills have a significant effect on whether housing is affordable or not.

Monday, 3 August 2020

My tribute to John Hume

John Hume, a founder of the peace process that ended The Troubles period of Northern Ireland and culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, passed away earlier today.

John Hume's political life started when he helped found the Northern Irish civil rights movement, to counter the repression Catholics like him faced at the hands of the Protestant powers that be in Northern Ireland. He served as a member of the Northern Ireland Parliament for 3 years for Foyle (covering the western part of the city of Derry) until the Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished in 1972. He was subsequently elected as the SDLP MP for Foyle in 1983 and served as MP for Foyle until he retired in 2005, and he was also an MLA for Foyle for 10 years. He led the SDLP (which he co-founded with Gerry Fitt) from 1979 to 2001, taking it through a period of significant growth and ensuring that Catholics obtained much better representation in Northern Ireland's Westminster constituencies than before, with the SDLP achieving a peak of 4 seats in 1992. After he retired from leadership of the SDLP, however, its fortunes went south, not helped by a general trend towards both Catholics and Protestants voting for more "hardline" parties on each side. He was also one of the longest-serving MEPs, representing Northern Ireland from 1979 to 2004.

What he will be most remembered for is his determined efforts to ensure a ceasefire in Northern Ireland and ensure peace, which he eventually achieved when the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was signed between Ireland and the United Kingdom. This culminated in him deservedly winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, alongside then UUP leader David Trimble, and it also helped bring Northern Ireland into a new era.

So farewell, John. Peace and conciliation will forever be your greatest legacies, and ones that we need more than ever in a world where hardline forms of populism, the climate crisis, and the coronavirus crisis are threatening human civilisation as a whole.

In memory of John Hume, born 18 January 1937, who departed this life on 3 August 2020, aged 83 years.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

On the North Macedonian general election of 2020

Yesterday's general election in North Macedonia was the first to be held since the country officially renamed itself from FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) to North Macedonia, having been repeatedly told by Greece not to merely call themselves simply "Macedonia". Like all elections in this current period, the coronavirus pandemic significantly depressed turnout, which dropped from 66.8% to just 51.3%, the lowest turnout level since North Macedonia gained independence from the now defunct Yugoslavia. Also, because of said coronavirus pandemic, this election was held four months ahead of schedule; it was originally due for November 2020.

Neither the social democratic/minority interests coalition "We Can" (comprising of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, the Besa Movement, the VMRO-People's Party, and the Turkish Democratic Party) of former North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (who still led the coalition in this election even though Oliver Spasovski succeeded him in January) nor the national conservative "Renewal" coalition (VMRO-DPMNE) of Hristijan Micoski performed that well. We Can lost 8 seats, bringing it down to 46, and Renewal lost 7 seats, bringing it down to 44, although it still means that between them these coalitions hold 3/4 of the seats in the North Macedonia Assembly (which has 120 seats). The pro-European liberal-conservative Democratic Union for Integration increased its seat total by 5 to 15 and the Alliance for Albanians-Alternative quadrupled its seat total from 3 to 12, and this occurred despite the good relations of Mr Zaev with Albania and Albanians in North Macedonia. Many of them were not particularly satisfied with Mr Spasovski, however. As a result, the more conservative Democratic Party of Albanians was left with only one seat in the new Assembly. (NB: Unlike some of its neighbours, North Macedonia does not have any reserved seats in its parliament.)

Levica (The Left) defied expectations when it managed to pass the 4% threshold and win 2 seats in the 2020 Assembly, much of it coming from lapsed SDSM voters opposed to North Macedonia's joining of NATO in February, which came after Greece finally stopped vetoing their application (they had previously done so when North Macedonia used the name Macedonia; some of ancient Macedonia as ruled by Alexander the Great from 336 BC to 323 BC is now in Greece). It was also the only significant political party in North Macedonia to mention the climate crisis during the campaign, correctly warning that Macedonia was undergoing an "ecological cataclysm". 

