Paul Finch reflects on the current Labour line-up and recalls an architect MP who made trees fashionable in the 1970s
News that an architect is standing for election reminded me of the only RIBA member in my lifetime who made any impact on life in the House of Commons.
Sydney Chapman was a decent, mild-mannered Tory MP who had qualified as an architect at Manchester before pursuing his political ambitions. He became MP for Handsworth, Birmingham, and during his time there in the early 1970s he became a well-known figure – as a result of leading a government campaign to plant trees.
‘Plant a tree in 1973’ was a national catch-phrase, though an attempt to follow up with ‘Plant some more in 1974’ less so. The campaign needs a contemporary revival because although on their own trees cannot solve the problems of carbon emissions, they can certainly do their bit.
There is no reason why people should feel guilty about off-setting, if that is what they can do by supporting tree-planting initiatives, and the range of possibilities means that you can choose to support efforts to make the UK carbon-neutral, or invest further afield where planting or maintaining forests that might otherwise have been cut down, can have ecologically beneficial impact in addition to absorbing carbon.
In a typical ‘why-oh-why’ Radio 4 broadcast earlier this week, a miserabilist presenter wanted to know why there couldn’t be a standard method of measuring or charging in respect of planting programmes. The proposition seemed to be based, whether consciously or not, on the bogus idea that standardisation is always the answer – in this case, no doubt, the result of the BBC licence fee.
All construction activity should require appropriate [carbon] offsets
Throw another non-standard policy into the mix: all construction activity should require appropriate offsets, whether in respect of materials manufacture, construction itself, or the maintenance and running of built stock. It wouldn’t be hugely difficult to make the necessary calculations – and companies and employees would probably feel pretty good about planting woods and, over time, forests.
Sydney, incidentally, lost his Handsworth seat, but was a popular choice to take over from poor old Reggie Maudling in the safe haven of Chipping Barnet, after a scandal involving the architect John Poulson and others. This led to Maudling, who was Home Secretary, in effect having to approve a police investigation into himself, which naturally led to his resignation.
So Sydney became a House of Commons fixture, eventually becoming vice-chamberlain, a post which he told me required him to produce a hand-written summary of Parliamentary proceedings, delivered each evening to Buckingham Place when Westminster was in session. I wonder if this still happens.
Reflections on Labour
Good luck to Jay Morton, the architect from Bell Phillips who is standing for election, though it will be tough to dislodge her Conservative rival in Chichester.
Her interests in better deals for tenants, and in support of low-cost housing, are admirable – and the sort of policy one automatically associated with the Labour Party in recent decades.
Having mostly voted Labour since 1970, I fear I have severe doubts about the current gang running the party. Jeremy Corbyn must be the worst Labour leader in history, proposed for the post (because they never thought he would win) by idiots like Margaret Beckett and Sadiq Khan.
But I worry more about his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. He has a destructive personality and was sacked from the Greater London Council, where he was finance committee chairman, for being too left-wing. The leader of the GLC who sacked him was … Ken Livingstone. I wish I was making this up.
We need a land policy
Whatever happens at the election, it is time we had a national policy on what we plan to do with land, whether for housing, trees or multiple other purposes including food production.
We have an odd attitude to ownership and valuation which distorts the economy and still leaves us short of homes.
It is no accident that the crown, aristocracy, church and other major land-owners are exempted from paying ‘council tax’ or rates, as I prefer to think of them. It is time for a new form of feudalism, where private interest and public need are creatively combined.