Monday, 30 April 2012

Simple really...the case for elected mayors


Tonight I will be (briefly - five minutes isn't very long) addressing an audience at Bradford's Midland Hotel about elected mayors. Do come along (starts at 7pm) if you've nothing better to do - such as watch the Manchester derby.

For those watching football, washing their hair, knitting blankets for the starving or playing croquet, this is the nub of my argument.

Right now there's a election afoot in Bradford. Across every inch of the District campaigners are thrusting leaflets through letterboxes, bashing posters into gardens, knocking on doors asking for votes and generally - in the manner of politicians - voter-bothering. We'll be electing 30 councillors who will join the remaining sixty in deciding who runs the city and how the city is run.

The lovingly crafted leaflets will feature fine profiles of the candidate in question, snappy slogans and killer criticisms of the other parties. There will be photos of the candidate stood with local residents, pointing at potholes and engaging in all kinds of what David Cameron calls "social action".

Nowhere in all this will there be any debate about the City and District. Nowhere will we see a manifesto - or even a list of action points - that will set out how Bradford would be run under a Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrat administration.

For a lot of voters they'll get just one leaflet from one political party - I know that's true of folk in Cullingworth. This isn't debate. This doesn't set out any basis on which leaders should be judged by the electorate. It simply reinforces the view of the national media that local elections are just a grand opinion poll showing how well - or badly - the national government is doing.

And when we've elected all those councillors, off they go into private meetings, behind closed doors, to decide who runs the city and how the city will be run. The manifesto for the City and District - the set of actions, the listing of priorities - will be written by officers, squeezed through some pretence of a "public consultation" and then published in an impenetrable 78 page "strategy" that no-one will ever read from cover to cover.

We have to do better. We have got to start having a public debate about the priorities for Bradford - the city centre, schools, jobs and the environment. Rather than those priorities being determined by whoever officer is most successful at scaring the councillors into action, they will emerge from a public debate. And will be owned by an elected mayor.

The Bradford people will choose that mayor

The Bradford people will hold that mayor to account

And the Bradford people can get rid of that mayor if that mayor fails.

Simple really.


Saturday, 28 April 2012

The only bit of the economy that's growing is...



As I observed yesterday in a point about jobs, these cuts, this austerity - at least as far as the public sector is concerned - seem pretty illusory:

Well, strictly, “government and other services”, so it includes defence, the National Health Service and so on, but also private education and private healthcare. That sector of the economy has expanded by more than 5 per cent since 2008; health and social care has expanded particularly strongly.

The only austerity measures have been tax rises - higher taxes on buying stuff, the closing of so-called loopholes and an avalanche of increases in duty on things like booze, fags and petrol.

The public sector - and all us politicians hovering round its honey pot - isn't where the austerity is biting. We're OK - it's the bloke who hasn't had a pay rise in five years and can't afford his pension any more, the pensioner on a fixed income while inflation rockets and the mum juggling a part-time job with a couple of children, who are being bitten.

And - however much it may pain the big unions, the Labour party, the panjandrums of civil service and the state employees at the BBC - the answer is still just what is was back in 2008, and 2009, and 2010, and 2011...

...cut taxes on incomes, reduce the tax on jobs that is employers national insurance and stop treating businesses as if they are the spawn of Satan rather than the only hope for us seeing out the recession.

Get on with it...


Top Liberal Democrat MP says don't vote for the bloke who works


Absolutely - Liberal Democrat MP, Bob Russell said just that:

Now retired, Councillor Offen [the Lib Dem candidate] is able to devote the time to the role of Councillor which the Tory candidate simply cannot because of his employment situation.

Got that folks! This MP thinks you can't be an effective councillor if you work for a living! And he kept digging:

‘I stand by my comment that the Lib Dem candidate has more time at his disposal than the Tory candidate.’

So one guesses that Mr Russell wouldn't vote for any Liberal Democrat candidate who had less "time on his hands" that an alternative from another party?

Although that would be to expect consistency from the Liberal Democrats. Which would be a first!


Friday, 27 April 2012

An interesting little jobs statistic...


