Monday, 31 January 2011

Why "Save our Forests" rather disappoints...

A few days ago I wrote about the proposals to dispose of all or part of the Forestry Commission's English estate. I remain of the opinion that the Commission is not the best steward for these estates - either as commercial woodland (which is what most of it is) or as public amenity. The Government is consulting about the proposals - the document is here - and it would be rather more helpful if people thought for themselves rather than herding like sheep behind the cry of "save our forests". The purpose of the consultation is set out clearly:

This consultation is about the future ownership and management of the public forest estate in England – land managed by the Forestry Commission on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It sets out the rationale for a move away from the Government owning and managing significant areas of woodlands in England and the principles which will guide the Government in deciding the way forward. The consultation proposes a mixed model approach to reforming the ownership and management of the public forest estate to create a far greater role for civil society, businesses and individuals.

So first of all, the proposals isn't for a quick sale of the estate (which would be best achieved through simply putting the lot on the market in one big lump) but a more nuanced proposal. Yet all we hear of the ever shriller cries of "save our forests" - including nonsense like this:

They (the forests) could be auctioned and fenced off, run down, logged or turned into golf courses and holiday villages.

I really don't know where to start with this but it's clear written by someone who has never been anywhere near managing a forest - and I really can see why anyone would buy something just to have it "run down".

Logging? Yes dears, that's what the Forestry Commission do now with the woodlands it owns - it's a commercial forest operator. It's also a regulator which really isn't a good idea and explains why 90% of the Commission's woods are conifer monoculture of little landscape benefit, limited in its contribution to biodiversity and rather lacking in amenity or leisure value.

Golf courses? Good grief - a new game of 'golf in the wood', now that's an idea! Why would a developer go to all the expense - not to mention the planning problems - of clearing a whole forest so as to build a golf course when there's plenty of good open land near towns where they can be developed? Makes no sense - a bit like the suggestion!

Holiday villages! A what exactly is the problem with holiday villages? Don't we already have holiday facilities so people can stay in the woods and enjoy them? Isn't this something to be encouraged? In fact what's this - a business called "Forest Holidays" that 'operates entirely within the Forestry Commission Estate'! Wow! Holiday villages!

This entire campaign is unhelpful - not because the forests should necessarily be sold but because it is founded on misinformation and ignorance rather than presenting any rational discussion about the future of the Forestry Commission's English Estates. There are a few such as Julian Dobson who try to get beyond the slogans to suggest possible ways forward:

It doesn’t necessarily follow that the Forestry Commission or the government are the only people who should own woodlands. Indeed, the idea that some of our best-loved forests should be owned in perpetuity by the National Trust is attractive because it reduces the risk of future sales. But - as I argued in a paper for The Mersey Forest published this month - we can’t expect local communities to take over stewardship of our woodlands without help and investment. The need is for a greater emphasis on the community forests programme alongside a clear recognition by government that our woodlands are a resource to be looked after for generations to come.

Julian's focus is on the amenity value of woodland and especially the development of woodland in and near urban areas. But there is a further discussion to be had - that of balancing the different options and opportunities presented by the variety of wood and forest. I see no reason why the upland commercial woodland can't be sold - so long as access rights are guaranteed (and this should, for these forests, extend to include cycles and horses). For the less commercial forests, we need a debate about management, leisure, amenity and different potential uses set alongside an examination of options for future ownership.

It seems to me that the government is consulting with a three-year-old - the opponents simply scream "save our forests" rather than taking the opportunity to ask whether the proposed 'sell-off' actually presents opportunities for trusts, co-operatives and others to secure the woodland for public use and enjoyment.

I find this rather disappointing.


A brief thought on Leeds Kirkgate Market


I had occasion to meander through Leeds' splendid Kirkgate Market this morning - indeed I bought some nuts at the nut stall! And it got me to thinking about the Council's desire to make the place more "upmarket" - shinier, more splendid, more in keeping with Leeds as "Shopping Central".

My conclusion is that Leeds Council have it wrong - there isn't an upmarket to take Kirkgate Market to. Unless less you want half-empty with a few struggling boutiques. Looking at the market today, it's the down market bit that's thriving - the stalls selling all sorts off stuff manned by immigrants, the trinkets, cheap veg and affordable meat. In fact what markets have always done.

