Saturday 29 November 2014

The breakfast any self-respecting dog would reject

The Smith Commission report has 28 pages, but in fact the meat of it is precisely half that: fourteen pages cover the 'three pillars' of its recommendations. That's four pillars, by my arithmetic, short of wisdom.

The pillars are, in brief
  1. a 'durable' constitutional framework;
  2. prosperity, jobs, and social justice;
  3. financial responsibility for Holyrood.
If the report lived up to its billing and delivered these things, then, indeed, we would have a durable constitutional framework, and the pressure for independence would recede; unfortunately, it does not.


Let's start with the last first, because it is flaws in the last pillar that destabilise the whole platform. In my personal submission to the Smith Commission I wrote:
The only solutions which will work on taxation are
  1. Devolve no tax-raising powers, and continue with an enhanced Barnett Formula. It will be very hard to get a political consensus on this, and it is against Scotland's interests since the long-term drift of Union policy is towards ever more austerity and ever deeper cuts to social and health provision, leading to lower Barnett Formula payments to Scotland; or
  2. Devolve all tax raising powers completely, and have Scotland pay a subvention to the Union. Again, this will not be easy to build a political consensus around, and the formula for the subvention will be particularly contentious; but it is clearly the only solution which will work in the medium term.
It's hardly surprising that the Smith Commission did not bow down before my ineffable sagacity, but nevertheless I contend that was - and remains, if a United Kingdom is to be salvaged - good advice.

So what did they agree? The first clause of the third pillar is the one David Cameron is attempting to tear up immediately:
Income Tax will remain a shared tax and both the UK and Scottish Parliaments will share control of Income Tax. MPs representing constituencies across the whole of the UK will continue to decide the UK’s Budget, including Income Tax.[¶ 75]
Scotland can set rates and bands of income tax; it can raise or lower thresholds. However,
All other aspects of Income Tax will remain reserved to the UK Parliament, including the imposition of the annual charge to Income Tax, the personal allowance, the taxation of savings and dividend income, the ability to introduce and amend tax reliefs and the definition of income.[¶ 77]
So all Scotland actually gets to set rates on is tax on earned income - what ordinary working people pay. Tax on unearned income - which is predominantly what the rich pay - we cannae touch. For the same reason - to protect the rich - we cannae touch inheritance taxes or capital gains taxes[¶ 81]. We cannae touch taxes on business. We cannae tax the oil coming out of the North Sea, or the gas coming from (if we permit it) fracking.

So what else can we do? We can set the rate of Air Passenger Duty, but if we abolish it we must compensate the UK government for doing so![¶ 87] We can tax aggregates, but again, if we do, we must 'reimburse' the UK government[¶ 90]. And that's all, folks. That's your whack.

The Barnett Formula remains and is - if the UK parties do indeed implement the document as written - protected into the future. We get the benefits and costs of any changes we make to our taxes as permitted in the recommendations, on top of Barnett[¶95]. And we'll need it, because we're only getting 29% of the tax revenue generated in Scotland.

There are many other reasons why these proposals on tax powers are the worst of all possible worlds; they've been stated very clearly by Richard Murphy. But the point which I want to repeat, which I want you to remember, is this: we are permitted to raise revenue, for example for improved services, by taxing the labour of ordinary working folk, the relatively poor; we're not permitted to touch the wealth or unearned income of the rich.

Social Justice

You'll have noticed already, then, that the 'social justice' pillar is necessarily hollow. We are to have powers over 'social justice' only in so far as they do not hurt the rich.

So, we're to have the power to abolish the spare bedroom tax[¶45], but we'll have to pay for it by taxing ordinary working folk. We can't do ANYTHING about 'Universal Credit' sanctions [¶46]. We do get power over a small range of minor benefits amounting to 14% of total benefits by value, but again if we choose to be more generous with them we'll have to pay for it by taxing ordinary working folk[¶49].

We cannae mess with the minimum wage, so we cannot lift people out of poverty that way[¶59]

However, there is one gleam of daylight. Under ¶54, we can create new benefits. So I think it would be possible to set up Citizens' Income, although it would in effect only redistribute wealth from ordinary folk to the very poor, because, again, we are not trusted to effectively tax the rich.


We get to renationalise the railways[¶65]. Except, of course, that that contract has already been let to the Netherlands national railways, so it's the tax payers of the Netherlands who get the benefit of this for the next ten years. We get to license (or not license) onshore oil and gas exploitation - so we could ban fracking[¶69]. Or, alternatively, we could raise revenue from it. We get to 'prevent the proliferation' of loan sharks and gambling machines[¶73,74].

So, in fact, tinkering not at the margins but at the margins of the margins. We cannot do anything effective (except perhaps licensing fracking, which would be environmentally destructive and wildly unpopular) to improve our economy.

A 'durable' framework?