Back in June 2008 - before the age of austerity, before the cuts, before all those civil servants were cast on the scrap heap, public sector employment in the UK was:

6,019,000 - that's 20.4% of the workforce

Now, after all the austerity, the draconian cuts and Osborne's reign of terror, public sector employment in the UK is:

5,942,000 - that's 20.4% of the workforce

Interesting don't you think?

Source: ONS (table EMP02 here)

Company offers to sponsor state school scandal!


The newspaper that employed Jon Hari clearly maintains its standards with this headline:

News Corp offered Gove £2m to build 'free school'

Terrible! Corruption! Set the dogs on him!

Except that this is a gross misrepresentation of the meeting and what was offered:

Rupert Murdoch's News International offered £2m to sponsor an academy in east London close to the company's headquarters at Wapping, it emerged yesterday at the Leveson Inquiry.

So it wasn't a "free school". It was an academy - set up under the legislation that Mr Murdoch's old buddy Tony Blair introduced where businesses were encouraged to 'sponsor' new and existing schools that switched to being academies. Under Blair's rules sponsors were expected to make a financial contribution of at least £2 million (this has now changed and there is no absolute financial requirement). 

So the money wasn't offered to Michael Gove - it was offered to the Department for Education and/or Newham Council. It wasn't for a "free school". And it wasn't done in any underhand or misleading way - just part of the process of recruiting partners to help improve education in England.

People may not like or agree with the policy but it has been around for a while under Labour and Coalition governments. And News International were doing nothing wrong in pursuing the idea of sponsoring an academy.

All-in-all a pretty dreadful piece of reporting!


Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Peterborough Pravda. Is this what Louise Mensch wants from local media?


Yesterday, Louise Mensch – the MP for Corby – argued that local newspapers are an essential cog in our democracy:

She called on the government to conduct a review into "local democracy and the local press" to see if there might be some sort of direct or indirect subsidy that could support the sector.

She attacked plans for local TV stations, which will compete against newspapers, because the proposed funding plans include using part of the licence fee as well as BBC content.

Now there are a few obvious things that might be said about Mrs Mensch’s suggestions not least that Tory MPs calling for business subsidies is a wholly new experience for this very long-standing Tory member.

However, at the heart of this isn’t the question of whether we have a local press – in my view we have as vibrant a local debate as we’ve had in a very long while. But here in Bradford very little of that debate is down to the local evening paper.

Local papers have declined, many have merged, closed or become mere shadows – more advertising sheets that newspapers. And that decline continues – think for a second or two where you go to look for a job, a car, a house or the cinema listings? In times past you bought the local rag on the appropriate day and looked in the class ads. Now you use your lap top or your iPhone – tomorrow you’ll be using the telly in your living room.

Local newspapers have become ever more reliant on the money that local councils spend – the statutory notices, job ads and theatre listings. Without this cash, many more local papers would go to the wall. Maybe this would be a loss but it is the market that is killing these papers not the choices or decisions of local councils. People no longer buy the evening paper – 30 years ago the penetration of the York Evening Press was up at around 80%. Hardly a house in the City didn’t receive the paper. Today that paper sells around 25,000 copies each day (as it happens about the same as Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus). The Doncaster Star sells fewer than 3,000 copies.

It seems to me that, for all her good intentions, Mrs Mensch is railing against the wind – for sure, stopping councils from producing their own free newspapers and not using the license fee to support local TV might slow the decline a little. But the decline will continue for the simple reason that people no longer buy the local paper and local businesses no longer advertise in the local paper. And while this is happening local papers reduce their editorial staff – I fear that many will simply be desk-bound churners of press releases (which isn’t why anyone went to journalism school) – to the point where they simply don’t have the resource to cover stories.

However, public subsidy – using taxpayers’ money to stop local papers closing – seems like a recipe for a supine, state-directed newspaper. Something of a Pravda of Peterborough or Isvestia of Ipswich – regurgitating the tractor stats produced by the local authorities and printing without question or challenge the words of the local MP. A ghastly shade of the challenging, offending and investigating local paper of legend.

Maybe that’s what Mrs Mensch wants but for me, I’ll take my changes with bloggers, Facebook and citizen journalism. That might just be the better future don’t you think?