The 'posh' end of the market's full of empty stalls and others watching as the customers scuttle by down to the cheaper end - the heaving outdoor market. Yes we've got Jamie's soup kitchen - some kind of fancy health project that seems incongruous in a place filled with cheap stuff and fun people. But that's not the future - the future's in what markets have always delivered.

So drop the rents, get the empty stalls filled with interesting stuff and promote the place as a counterpoint to shiny Leeds. That might work!


Sunday, 30 January 2011

Equalities Stakeholders. Yes, they're out there messing up your health service again!


My meanderings brought me to this blog post entitled, "Where do equality stakeholders fit in the new NHS Landscape." Not sure whether it should have had a question mark at the end or not but it reminded me just how distant from normal understanding of common sense the 'diversity' and 'equalities' agenda has got:

According to Minister, Andrew Lansley, the changes he proposes to bring about in the NHS will put patients at the centre of everything the NHS does.

That's a bold claim, which should be seen in the context that NHS organisations like the 152 Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and the ten (regional) Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs) have specific statutory obligations to consult with the public, plus obligations (as public sector bodies) under the past and future Public Sector Equality Duties.

This is followed by a jolly diagram showing us how the new system operates - with different colours, arrows and fine names. But - so far as anything within this jargon-laden and confusing little piece is clear - the writer's argument is that "equalities stakeholders" (creatures the writer doesn't describe or define) are pushed to the edges of the current system because we've scrapped PCTs and SHAs thereby removing all the equalities and diversity monitoring that's going on in the NHS at the moment.

And the new system won't be accountable "to local stakeholders" - as if the current NHS organisation is remotely accountable to anyone locally! Or rather it is but in a different way from the way we - as ordinary folk - understand. The accountability - a cosy, all-mates-together kind of accountability - exists between those who the government fund to provide 'voice' and 'advocacy' and the agents of the NHS itself. What the writer is bemoaning isn't that the result will be a less "fair" NHS but that these mostly self-appointed representatives of "equalities groups" will be pushed to the margins.

I welcome this as a very positive step - hopefully to be replaced by the development of personalised service for individuals, as individuals. The present 'equalities' arrangement single out specific groups as worthy of 'representation' and fail to see real people with real concerns about the health support they receive. Although we seem lumbered with the Equalities Act - with all its basis in groupthink and special pleading - making sure that our care systems respond to individual need rather that meaningless group needs moderated by professional advocates must be a positive step.

Patients are now put at the centre of the NHS by employing professional "equalities stakeholders" to moderate the interface between the individual and health providers - that's what we have now. We get to the heart of the NHS by being given power - and power over suppliers comes from choice not the bureaucracy of equalities and diversity.


Let Britain be a tax haven too then!

The Swale and Kent Marshes from Harty Ferry
It won't come as a secret to you, dear reader, that I am not especially keen on paying taxes. Not that I'm alone in all this - people out there seem a great deal keener on getting others to pay more tax than they are on handing their own cash over to our wonderful government. For sure, while Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs will cheerfully take any available cash from whatever source, the advocates of higher corporate taxes are noticeably handing over extra so as to help out the poor (who aren't out on those picket lines).

Today however a new front was opened up in the Great Battle to Get Other People to Pay More Tax - Switzerland! Here's a taster:

The key point here is that tax avoidance by big multinationals is just a part – albeit a very important part – of a bigger and even nastier picture: tax havens and the global offshore system. This is massive. Tax havens and offshore finance have been metastatising (sic) through the global economy since the 1970s: the unseen component of financial globalisation. They lie at the heart of the global economy. Half of all world trade passes through tax havens.

This is not about a few celebrity tax-dodgers, spivs and mafiosi: as UK Uncut has recognised, this is also about multinational corporations – and, most importantly, about banks. Recently the Mail on Sunday found that Barclays, Lloyds and RBS have over 550 tax haven subsidiaries between them.

What I understand from this differs from the conclusions of the author - who sees the avoiding of tax as a great evil. I see the situation as a call to action for our government - demonstrating the need to make taxes simpler and to reduce them. For Britain to "suck in" all that international capital finance and put it to work building a great country founded on the idea of free exchange and willing participation in the task of governing. A place where someones success is reason for celebration not condemnation, where envy is no longer the driver of political action and where taxes do not punish or penalise.

I want Britain to be a tax haven!


Turning off the street lights?


This morning, the Sunday Telegraph kindly provided – following yesterday’s garden birds guide – a CD of the ‘dawn chorus’. Half an hour of ‘uplifting birdsong’. Wonderful stuff!

