Tuesday, 13 October 2015

When will the Big Lottery Fund start serving the whole country not just carefully selected bits?


It's always great to see Bradford organisations getting funding from the Big Lottery Fund to do great work so this is brilliant:

A project called Improving Your Life, run by Reach Beyond, received £746,345 to convert the empty ground floor of its building in Grattan Street, Bradford, into a community services centre.

The venue, run by the Christian charity, will provide support for vulnerable members of society, including working with charities on homelessness, addiction and mental health problems.

The biggest chunk of this cash is going towards creating the centre with the rest being a couple of years worth of running costs. There's also a welcome cash donation to Bradford Woman's Aid and Cafe West on Allerton estate. Again this is great.

However, there's a problem and has been for a long time. For all the fantastic work funded by the lottery, perhaps 90% of voluntary organisations simply cannot access the funding. This isn't for want of trying or asking but rather because the priorities of the Big Lottery Fund's large grant programmes exclude support for most places and most communities in the UK. It doesn't tell you this, of course:

The Big Lottery Fund is responsible for distributing 40 per cent of all funds raised for good causes (about 11 pence of every pound spent on a Lottery ticket) by the National Lottery - around £670 million last year.

Since June 2004 we have awarded over £9 billion to projects supporting health, education, environment and charitable purposes, from early years intervention to commemorative travel funding for World War Two veterans.

Our funding supports the aspirations of people who want to make life better for their communities. We deliver funding throughout the UK, mostly through programmes tailored specifically to the needs of communities in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland as well as some programmes that cover the whole UK.

Whenever I'm talking about raising funds for projects in the places I represent, we always start with the lottery. And, when we get to the larger grant programmes like Reaching Communities, it's clear that there is no chance at all of the communities of Bingley Rural getting anywhere near a decent sized grant. So when Cullingworth Village Hall took a look at these programmes, it was quickly clear that the focus on "disadvantage" will rule the community out from access to the lottery. We need a new hall but the Reaching Communities Buildings theme says this for projects over £100,000:

More than £100,000 if supporting particularly deprived communities (see eligibility checker and exceptions process)

Doesn't look promising does it? Still let's check - there's an 'eligibility checker' into which you just pop the hall's postcode. It says this:

Sorry, your area is not eligible to apply for Reaching Communities funding

And that's it. The idea of a lottery fund supporting voluntary groups the length and breadth of the country is a lie. OK, it's fine that some emphasis is placed on areas with greater need. But to completely exclude a place like Cullingworth from being able to get some lottery cash is wrong. Absolutely wrong.

Let me explain. For reasons I won't detail, the hall has about £500,000 towards a new hall. We know the cost of a new hall - a minimum of £750,000. If the lottery was available to places like our village, that money might be there to make that new hall a reality. A hall that won't cost the lottery another farthing but will serve our community for decades. Isn't that what the lottery was created to do?

The Big Lottery Fund's blurb tells us it "supports the aspirations of people who want to make life better for their communities" - except it's only some communities, some places. That blurb also says the Fund delivers "throughout the UK" - I'm guessing that, in the bizarre world of the Big Lottery Fund's board, Cullingworth isn't in the UK. That's the only explanation.

It's time the Fund, and its board, started serving the whole country and every community - started living up to the flim-flam on its website. It's time it changed to doing the job it was actually set up to do all those years ago.


Sunday, 11 October 2015

The elimination of poverty will be the triumph of neoliberalism


We are well on our way to eliminating the sort of awful, grinding, absolute poverty that was a feature of human society for most of history:

And check out that World Bank data - from 1980 through to today the rate has dropped from 4 in10 of the world's population to 1 in 10 of the world's population. This is the age of what got called neoliberalism, sometimes 'The Washington Consensus' - over half of the world's absolute poverty ended through sound fiscal policies, property rights and open trade.

Yet the left -or much of it - would have us believe that the very policies that have helped with that spectacular decline in poverty are the reason for us having poverty. This isn't about different rates of tax, it's not about welfare or national health systems - it's about the left's complete failure to recognise what's in front of their eyes. Neoliberalism doesn't create poverty but does the complete opposite - it destroys poverty at a rate never seen before in human history. We need more of it not less.

All the left offer us is a combination of dirigiste protectionism, the portrayal of consumer rights as inferior to workers' rights, and a lowest common denominator approach to the economy. It's not just that neoliberalism's opponents contradict themselves but that they refuse to recognise that, in large part, we are rich because of those 'corporations' they despise not in spite of them. These arguments are trapped in a desire - almost a fervent belief - that there's somehow a better, fairer, less hard way of organising the economy. One like this:

Jobs are in teaching, healthcare and public service – professions that contribute meaningfully to society and directly improve the quality of our lives. All energy production is renewable. Industrial districts are zoned for agriculture and forestry. There are no offices, no shops, and no landfill sites.

