Saturday, 31 March 2012

Thoughts from Bradford on the politics of apathy...


A long time ago – well two and a half years actually – I wrote a little article entitled; “In Praise of Idiots” that took the premise that what we politicians call apathy isn’t really that at all:

Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

However we remain troubled by the ever lower turnouts at elections – the recent upheaval in Bradford being no different. Amidst all the talk of Galloway’s remarkable victory no-one has mentioned that the turnout was just a whisker above 50% - nearly half the registered voters in the constituency didn’t bother voting. And let’s not forget all the people who didn’t even bother getting themselves registered in the first place. We know that students, ethnic minorities and people in private rented accommodation are far less likely to register.

In the late 1990s around 10% of people weren’t registered – the Electoral Commission say the situation is now worse. In some places up to 20% of people are not registered to vote and concerns about false registration are making local authorities tighten up registration by removing non-respondents more quickly from the register. And, not surprisingly, the three groups most likely not to register are young people (over half of 17-26 year olds are not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and immigrant groups (31%).

Meanwhile, in the villages on the fringes of Bradford, that great upheaval was barely noticed. I was knocking up in Clayton and it was like a rather slow local election. Apathy reigned as person after person gave the hint that they intended to stay at home and watch the telly rather than go and vote in a parliamentary by-election. And why should they?

It was a lovely sunny evening, the South Pennines were as beautiful as ever, birds sang and children were playing out. Voting wasn’t on the minds of these people and they weren’t especially bothered about who won either. After all few, if any, have any intention of contacting their MP for two reasons – they don’t have the sort of problem you bother your MP about and, in any case, what can he do about that problem?

Yet politicians are more bothered (as a politician I absolutely understand why this is the case) about the 20% of Bradford West’s adult population who voted for George Galloway than about the 60% of local grown-ups who didn’t vote for anyone at all. And we worry that this is a “Great Complaint”, an assault on “mainstream political parties”. 

The real problem here is that people really don’t see any connection between putting a cross in a box down at the village hall and the operation of government. Although it’s often said as a joke, the adage – “it doesn’t matter who you vote for the government always gets in” – is largely true. And people know this and vote accordingly. Or rather don’t vote.

Some see the solution in exciting new ways for people to participate:

A healthy democracy needs healthy political parties and right about now we have sick and dying parties.  And in order to become healthy they will need to open up.  Selections need to be open to the public not closed as must policy development.

But does this not beg a question? If political parties are dying – and they are – will opening up candidate selections or a more engaged policy development process change much? I suspect it will act like painkillers – stemming the pain of dying rather than changing the inevitable outcome.

Others argue that state funding is the solution but this would remove any need to engage with the public at all – parties would morph into extensions of the bureaucratic state. Decorative attachments providing a fig leaf of half-baked democracy and sustaining the unpleasant, cynical tribalism that typifies party political debate.

For me, I don’t worry. If people choose not to be registered or opt not to vote, that’s their business. And, if it gets to the point where they are angry enough or upset enough to be bothered, they will register and they will vote.

In the meantime, party politics will poddle along being largely irrelevant to people’s lives. And the party machines will become less connected to the real world, more reliant on big donors (or, god forbid, the state).

It could be different – a brave party would do something like Lawton Chiles, the last Democratic Governor of Florida who capped donations to his campaign at $100. Forget that the other party will carry on tapping up billionaires or cuddling trade union leaders – would not a voluntary cap be both liberating and vote-winning? And such a cap – at say £500 – would require that party to sell itself to the public, to get out and ask pretty ordinary people to support their campaign.

Rather than the gimmicks of open primaries and policy consultations, would not setting out to be a mass membership organisation again be the best way to rejuvenate politics? I rather think so.


Friday, 30 March 2012

Not what anyone expected - thoughts on Bradford, Galloway and what might be done

I guess it had to happen one day. Not that we ever thought yesterday was that day. Nor indeed, that George Galloway would be the man to do it. But it happened – Labour’s inner-city machine lost its wheels as people, mostly young people, flocked to the polls so as to give the finger to Bradford’s political leadership.

This nearly happened once before – less dramatically to be fair but it happened. From 1995, Conservatives won previously safe Labour wards – Toller, University (now City), Bradford Moor – only to come unstuck in the postal vote election of 2004. From being new – perhaps not exciting but new – challengers to the Labour machine, the Conservatives became seen as just the same. Why vote for a different set of machine politicians playing games of clan, caste and religion when you can stick with Labour?