Which takes us back to the first pillar. With the third broken and the second hollow, does the first have the capacity to take the full load on its shoulders? It starts well, recognising
the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine the form 
of government best suited to their needs [¶20]
Hold onto that phrase. We may need to come back to it in future. Under [¶21], the UK parliament will not - under the terms of these recommendations, which, of course, the UK parliament is at liberty to ignore - abolish the Scottish Parliament. The UK parliament will not interfere in devolved matters[¶22].

We can regulate our own elections, including the number of MSPs and of Scottish Parliament constituencies (provided we have a 'super majority', [¶27]), and the voting age; but we cannae regulate political parties, or political donations. Furthermore, the boundary commission, although not reserved, 'will continue to operate as a UK public body'.

We do get to administer, and receive the revenue from, the crown estates, but we must devolve these to those local authorities who request them (I think that's probably a good thing, but we are not trusted to decide for ourselves).

We don't get our own voice in Europe, and we don't get to represent the UK in Europe, not even on fishing, unless no UK minister is available; but we will be 'consulted'[¶31]. We don't get any control over broadcasting, but again we'll be consulted.

Smiffy messes up

I wrote at the beginning of this process, in my submission to the commission, that theirs was a task
which I know will prove thankless, suspect will prove fruitless, and believe will prove pointless

It was, of course, an immensely difficult brief. All the commissioners are to be congratulated that a document has emerged at all by the deadline. Robert Smith himself is to be congratulated for facilitating their work. Of course we now know that the document was sabotaged by Westminster before it could see the light of day. But none of the three pillars are stable; none will bear the weight the unionists seek to put on them. It's no surprise that the overwhelming public verdict in Scotland has been 'underwhelming'.

In short, if this is the fruit of their labour, it is strange and bitter fruit indeed; more like to poison the union than to nourish it.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Proposal for a Rural Policy meeting/workshop this winter

The Scottish Rural Parliament was an interesting event, but it - necessarily and desirably - was a meeting of people from all strands of Scottish rural life, so it wasn't an ideal situation for wild-eyed radicals to get together and plot. The Radical Independence Conference was invigorating and inspiring, but it was too big, effectively, for any real discussion of detailed policy.

We have, coming up in parliament now, three very important issues. The first is Community Empowerment, which is before parliament now and unless we get our act together quickly we'll effectively miss. The second is Land Reform, which will be before parliament soon. The third is Local Government Reorganisation, for which there are no clear proposals yet, but which everyone knows has to be addressed.

Policy making is a conversation. The law is, at best, a lagging indicator of the popular consensus of what is just, and that consensus can be moved (as we saw during the referendum campaign). If we want the law to move even a little in a radical direction, we need to have concrete proposals from a very radical position to balance the very reactionary proposals which will undoubtedly come from Scottish Land and Estates and their allies.

To make this happen, I think we need a meeting of activists to put together a set of proposals. We can't really meet regularly: Scotland is too big, we're mostly all too poor, in money, in time, and in energy. If a single one day meeting is to achieve anything, we need to do most of the work on the Internet in advance.

How are we to do that? I had originally thought of a wiki, and I've set up a little toy wiki to see if the idea works. This allows us to communally edit the same documents, and preserves all the different versions of the documents. But the alternative is for people to write individual position papers, share them either on blogs or by email, and for us to collaboratively edit them into one set of policies on the day.

There are a lot of areas we could cover, and if this works we can meet again to cover other policy areas; but for the present I think we should concentrate on those things which are coming up in parliament now, because they're most urgent.

We could meet under a Radical Independence Banner or under a Common Weal banner if people think either of those would be useful, or we could just meet as ourselves. I'd prefer we didn't associate ourselves with any particular political party, as doing so would prejudice members of other political parties against our ideas - but I'm only one voice and can be overridden on this.

As to when and where, I think it has to be January, and the weekend of 23-25th has been suggested. I thought somewhere near Perth as reasonably central, but the alternative would be to have two or three locations linked by video link (possibly safer given issues of weather, but I do think some of the potential benefit is to develop better informal social links between activists).

If you're interested in taking part, email me (simon at I'll give you a login on the wiki and also set up an email group. But for this to work it needs people to put some energy in. Not everyone has to write a policy paper. Not everyone has to read every policy paper. But you need to have read some of them, and to have a clear view on what policy will be.

Monday 24 November 2014

A worm, and a firmament of stars

Cat Boyd rocks the Armadillo
David Torrance is a journalist who irritates me more than he ought. Not that that's his problem; it's mine entirely, I ought not to allow myself to become so annoyed. But he is, for me, the exemplar of Scotland's tall poppy syndrome: see anyone talented, competent, able beyond what Torrance believes to be their deserts, and he will attack. His attacks are subtle: he uses innuendo, faint praise, dismissive reference, imputation of ill motives; never, as far as I'm aware, outright verifiable falsehood. I suspect he checks his facts carefully - indeed he must do so, since if he did not he would surely find himself before the courts on a regular basis. He's also - viciously - tribal. His detestation of the Scottish National Party bleeds through every piece he writes; his praise for the Labour right is lavish and unstinting. At least it could never be said of him that he pretends to balance.