Of the other parties running in this North Macedonian election, only Integra-Macedonian Conservative Party polled more than 1%, not even close to winning any seats. The Roma People's Party received the wooden spoon for this election with 0.14% of the vote. Increasingly in elections in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, coalitions are (almost) essential to obtaining any real chance of power, and smaller parties are either forced to join coalitions with only limited chances for list seats or end up being effectively shut out of their country's assembly constantly, even when the representation threshold is comparatively low.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Tribute double bill: Ennio Morricone and Jack Charlton

Ennio Morricone, one of the best film composers of all time, passed away last week. He will be forever remembered for his "sphagetti western" film soundtracks, the most famous of them being from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". His music for "A Fistful of Dollars", "For a Few Dollars More" and other films by Sergio Leone will also be forever remembered, more than 50 years after these films were first released. 

Jack Charlton, a former Leeds United player who went down in history when he helped England win the FIFA World Cup of 1966 (our only win of the World Cup to date; the closest we have come since then is when we were defeated in a penalty shoot-out with Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-finals), died three days ago at his home in Northumberland. He managed to win as many as 108 international caps for England, a record that took Peter Shilton (the English footballer with the most international caps to date) 12 years to surpass (the current holder is Wayne Rooney). With his death, and the recent passing of Norman Hunter, less than half of the players in England's victorious 1966 World Cup squad are still alive.

So farewell, both Ennio and Jack. You were both legends in your field and even those too young to have been around for your moments in the spotlight shall remember both of you.

In memory of Ennio Morricone, born 10 November 1928, who departed this life on 6 July 2020, aged 91 years.

In memory of John "Jack" Charlton, born 8 May 1935, who departed this life on 10 July 2020, aged 85 years.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

On the Singaporean general election of 2020

The Singaporean general election of 2020 which took place yesterday returned the governing People's Action Party with a large majority yet again, rather predictable. 

However, the opposition, led by the Worker's Party and parties that agreed to anti-PAP pacts including the Progress Party, People's Voice, Reform Party, Singapore Democratic Party, Singapore People's Party, the National Solidarity Party, People's Voice, and Red Dot United, managed to win the highest number of seats ever for the opposition since Singaporean independence occurred in 1959. They managed to win 10 seats, by gaining Sengkang GRC (Group Representation Constituency, a type of constituency unique to Singapore where teams of candidates either win all of the seats or none at all), holding Hougang SMC (Single Member Constituency) and holding Aljuned GRC with a 9% swing in their favour against the PAP. This notably resulted in the defeat of Ng Chee Meng, the Minister in the Prime Minister's Office (equivalent to a minister without portfolio), and for the first time the PAP's share of parliamentary seats in Singapore dropped below 90%, and their vote share dropped to 61.24%. 

Although they emerged triumphant once again, this election is a clear sign that the PAP's grip on political power in Singapore has cracked somewhat; the opposition candidates achieved significant swings against the PAP in every Singaporean constituency; only the Singapore Democratic Alliance of Desmond Lim lost votes, which was primarily due to negotiations with People's Voice breaking down. Two GRCs, West Coast and East Coast, both had PAP majorities below 10%, as did Bukit Batok and Bukit Panjang SMCs. None of these four constituencies were contested by the Workers' Party but by allied parties, which is also a clear sign that Singaporeans opposed to the PAP's dominance are more inclined to vote for the WP because of the "brand recognition" that opposition party has acquired since the historic by-election win of the late Joshua Jeyaretnam in 1981. 

Although the political sea change Malaysia's former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, hoped for this year did not happen (as it did in Malaysia in 2018), it nevertheless represents substantial progress for the combined opposition. It is conceivable, if rather unlikely, that the PAP could lose power in Singapore in the next decade.

Monday, 6 July 2020

On the Croatian parliamentary election of 2020

Yesterday, Croatia held its 2020 parliamentary elections, and as with most elections this year the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced turnout because many voters around the world still do not feel safe going to the polls even when social distancing measures are tightly enforced in said poll. Consequently, turnout in this Croatian election dropped to 46.45%, the lowest in any Croatian election since Croatia gained independence from the now-defunct Yugoslavia; this mirrors the sharp drop in turnout in the second round of French local elections the week before, and the Polish presidential election's first round last month.