Stood outside City Hall this morning, I chanced to speak to a leading Labour activist. He told me:

 “The biraderi game is over. This is a terrible result for us but it had to happen.”

This was followed by some choice words about the Council leadership, the Labour Party and the prospect of losing seats – Toller and Manningham particularly – to a local Respect surge. 

Galloway didn’t offer any answers, just the promise to be loud about the things that matter to the constituency – or rather to that young, Asian demographic fed up with machine politics, with a local political class that appears not to care about them or their community. The young men and women look up their street at the Labour Councillor in the big house, see him drive off in a shiny sports car and say to themselves, “is he really on our side?”

Pick up one of the postcards that Galloway delivered across the City and read the headlines – oppose the war, sort out the City centre, do something about jobs, put an end to corruption. Are these not the same cries that those young people utter? Galloway offers no answers but plays the role of echo chamber making those cries louder, more strident, more urgent. For all his rhetoric, Galloway will never provide the answers but we – the politicians looking at rejection – can begin to consider what might be done.

  • Take control of the regeneration agenda – rather than, as so many Council leaders (including me) have done, hiding in the smoke and mirrors that is our regeneration strategy. Use some of the war chest – the £180 million in reserves – to kick start work in the City. Perhaps a new central library in the former Odeon, maybe actually digging out that canal we promised and even demanding a ‘put up or go away’ from Westfield. 
  •  Asking where tomorrow’s jobs will come from – those thousands of young Bradfordians face a choice right now. Stay in the City on benefits or working stupidly long hours for not much money driving a taxi or sitting in a take-away. Or leaving – heading south to London, to the Thames Valley, to the Home Counties where there’s a chance of a job with prospects.
  • Ending the Council’s culture of venal navel-gazing – for the past few years the Council has been obsessed with its internal structures, operations and organisation. Rather than bothering about how good or bad the City’s schools were, we obsessed instead about closing down Education Bradford, about bringing it back “in house”. As if this would change anything about the educating of children in Girlington. And the same goes for everything else – for social care, for health, for planning – we paid attention to the structure and cared little for the outcome
  • Protecting services – over the past two years, rather than admit that its change programme wasn’t delivering savings quickly enough, the Council’s leadership chose to cut services. Right now they’re crowing about how the 2011/12 budget will have a £5.7 million surplus – that’s money which could have kept open a swimming pool, provided much needed care for the elderly or helped a few of those young people into jobs

On Monday the Council will return to normal. Officers will plonk behind their desks and pick up where they left off before the Galloway whirlwind swept through Bradford. There’ll be some frantic debate and discussion behind those heavy doors in City Hall but will anything change? The Labour Party will do its electoral calculus – wins in working class white wards like Eccleshill, Keighley West, Windhill, and Clayton will take them across the line even if Galloway’s acolytes snatch a couple of inner city wards. And no elections then until 2014.

And in three years Galloway will be gone, the fires will have burned out and the venal, self-serving Labour machine can reassert its malign control over Bradford’s inner-city.

Unless of course Bradfordians choose to have an elected mayor. Now that might just be interesting!


Thursday, 29 March 2012

On panic...


I can make no comment on today's rush to the pumps that this Thurber recollection - "The Day the Dam Broke" - doesn't wholly sum up:



Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The slow death of newspapers...


This morning, stood on the platform at Green Park tube station, my wife and I happened to chat about the state of the newspaper business - like you do! I commented that it wasn't as simple as saying that the web would kill newspapers - the real killer would be the smart phone.

So no surprise the read this:

Pew research has a new survey showing that tablets and smart phones are now 27% of Americans' primary news source. The overwhelming share of this is phones, not tablets; and a reasonable view says this will rise to 50% in three years.

Why on earth should I pay over good money to buy a newspaper to read on the train when I can get up to the minute news from the BBC or whoever on my phone? Now I may have a problem with the BBC exceeded its remit by pushing aside commercial news production on-line but there's no doubt that mobile technology and TV/web convergance will completely transform the way in which we consume information, entertainment and spend our money.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Why retail isn't the future of town centres...