Instead, he pretends to erudition. In today's scrawling in the Herald, he casts himself somewhat incongruously as a bible-thumper, making heavy reference to Deuteronomy; and, in case his audience is so unlairit as not fully to appreciate his facile cleverness, when he quotes from the Gospel according to Luke, he very helpfully cites chapter and verse.

Oh, yes, actually, this sort of stuff is quite fun to write - not constructive or illuminating, perhaps, but quite fun. I think I could manage a fair parody of a Torrance piece, if I set my mind to it.

But today I owe him a debt of gratitude, since he's irked me sufficiently to drive me to write this essay. And so I'll deal with his drivel in two short paragraphs, and move on to the meat of the matter.

Yes, David, Alex Salmond has had a number of 'pops at the BBC'. In which, let's agree, he's entirely justified, since even neutral academic studies have established beyond any doubt that the BBC's coverage of the referendum campaign was anything but fair, unbiased, or impartial. No, David, it doesn't matter whether or not you 'rather doubt it was the official figure of 12,000' attendees at Nicola Sturgeon's rally, since it's a matter of record that there were twelve thousand tickets, and every one of them was sold. No, David, of course neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Alex Salmond - nor anyone else on the stage in the Hydro - mentioned what was going on a scant 250 metres away in the Armadillo. As the government held it's - justifiable - celebration in the Hydro, the opposition were meeting across the way. The left was meeting across the way. The trades unionists were meeting across the way. The political voice of the working poor of Scotland was being heard across the way.

And very few - very few - of the people's party were there. Labour isn't in government in Scotland, David; it isn't even in opposition. It is tearing itself apart on the sidelines faintly pursuing the Liberal Democrats into the wilderness, while the new battle lines of Scottish politics take shape: the SNP in the centre ground, the tattered remnants of the unionist parties on the right, and something new and not yet fully choate on the left.

And that's what I came to talk about. I can't tell you what the SNP got up to in their mass rally, because I wasn't there. I was in the Armadillo, and the Science Centre, and the implausibly named Crowne Plaza (seriously? In Glasgow?), discussing the strategy and objectives of the new Scotland.

Three Days in Oban

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This piece doesn't start with Saturday, but with a Thursday two and a half weeks ago in Oban: with the Scottish Rural Parliament. The Scottish Rural Parliament has emerged out of a civil society project organised by a group of people who are undoubtedly well motivated, but who I feared might be naive. The attendees were largely self selecting and not in any meaningful sense representative. Consequently I'd gone there expecting to be a lone voice crying in the wilderness; I'd expected the event to be top-heavy with lairds and their lackeys. I'd gone there very grateful for the company of a friend who's a Green party activist. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, feart.

I should not have worried. The left was well represented: by the Tenant Farmers Association, by crofters' groups, and by a motley band of academics, housing association people, Green Party people, and the wilder fringe including myself. Two of the most significant people on the rural Left, Andy Wightman and Lesley Riddoch, were leading sessions.

The reason I haven't written about the event before this is that I'm pretty dissatisfied with myself with the use I made of it. I managed, through being disorganised, to book a session which clashed with the one - on local government reorganisation, an important matter and near to my heart - that they led together. And I managed also to miss most of the evening socialising where useful conversations might have been had - but probably not by me, since I've never been good with crowds.

In saying that I managed to miss Lesley and Andy's session, I went instead to a session on land reform run by some public affairs consultancy on behalf of the Scottish Government. That was the one part of the whole thing that really bothered me: I had a strong feeling that the session was being consciously structured to exclude the possibility of hearing radical suggestions.

However, the event as a whole was a good one, well organised, with a broad cross section of rural Scotland, the poor as well as the rich, the left as well as the right. And government ministers were there, palpably listening.

What most impressed me? Well, Lesley and Andy, of course. I frequently cross swords with Andy, but I hope he knows that I think him one of the most important thinkers, researchers and activists we have. But also, to my surprise, Councillor David O’Neill, an old Labour man, chair of COSLA's commission on Local Democracy, who gave a witty, modest, practical and very human outline of the problems and challenges of local government in Scotland; and the organisation (by a Danish facilitator whose name I didn't note) of Friday afternoon's highly interactive discussion sessions, in which we worked in small flexible groups across a wide range of key policy issues. Oh, and, I think I live in a beautiful part of Scotland (well, I do), but the landscape around Oban is stunning.

The bowels of the Armadillo

And so from the magnificence of Argyle to the stark grandeur of the Finnieston Crane. I met many of the people I had worked with at the Rural Parliament next on Saturday in Glasgow, at the Radical Independence Conference. RIC is effectively bridging the rural/urban divide, bringing together the left from across Scotland, and I honestly believe we will achieve a policy platform which will build broad support across the nation.

So, thoughts on RIC: I'd hoped for a working conference which would make policy, but it has essentially grown too big for that. To have a useful discussion with three thousand people is impossible; even the smaller breakout sessions, at two hundred or more people each, were too big for real interaction. And so it was mainly speakers from platforms, delivering speeches. The plenaries I'll come back to; patience.

