In this week's New Statesman | Are cities getting too big?

Plus: Douglas Alexander on Sri Lanka, Duncan Campbell on the Decline of the British Trial, David Miliband on US isolationism and more.

Leo Johnson asks: Are our cities getting too big?

Douglas Alexander: David Cameron must not backtrack on Sri Lanka

The Decline of the British Trial: Why the press and the public have deserted the courtroom gallery

Rafael Behr exposes the Tories' “counterfeit consensus” on Europe

David Miliband: Why JFK would warn against American isolationism

Vernon Bogdanor: Are we too complacent about democracy?

Kevin Maguire on Ed Miliband's “wet halibut” handshake and David Cameron's comb over crisis

PLUS

New medical column by Dr Phil Whitaker

From the archive: Bertrand Russell on civil disobedience

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COVER STORY: LEO JOHNSON ON THE RISE OF “SMART CITIES”

Leo Johnson, Visiting fellow of the Smith School of Enterprise & Environment at Oxford – and brother of Boris – asks what the rise of “premier gated cities” means for society globally. From South Korea to Nairobi, Florida to the Democratic Republic of Congo, these “urban dreamscapes”, writes Johnson, are an important element of the 21st-century trend towards urbanisation:

“In South Korea, Songdo is already open for business. Described by Cisco as a ‘model for future cities’, Songdo has smart water, smart garbage (pneumatically sucked out of sight), smart parking with cars guided to empty lots, centralised blood pressure monitoring consoles, elevators you can order from your television screen and ubiquitous 52-inch plasma screens for high-definition video conferencing. Plus, a green space modelled on New York’s Central Park and a canal system inspired by Venice.”

“As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions. One is vertical, isolating ourselves in gated smart cities from the crises affecting the poor. The other is horizontal, harnessing technology to empower smart citizens, with the goal of making both the rural and the urban work.”

 

THE GUEST COLUMN

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: DAVID CAMERON MUST NOT BACKTRACK ON SRI LANKA

With just over a week to go until the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, asks why David Cameron appears to be reluctant to hold Sri Lanka’s government to account for its worsening human rights record.

“Labour was for many months calling on the British government to use the question of whether the Prime Minister would attend as leverage to encourage President Rajapaksa to address human-rights concerns. Instead, David Cameron chose to hand away his influence six months before the summit was even to take place by confirming that both he and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, would attend. The Prime Minister should now reverse that decision.”

“The international community must stand united in its efforts to promote justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Until now, David Cameron has proven unwilling to use the leverage he has to promote change in Sri Lanka. Yet there is too much at stake, for too many, for him to fail to do so yet again.”

THE NS ESSAY: DUNCAN CAMPBELL ON THE DECLINE OF THE BRITISH TRIAL

Duncan Campbell, former crime correspondent for The Guardian, considers why, with the exception of Hackgate, the press and the public have deserted the courtroom galleries that used to be packed for every big trial.

“In some ways, the opening days last month of the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, all pleading not guilty to charges related to the News of the World phone-hacking affair, were just like old times: the crowds, the queues, the bustle and excitement. Seventy journalists, representing all the British press, not to mention Al Jazeera, El Confidencial and the Wall Street Journal, were on hand to report. Curious onlookers hung around in the street outside, gazing at all the frantic activity. But this was very much a throwback to another era.”

“When I first started covering criminal trials in the early 1970s, long queues were still common for high-profile murder cases. The public gallery would be full, people craning their necks to see the accused brought up from the cells. Today many murder trials take place without a single person in the press box or a single member of the public in the gallery. So, whatever happened to British trials and why do they often pass us by unnoticed except for the opening day’s prosecution case and the jury’s verdict?”

Daytime TV and the end of the death penalty have both helped empty the galleries, Campbell concludes. But the trend is a worrying one, he writes, “because trials are essential to our understanding of how our society operates”.

DAVID MILIBAND: WHY JFK WOULD WARN AGAINST US ISOLATIONSIM

Following his Kennedy Memorial Lecture to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the former president, David Miliband, who is now based in the US as president of the International Rescue Committee, argues that JFK would urge us to increase international engagement.

“JFK did not live to see what he called “not just peace in our time but peace for all time”. But I think we can say with confidence that he would view the end of the cold war not as the end of the business of peace-making but the start. He would see that it creates new possibilities and requirements for international engagement, rather than diluting the need for it.”

“The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination will evoke sadness, admiration and nostalgia. But the insights he developed for the 1960s remain relevant in the 21st century. They are a gift for our times.”

THE POLITICS COLUMN: RAFAEL BEHR

In this week’s column, Rafael Behr, NS politics editor, explains that Ed Miliband is waiting in hope that the Tories’ counterfeit consensus on Europe – the agreement there will be an in/out referendum by 2017 – will unravel.

“This counterfeit consensus has obvious charm for Tory MPs. It allows them to say with a straight face that the party is united on Europe. The moment of choice is deferred. Since the EU is evolving, none but the most determined quitters feel sure that in four years’ time it will still be the kind of union Britain should leave. What Conservatives can say with certainty is that David Cameron wants a referendum and Ed Miliband doesn’t, which feels like a great advantage to a party with an inflated sense of national grievance against Brussels. The Tories are so proud of their plebiscite pledge that they keep expecting Miliband to copy it.

“There may be loftier elements in Labour’s European calculations but at their core is a gamble on whether the effects of Cameron’s dodgy potion to unite the Tories wears off before Miliband is forced to serve up a referendum brew of his own.”

PLUS

Tom Watson MP reviews the new Batman video game

Kate Mossman on judging the Mercury Prize – and the new Eminem album

Craig Raine reviews the new Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern

Laurie Penny writes from San Francisco on the memory of Trayvon Martin and racial injustice in America

Will Self: American society and American fast food are twins separated at birth

Ed Smith on Alex Ferguson’s autobiography and why “violence is the most underrated of all leadership traits”

Nina Caplan is branded a “wine snob” but prefers to be called a “winie”

The engineer Lesley Thompson reflects on 100 years of progress in the NS Centenary Interview

 

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.