For the past several years I've been banging on about what I call "leisure and pleasure" as the future of town centres rather than shops and offices. It is absolutely the case that retail does not represent either a solution or a future for town centres - this is nothing to do with the evil supermarket or insufficiently tough planning restrictions. It is about how our shopping habits are changing with the result being:

*£6bn – Online spending in the UK in 2004
*£23bn – Online spending in the UK 2010
*£1.3 bn – Level of m-commerce in the UK 2011
*£19bn – predicted level of m-commerce in 2019
*15,000 – reduction in town centre stores between 2000-2009
* 6.5% fall in number of town centre shops by 2014

We really do need to rethink town centres - to consider how they entertain us, how they provide space for formal and informal events, for celebration and for fun. Yet everywhere - and my city of Bradford is no different - local councils, planners and developers are attached limpet-like to big retail developments as some sort of salvation for struggling centres. When will it dawn on them that they're wrong?


Perhaps the RSPCA might like to actually help out?


The RSPCA is a very large, very wealthy and very powerful organisation. It effect it acts as a private police force in matters relating to animal welfare. According to the 2010 Report & Accounts for this charity it has over £90 million in investments and an annual income of nearly £110 million.

Benfleet animal sanctuary is closing. Closing because the RSPCA wants it to close:

David Bowles, head of communications for the society, said: "There is a thin line between people wanting to do their best for animals and them getting into difficulties.

"When these places are set up, they get a reputation locally and get more people giving animals to them. Things can spiral out of control very quickly. That is when we tend to get called in.

"A lot of people may have run sanctuaries for a long time. They are getting old. They can no longer raise the funds that they used to raise. They can no longer feed the animals they used to feed." 

Maybe it's competition, perhaps this is just bureaucratic jobsworthiness, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't need to happen. Rather than beating up the owners of sanctuaries with the law:
But their life's work came to an abrupt end after the RSPCA visited on a routine inspection and accused them of animal cruelty.

Although they denied all the charges, they did not have the resources for a costly court case. To their continuing anguish, they agreed to close down the sanctuary and get rid of all the animals, in exchange for the case being dropped.

Maybe, just maybe, the RSPCA might like to consider dipping its paws into that nest egg of 'investments' - investments that were provided by the generosity of the charity's donors - to support sanctuaries rather than acting like the worst sort of bureaucratic nightmare and closing them down?


Let us also have fountains!

 Last night Bradford opened the new City Park and, as the man we gave directions to put it, 'all the fountains'. The City has done one of its most celebrated sons proud. J. B. Priestley will be looking down smiling today for these were his words:

I doubt if I ever saw one, even the smallest, without some tingling of delight.

They enchant me in the daytime, when the sunlight ennobles their jets and sprays and turns their scattered drops into diamonds.

They enchant me after dark when coloured lights are played on them, and the night rains emeralds, rubies, sapphires. And, best of all, when the last colour is whisked away, and there they are in a dazzling white glory!

Our towns are crammed with all manner of rubbish that no people in their senses ever asked for, yet where are the fountains?

By all means let us have a policy of full employment, increased production, no gap between exports and imports, social security, a balanced This and a planned That, but let us also have fountains - more and more fountains - higher and higher fountains.

Wonderful - go and see them! By day with children playing in them:

Or by night when we celebrate:


Friday, 23 March 2012

Why attack this man's small pleasure?


There we are in the checkout queue at Morrisons. Ahead of us is an elderly gentleman with a small basket of goods – a pack of bacon, a couple of small tins, some apples and a couple of cans of beer. All this grocery was taken from the shelf filled with goods being cleared out and hugely discounted.

The beer? That was at 45p a can – well under the proposed minimum price. Somehow, I don’t think this elderly man was going to “pre-load” himself before heading out on the town to create mayhem and disorder! He’s much more likely to be a poor pensioner who, once a week, buys a couple of cans to drink while watching racing on the telly.

Yet, minimum pricing will target him – he will pay extra. Or more likely, buy just the one can. How exactly does making this man pay more help anyone, save any life or reduce any crime? What benefit does society get from making this man’s life just a little more expensive, just a little less pleasant? I can see none but with minimum prices that is what we get.


Minimum Pricing for Alcohol is both wrong and stupid...


Over the past year or so I've posted a few pieces about minimum pricing for alcohol - on the day when a Tory government announces plans to do this, I have gathered some of them together:

There's no evidence that it works but let's put up booze prices anyway!