Academic publishing and the 'tragedy of the commons'


I'm sure Mr Worstall did so inadvertently but his castigation of the Royal Society's 'save the planet' report also explained another first world problem - why 'open access' publishing doesn't work:

"...if you have an open access commons and then demand for that resource exceeds the regenerative capacity of the resource, then you have to move away from a Marxian (his word) open access commons to some form of limitation of access. This limitation of access could be social (socialist) or private property (capitalist) but some form of limitation there must be."

You see that the problem for academics (and university libraries - although this is mostly special pleading to protect their budgets) is that 'open access' still uses up the limited resource of time and money available for the purpose of publishing. And because the user is not paying, that money and time isn't replaced. Or rather, the taxpayer's representatives trim the money available as they choose to direct it to other purposes.

So the outcome of 'open access' publishing won't, in the end, be open access but will be access that is rationed or controlled in someway. Most likely, since this is how the world works, by charging users for the use they make of the resource. However, it will be the Universities that collect this money rather than publishers.

And where did all those publishers start? Oh, yes - universities. Looks to me more and more like a power grab rather than a liberalisation of access.


Things that really aren't a surprise...


George Galloway is a muslim convert (although he didn't quite mention this fact in a recent by-election):

George Galloway, MP for Bradford West, is a Muslim. He converted more than ten years ago in a ceremony at a hotel in Kilburn, north-west London, attended by members of the Muslim Association of Great Britain. Those close to him know this. The rest of the world, including his Muslim constituents, does not. 

What I can't understand - unless George thinks his conversion might lose him votes - why he hasn't come clean about it? What sort of muslim does that make him?

Or maybe it is a surprise - Mr Galloway continues to deny the claim:

 "The opening paragraph of Jemima Khan's piece in the New Statesman [referring to an alleged conversion ceremony] is totally untrue. Moreover I told her it was fallacious when she put it to me. I have never attended any such ceremony in Kilburn, Karachi or Kathmandu. It is simply and categorically untrue."

So there you go! Clear as mud! Which really isn't a surprise at all.

Update II:

It seems that George really didn't go through this ceremony (although the New Statesman say he didn't deny it and he says he did):
“Jemima Khan asked me on tape about this phantom ceremony in Kilburn and I told her it was a lie and whoever told her it was a liar. No trace of this exchange appears in the New Statesman piece, which is predicated upon it. Now that they are denying my denial it places the matter in the hands of my solicitor.”


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Who was it said booze was too cheap?


Not cheap enough for some, it seems:

Unregulated and potentially dangerous fake alcohol has been found for sale in Bradford, West Yorkshire Trading Standards has warned.

Senior trading standards officer David Lodge said they had seen an increase in the availability of bogus booze over the last 12 months – with some bottles containing traces of chemicals suggesting the alcohol has been through an industrial process.

You see the duty is high enough to make it worthwhile to risk criminal charges for dodging that duty - making and importing booze now falls into the same category as drug smuggling.

And, for this we have to thank the New Puritan, anti-alcohol idiots. When someone dies because of this bad booze, the blood will be on the hands of Alcohol Concern, the British Medical Association and others campaigning for booze to be more expensive.


Councillor Ellis and the sheep...

One of those priceless moments for which cameras were invented. Shame then that I didn't have one with me!

We're putting up posters for Margaret Eaton's re-election campaign and pull up to a field gate on Keighley Road in Mike Ellis's big people carrier. The field beyond the gate is filled with sheep and lambs that, on hearing the van draw up and the hatch open come bounding, skipping and (in the case of one particularly ugly ram) marching down to the gate.

There's bleating in every possible tone from soprano to the deepest bass. These sheep clearly expect something and I'm prepared to bet that it isn't a 'Vote Conservative' poster - unless of course those have become edible recently.

So Mike enters the field - a little gingerly - clutching the poster and the string to attach it to the fence. The sheep close in, their bleating rising to a cacophonous crescendo - they are all but nibbling at Mike. The old ram is leaning hard against the gate - perhaps his aim is to stop the Councillor leaving the field until food is provided.

I'm stood there watching and trying not to laugh at the sight of a Tory councillor hemmed in on every side with sheep and lambs all yelling their heads off with the ovine equivalent of "where's our food then, mate!"