The problem is that this group hug sort of idea is fine in utopian fiction but, in the real world, results in economic collapse (although we may get the cuddly world because of all those robots that will do everything for us thereby making us even richer and happier). This doesn't stop people working in "professions that contribute meaningfully to society" getting all hoity-toity about people who work in private businesses. Obviously such folk are exploitative with their shops, offices and factories.

Meanwhile - and often in the teeth of opposition from those in "meaningful professions" - the folk who run those shops, have businesses in those offices and who operate those factories get on with the prosaic business of meeting consumer demand. And in doing so these private business create and innovate with the result that the world around them improves. The application of technology reduces costs, the efforts of entrepreneurs bring new things to ordinary people and folk who once were poor are no longer poor.

Just take that phone in your hand. You probably think of it as a thing of the decadent west. Well think again:

Across the seven countries surveyed, roughly two-thirds or more say they own a cell phone. Ownership is especially high in South Africa and Nigeria, where about nine-in-ten have a cell phone. Since 2002, cell phone ownership has exploded in the countries where trends are available. In 2002, only 8% of Ghanaians said they owned a mobile phone, while that figure stands at 83% today, a more than tenfold increase. Similar growth in mobile penetration is seen in all African countries where survey data are available.

This penetration isn't the consequence of government mandation (although government's have a role) but rather of private business delivering, at an ever lower cost, an essential communications device. And this device and the networks it opens up is central to Africa's economic growth. More so than all the aid money, it's business investment, trade and commerce - capitalism and neoliberalism if you must - that is raising the living standards of ordinary Africans. That economic model, dismissed by libertarian right and Marxist left as ineffective, is delivering for Africa just as it did everywhere else it was tried. Neoliberalism isn't perfect, there's corruption, unhealthy relationships between big business and big government, and environmental exploitation. But these are things that we invented democracy and open government to deal with - throwing the development baby out with the autocracy bathwater only results, as Venezuelans and Zimbabweans have discovered, in more poverty.

Over the next couple of decades absolute poverty will be eliminated. And, at the same time the gap between the developing world and our advanced economies will close. This won't just make the world richer, it will make it fairer too and more equal. Add healthier, longer-lived and happier to that mix and you'll see why carrying on with that "neoliberal agenda" is so important and why dumping it in the face of all the evidence that it works is stupid. Given a chance the elimination of poverty will be the triumph of neoliberalism.


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Time to rethink courts?


The Police & Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire is moaning about plans to close magistrates courts in Wakefield and Halifax with the 'business' transferred to Bradford:

“I disagree with these planned closures. Victims and witnesses come first, but by reducing the number of courts available you reduce their access to local justice.

“Going to court can be a difficult experience for victims and witnesses. If the courts in Calderdale and Wakefield close, where would a victim or witness local to those buildings go? A trip to Bradford, Leeds or Huddersfield could be expensive and time consuming and put people off going through the criminal justice system.

I rather get Mark's point. Expecting witnesses to spend time and money travelling across the county may put a few off (although most of the business of these courts is taken up with stuff that doesn't involve a lot of witnesses other than those from authorities - motoring offences, council tax non-payment, TV licensing and so forth). But the answer is to consider whether to rethink how we organise our courts.

Instead of travelling all the way to Bradford, why not set up video suites in local police stations, council offices or even a shop on the high street. And then use skype or similar for witnesses to present evidence. After this we can replace all the presenting of documents, all that rushing about to no real purpose that junior barristers do, and a whole load of process that clogs up the current system, with on-line systems. There's no real reason why we need to get three magistrates, a clerk, a policeman and the accused into one place just to decide on the evidence and issue (or not issue) a fine.

Finally there's no reason for courts to occupy expensive town centre property when huge savings will come from moving to a shed in a business estate on the edge of town. It sometimes seems that it's only the self-importance of judges and the game of civic willy-wagging that sustains us having courts in town centres doing a thoroughly inefficient job.


How to patronise older people Mhairi Black style


Too often we treat older people as if they are incapable of independent thought. And nowhere is this worse than among left-leaning politicians. Here's SNP wunderkind Mhairi Black patronising the hell out of old people under the heading: "We need to help our elderly see through the Tories' scare stories":

Too many of them were on an information diet of fear and scaremongering from Better Together; force-fed Unionist spin by a biased establishment and a host of questionable reporting. And it worked. Analysis of the referendum vote revealed it was older voters who significantly voted No.