Anyone know how to make moonshine? Thoughts on the economics of minimum booze prices.

Hands off my beer, Mr Cameron

Why minimum pricing for alcohol is a really stupid idea...

Making alcohol is easy...

But drink is so cheap?

A lesson from Sid...

The most risible part of Cameron's claim - apart from the lies about drink being cheaper than water - is the claim that it will cut crime. It won't - the policy is a gift to organised criminals and smugglers:

The Mafia would like to thank health campaigners and social activists for making them even richer!

"Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk."

If we want to help people with a drink problem, let's help people with a drink problem. This policy punishes people for the sin of being poor, judges the behaviour of others and plays to a ghastly, puritanical denormalisation campaign. 


I find it very hard to believe that a Conservative government has proposed this idea - it is illiberal, insulting to the less well off and really stupid.



Thursday, 22 March 2012

"Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk." - A budget for smugglers

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark -
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie -
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by !

The decision of the Chancellor to raise duties on alcohol and tobacco is, yet again, a great gift to Britain’s smugglers. With each rise in duty, with each imposed cost increase, the damage to legitimate business – pubs, corner shops, small brewers and such all dying, strangled by an unholy alliance between the New Puritan, the treasury mandarin and the criminal.

Last year, Brian Lenihan, then Irish Finance Minister explained all this:

I have decided not to make any changes to excise on tobacco in this Budget because I believe the high price is now giving rise to massive cigarette smuggling. My responsibility as Minister for Finance is to protect the tax base. I have full confidence in the effectiveness of the current multi agency approach but early in the New Year I want to explore what further measures we may need to stem the illegal flow of cigarettes into this country.

But let’s explore a little further and remember that this isn’t just about cigarettes but, in the UK, concerns beer as well. Pete Brown, beer writer extraordinaire, wrote today about the problems with beer and observed that people have shifted from fine ale to cheap wine and cheaper spirits:

Liver disease is increasing because people are switching from beer to stronger drinks.  We already know this though, because this has been true of every major alcoholism epidemic in history.  In the gin epidemic of the eighteenth century, beer was part of the solution, not the problem, as the immortal cartoons by Hogarth show.  It should be seen as that today.

But why is this? And why has the big drop in alcohol consumption been in on-sales – drinking in the pub – rather than off-sales – drinking at home? Firstly, the big brewers have shifted their attention from the boozer to the fridge – their volume now comes from people buying boxes of 24 bottles rather than going to the pub and drinking six pints.

Secondly, the smoking ban – people have started drinking at home or at a pre-arranged ‘smoky-drinky’ in some friend’s garage.

And thirdly, the price of booze makes smuggling and illegal production worthwhile – and you’re not going to get those products in the pub. And, if you’re smuggling, it makes sense to concentrate on the strong stuff which means wine and spirits rather than beer. The shift from beer to stronger drinks isn’t simply down to choice, it’s down to an ever larger chunk of the market being in the hands of criminals.

Kipling’s poem rather romanticises the smuggler but the true picture isn’t like that at all. These smugglers are the same sort who’ve been in the illegal import game for years, they already operate and control a multi-billion pound business doing just that:

An online report published by the Home Office in 2006 has estimated the UK drugs market to be worth £4.645bn in 2003/4[8], with a margin of error of +/- £1.154bn.

And, as we know, the people who run this smuggling business are prepared to use murder as a business tool.

So tell me New Puritans, would you prefer your daughter to get cigarettes from the corner shop or from the same man who sells cocaine, heroin and crack?


Killer Shisha! Or maybe not?


Health Fussbuckets and Trading Standards in Bradford have got terrible agitated about the growing number of shisha bars in the city.

The district has seen a near six-fold increase in the number of shisha lounges over the last five years. There are known to be 17 lounges, up from the three which were operating in 2007
The Freedom of Information data, released by Bradford Council, following a request from The British Heart Foundation, has prompted the charity to issue a warning about the dangers of inhaling the flavoured tobacco through waterpipes. Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “Contrary to popular belief, shisha is not safer than smoking cigarettes. 