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A glimpse of higher education's future?


Time will no doubt tell but might this be a glimpse of higher education's future?

There are no professors in Virginia Tech’s largest classroom, only a sea of computers and red plastic cups.
In the Math Emporium, the computer is king, and instructors are reduced to roving guides. Lessons are self-paced, and help is delivered “on demand” in a vast, windowless lab that is open 24 hours a day because computers never tire. A student in need of human aid plants a red cup atop a monitor.
The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000. Students walk to class through a shopping mall, past a health club and a tanning salon, as ambient Muzak plays.

But does it work? First indications are good:

"...Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support."


H/T Tyler Cowan


In which I explain something about public procurement to Eoin Clarke


The ever passionate and often completely wrong Eoin Clarke has uncovered dark truths about the relationship between Monitor, the NHS regulator and McKinsey, a leading consultancy firm. As readers here will know, I’m no fan of public procurement (here and here and here)  processes and am prepared to accept that some established suppliers can and do muddy the waters of process. However, in this case there is absolutely no evidence of impropriety – by supplier or contractor. Eoin has made his soup from the thinnest of stock!

Let’s look at the allegations and claims:

1, McKinsey has earned (at least Eoin accepts they did some work) £468,000 from the NHS since May 2010. Note that Eoin hasn’t asked whether this leading consultancy business did any work for the NHS prior to May 2010. I’m prepared to bet that it has done. However, it does not seem to me that paying consultants 0.0005% of the total NHS budget for advice on management and strategy is a terrible thing.
2. Officials at Monitor accepted hospitality and what Eoin calls “trinkets” from McKinsey – a trip to the opera, a seat at a black tie dinner and attending a summer drinks reception. Apparently this practice blurs “...the lines between government and private contractor and should be discouraged especially where a health watchdog is concerned.” There is no suggestion that officials of Monitor acted improperly by taking this hospitality or even that it might have influenced decisions on the appointment of external consulting contractors.

3. McKinsey “...improperly used private discuss several commissioning decisions.” This consisted of the firm seeking feedback after the tender decision because they hadn’t got the business. It may be news to Eoin but providing feedback to unsuccessful bidders is normal – and good – business practice. And it is also normal for this to be done verbally.

4. Eoin appears also to have a problem with McKinsey asking for something and not being given it – “McKinsey also harried Monitor to prematurely divulge the granting of NHS Trust status decisions...but to be fair to Monitor they sent a fairly curt reply.” So there you go – a consultant asks for information prematurely and isn’t given the information. Anyone got a clue what Monitor has done wrong there?

5. Our feisty investigator gets closer to pay dirt with using private channels to pitch for business – “They canvassed Monitor officials to have an input into decisions over how to deal with Heatherwood &Wrexham Park Trust... This in the end was accepted and McKinsey went on to have an input in the decision to close Heatherwood and flog the land.” When you look at the e-mails Eoin claims for private pitching, one is the sort of e-mail many businesses would send existing contacts and another says:

“Can someone get back to us about this tender?”

So it wasn’t a private deal – indeed the e-mail traffic suggests that there was a tender process since McKinsey refers to being “shortlisted” and to a formal ITT number. In other words Monitor conducted a proper process to appoint advisors for a given project.

6. Apparently hosting (at no cost to the taxpayer) foreign delegations is wrong because “...UK government officials are possibly inadvertently aiding McKinsey's solicitation of business in France, and de facto advancing McKinsey's financial gain.” Shouldn’t the British government be keen to showcase the wonders of the NHS (we know from Eoin just how much better it is than any other health system) and to support British firms in getting foreign business?

7. And finally Eoin complains because McKinsey asked Monitor for a reference. It’s pretty clear that Eoin has never completed a public sector “pre-qualification questionnaire” since that would require at least two (and in one awful case I recall, six) references. And the expectation is that these references will be public sector references from places where the bidder has delivered a contract. Again this is normal and proper business practice.

It seems to me that Eoin Clarke, in his enthusiasm to castigate the current government, has turned what appears to be normal business practice into something of a scandal. There is nothing in the e-mails to suggest that Monitor has acted improperly in tendering for and appointing consultants or other contractors. Indeed, all Eoin can do is call for “clearer boundaries” despite the evidence here that Monitor’s officers – regardless of the relationship with McKinsey – have resisted any requests from the firm that might compromise the procurement process.