But not when the entertainment is a one in the morning under the street lights. There’s growing evidence that the prevalence of street lights disrupts the behaviour of song birds – with the dawn chorus starting earlier. Not a truly terrible thing – unless of course the song is right outside your window when you’re trying to sleep.

Birds aside, the matter of street lights presents an interesting dilemma – a contest between the desire to make places safe and the need to reduce our consumption of energy. At present, it seems to me that the question of safety tends to trump the matter of cost savings and resource use although plenty of local councils have looked at and, in some cases, acted to reduce the number and intensity of street lighting. And, as usual, it’s the Liberal Democrats – clutching their green credentials only lightly – who lead the charge against reducing lighting:

Jason Zadrozny, a Liberal Democrat Councillor for the area, has collected signatures from more than 2,000 people protesting against street lighting reductions:

"I'm not in opposition to cuts, we know that money's got to be saved after years of Labour mismanagement, but I'm raising my concerns in county hall and in national government," he told Newsnight reporter Matt Prodger.

And the reason for Jason’s opposition is concerns about safety – people being more vulnerable to assault and attack while they go about their innocent business. Yet the proposals aren’t to get rid of lighting but to do one of two things – dim the lights or turn them off during the early hours of the morning (when not that much ‘innocent business’ is taking place on Ashfield’s suburban streets).

A further concern relates to road safety – reduced lighting on busy roads will make them less safe. Yet in Buckinghamshire where some lights have been switched off there has been no increase in accidents:

A controversial scheme to switch off street lights to save cash has not led to an increase in accidents, a council boss said today. A Buckinghamshire County Council chief said there was “some evidence” that extra street furniture was in fact bringing accidents down.

We can expect plenty of local councils to follow Buckinghamshire’s lead – after all it’s a pretty obvious saving in a substantial budget and one that doesn’t involve closing services. And we can also expect to see opposition along the lines of that in Ashfield and Buckinghamshire – the cry of “people will be too frightened to go out at night” will be heard up and down the land. Even when the lights aren’t turned off until one in the morning!

However, there’s another prospect – turning off lights on motorways. At a time when motor vehicles have better lights than ever, it seems odd that our motorways are lit up like a 1970s rock concert. Stark, bright white light bangs down on the three and four lane highways – illuminating half-a-dozen cars speeding by at 95mph. It seems a gross indulgence – unneeded and excessive. This isn’t to say that we need no lighting but that we could get by with quite a lot less. And for sure it’s pretty daft that we’re spending millions each year lighting largely empty roads for hours at a time – in the interests of safety!

I’ve supported turning lights off, dimming them and spacing them out for some years – without much support from colleagues (as witnessed in the idea’s absence from Bradford’s service efficiency proposals). However, such an action would not only be ‘green’ but would realise a sustainable saving with little or no impact on the public. And it would stop pissing off astronomers and screwing up the body clocks of song birds!


Saturday, 29 January 2011

Freeport Bradford

I've been thinking about the idea of 'freeports' for some while - asking myself how, within the context of England's governance, we might use such an approach to stimulate a renewal of Bradford's fortunes. This is done against a background of regeneration programmes, schemes and plans that have largely failed at the macro level - even while delivering tangible benefits at the level of the communities in receipt of cash.

At its heart a free port is a place where customs duties are reduced significantly - most especially entrepot goods. The object is to use the low or no tariff regime - protected from the surrounding economy - as a way of attracting export-led businesses. Some of the success of Hong Kong and Singapore lies in their being free ports - places where transshipment and trading was very low tax.

The suggestion - being explored by ministers - of bringing back the idea of Enterprise Zones, provides a further push to allowing local authorities the scope to create lower tax, lower cost environments for businesses to develop:

Enterprise zones were pioneered in the 1980s and although they were criticised for the amount they cost and the number of the jobs they created, there were some success stories. The Docklands area of East London, for instance, was once mainly derelict buildings but since a zone was established it has become an international financial powerhouse.

The tax and regulatory tools now available to local authorities include:

Business Rates - at present these are set centrally with the local authority merely the collection agent. Council's have some emergency powers to waive or reduce rates but these are very tightly defined. There is a lobby to return to the pre-1992 situation where business rates were set and wholly retained locally. One aspect of these developments relates to 'tax increment financing' (TIF) where authorities borrow aganst anticipated future tax revenues from new development

Council Tax - the localism bill looks likely to give some scope for local councils to flex rates and, through ideas such as the 'New Homes Bonus', capture some of the forward value from development. It would be interesting to explore whether a TIF-type model could be developed using this bonus plus the extra council tax revenue.