I attended (of course) the land reform session - entitled 'Ending feudalism now: why we need radical land reform' - which was led (of course) by Andy Wightman, but with someone I hadn't heard before, Jen Stout from Fair Isle. That session was interesting not merely for the 'platform' (it was a table) addresses, but because we actually managed some real discussion - not, under those circumstances, very free flowing, but some.

I attended a session which advertised itself as 'new media', but which led off with a long (interesting) address by Paul Holleran, Scottish Organiser of the NUJ, mainly about the BBC and about the new daily newspaper, the Nation. There was also an interesting section by Angela Haggerty of Common Weal on their new collaborative news platform (which hasn't really launched yet, but sounds as though it may be promising).

And finally I attended a session on the Common Weal, led by Robin McAlpine; the first time I'd seen the whites of his eyes. The session as a whole was interesting, but it reprised a lot of what I'd already heard from Angela Haggerty, so for me I used it most to form an opinion of Robin. I'll admit I've been wary of him. The last thing the left in Scotland needs is yet another charismatic egotist. Citizen Tommy and Gorgeous George have between them done incalculable damage. So it was a relief for me to see that Robin was too much an intellectual, too self aware and introspective, to fall into that trap.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Which brings me to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; to Jonathon Shafi, the other person to emerge strongly on the left in Scotland over the course of the referendum campaign, the other person who might conceivably have tried to follow in Tommy's and George's footsteps.

Shafi didn't bark.

To be honest I didn't expect him to, I've already seen enough of Jonathon Shafi to know he isn't an egotist; but the extent to which he didn't bark surprised me. He didn't speak in the plenaries except, in the opening plenary, to introduce speakers. He did apparently lead one (well received, I hear) workshop, but I didn't attend that.

Those who did speak in the plenaries, though, revealed the strength in depth that we have. Aamer Anwar spoke: mostly a tirade against Labour, which won rapturous applause but was I think tactically a mistake. Patrick Harvie for the Greens spoke well, of course, it goes without saying; Colin Fox of the SSP, too. Tariq Ali, beside whom I last stood at a meeting in Birmingham in 1973 as we tried together to prevent what was supposed to be a broad front campaign in support of the left in Chile being taken over by one of the more doctrinaire Marxist-Somethingist factions, inspiringly, as, from long experience, he can.

A Firmament of Stars

But all these seasoned politicians were eclipsed. It would be wrong to ignore Myshelle Haywood, one of many from across the Atlantic who have come to Scotland for our culture and stayed because of our politics, and who spoke well and fluently. It would be wrong to ignore Alan Bissett, who gave us our vow. It would be wrong to ignore Sarah Beattie Smith, who chaired the closing plenary with grace and confidence. But abune them aa, there were two real standout stars.

In the opening plenary, Saffron Dickson shone. She spoke too last years' conference; I think if I recall correctly she said then that it was her first time speaking to a large audience. Well, this year wasn't. Her performance was confident, assured, witty, fluent, passionate, eloquent: extraordinarily assured for one so young. Yet in the closing plenary even that was eclipsed.

We know Cat Boyd can speak: we've seen her do it before. But, she did it. She earned her standing ovation. Alex Salmond apparently said, that day, in another place, that Nicola Sturgeon is the most talented young woman in Scottish Politics. I have the greatest of respect for Alex, but he was wrong. The left now has at least two - these two - who outclass her. And they're both younger, with much more ahead of them.

When shall we three (thousand) meet again?

There have been a number of good think pieces on RIC written in its aftermath; I particularly commend to you Peter ArnottJonathon ShafiAdam Ramsay, Sarah Mumford and Libby Brooks. There was another that I meant to link to written by a female Green activist on the train home, but I can't now find it - if anyone recognises it from that description please tweet me and I'll add it! There's even a surprisingly good straight piece from the BBC.

What do I take away from it? Well, as Jonathon Shafi has said, it proves that we can have competent organisation and a great deal of common purpose on the left; factionalism is neither inevitable nor useful. we need to get serious talking done about policy, and a massive event like this doesn't do that. So we're going to need working groups, and we're going to need working groups well before next years conference. Which, from my point of view, really means I need to get a rural policy working group together and actually happening. I'm inclined to do that under a RIC banner rather than under a Common Weal banner, but frankly it's more important to get the right people talking than what banner we meet under.


RIC is, as I said at the beginning of this piece, yet inchoate. In it are the seeds of Scotland's future: in it is the hope for Scotland's future. Will it emerge as a political party? I don't think so. Six months ago I hoped it would, now I hope it will not. I hope the future of politics in Scotland is not a future of party, tribalism, faction, but a future of a loose and changing tapestry of individuals and groups with bonds of understanding and mutual respect, which know they don't always agree on everything but know too when and how to come together in common cause: and if that is the future, then RIC is the embryo of that future.

We must nurture it. But it will grow.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Credit where credit's due: Russell Brown MP

So this evening I fired of yet another of my intemperate emails to my MP.

