Unintended consequences of good intentions

A good-intentioned number of newcomers to the village decided ‘affordable housing’ was necessary. They seemed not well-versed in market economics which awards an immediate premium to those who acquire assets at below market prices.

Having contemplated ‘affordable housing,’ they then switched to the idea of providing ‘social housing’, rental properties at below the prevailing market rates. Of course, such provision provides the recipients a benefit that would not accrue to those not fortunate enough to be allocated a house.

The well-intentioned group would not accept the arguments that there were flaws in their reasoning, particularly that the cost of finance, the cost of providing services to the sites, and the cost of building materials, would require a level of rent that would make the houses little cheaper than market rates.

There was a lecturer during my undergraduate years at the LSE who would reiterate to students, ‘you cannot buck the market.’ Anyone who might have disagreed with the assertion would have needed only to look at everyday situations to have understood the point. Interventions in markets can sometimes have consequences that were not intended.

Thus it is that the planning application for six units of social housing that would forever destroy the view of the windmill as it appears in the photograph at the top of this page has brought unexpected dividends for local landowners.

A piece of land a little closer to the windmill, on the opposite side of the road was put up for sale. A family member inquired about the potential cost of the two acres of grazing. ‘£8,000-£10,000 per acre?’ he asked.

An uncle, a farmer all his life, thought about it and was umabiguous in his response. ‘It could go for £100,000.’ he said.

The figure seemed absurd. Who would pay such a price?

It transpired that my uncle’s estimate was £4,000 out – the two acres sold for £96,000.

The prospect of the council permitting a development in an undeveloped area has brought speculation that once one application has been granted, others cannot be refused. The intention of providing housing at a lower price has brought a sharp increase in the price of land.

A schoolboy economist would tell you that in a market economy, prices will always be determined by supply and demand. If prices are to be reduced, supply must be increased or demand must be reduced. The demand for housing will not reduce, the only way to make it affordable is for a wide scale building programme to be undertaken by local authorities. Local interventions can have the effect of making things worse.

Posted in This sceptred isle | 2 Comments


No, it’s not a spelling mistake. It is a ‘g’ and not a ‘c.’ It is a Brazilian football club, not a form of Spanish dancing.

Had you ever heard of Flamengo? Perhaps there are footballing cognoscenti who would be familiar with the name, most people whom I know would not have heard of the club. I had not heard of Flamengo until this morning.

Most of the Third Year students have gone on a school trip to Belgium.  Just four students were left in the class, and one of the boys and I stood watching a soccer match from the classroom window. The under-18s were playing a team from another school in the county in a fiercely contested match.

‘Who do you support?’ I asked him.

‘In the Premier League – Liverpool, but at home in Brazil, Flamengo.’

Knowing nothing about South American football, I could not comment on the merits or otherwise of his preferred team.

At the end of the lesson, it was lunchtime and I took out my phone. Opening Facebook to check on family news, the first thing to appear was a suggested item. It was a picture of the Flamengo football team who had won the Brazilian cup last week, a team of which I had not heard until twenty minutes previously.

In the past, when I have suggested to people that mobile phones eavesdrop on conversations, I have drawn looks of incredulity, but this morning’s evidence seemed conclusive.

My suspicions had become very strong when the prominent Dublin surgeon John Crown came up in conversation some weeks ago. He had provided excellent care to my friend who wondered what age he might be.

Taking out my phone, I had typed ‘John’ into Google, when ‘Crown’ immediately came up on the screen as one of three suggestions from which I might choose. How many hundred or even thousand surnames might have been prompted by the forename ‘John’? Had there been even a dozen possibilities suggested, I might have thought it was a piece of random chance, but it seemed very unlikely that random chance could have provided the name as one of just three?

It is not just that the phone is eavesdropping, it is obviously also passing information on to third parties who are monetising the information they have gathered through being able to offer advertisers very targeted advertisments.

I think the time has come to start including random words in conversations to see which are noted and what responses they elicit.



Posted in The stuff of daily life | 2 Comments

Another United Nations Day

Being of a compulsive disposition, after classes on Friday, I wiped the board and wrote the date for Monday.

24th October? Isn’t it the date for something?

I remembered after a few moments. United Nations Day. I recalled school assemblies that presented a picture of an organisation which seemed at variance with the day to day reality of people’s experience of the United Nations.

United Nations Day recalls a moment travelling out of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi one Sunday morning ten years ago.  The full extent  of the incapacity of the United Nations to effect real change had become apparent that morning.

A convoy of white buses, with black letters painted on the side proclaiming “UN,” were moving slowly.

“What are the UN buses for?” I asked

“Refugees from conflict in DRC.”

“I thought the trouble was further north?”

“There is trouble further north – this is different trouble. The buses are going to fetch people who have fled across the border.”

“Where will they take them?”

“To camps on the other side of Burundi; the UN says they must be 150 miles from the border.”

“Isn’t that almost impossible in Burundi?”

My companion had shrugged.

Sometimes conversations are pointless; what would be changed by repeating facts already known? There would be no reports on the world media about busloads of poor people being taken across a poor African country to live in great poverty even in UN camps.