Planning relaxation - under the new Local Development Framework (LDF) approach local authorities can consider granting de facto permitted development rights at specific locations and on identified sites. In effect, this removes planning costs from the system - both the costs associated with the process itself and also the wider costs connected to the delay. Although this acts primarily as an incentive to business investors, it might also provide a further financial opportunity through instruments underwritten by the implied savings.

Using these methods - plus a generally light-touch approach to regulation - would create an environment conducive to business development. However, the real benefits would arise if government looked at other taxes and duties - corporation tax, VAT and specific duties on particular goods and services. Allowing local authorities to reduce these imposts for exporting businesses would allow a further concentration of private industry.

Any programme of lower taxes would have to be semi-permanent - at least 20 years - to begin to have the desired effects. It would not work if firms were attracted by short-term incentives only to trip off somewhere else when those incentives were ended. In an ideal model, the low business tax, low tariff environment would be complemented by lower rates of personal tax - allowing authorities to drop income tax or NI. Such an approach would support enterprise and would provide an incentive for international capital to lodge in the 'freeport'.

In making these suggestions I am clear that past approaches to regeneration have largely failed to "close the gap" between successful and unsuccessful places. Broadly speaking the poorest places in the country back in 1968 are still the poorest places in 2011. There are some small beacons in this litany of underachievement - enterprise zones were one, the Enterprise Initiative another. However, the most effective (and the best thing Gordon Brown did by far) was Neighbourhood Renewal Fund - what the 'freeport' idea does is take this authority-wide approach and link it to new funding models and tax incentives.

It's either that or UDI for Bradford - creating a kind of Hong Kong of the South Pennines!


Take your pick...thoughts on inflation from an ad man and a milkman


Today's Daily Telegraph includes an interview with Martin Sorrell, boss of advertising group, WPP that focuses on the discussions at the Davos World Economic Forum. And Sorrell's conclusion?

“I don’t want to see the Bank of England put up interest rates,” says Sir Martin. “What happened in the fourth quarter shows the perilous nature of making forecasts. But I can’t see the Bank raising rates with growth having slowed. I get the sneak feeling that the West wants a bit of inflation.” 

Contrast this with a very different view, from a very different businessman - Lewis, Cullingworth's milkman. First though you need to know that Lewis had imbibed a glass or two and also that the reported speech below is bowdlerised. Anyhow, here it is:

"It's all gone wrong - tits up, hasn't it" Says Lewis. In response to my request for clarity he continues, "the economy, the government. Everything has gone up, bread's like 50% more expensive and look at diesel. People can't afford stuff - come March there'll be a real mess. We've got to get prices down."

Much though I admire Martin Sorrell, I'm with Lewis on inflation. And we could start by cutting petrol duty and scrapping the VAT increase.


Friday, 28 January 2011

More rubbish about booze, fags and fast food.


No time to comment in detail on this utter drivel from my local newspaper:

Smoking, drinking and obesity are now causing a massive £80 million a year drain on health services in the Bradford district. The cost of treating smoking-related conditions alone could be as high as £50m from hard-pressed NHS budgets.

The figures are apparently taken from the Annual Report of the Director of Public Health (described by one Council colleague as a mystery figure who we never see and certainly never get a chance to question). So no surprise then that it's a pack of unsupported nonsense based not on any real study but on 'back-of-the envelope' calculations derived from unsupported and unresearched national figures.

The newspaper report contains a set of largely unrelated figures presented as some kind of "evidence" to support the health fascists' contention that drinking, smoking and "obesity" are the big problems facing the City when the truth is that poor housing, inadequate heating and poor diet (not too much food but not a balanced diet) are the big killers. All this can be easily found out from figures published by the Health Service.


Friday Fungus: Mushroom Barley

I’ve made risotto for years – it’s easy and makes a great supper dish – and have often wondered about how it might work with other grains. So I was delighted to come across this recipe for “mushroom barley” on the Weelicious site – essentially it’s a risotto, or should that be a ‘barlotto’?

I found the recipe a little faffy – too much taking stuff in and out of pots for my liking – but there’s no doubt that the resulting dish tasted fantastic! The rich mushroom and chicken stock soaked into the barley and produced a delightful, deep flavour. It takes longer than risotto – 45 minutes – for the pearl barley to absorb the stock and the grains remain al dente.