In fact the most frequently relayed myth about the shisha crops up again:

...a typical one-hour-long shisha smoking session involves inhaling 100–200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette 

Except it isn't quite like that now is it? This from an earlier occasion featuring our National New Puritan Broadcasting Service:

The BBC stands accused of relying on research which has been neither peer-reviewed nor published. The Department of Health and the Tobacco Control Collaborating Centre stand accused of issuing 'science by press release.'

..and the real evidence?

"There are numerous studies on this issue and there is absolutely nothing new in this scare-mongering report. The bottom line is that shisha smokers actually experience the same carbon monoxide exposure as cigarette or cigar smokers do."

However, to return to Bradford's own fussbuckets, there's an interesting twist. Shisha is worse for another reason, these people tell us:

...flavoured tobacco is smoked over coals and fumes from these fuels add new toxins to the dangerous smoke...secondhand smoke poses a serious risk for non-smokers, particularly because it contains smoke not only from the tobacco but also from the heat source, such as charcoal

So I guess we need to start a campaign to ban real fires from pubs too? And stop barbecues? We've been told for all these years that 'secondhand' tobacco smoke is uniquely dangerous, yet now the New Puritans are saying what we've always said - that if cigarette side-stream smoke is bad for you so must be any other kind of smoke or particle filled fumes! Such as diesel...


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A playground for people not a showcase for developers - thoughts on Bradford City Centre

I spent a pleasant hour talking to Jim Greenhalgh from the T&A this afternoon. He’d rung me with a question along the lines of: “so how did we end up with Bradford Centre Regeneration?”

The result was that long conversation – we started with Odsal (remember “Superdome”) where I remarked that we had a scheme, it was funded, we’d given it planning permission only for a certain John Prescott to refuse permission because of the proposed Tesco supermarket that made the finances stack up. We got the Tesco – it’s at Great Horton less than a mile away from Odsal – but we never got the new stadium, not even while Gerry Sutcliffe the local MP was Sports Minister.

But the real conversation was about the City Centre. I don’t know what Jim will take from our chat or indeed what he’ll write but these are the things that stood out for me:

1.       We need to look at the Alsop masterplan again – not at the teddy bears or the weird architecture but at its essential principle. Alsop gave us an “anti-development” masterplan, something of a reverse field of dreams. Knock down all the 1960s rubbish and replace it with a park. And then see what happens. It took me five or so years to realise just how insightful this vision was – with a future where town centres have to change with our retail habits, this ‘wait and see’ approach now seems very wise.

2.       Think more about Bradford’s changing demographic rather than trying to attract a specific trendy middle-class audience. Over the past twenty years, Bradford’s middle-class has become less white – we now have a significant and important Asian middle class and the City Centre needs to reflect their preferences, what entertain them as much as it does the white population in places like Cullingworth. You only have to take a peek at the queues for iPads to understand the significance of this Asian demographic.

3.       Take control of our own destiny – for years we’ve wrapped ourselves in complicated developer-led schemes that, with one or two exceptions like Eastbrook Hall and Manningham Mills simply haven’t materialised. The Council needs to take command for once rather than hiding behind other bodies and assorted “special purpose vehicles”. Right now there’s the chance to build on the success of the Council-funded City Park – perhaps working with the Media Museum to complete a wonderful set of developments around that museum, the Alhambra Theatre, the old central library and the former Odeon. And we can put up much of the funding ourselves – Bradford Council has £180 million in reserves and an annual income of over £1.3 billion.

4.       Assume there won’t be any “funny money” – for twenty years the City has sat waiting for the generosity of central government or else the good fortune of lottery or other “bids”. This is a regeneration strategy akin to using the 4.30 at Kempton Park as an investment strategy. It might work but the chances are it won’t!

5.       Animate the City – spend more on events, on dance, on music, on street markets, on things that bring people into the City. Aim for a situation where Mr & Mrs Bradfordian wake up on a Saturday morning and discuss what to do that day concluding with “let’s go into Bradford, there’s always something on”.

We have been hesitant, over-reliant on private investment and lacking in the understanding needed to implement that masterplan we paid so much for. It wasn’t about developers and development. It wasn’t about retailers and office blocks. It was about a park, about creating a great place for Bradford’s people to promenade, to party and to play in.

Perhaps, after nearly ten years of pretending otherwise, we can get on with delivering that vision of a different kind of City centre. A City centre that’s a playground for people rather than a showcase for developers.