Monday, 23 April 2012

What an ex-Respect supporter has to say...


Most of those who make the mistake of viewing Galloway as some sort of hero end up regretting it. I know because I used to see him as a hero myself. I can remember attending many anti-war rallies in Hyde Park that involved Galloway speaking and galvanising the crowd. One Big Brother appearance and a speech supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq later, I changed my mind and began to see through the charade.

It seems the people who voted for him in East London in 2005 had the same realisation since the Respect party’s East London chapter was all but decimated in the 2010 general elections.  He is, after all, not a constituency MP but a political activist who spends most of his time gallivanting around the Middle East and furthering his media career. It’s only a matter of time before the people of Bradford West also see through the antics of this hapless anti-imperialist, yet pro-autocratic buffoon.

Interesting words there from Ghaffar Hussein.  There are more to be read here.


Sunday, 22 April 2012

Will someone tell The Observer there isn't an "obesity crisis", not even a little one...


No surprise that the Observer has joined the nannying fussbuckets on the supposed "obesity crisis":

No one doubts it is a huge cultural, political and behavioural challenge or pretends there is an easy solution. But if the answers, whatever they are, involve challenging corporate power and practices, legislating to improve the content of food or even limiting individuals' freedom to consume junk, then so be it. Only radical action will begin to win the challenge of obesity.

Except, of course that rates of obesity are falling - I guess that, as ever, the Guardian prefers bossing poor people about to actually checking the facts before holding forth!

“In total contrast to the widely held view that obesity rates are rocketing out of control, we are not in the middle of an obesity health crisis,” Professor Gard said.

“Obesity rates have been stable or falling around the Western world for over 10 years. Health in most Western countries is improving, while obesity is simply one among the many health challenges we face."


Saturday, 21 April 2012

On taxes, morals and practicality


Once again tax has become a matter of moral debate. Rather than asking the sensible and practical questions – “how do we raise the amount of money we need to deliver those ‘vital’ public services?” or “what is so ‘vital’ about this or the other bit of public spending?” – we are debating whether it is or isn’t morally repugnant for a person to use the rules to minimise the amount of tax they pay.

And the target for all this is “the rich”, a group of ill-defined, nameless, faceless individuals onto whom we must heap opprobrium if they have the audacity to move their money around so as to pay a little less tax. Every now and then one self-righteous newspaper hack or other latches onto a particular person or a specific company and calls down the anger of the gods upon them – how dare they not hand over nearly all their income and most of their wealth to the government, how dare they!

And so the game goes – today The Guardian latches onto a dead man so as to have a pop at that dead man’s son. Nobody is suggesting that the son has done anything wrong but the sins of the dead man – reducing his tax bill by moving his money around – must mean that the son is a sinner too! And, sadly, the response of many is not to castigate the values that led to such an attack on a dead man but to accuse the paper (and others) of hypocrisy since they too indulge in such international money management for the purposes of tax minimisation.

This way madness lies! We do not have taxes as some form of punishment for those who have the gall to be very rich. Nor do we have taxes so as create some form of “morally beautiful” status of equality. We have taxes to pay for government. That’s it. No other reason is remotely defensible. And the job of the government is to raise those taxes efficiently.

Nowhere in this is there any matter of morals. Merely a set of practical issues: what is the best rate of income tax; what should the balance be between direct and indirect taxes; should reliefs be offered for desired actions such as philanthropy, business investment or saving for retirement?

However, those who cheer at the attack on a dead man choose to make this a debate about morals. So let's respond.

I do not believe that we have any more moral duty in paying taxes than to comply with the rules set down by the government. And if that means that a very rich man can avoid paying tax at the same rate as a much poorer man, the fault lies with those who set the rules not with the man avoiding paying the tax.

Instead we should ask why it is that very rich men – and others who are far from very rich – put such effort into avoiding taxes? Could it be, perhaps, that these men feel that rates of taxation are too high? Perhaps – and it’s hard to take issue with this sentiment – the very rich man believes that it is wrong for the government to seize more than half what he earns? Maybe, the very rich man believes it to be morally wrong for government to take such a large proportion of someone’s income?