Next time, I plan to use a more traditional risotto approach – sealing the grains in hot oil and adding the stock one ladleful at a time. And rather than adding a glass of white wine, I’m thinking about putting in a small glass of Marsala – think that would really set well with the rich stock and mushroom flavours.

An excellent dish nevertheless – ideal for a different winter supper.


Social media, politics and the capacity of our gobs!

Yesterday saw the last in our CllrSocMed tour of Yorkshire (and that oddity of a place “The Humber”) during which we’ve talked to – and with – around 80 councillors from different political parties about that strange old beast, “social media”. From my perspective it has been an education and, I hope, those councillors who came along got some value from my inanities, prejudices and bad jokes.

It seemed right to reflect on the whole “social media” thing – on its ups and downs, on the way in which it has caught a few politicians out and how it just might be pretty useful. One thing though that is abundantly clear is that the political party panjandrums neither ‘get’ nor like social media (or indeed the idea of a ‘blogosphere’). All they see are problems – councillors, MPs, candidates opening their gobs and inserting size 10 hobnails, gangs of opponents bombarding the world with attacking comments and, above all, something that can’t be controlled, can’t be put into a tidy communications grid.

Unfortunately the genie is out of the bottle, has a headache and isn’t about to be bossed around by former journalists and lobbyists employed by the big political parties. And here’s why:

  • There are 500 million people worldwide using Facebook, 175 million on Twitter and hundreds of thousands blogging. Add in MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and other places and spaces and you have a mob environment that cannot be directed or controlled by the politicians – other than by stopping or blocking.
  • The game has changed – we’re right back to response, interaction and engagement and away from message management, targeting and mass communications. Success will come from understanding what makes people respond positively rather than from repetition and saturation.
  • Whether something or someone is ‘liked’ has become important – as significant as message content. And being liked comes from exchange and interaction not from polish and presentation alone. While being tall and having good hair still matters, it is joined by being witty, responding to those around and not being an obsessive or a bore.
  • Politics is boring – for plenty of people it has always been boring – and most folk don’t like it. While the charmed circle of Westminster controlled debate this didn’t matter but now boredom has triumphed. The bloke outside Number Ten can be – and is – ignored as we seek our information and pleasure elsewhere.

There are some changes that still need to happen – political parties need to be less obsessed with whether something someone once said was “offensive”. The next generation – a generation brought up with Facebook and Twitter – will not be either interested or impressed with the singling out of an unfortunate tweet or slightly off Facebook photo. The current approach of trying to remove all media risk not only doesn’t work but is crass and ridiculous. It is ironic that our kids have grown up in this respect – can accept and forgive the odd social faux pas – whereas us older folk remain “offended” and “appalled”. There is surely a good case for political party bosses to grow a sense of humour and to learn what the words, “I’m sorry” mean. The public – the folk on Facebook and Twitter – get this, it’s about time our lords and masters did too.

In the mean time I’ll leave you with Simon’s “How not to do Twitter” for politicians:

  • Attack the man not the ball. That’s right go for the jugular folks, forget about honest debate and go for your opponent on the basis of where he was born, the colour of his hair, the car he drives or what he said ten years ago when he wasn’t a Councillor. The audience will love all that, they’ll think you a really nice, pleasant person who they’d love as their Councillor or MP!
  • Tell risky jokes – you know the ones about wishing Maggie were dead or Mandelson’s dog. You’ll get a laugh – lots of people will send your jolly witticism round the airwaves which will be great. Except you’re not Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle are you? They can do it because they’re comedians – you’re not are you!
  • Swear a lot. Well everyone does, don’t they? The twitterfeed is full of cussing, of ‘c’ words and ‘f’ words competing for space. If you swear a little it shows you’re normal but look at the fuss when Cameron said “twat”! You don’t need to swear to get your point across and, if you do it right, other folk will do all your swearing for you anyway.
  • Call people names. Somebody tweets about housing and you respond with a pithy comment capped off with “you idiot”. Now that will work won’t it, you’ve put the other side firmly in their place. A bit like Barnsley’s chief executive calling Eric Pickles a ‘clown’ – not exactly the best idea really!