I say 'my' MP. He's the MP for my home. But since I'm still legally homeless, I'm actually currently registered to vote in Glasgow. I've literally no idea who the MP where my vote is registered in Glasgow actually is, although I think my MSP may just have become First Minister. But I think of Russell Brown as my MP, because he's the MP for where I actually live.

I have very mixed feelings about Russell Brown. As a human being I think he's a very decent one. I like him. I've seen him attending events for mad people - people with mental illness - where there was no possible publicity benefit from doing so. And, furthermore, treating us with dignity and respect, as equal citizens. Which of course we are, but it still impressed me positively. I've seen him turn up in person at anti-Nazi rallies. He's also, I'm told, a 'good constituency MP' - which is to say the social worker of last resort for those defeated by the bureaucracy. Which is a good and honourable role, and someone has to do it.

But we don't actually send people to Westminster to be social workers, we send them there to be legislators. And as a legislator, Russell Brown often seems as much use as a clockwork monkey.

He has never rebelled against the party whip in this parliament - not once. In all his 17 years at Westminster, he's rebelled against the whip only eight times - so once in two years on average - but he's got progressively less rebellious with age.

The few rebellions he has made have been mostly on the side of the almost angels. He rebelled three times on Lords reform, voting twice for a fully appointed House of Lords - not just mostly Tony's Cronies, entirely Tony's Cronies, but that would at least have meant no more damned legislators by inheritance. But on the other hand he voted that the Lords be abolished entirely, so on the whole he earned some brownie points.

He voted both ways on a technical amendment to the Protection of Vulnerable Children bill. Without more context I don't know what the import of that amendment was, and, in any case, I don't know whether voting both ways was a clever political manoeuvre or a cock-up. But it was at least some sort of a rebellion, so I give him some credit for not being a clockwork monkey on that occasion. And he rebelled three times on the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill - the relevance of which to his electorate in Galloway I honestly fail to see. And finally, and honourably, he voted to allow doctors to assist terminally ill people who wished to die, to do so.

So that's his seventeen year career: eight occasions when he did what a clockwork monkey wouldn't do, and voted against his part whip; on two of those occasions, he unambiguously did the right thing.

In Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta Iolanthe, Private Willis sings:
When in that House M.P.'s divide,
If they've a brain and cerebellum, too,
They've got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell 'em to.
That was first performed one hundred and thirty years ago, but at Westminster little ever changes. Eight times in seventeen years, Russell Brown has forgotten to check in his brain at the MPs' Cloakroom; twice in seventeen years, he's done something useful with it.

For the rest of the time, he's voted with the Labour whip. For the Iraq War. For the maintenance and renewal of nuclear weapons. For tuition fees (but only for students in England, of course). For the breakup of the NHS (but only the English NHS, of course). For ID cards. Against protecting refugees. Against cracking down on tax avoidance. It's not a record of which any socialist could be proud.

And being this mindless clockwork monkey, he joined with the rest of London Labour in their collective act of suicide in the Independence Referendum in acting as willing footsoldiers for the bankers, the landowners, the imperialist fantasists against his own electorate, the working poor of Stranraer and west Dumfries who voted in their droves for an independent, socialist Scotland.

I truly do not understand this act of wilful collective folly. In Scotland, Labour could once more have become a party of government, and, what's more, a party of government implementing the policies of egalitarianism and social justice which one must assume that they all joined the Labour Party to promote. Instead, they chose to remain in a United Kingdom which they can only ever hope to govern if they discard all those of their principles they have not already recanted.

However, I didn't come, tonight, to bury Russell Brown. I came, tonight, to praise him. Credit where it's due.

My email to him was both angry and incendiary. Here it is:

Dear Mr Russell Brown MP, 
During the recent referendum campaign, you (and others) repeatedly claimed that the Yes campaign's assertion that our NHS was not safe in the Union was false. Now we face TTIP, and with it the wholesale privatisation of every aspect of our NHS, both north and south of the border. Your assurances that the NHS was safe now look very hollow. 
Of course, you can't stop this. The Tories have a majority and they will defeat your colleague Clive Efford's National Health Service (Amended Duties and Powers) Bill 2014-15. But the least you can do to retain some semblance of honour is to vote with Clive Efford in favour of the bill. 
Please assure me that you will do this. 
Yours sincerely, 
Simon Brooke
Within the hour I received this response:
Many thanks for contacting me about Clive Efford's Private Members' Bill to be heard on Friday and also the issue of TTIP. 
In respect of the latter, I received a briefing from my trade union, Unite, back in the early summer and having already looked at the potential impact of the TTIP agreement, I was a little surprised that Unite was actually fairly favourable towards the agreement. However, as time passed, it became clear that there was a genuine threat contained therein, with regards to NHS contracts, and when I and other members of the Unite Parliamentary Group met with senior officials of the union, it was determined that in going forward, opposition to TTIP should be pursued. Thankfully, this is the position that I, and other Labour colleagues, will be taking. 
I have already spoken with Clive about his Bill and I have assured him that I will be remaining in parliament on Friday to offer my support to his Bill. 
Many thanks for making contact with me and for making your views and concerns known to me. 
Now that is a far more courteous response than I deserved. Furthermore, my understanding is that the official Labour position is still in favour of TTIP, so it looks as though he is prepared to use his brain - positively, on behalf of his constituents - once again.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Bigbale: scaling up the Winter Palace to family size

