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The Future for Najac - Najac in Danger - A tendentious picture

20th April 2008  

I chose Najac for my old age because it’s at the end of the road; it’s not on the way anywhere.  I thought I would be spared an airport or a motorway, for the country is sharply indented, and the Aveyron gorges hard to cross.  The village is ringed by the river, and is small, beautiful, well preserved, and appreciated, so I hoped to escape anything very upsetting in modern urban development, a supermarket, a glue-factory, a cement works, or a nuclear power-station.  We are one of what I took to be an elite group of places which can claim to be ‘un des plus beaux villages de France’ and I hoped strong forces would keep it that way, in fact as well as in title.  I cherished my rural idyll.  Perhaps I lacked imagination. 

I remember a local builder telling me he always had work to do: the farmers wanted their stone walls covering with plaster, and the townspeople who bought houses in the country wanted the plaster removed and the old stones laid bare again.  The emulative spirit is very strong.  We develop a fantasy idea of how people have better lives than our own, and try to adapt our own to the fantasy.  Sitting there in the big city, breathing your daily diet of traffic fumes, surrounded by brick and concrete, you may think that here at the civilized end of the world we are in bliss, in a land of trees and flowers and lovely old buildings.  But you must remember that the rural French hanker after a concept of progress which embraces housing estates, industrial complexes, noises, smells and bingo halls, despite their better moments, when they behave as though they appreciate the strengths and beauties of the things around them. 

None of this would have mattered much down here, some say, until recently, for the Mayor of Najac, Hubert Bouyssičre, had a reputation for masterly inactivity which was only partly explained by the fact that he had been in office since 1953.  But standing again this year for re-election aged 88, he has just been deposed by a new team with a more radical mandate. 

For a start they wish to increase the resident population.  Their conventional wisdom is that Najac is dead.  Too many houses are second homes, unoccupied except for short periods during school holidays.  The beauty of Najac has raised the price of traditional housing in the village.  The young and imaginative left here long ago, leaving behind a rump of elderly and retired relicts, fit only for knitting competitions and long hours nodding in the shade.  The obvious solution is to build affordable housing and encourage light industry to the area: that way you’ll attract the young and vibrant who will spend money in the village, and be pleased to live near what was once a beautiful place.  This should justify some more shops and cafes, and maybe even a supermarket.  It will increase the taxes coming into the communal coffers and give the new council more money to spend.

The new Sanvensa

The new Monteils 

I’ve tried telling them that in England we have contrived to destroy our beautiful places like Canterbury, Winchester, Salisbury and Chester more effectively in peacetime than the German bombers managed during the war, but this love-affair with progress, allied to small-scale, and newly acquired, political power is a heady mix.  One perceptive long-time resident said to me ‘you know I don’t think they realize what they’ve got’.  I worry that they are not going to behave as though they do.  Like lemmings rushing over the cliff to their deaths, assuring each other that it must be all right if everyone else is doing it, they are determined to leave their damaging mark. 

And, we should be clear, the others are doing it.  The emulative spirit is very strong.  Cordes-sur-ciel, Cordes on the Sky, until recently one of the most delightful hilltop villages in France, has invested in a terrible housing estate, thereby forfeiting its magnificent position, isolated in the countryside.  If you spoil the setting, you damage the jewel.  Even closer to us many of the charming old Aveyron villages are losing character.  Sanvensa is surrounding itself with ‘villas’.  Floirac has lost all its old-world character in the last five years; several small ‘hangars’ have come to dominate the village.  They are neat but characterless and out of scale and place: they are, I fear, what the new team has in mind for us.  There has been talk of the need for ‘hangars’.

 Old Floirac (above) – New Floirac (below)

I had hoped to escape this sort of civic madness when I left Southern England, where it has destroyed almost all city centres and replaced them with ‘traffic-free pedestrian precincts’; the economics of cheap building dictates that these are all built with similar materials, and Sod’s Law that it is with the same lack of imagination.

 

 Above: Old Najac (what we’ve got) – Below: New Najac? (What may be in prospect (actually new housing at Villefranche de Rouergue))

Most of the great sites of France have been lost now behind hoardings advertising supermarkets and DIY chains: At Chartres, Bourges, Rheims, and Troyes it’s easy to find the modern city but you’ll look in vain for the charm which even forty years ago touched me so deeply.  A few of the remarkable villages have kept recent decades at bay.  Conques has managed to survive; it has succeeded where Cordes has failed. 