We have got ourselves into such a state – with politicians forced into publishing tax returns and hints that ministers will be expected to do the same. I cannot but think that the idea of a very rich man giving public service – as rich men have been wont to do throughout history – is likely to become just that, history. Why should that man bother when his reward will be sneering attacks on him for the apparent sin of being rich? Instead, the man heads to his private island or grand house, shuts the gates and perches on his pile – having first ensured that only the smallest possible part of it goes to the government in taxes.

And the fault for this separation from public service will not be the rich man’s. The fault lies first with government for demanding too much of that man’s income and secondly with the frothing mob led by hypocritical journalists who castigate him and his sort – even beyond the grave – merely for having money.

Attacking the rich may make some of us feel a little better, perhaps more able to tolerate less pleasant personal circumstances. But it does not help the government in that task of raising taxes efficiently and it is not the championing of some moral righteousness. Taxation must be a matter of practicalities not moralities. If we get to the stage of shouting about morals then the only conclusion is that our tax system is not fit for its purpose of raising the money the government needs for its business.

And so it is. Taxes are too high on the rich and too high on the poor. In the former case we can see they are too high because of the lengths that rich men go so as to avoid those high rates. And in the latter case because we have to tax the poor because the rich aren’t there to be taxed.

I don’t know the right answer – the system that would work – but I do know that the current debate misses the point entirely. Taxation must be a practical matter if it is to work. Moralising about it just makes things worse.


Pie and peas for lunch in Keighley Market (and other tales of normal life)

So yes, Kathryn and I had pie and peas for lunch at Charlies caff in Keighley Market. And very nice it was too - embellished with some mint sauce and accompanied by a mug of tea.

Sitting in the market you can watch the world - or rather that bit of the world that finds itself in Keighley on a slightly damp April Saturday - pass by. You pick up little snippets of conversation - mostly mundane, everyday things. Quite often these snippets are meaningless - a conversation about something opening where one doesn't know what that something might be, chatter about friends and family interjected by a knowing little chuckle or a private joke. Today's favourite was a gem - two young women walk past, one speaking into a mobile phone and the little snatch of conversation I hear is:

"Leopard-skin print knicker shorts"

Just that, nothing else - one daren't even turn and stare, mouth hanging open! The very concept of such a garment - what exactly are "knicker shorts" and why would one want them in leopard-skin? But this moment of gobsmackedness passes and we move on through the town going about our private business - shopping, sitting, looking at stuff, listening to the sounds of the town.

All these conversations - little shavings of which we overhear - are serious, are important. Clever folk who want to discuss the great doings of the day - kings and ministers and policies and such - don't always appreciate that it is these little everyday interactions and chatterings that are the atoms of enterprise, the molecules of exchange. The trader understands - or should do - the importance of these banal conversations about kids or dogs or broken fences.

And the governor should understand too - appreciate that, for all the guffle about policy-making, for all the cant about "involving", "engaging" and "consulting", it is these mundane, everyday nothings that are the basis of society, of community. I fear that sadly, those governors do not understand but know better. The market - literally "the market" given where we had our pie and peas - is untidy, disorganised, inconsistent. So we must create - through the medium of public policy - a better system.

The problem is that there isn't one.


Friday, 20 April 2012

Free speech, free enterprise, free trade....


These are the three things that matter most to me - fighting for them is the reason I remain in politics. Little else matters when you get to the crunch - free speech opens the doors of discovery, free enterprise allows us to create wonders from that discovery and free trade allows the riches of that discovery and creation to be shared by all.

These things are also the reason why I'm right-wing rather than left wing. And I'm reminded again just how much the left will always fall back on protection - the route to stagnation, stasis and the promotion of poverty. Here's some chap called Hines in the Guardian:

Progressive protectionism by contrast would instead allow countries to wean themselves off export dependence. It would enable the rebuilding and re-diversification of domestic economies by limiting what goods states let in and what funds they allow to enter or leave the country. Having regained control of their economic future, countries can then set the levels of taxes and agree the regulations needed to fund and facilitate this transition. 

