Wednesday. 28/10/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Lance Price

Letter from... London

For London, 2020 was just about the worst possible time to confront a global pandemic. The UK, which has always prided itself on being one of the most stable democracies in the world, was already uncertain about its future with an untested new government and a prime minister who many even in his own party considered ill qualified for the job. Despite all his bluster and attempts at Churchillian rhetoric, Boris Johnson (pictured) has done nothing to dispel those doubts. Far from offering decisive, effective leadership, he and his ministers and advisors have spread confusion and eroded public trust – with disastrous consequences.

At the start of the pandemic, people rallied to stick by the rules and support the much-admired National Health Service. But that community spirit was fatally undermined when some close to Johnson went unpunished for breaking those same rules, while his own hyperbolic promises of world-beating apps or test-and-trace schemes fell woefully short. The government in London thought it knew best, even as it grappled with the formidable disruption posed by the UK’s exit from the EU. It jealously guarded its power in response to the pandemic; elected leaders in England’s regions were consulted only reluctantly, if at all.

Until, that is, Boris Johnson was forced to face a reality check when the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland took a tougher approach to controlling the virus. They were supported locally. In England, directly elected mayors have flexed their muscles and Boris Johnson discovered that his writ no longer runs throughout the country.

And so the pandemic has radically altered the way things look from London. The prime minister has been tested and his weaknesses exposed. The devolution of authority away from the capital has accelerated and can’t be clawed back. And people’s confidence that the UK’s institutions will invariably overcome any challenge in a crisis has been lost, possibly for ever.

Price was communications director for former UK prime minister Tony Blair and is a regular contributor to Monocle 24.

Transport / Pakistan

Making connections

Lahore unveiled Pakistan’s first metro network this week, marking an important step in both the growth of the city and the nation. Comprising more than 24 stations, the network will serve about 250,000 people daily and cost $1.8bn (€1.5bn) to build – much of which was provided by China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. For Pakistan’s second-largest city, which is home to 11 million people, the upgrade has been long overdue. “In terms of public-transport facilities, once you reach a certain size you need this kind of intervention,” Muhammed Sohail, professor of sustainable infrastructure at Loughborough University, tells The Monocle Minute. It hasn’t been welcomed by everyone: there have been protests about its construction affecting places such as the Shalimar Gardens, a Unesco heritage site. Meanwhile, Professor Sohail is concerned about the level of debt it has created with China. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he says.

Elections / USA

Heart of the matter

On Monocle 24 this week, The Globalist is counting down to the US election with a special series that digs deeper into the stories that have gripped the electorate, including the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests sparked by the death of George Floyd prompted a global push to end racial inequality and reform policing, while US conservatives warned of violence and styled themselves as “law and order” candidates.

What is clear is that the issue will not go away. “We need to appreciate that this is something both parties will inherit,” says Michell Chresfield, lecturer in US history at the University of Birmingham in the UK. And while a Joe Biden presidency would be more likely to confront racial injustice, the more radical proposals gaining widespread traction, such as defunding the police, highlight that there is no easy fix. “We’re going to see a showdown at some point [between] very leftist, progressive interventions and the agendas of a Biden presidency,” says Chresfield.

Society / Italy

Growth industry

It has been reported that the past few months have inspired many people to leave the city and relocate to the countryside – but how many of those have considered making a job out of tending to the land as well? In Italy, a run for the rural patch began even before the pandemic. A recent report by agricultural association Coldiretti found that, over the past five years, there has been a 12 per cent growth in the number of agricultural businesses led by people under the age of 35. This young crop of entrepreneurs is bringing about a welcome transformation in industry practices too. Seven out of 10 of these new companies are operating in innovative fields and many are devoted to sustainability, which has helped to make Italy’s agricultural sector the most eco-friendly in Europe in terms of reduced pesticide use and organic options. It’s a trend that we hope will continue to bear fruit.

Design / Global

Constructive thinking

Infrastructure such as schools, apartment blocks and retail precincts take time, permission and a considerable amount of money to bring to life, and good design ideas often get lost in the profit-driven equation. In Monocle’s November issue we prove that design ideas for improving our lives are out there in the built environment and highlight those developers with the vision and guts to get behind them. Whether it’s a green school (pictured) in New Zealand that puts sustainability and social change on the curriculum through its open and low-impact architecture, a Swiss firm fighting to bring much-needed variety into the unadventurous housing mix in its homeland, or a gentle and inviting outdoor commercial development in Tokyo, these success stories demonstrate the win-win scenario when architectural daring and property-development wisdom come together.

M24 / Tall Stories

Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

We visit Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico to take some civic inspiration from its famed frescoes.

Monocle Films / France

The secret to baking bread

Paris baker Christophe Vasseur runs the successful corner shop Du Pain et des Idées and knows the secret of the perfect loaf.

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