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Ormerod and Keiller at the RSA's Land debate

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Clare Melhuish reviews...

It was depressing to discover, at the latest debate in the RSA's Land series, how far the 'experts'still put their faith in the power of objective reason and economic analysis to solve complex cultural problems - particularly one so thorny as a society's attitude to, and relationship with, the land.

Paul Ormerod and Patrick Keiller, addressing the future of the British countryside, barely acknowledged the cultural and psychological issues which make rational debate on this subject almost impossible.

Ormerod argued for an immediate cessation of subsidy to the countryside.He insisted that agriculture is 'not the countryside', and that farmers lack any conception of what constitutes a market, which makes them undeserving of support.He points to the fact that the incomes of people who rely on commodities for a living inevitably fall, 'even in OPEC countries', as a law of economics.

Yet he failed to mention the fact that the vast majority of the countryside lies in the ownership, and hence control, of farmers - as if they, and the issue of land ownership in general, are irrelevant to the relationship between the national population and the land as it evolves in the future.

He scoffed at the idea of government intervention to ringfence the sale of houses to 'outsiders', and so safeguard rural communities, pointing out - quite justifiably - that there is no reason why urban communities should not be accorded the same privileges.But his solution is the removal of all state-imposed constrictions on the construction of new housing in rural areas, leaving such regulation to devolve at local level, within communities, along with issues such as congestion.

In response, Patrick Keiller was also critical of the fact that the rate of replacement of housing is virtually nil.He claimed it is almost impossible to live in anything but an existing building in the countryside, even though demand for housing is effectively unlimited.

However, he also acknowledged that the issue of construction was profoundly complicated by society's belief in a right of access - certainly visual - to the landscape, and the permanent loss of such access which results from private house construction. In effect, house construction represents a 'privatisation'of the countryside which goes against the cultural grain. But Keiller's film, The Dilapidated Dwelling , made for Channel 4 but never shown - 'it doesn't have a happy ending'- failed to explore this issue. Instead, it focused on a perception of the house as an artefact like any other manufactured product - despite the glaring lack of a consumer revolution in the industry. This view eliminates the whole mesh of cultural and psychological symbolism embodied in the house, and is inadequate to explain the problems of housing and land use we face today.

Paul Ormerod, economic forecaster, and Patrick Keiller, film-maker, were speaking at the Royal Society of Arts on the economics of land use, in a series which continues on 31 January.

Details from land@rsa. org. uk

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