'bigbale' sketch
The Winter Palace was built for less than £5,500, because that was all I had. But that figure included the stove and its chimney, the plumbing, and quarter of a mile of water pipe in a trench over a metre deep. The front glass cost another £1,400, and the roof lining cost an unbudgetted extra £200; so I always quote a figure of £7,000 for the whole building. It's a building of 30 square metres floor area, so its cost is about £233 per square metre. And those figures are inclusive of VAT, because while someone self-building a legal house can reclaim their VAT, someone building an illegal house cannot.

However, a dwelling with twice the usable volume does not need to consume twice the materials. 'Bigbale' was a design exercise to see how one would build family sized house using what I've learned from the Winter Palace.

Timber from building yards typically comes in up to 4.8 metre (16 feet) lengths; consequently, the tie beams of the Winter Palace are 4.8 metres long. The length of the tie beam dictates the width across the outer faces of the walls. However, longer timbers can be got (and if necessary shorter timbers can be scarfed); the bigbale design presumes trusses on 6 metre (20 foot) tie beams. The front and rear pairs of trusses on the Winter Palace are spaced at 2.4 metres; this seems perfactly adequate and works well.

So if you had five trusses on 6 metre tie beams spaced at 2.4 metres, you'd have a building 9.6 metres by 6 metres; but because bale walls are 0.5 metres thick, the internal size would be 8.6 x 5 metres, or 43 square metres on the ground floor. Upstairs, the width of usable floor is limited by headroom; realistically, you'll lose a metre on each side. But because the big thick bale walls don't continue into the upper story, that's losing a metre on each side of 6 metres, and the floor length is a potential 9.5 metres; so you have 9.5 by 4, or 38 square metres of potentially usable floor upstairs. However, only the central two metres width of that have full standing headroom. Also, you need to allow for a stair well. But still we're looking at a dwelling which is only 20% wider and 25% longer than the Winter Palace. That's 1.5 times as much roof; 1.5 times as much ground floor; actually less than 1.5 times as much wall, if you use as much glass as I'm suggesting; and between 1.25 times and twice as much foundation, depending on how it's laid. There is, undoubtedly, three times as much upper floor. However, overall we're looking at less than twice as much material - so under £10,000 for main build should be plausible.

In terms of details of the structure, on a prepared site one either lays ballast or quarry spoil and places rails made of recycled railway sleepers on it as I did, or builds dwarf wall foundations of either poured concrete or concrete blockwork, with a layer of damp-proof material on top of that. Either three or four of these dwarf-walls or sleeper rails will be needed - you could certainly get away with three but would get a significantly less bouncy floor with four. Lay the joists across the foundations, using dwangs between them for spacing and to prevent toppling; put netting under them, stapled to the underside of each one, and lay 150 mm of glass-fibre insulation (or, if you can afford it, treated wool) into the netting. Then lay the floor over the whole lot, including under the walls. It will be easier to bring waste-water pipes out through the floor than through the walls, at least for downstairs plumbing, so do that at this stage.

Winter Palace: framing the sill plate. Renderstop strip is
visible along the outer edge.
Build the sill plate onto the floor. It is a ladder frame of 100 by 50 mm softwood, topped by 15 or 18mm oriented strand board. The 'ladder' is 500mm wide. There should be a sill plate at every place where you intend to build a bale wall. Drill holes in the oriented strand board top of the wallplate at about 450mm centres and fit hazel rods, about 300mm long and 20-25mm in diameter, with sharpened ends pointing upwards, to locate the first course of bales. Along the outer edge of the sillplate, attach a plastic 'renderstop' strip.

Prepare a 'service plate' and a wall plate. In the Winter Palace, there was no service plate - I installed a plank in the walls at mid height. But it's from experience both of the build and of living in the finished house that I believe a service plate would be a very good thing. Both the wall plate and the service plate are ladder structures identical to the wall plate except faced with oriented strand board on both upper and lower sides, and you should have a matching section of each for each section of sill plate. The Winter Palace has no fireproof barrier between the walls and the roof; its likely your local building regulations will require one. You should consult and work out what exactly you need, but if you can build your fireproof barrier into your wall plate it will save a lot of time. Otherwise you will have to install the fireproof barrier on top of the wall plate, before the roof can be erected, and this is precisely when a bale building is most vulnerable to rain.

Pre install wiring for your primary downstairs ringmain into the service plate; pre install earth cable for connecting up bathroom and kitchen plumbing. Drill through the service plate and wall plate at 450 mm intervals to accept 25mm hazel rods. It's highly likely that you'll have to build both service plate and wall plate in sections, as they'll be much too unwieldy to manhandle fully assembled; make sure you know how the sections will fit together, and, in the case of the service plate, how the electrical connections will be made.