The inference here is that old people are incapable of independent thought and analysis, that their desire to remain in the United Kingdom they've spent their lives in is somehow the consequence of ignorance, of an inability to understand things unless they're guided by their youngers and betters.

It really is about time politicians like Ms Black started treating older people as intelligent human beings capable of thinking for themselves and making up their own minds. They're not "our elderly" to be patronised but John, Sid, Mary and Sylvia - men and women with stories to tell and lessons they can teach us.


Friday, 9 October 2015

Do public health scare stories lag behind people's actual behaviour?

From Reason here's a quote about the decline in soda (that's pop to us Brits) consumption:

"Over the last 20 years," Sanger-Katz reports, "sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25 percent." In other words, the downward trend began more than a decade before the soda tax debates in New York state (2009), Washington state (2010), and Philadelphia (2010). Americans began drinking less soda nearly two decades before Berkeley approved a soda tax and San Francisco rejected one, both of which happened last year.

So the great debates we see about sugar loaded fizzy drinks have been presaged by a profound shift in consumer behaviour. Yet this doesn't stop the public health scare story:

It will help explain why childhood obesity rates have risen so dramatically within a generation: in the US, where a third of children are overweight or obese, the average weight of a child has risen by more than 5kg in three decades.

Put those two quotes together and you get a "just a second, are you sure?" response to one or the other. On the face of it both can't be true.

So a question - are the scare stories about diet, about drinking or other choice behaviours a reflection of behavioural changes that are already happening? The great scares about alcohol in the UK - "Binge-drinking is getting out of control in Britain" or whatever - started flooding the newspapers and airwaves during a time when alcohol consumption was falling rapidly. It's almost as if these scares simply reflect people's changing habits - almost a means of society dealing with cognitive dissonance.


No, nationalisation is not social enterprise scaled up


Some people really don't understand the 'enterprise' thing at all do they. Here's a chap called Robert Ashton (who describes himself as a "social entrepreneur"):

I happened to be meeting a local MP who had read the blog that morning. He said that whilst he largely agreed, and knowing Jeremy Corbyn felt he was a decent chap, he said that on one thing I was wrong: Corbyn he said doesn’t champion social enterprise, he champions nationalisation.

I’ve been reflecting on that comment ever since and conclude that the only difference, in an ideal world, between nationalisation and social enterprise is scale.

This is, of course, manifestly untrue. The point about social enterprise is that it is a business that, in providing a valued service or product, also makes a wider social contribution. Indeed Robert describes such a thing:

Yet now that school campus is managed by community cooperative organisation. Led by local people, the site now hosts a wide range of community groups; the canteen is now a thriving cafe and new organisations are moving in to the town, renting space, creating jobs and making a lasting difference to the lives of those who live there.

Nationalisation isn't anything like this. It is the forced creation of a state-owned monopoly designed primarilty to promote and protect the interests of that monopoly. The reason why socialists are so keen on nationalisation isn't because it leads to better business or makes a lasting difference to people's lives - it's because nationalisation allows the government to organise business and industry in the interests of the workers (i.e. those who are employed in the nationalised business).

Robert's question as to whether government is a social enterprise is more interesting. But nationalisation is a different matter - its main impact is to destroy social value rather than create it.


If we're not planning for 'robocars', we are planning wrongly.


OK we're talking about America here but the point remains a strong one:

The rise of robocars may accelerate metro area decentralization. Congestion will be reduced, and the greater safety of driverless cars may permit higher speeds on metro area beltways and cross-town freeways. Once taxi drivers are replaced by robot taxis, the cost of taxis will plummet and the greater convenience of point-to-point personal travel anywhere in a sprawling metro area will make rail-based mass transit obsolete except in places like airports and tourist-haven downtowns. As in the past, most working-class families with children will probably prefer a combination of a longer commute with a bigger single-family house and yard to a shorter commute and life in a cramped apartment or condo.

We need to understand that this will happen and it will make all our debate about the negatives of personal transport obsolete. This also - with the need to travel also reduced by technology - rather undermines the idea that we will cram ourselves into enormous, dense core cities while the wilderness is recreated as that technology reduces farmland acreage.

Our debate about housing, transport and much else is stale and limited so long as our long-term planning is predicated on urban densification to reduce the impact of the private car. Driverless vehicles as a mass transit solution may be 30 years ago but this is not a massive planning horizon and the places that design themselves to meet this world will be the winners.