Now before you all go crawling through my tweets, let me say that I’ve done all these things – sometimes in the heat of the moment, sometimes with malice aforethought. This changes nothing and I don’t set myself up as exemplary or even especially expert – the advice is what it is, gleaned from having sent 30,000 tweets a handful of which, in the glory of hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have sent.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore social media – it is too important for that. But understand that when you, as a politician, are using social media you are ‘on parade’ not in the pub with your mates. It’s a forgiving parade but, as someone once said, don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want your mum to see!


Thursday, 27 January 2011

What are you looking at?

Once again the world (or rather what the BBC and Guardian choose to call the world) has erupted into a spasm of indignant, righteous screams about "phone hacking". Every has-been politician and forgotten celebrity is hastening to the nearest lawyer claiming they've been "hacked" and that this is a gross interference in their privacy. The media will love it, the celebrities will love it, the BBC will get the chance to be all smug and pompous about Rupert Murdoch and the world's real news stories will get relegated to secondary pages.

It really annoys me that this episode - a sordid chapter in the hideously sordid world of the mass media (and please don't try to tell be that BBC and Guardian journalists haven't been partial to the odd piece of illicitly obtained celebrity or political gossip - of course they have) - has meant we are not looking in the right places, talking about the right things. While the BBC regales us with the evils of Murdoch on every bulletin, we're missing the robbing of savings through inflation, the upheaval in the Maghreb as governments totter before the mob, floods and famine - the real world news.

Our understanding of the world. The task of providing information to the people that the BBC supposedly cares about. This is being sacrificed on the altar of the Corporation's campaign to protect its market share from BSkyB and News International. this isn't about the politics of Westminster, it's about a great corporate battle between these two big players in UK media. I know what I'm looking at.

What are you looking at?


And so it begins....

...but still, a strange thing for 'Visit Leeds' to be flogging!


Fly High!

We're flying high, singing. Everything seems perfect. There's blue sky and sunshine broken only by the occasional fluffy white cloud - you know, the ones that look like you drew when you were five.

And bang! It's all over.

It doesn't matter how well liked you are, how good you are at your work, how clever your ideas. The shadow of the man with the gun is always there.

And bang! Your dreams die.

Would you rather fly high, revelling in the breeze, your feathers shining in the winter sun? Or cower in a dark corner, hiding, scuttling, avoiding the heights, the sunshine, the sheer pleasure of soaring into the sky?

Fly High, my friend. Fly high!


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Understanding the BBC's priorities...


Since Andy Gray's charmless and misconceived words about a female assistant referee, the BBC has seemed somewhat obsessed with that event and its aftermath. In the case of Radio 5 Live, this appears to be the only news item of any consequence - they have, to my knowledge had three hour long phone-in programmes on the subject, two of them on Nicky Campbell's high profile morning show.

Every nuance of the story, each syllable of the offending remarks, a parade of experts, relatives, friends and colleagues have all been dragged across the BBC's part of the airwaves to opine on Mr Gray's remarks. It it - to my thinking - a news story that absolutely defines the BBC's priorities at present. These can be summed up thus:

To give the maximum possible coverage to any story that might put Rupert Murdoch, News International and BSkyB in a bad light

It's that simple. The wall-to-wall coverage isn't a reflection of the BBC's deep concerns about prejudice in our society - after all they just lost a high profile ageism case. The focus on Mr Gray and Sky is about the ongoing turf war between the BBC and Sky over media market share. The BBC has the largest share of the UK's media market and want to keep it that way. Which means stopping the advance of Sky, preventing the monetization of on-line news and, through its newspaper partner, The Guardian, conducting a persistent campaign to denigrate the management and operations of News International.

So covering the UK's economic woes, bombings at Moscow airport, the ongoing events in Tunisia, the uprisings in Egypt and the aftermath of floods in Australia takes second place to the BBC's selfish interests. So much so that one BBC channels output is skewed entirely to the Corporation's fight with Murdoch over market share.

Time for reform I think.


Tuesday, 25 January 2011

What exactly do they mean by consensus? Scientists, climate change and scepticism

The more environmentally fussbucketing parts of the left exploded into frothing excitement because a BBC TV programme on attitudes to science succeeding in portraying libertarian writer, James Delingpole in less than flattering terms. Now I like James Delingpole’s writing – it does what polemics should do, plays to the prejudices of its readers by simultaneously providing pithy attack lines for fans and winding up opponents. It is the football chanting of political writing.