On build day, lay three courses of bales onto the sill plate, nailing them together with 500mm long by 20-25mm thick sharpened hazel stakes. Then lay the service plate on top of these. This will help stabilise the walls. Nail through the plate with more hazel stakes, then lay another three courses on top, again pinning them together with stakes. The wall should now be about 2.5 - 2.6 metres tall. Finally add the wall plate, again fastening it in place with hazel stakes. While building the walls, install wooden framing for wall openings.

Bale walls compress. The weight of the roof compresses them, and I'm advised you should allow for 10% compression although my own walls have compressed less than 2%. You should have no vertical members joining the sill plate to the wall plate, because of the need to allow for compression. This matters most at the framing of openings in the walls. Design your frames to allow the roof structure to move vertically.

bigbale, roof structure
Erect the roof trusses on top of the wall plates, and use braces to keep them vertical; in the Winter Palace the braces are left exposed on the interior of the roof, as a conscious design decision. The trusses are A-frames of 50mm by 250mm softwood. You obviously could use heavier timbers, but then you would need to have a crane available on build day. The braces are cross-frames of 50mm by 100mm They've proved handy for hanging things on, at cost of occasionally banging one's head. But if your roof cladding can take the loads of which would tend to cause the trusses to topple, you could remove the braces after the roof is complete. Install purlins onto your trusses. 50mm by 150 mm softwood should be adequate. My purlins are spaced at 1 metre centres; while structurally adequate, this made a roof which was quite difficult to move around on safely while installing the cladding. 600mm centres would be a lot safer, although would obviously cost more.

Winter palace, installing the first purlins;
braces are clearly visible
A roof is in effect a wing. As the wind blows over it it generates lift, and in a light weight building that's a risk. The Winter Palace is in a wood, and consequently never exposed to high wind speeds; but as a general thing I would recommend securing the ends of the trusses to ground anchors with stays of steel cable or chain, tensioned with bottle screws. If you stretch the stays away from the building in the plane of the shed of the roof, this will also greatly add to the stability of the building. Remember that these stays will have to be checked for tightness from time to time as the walls compress.

It is very much harder to install insulation into a roof after the cladding is on. However, bale walls are vulnerable to rain until the roof is complete. If I were doing it again I think I'd install the roof
Winter Palace bedroom, showing cross braces.
lining, then the insulation, then the breathable membrane and finally the cladding, working on dry days and covering the build with tarpaulins on wet days; but this is a gamble since a big storm is likely to rip away the tarpaulins. Essentially you want to get your cladding completed as soon as possible. My roof lining is 15mm spruce ply, my insulation 150mm glass wool, my cladding larch planks; however, if you're building for long term low maintenance I would suggest a profiled sheet steel cladding; I don't really know how long my roof cladding will last, and replacing it will be a nuisance. It's possible to buy steel roofing sheets with foam insulation bonded on; they're quite expensive and I would worry about the environmental costs of the foam insulation, but it would be quick and easy to install.

Both the Winter Palace and my 'bigbale' sketch have quite exaggerated eaves. Driving rain is not going to be good for bale walls, even when rendered with lime render, so long eaves on the roof keep rain away from the building. Obviously, however, this increases the potential for aerodynamic lift, making anchoring the roof even more important.

Once the roof is clad, apply render to the walls. I used clay, as it was much cheaper than lime render; it's possible but my strong advice would be 'don't'. It's very vulnerable to driven rain, and needs to be applied in three to four coats over a very few days if you are to achieve a crack-free finish which will protect the bales from fire. If a layer of clay dries too much before the next layer is applied, the next layer will not adhere. Short summary: use lime render. I'm told that there are machines you can rent which will spray lime render onto the walls, but the only people I've spoken to with direct experience of it said that it was an extremely messy operation, and that they used far more material than they had budgetted. If I were doing it I would just trowel it on, possibly (as with the clay) in a series of coats.

You are not going to end up with smooth, flat walls, either inside or out. Don't expect to. However, bales can be carved into surprisingly interesting shapes.

Install joists for the upper floor between the trusses. Plank across the joists.

You now have a weatherproof shell of a building that you can move into, and I seriously believe that you could get to this point for £10,000 - assuming you don't pay for any labour. At that point you can move in, and finish gradually as you have the time and money to do it. The big cost - actually, in my 'bigbale' sketch, the biggest cost - is glass. If you can get second hand glazing units, for example from a building being demolished, that could save a lot of money; but if you buy new glazing units as shown in my sketch that will cost somewhere between five and eight thousand in itself. A stove like mine, with chimney, will set you back less than a thousand. Plumbing, wiring, fitting out, probably another thousand (and you will need a qualified electrician to certify your wiring - if you don't have a suitably qualified friend that's another cost).

But the long and the short of it is that a comfortable home, big enough for a family, is something you can build yourself without any very special skills, and something you can reasonably pay for out of money you can reasonably save.