Two pieces of elementary Economic theory shed light on these problems.  Capitalism and democracy have many great advantages, but weaknesses too, and to benefit from the first we need to guard against the second: 

First, democracy, government by the people, has very frequently to act against the wishes of some of the people.  We rarely get unanimity.  Most of the time we do what an organised group of people want, and that organised group can be quite small.  Najac’s local election was a close-run thing, but the newly elected team feels it has the right – they may have persuaded themselves that it is a duty – to impose on us all their vision of a new artisanalized Najac, something many of us do not want at all.  The desire to normalize, to make everywhere the same, runs directly against logic.  People have different tastes: some people like big industrial towns; others prefer quiet country villages.  If you transform the quiet country villages to make them like the industrial towns, you deprive people of the choice, which is to make them poorer.  The people who chose to live in Najac didn’t do so because they wanted artisan zones, hangars, and modern building estates.  If the new team like these things they should go and live in the places where they abound, Decazeville, Carmaux, Charleville Mézičres, or Maubeuge, and leave Najac as it is.

A 'Zone Artisanale' 

Second, we mustn’t forget the public goods, the things we all consume together yet don't pay for; typically the contribution made by nature and the environment, beautiful buildings, mountains, etc., to our well-being.  Remember how much it would cost farmers to pollinate their crops if the bees didn't do it for them.  Consider the cost of undertaking the task of cleaning the atmosphere currently performed by trees.  Some estimates of the value of such public goods in France give it a very similar value to the national product, which is what many regard as the best measure of prosperity.  Our beautiful villages and our country places are the lungs of our society; destroy them and we breathe less freely.  It has been shown that, after major surgery, patients recover all the quicker if they can see, from their hospital beds, some countryside, and particularly water, a lake or a river.  As we increase our material prosperity we often do so at the expense of these public goods; we destroy the beautiful things which help us enjoy our material wealth.  Destroy Najac and in thirty years time people will feel the need to construct beautiful country villages in the Aveyron, a little out of the run of things, just as they build parks in cities to get back the greenness which they destroyed when they covered all in concrete.  Parks are politically difficult to destroy, because built by man; to destroy the beautiful things given us by the natural world or history is, in contrast, disgracefully easy.

Capitalism, whose efficient operation depends on everything being correctly valued, famously lacks the means to evaluate public goods, because they cannot be marketed.  You cannot sell natural beauty or clean air because it cannot be privately owned, so correct compensation cannot be calculated against the people who steal it from us.  Such theft thus becomes easy and costless.  Capitalism’s failure in this regard is terribly illustrated by global warming, where the developers and economic growth look like making the planet uninhabitable for our children’s grand-children.  The destruction of Najac would be another manifestation of the same problem.  I have nothing against industrial estates in themselves, any more than I’ve anything against cows.  But you don’t allow cows into a garden, and you shouldn’t put an industrial estate close by a beautiful country village.

We need to play to Najac’s great strengths: its beauty, its isolation, its site, lower than the plateau but rising above the river, surrounded by wooded hills.  Building an industrial estate and housing estates may be very attractive to some people, but, like death, it would be an irreversible process.  People say we mustn’t let Najac just be a museum-village (new pejorative expression much in vogue), yet what is a museum but a place where we show our respect for the beautiful things of the past, and acknowledge their transforming effect on our lives in the present.  Preserving our heritage doesn’t sound like a zappy election pledge but it requires great energy and determination.  What is easy is what I fear these people here in Najac want: to be famous for what they did rather than what they managed to stop people doing.

In criminal law a man is assumed innocent until he is proved guilty.  In restrictive practices law a firm is assumed guilty until it proves its innocence.  We need to establish a similar, almost evangelistic approach to our historic sites.  We should assume that developments are damaging - it’s usually a fair assumption - until they show that they enhance the beauty of the place.  The damage is done piecemeal, one development at a time.  Each change seems unimportant in itself, but taken together, over time, they destroy the whole atmosphere and charm of a historic village.  Our approach to conservation needs to be very positive and energetic.  Force the developers to justify what they propose from an aesthetic point of view before all else, they may then find they would be better advised going elsewhere, which is just what the new team doesn’t want, of course, but could well be in the long-term interests of the village.

I feel that Najac is in danger, and that the new team should concentrate its efforts on the enormously hard task of preserving its individuality, and its very striking beauty, rather than the disgracefully easy one of turning it into something ordinary and unremarkable.  I fear they are going to damage the jewel by spoiling the setting.

 

Syllogistic summary

 

We mustn’t put ugly things in beautiful places.

An industrial estate is ugly.

Najac is beautiful.

Therefore we mustn’t put an industrial estate in Najac.

 

Idea to bear in mind

 

If you spoil the setting you damage the jewel.

 

(I don't wish to misrepresent either facts or people's intentions here.  If you think I have done so in any way, or have any reactions to the views expressed here, please don't hesitate to contact me)