However, the substance of the criticism is that James rejects the “consensus” around anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I gather that this is a terrible crime since James isn’t a “scientist”. Sir Paul Nurse – who is a scientist, asked him a killer question – and he stuttered and stumbled.

Nurse's interview with Delingpole was notable for forming a centrepiece to the programme, and because Delingpole complained he was stitched up on his blog, claiming that a good three hours of him being reasonable and cogent was edited out in favour of one scene where he looks like an idiot. To be fair, there are two scenes where he looks like an idiot. In one he explains that he never reads peer-reviewed scientific literature on the subject of global warming because "it's not my job". In the other, he condemns the scientific consensus on global warming – and consensus in general – as unscientific.

When Nurse presented him with a perfectly reasonable analogy about having cancer and choosing a remedy of one's own devising over the "consensus" treatment, Delingpole was clearly offended by the apparent comparison to devotees of quack medicine. Later, the programme featured an HIV-positive man who doesn't believe HIV causes Aids and follows a yoghurt-based treatment of his own devising, who probably didn't like being lumped in with Delingpole much.

Here’s the core of the argument from James’ critics – and it isn’t a scientific question at all. It’s a matter of semantics – a debate about what we mean by ‘consensus’. But first let’s remember one very important fact in all of this – Sir Paul Nurse is no better qualified than James Delingpole to speak with authority on climate change and the science behind AGW. Sir Paul is a very clever man – a brilliant cell biologist and geneticist who won a Nobel Prize for his work – but he has no qualification that gives him authority on the matter of climate change.

Neither is Sir Paul a philologist or lexicographer able to bring to bear a deeper understanding of what we might understand by consensus. Most importantly, he has used two very distinct applications of that word’s meaning – a general one where most scientists tend to agree with a position (the AGW application) and one where in applies to a very specific circumstance. The problem is that the manner in which we arrive at these two “consensus” positions differs greatly. The “consensus” on cancer treatment arrives from carefully tested, empirically supported research – it is not a “consensus” at all but a choice between a bone fide expert on cancer treatment and some kind of mumbo-jumbo quack medicine.

On climate change the problem is that there are plenty of scientists who have doubts about the idea of AGW. The “consensus” is one of ‘it might be so’ rather than one based on empirical understanding. And much of the “consensus” involves scientists like Sir Paul who, for all their genius, are not qualified to opine on climate change. And as for the doubters the government’s chief scientific advisor is one of them:

“I don’t think it’s healthy to dismiss proper scepticism. Science grows and improves in the light of criticism. There is a fundamental uncertainty about climate change prediction that can’t be changed.”

He said that the false claim in the IPCC’s 2007 report that the glaciers would disappear by 2035 had exposed a wider problem with the way that some evidence was presented.

“Certain unqualified statements have been unfortunate. We have a problem in communicating uncertainty. There’s definitely an issue there. If there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be the level of scepticism. All of these predictions have to be caveated by saying, ‘There’s a level of uncertainty about that’.” 

Now this is a pretty funny take on “consensus” – and begs the question as to why Sir Paul and others are so keen to target their attention to the polemicists like James Delingpole rather than towards the genuine scientific doubts about climate change and AGW. Perhaps such folk are easy targets – dismissed with a “you’re not a scientist so what would you know” approach.

For my part, I have long believed in AGW and its significance. However, without doubt, the critics are becoming more and more convincing. Which begs a question about our environmental priorities – rather than focusing on clocking how much carbon we emit would it not make more sense to concentrate on specific, identifiable issues. Looking to respond directly to habitat decline, resource depletion, energy sustainability and air pollution might be a better bet and would almost certainly be more beneficial to the planet’s population than the economic destruction envisaged in the extremes of AGW modelling.

More importantly and something we should worry about is the conclusion of some as to how science should respond to doubters:

Nurse issued a call to scientists to be more politically savvy in the wake of the so-called Climategate affair, and to make more of an effort to put data in the public domain.

Now the data bit makes sense – although we should be careful about raw data – but ‘politically savvy’? That sounds like a call for scientists to protect their position through the game of semantics – through claiming consensus where there is none, through ad hominum attacks, through the careful construction of straw men..

The very game the critics of climate science accuse those scientists of playing already. It seems to me that scientists should focus on the honest presentation of information, should welcome doubts, challenges and questions – from whatever source – and should stay far away from the lies, dissembling and spin that goes with being ‘politically savvy’.

If that was the case, we'd be far more inclined to respect scientists and to believe their science.