The perceived handling of the COVID-19 pandemic played a decisive factor in this election, allowing the conservative HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), who were lagging behind the Social Democrat-led Restart Coalition in the year leading up to this election, to achieve a surprise victory, in alliance with the Croatian Liberal Party and the Croatian Demochristian Party, which allied with HDZ in 2016 as well. It recovered well in the opinion polls due to its perceived handling of the COVID-19 situation in Croatia, which whilst not receiving the international attention and praise New Zealand's handling did, certainly kept the COVID-19 numbers down. There have been only 3,220 cases of COVID-19 in Croatia from a population of approximately 5,000,000 and only 118 deaths, compared to 285,416 cases of COVID-19 and over 50,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the UK; the UK has a population of 66 million and rising but this represents a per capita rate of infection 3 times higher than that of Croatia's in this context, and furthermore the UK's death rate amongst COVID-19 cases is 65.9 per 100,000 people compared to Croatia's death rate amongst COVID-19 cases of 2.4 per 100,000 people. The HDZ coalition gained an extra 5 seats, pushing it up to 66, whereas because of not only renewed competence for the current Croatian government but also sharp turnout drops in more urban areas in particular, where COVID-19 infections spread more easily, the Restart Coalition lost 4 seats, going down to 41. They managed this in spite of criticism that the Croatian PM, Andrej Plenkovic, staged the election months before dissolution was necessary to avoid taking the blame for an economic crisis related to COVID-19; their failure to adequately resolve the earthquake damage in Zagreb cost them support there as well. After all, oppositions do not win elections-governments lose them to oppositions.

Other parties who supported the HDZ coalition did not fare so well, however. Most (Bridge of Independent Lists), which initially went into coalition with HDZ but left the government in 2017, lost 5 of its 13 seats and finished fourth; it was lucky not to be pushed into fifth place by the ecosocialist Green-Left alliance. The Croatian People's Party-Liberal Democrats fared even worse, losing all but one seat, which they won in electoral district III just north of the Croatian capital of Zagreb. In most of the other electoral districts they failed  to poll even 1%. Milan Bandic's party, which supported the HDZ coalition, lost its only seat and polled a miserable 0.59%, partly because it only ran candidate lists in six of Croatia's ten electoral districts, which are mainly based on relatively equal populations but do take geography into account. 

Following a trend towards nationalist conservative populism seen in most of Central and Eastern Europe, the Miroslav Skoro Homeland Movement (DPMS) took third place with 10.89% of the vote and 16 seats. However, green and progressive politics saw a substantial revival in Croatia with the Green-Left list winning as many as 7 seats and 7% of the vote, although this was heavily tilted towards Zagreb and more prosperous areas in the west of Croatia. In only half the electoral districts did they win seats, and their vote share in electoral district I (comprising Zagreb itself), 21.12%, was more than double their support anywhere else in Croatia, mainly due to We can!'s base being strongest in Zagreb by far, as well as because of the influence of the ecosocialist Zagreb is OURS! party; We can! won 5 of their 7 seats whereas the main green party of Croatia, ORaH, did not win any due to its candidates' placing on the list. The liberal Smart and Focus party won 3 seats, whereas Human Blockade, which emerged from an anti-eviction movement, polled just 2.26% and was eliminated from Croatia's Parliament, the Sabor, entirely. Each electoral district has 14 seats apiece, but a 5% threshold is imposed for each district. The People's Party-Pensioners coalition (Naradna stranka-Reformisti) won one seat in electoral district III but polled less than 1% in most of Croatia. Amongst smaller parties, the Croatian Labourists, once a significant socialist bloc in Croatia, participated in a coalition that failed to poll even 1% in any Croatian electoral district, and the wooden spoon went to Alphabet of Democracy, who polled just 219 votes despite fielding two candidate lists. 

Mr Plenkovic does not face an easy task of forming a new government in Croatia by any means despite gaining 5 extra seats for his alliance. With the Bridge of Independent lists not being in a position to help form a new coalition nor willing to do so, Mr Plenkovic's only options are a grand coalition with the SDP-led Restart Coalition or a more conservative alliance with the aforementioned Mr Sorko and his DPMS.