The United Nations could provide buses for refugees but could do nothing about the civil war that caused them, even in a failed state like DRC.

it was a far remove from P Tang Yang Kipperbang, Jack Rosenthal’s 1982 television film set in the Post-War Britain of 1948.

“Quack Quack” Duckworth, the shy and awkward fourteen year old who loves the prettiest girl in the school, walks along with Tommy, the school groundsman as Tommy marks the boundary of a cricket pitch.  He believes Tommy has been a soldier serving in battle after battle, not knowing he is wanted for desertion.  Quack Quack tells Tommy that the soldiers have brought in a new age:

“From now on, there’ll never be any more wars, never again, for the simple raison d’etre that the United Nations will insist there’s no more wars.  Any country wanting to invade another, well, hard cheddar . . the United Nations will vote against them, QED”

It seems astonishing, in the light of the United Nations’ record in failing to prevent genocide in Srebrenica, and in Rwanda, and its record in being impotent in the face of countless incidents of military aggression, that anyone should still believe that the United Nations could do anything to protect people.  Unless the United States decides to intervene, the United Nations is no more than a talking shop.

The ideal world is inhabited by Quack Quack Duckworth and the school assemblies of times past; it’s not inhabited by those for whom there is no protection.

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Human dancers

The drivetime news was so annoying that I put a CD on to play. The Killers – I saw them in concert in June and the music conjured memories of summer days.

The Killers have become bracketed in my memory with Paul Selby, an English lecturer at Strode College who faced the task of teaching English Literature to boorsih rustics like myself.

Paul Selby strove to teach us to see the world in a way other than in the way of the trivial and the material culture of the late 1970s, to look for deeper meanings, to search for the things which were timeless.

During one class he pondered dancing, feeling that dancing of the ballroom variety was a complete negation of the meaning with which dancing was imbued in traditional societies. Dance to mark the passing of the seasons, the fading and the return of the light, the fertility of the earth and human beings, had a significance far deeper than tangos and foxtrots.

I sang along with the refrain of Human, a 2008 song by The Killers, which asks,

Are we human?
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I’m on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human?
Or are we dancer?

Brandon Flowers and his fellow song writers recognised the capacity of dance to lift people out of their ordinary reality, to create a state of mind that is other than the everyday and the commonplace.

Dance is about something deeper than the superficial and trivial silliness of programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing. Considering dance on the basis of whether steps were together and whether moves are co-ordinated is to consider it on the basis of its mechanics.  It is like considering a painting on the basis of how paints were applied and what canvas was used. Ballroom dancing is like the work of a local art club where there is so much emphasis on method that no-one stops to ask about meaning. How often do the television judges ponder whether the steps they think are so important actually express any existential thought?

Oddly, while line dancing might seem the ultimate move away from the forms of traditional dance,when one watches it there is a sense of both the person’s connection with the music and transcendence of themselves, and there is also a sense of the solidarity of the individual with all those around.  It is dancing for its own sake, without demand for formal precision, but with a strong bond of community.

Are we human or are we dancer? To be dancer means to be human in a different way.

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The best of doctors

What age would he have been forty years ago?

There is a photograph of Dr Michael Richards in Wetlands, Patrick Sutherland and Adam Nicolson’s 1986 book on life in the Somerset levels. Already his tight curls seemed more grey than dark. Tweed jacket, flannels, collar and tie, he was the embodiment of reassurance, the epitome of what a country doctor should be.

doctor-richards.jpgIn the photograph, he is holding his surgery in the front parlour of our village pub, The King’s Head.

There was no bus service from our village and if you had no car, there was no way of getting to the surgery in Langport, our local small town, so once a week the doctor would come to the village to hold a surgery.

For someone who grew up in the village, a doctor who came and conducted a medical surgery in the pub was worthy of remembrance.

It is hard to imagine in the days of practice managers, and ‘on call’ services, that any doctor would consider a  pub a proper place for medical practice.  I have no doubt that medical care is best provided in appropriate facilities, but the Wednesday afternoon surgeries in the village did say something about regard for individuals.

Moving to Ireland in 1983, I missed the sort of care provided by Dr Richards and his colleagues in Langport Surgery. There were no longer the familiar faces in the waiting room, no longer doctors who might care for three generations.

It was a day in late October 1998 that I had cause to return to Langport Surgery. A night ferry crossing from Belfast to Liverpool had contended with 65 knot winds and I had been violently seasick, so sick that acid from my stomach had burned my throat.

The ever genial Dr Richards had smiled sympathetically and prescribed a large bottle of Gaviscon. ‘Don’t I know you?’ he had asked.

‘Perhaps,’ I replied, ‘I was a patient here when I was young. I was very asthmatic.’

Memories of him are of a man who was always calm, patient, solicitous, a manwho represented the National Health Service at its best.

Talking to my mother this evening, she described going to get her Covid booster vaccination yesterday.

‘I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to stand very long. Sarah had taken the wheelchair out of the car for me to sit in when a volunteer appeared to push it. The volunteers were retired staff. Do you know who pushed my chair? Dr Richards!’

Dr Richards must be well into his seventies, if not more. There was a moment of delight in hearing the best of doctors was still active.









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