Saturday 1 November 2014

How have the mighty fallen

Ed Miliband gives tuppence to a homeless woman;
photo Getty Images, re-used without permission.
This is not an anti-Labour blog. I am not anti-Labour. I don't support them, but I don't hate them. I'm about to say some very harsh things about them. I hope they're harsh but helpful; however, even if they're seen as harsh and unhelpful I'd like to point out that I have in the past said equally harsh things about the SNP. This is not partisan or tribal harshness, I'm not seeking to advance the cause of any other particular party. I'm trying to explore why the Labour Party have fallen so far from the ideals on which it was founded.

And I want to start with this absolutely shocking image. How does it shock me? Let me count the ways:

  1. A politician is exploiting a homeless woman for a publicity shot;
  2. He will not meet her eyes, or acknowledge her as a fellow human being;
  3. The coin is clearly dull brown - it's a tuppence;
  4. There's more than a whiff of implied racism in his obvious discomfort with a Muslim woman;
  5. Oh, and he's wearing a poppy.

So, this is a Labour politician - the party set up by the common people, by the poor, to represent their interests. Its current leader is a multi-millionaire. He's paid £139,355 salary from the public purse, and additionally claimed, in the past year, £127,354.95 in expenses. And he gives a homeless woman tuppence. Since it's a damned publicity stunt anyway, he could presumably have claimed the donation back from his constituency party if he couldn't afford to give her more than tuppence. But no, that's clearly all she's worth to him.

OK, so I've been homeless, and possibly I feel this more strongly than other people do. But people who sleep rough are vulnerable and women who sleep rough are extremely vulnerable. People who, for one reason or another - and it's rarely their fault - are excluded from our increasingly parsimonious, judgemental, arbitrary and inefficient system of social security are starving in this country, as Miliband strolls to his £200 dinner.

This picture reeks of discomfort; his whole body language shouts his urgent need to be out of the situation, the expression on his face underlines his distaste and insincerity. But why? Here is another human being in distress, in need. There but for the grace of any deity - whether you call him Jahweh or Allah - go all of us. So why the distaste?

I don't know.

It seems inexplicable.

The only sense I can make of it is this: Ed Miliband is Jewish; more, he says he's a proud supporter of Labour Friends of Israel, so he's a Zionist. There's nothing wrong with him being Jewish, that isn't the point I'm making. But the woman wears a Hijab; she's clearly Muslim. Is his revulsion racism? It certainly looks like that.

Younger people won't be shocked to learn that an over-privileged Labour politician despises a beggar. For people who've grown to political consciousness since 1997 will only have known Labour as a party of the 'aspirational', sucking up to the very rich; a party deeply engaged in an adventurist and militarist foreign policy in support of the US, and closely aligned with the US Republican party.

Jim Murphy, London Labour's anointed candidate for the vacant Scottish Labour leadership, is, like Miliband, another warmonger. Which brings me onto the issue of that poppy. These men, who sat in cabinet and sent other people off to fight and die needlessly and pointlessly in foreign wars, strut about with the blood-stained poppy of remembrance, the talisman of the solemn commitment to those we sent to die a hundred years ago that they fought in the war to end all wars, that we would never fight another.

For these poppy-wearing politicians, the blood of other peoples' sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, is cheap. Promises are cheap. A vow made a month ago is disowned now, discarded, its purpose served. Politicians - Labour politicians - now serve only themselves.

But it was not always so. My parents were for most of both their lives profoundly committed supporters of the Labour Party. They saw it as a party of idealism, and, in their youth, it was. It did do much to found and entrench the welfare state that is now being dismantled. It did create the National Health Service. It did seek, through initiatives like comprehensive schooling, to create an egalitarian society.

If you read this blog - if you've read it for just six weeks - you've seen me rant on land reform, and on the abolition of the House of Lords. So if you were to see me write, on this blog,

The country has allowed landowners to pocket millions of pounds every year in the share of unearned increment, and yet they object to pay a small tax upon what, in justice, should belong to the State. They wish at all costs to preserve their power to plunder the people.
The [redacted] welcomes this opportunity to prove that the feudal age is past and that the people are no longer willing to live on the sufferance of the Lords. 
The issues you have to decide are simple. Our present system of land ownership has devastated our countryside, has imposed heavy burdens upon our industries, has cramped the development of our towns, and has crippled capital and impoverished labour. 
The Lords must go

I think you would not be very surprised. But the words are not mine. They're taken from the 1910 parliamentary manifesto of that very same Labour Party - the same party, again, from Clause IV of whose constitution I quoted in another post this week.

How do you get from a party which says 'the Lords must go' to a party whose members fill 217 of the seats in that bloated and undemocratic house? How do you get from a party of the working people to a party which holds £200-a-head gala dinners? How do you get from a party with a pacifist leader to a party which started five wars in ten years?

I don't know. But I do know this: it's time it stopped. If Labour cannot roll back to its roots, cannot again become an honourable party of the ordinary people against the elite, it should disband.

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