Clearly Mr Hines has never been to North Korea! Yet this proposal - little different from the autarky that thrilled Mussolini, fascinated Franco and led to Pol Pot's murderous 'year zero' - is made seriously by a left-wing commenter in a leading English newspaper.

The left really don't understand this freedom stuff - it's not just that free speech, free enterprise and free trade are morally right, it's that they are better in practice too! And when we limit freedom to speak, to do business or to trade, we make ourselves poorer in spirit as well as poorer in the pocket.


So taxes on development mean less development? No surprise there then!


The "Community Infrastructure Levy" (CIL) is a hypothecated tax on development. The intention is to get funds for all those good things like schools, parks and bus stops that are 'provided' by government. And, like all taxes on business it's a cost - in this case specific to each individual development.

It seems that Council's have been setting the rates for this tax too high:

Stephen Teagle, managing director of affordable housing and regeneration at Galliford Try, said the company had done work earlier this year comparing the historic cost of providing 35 per cent affordable housing on a development with the cost of providing it on top on CIL payments. ‘We found there’s a significant gap between the historic cost and new CIL payments councils are asking for. Something has to give, and what will give is the delivery of affordable housing,’ he said.

Indeed some Councils are setting the levy at approaching three times the rate at which affordable housing can be afforded in a development. The result of this is that developers - if planners insist on affordable housing at current percentages - simply won't develop. Instead they'll bank the permission and wait until market conditions look at little better.


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The myth of the food desert...

Today, as is my wont when I've a time to spend in Bradford without meetings, I wandered round John Street Market. It is a little sad to see some of the gaps appearing in the market - partly because some of the rag trade and fancy goods stalls have decanted to the emerging Asian bazaars and partly because it's a pretty tough time right now for retailers. However, there's still the food to marvel at - the row of butchers (now joined by a halal butcher to meet that demand), the fishmonger, the greengrocers, the spice stall and the stalls selling produce for the East European, African and Caribbean customers.

Yet we - by which I mean the well-off, middle classes - tell ourselves that there is something called a 'food desert'. A place peopled with the poor where there is inadequate access to fresh food and especially fruit and vegetables. It would appear that, in the nation where this idea was first invented, the USA, it is revealed to be a myth - especially the myth that this lack of 'good' food leads to obesity:

Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

Indeed this research tells us that:

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food"

Perhaps it's different here in Bradford? Somehow I doubt it - most of the City's poorest districts are within a short walk of the city centre where the wonderful John Street Market sits. And there are any number of corner shops, mini-markets and such - almost all selling fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance.

If people aren't eating fresh fruit and vegetables it isn't for lack of availability! And it certainly looks like there's not much of a link with obesity (although it defeats any logic for there to be such a link). Truth be told, the obesity problem is overstated by the assorted nannying fussbuckets who campaign on these things but such as it is, obesity is caused by choices people make rather than dysfunction within the market or the unfairness of society.

Rather than blaming society or seeking for a convenient business scapegoat, we should perhaps ask why it is that some people get so very fat. And try to help them with their problem rather than making up myths about obesity and its causes. To be pretty blunt, this study shows once again that obesity is not a public health problem but something that relates to the health (or ill-health) of individuals and the choices they make in their lives.


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

In which the Local Government Assocation surprise us by opposing minimum pricing...


No it's not a belated April Fool's - the LGA really have challenged minimum pricing for alcohol:

Introducing a minimum price for alcohol and banning discounted multi-buy deals could see a surge in potentially dangerous black market booze, public health leaders are warning.

They say the Government's focus on making alcohol less affordable could risk pushing cash-strapped adults to buy cheap counterfeit wines and spirits which could make them blind or even kill them.

Speaking at the Local Government Association's Alcohol Strategy Conference today (Tuesday, 17 April), public health experts said attempts to increase alcohol prices would also fail to curb binge drinking or tackle the associated anti-social behaviour and health problems it creates.

I really am pleasantly surprised and applaud their reasoning too - and they remind us of just how prevalent counterfeiting and bootlegging has become:

This month, Southampton City Council's Trading Standards team seized 124 bottles of fake vodka and wine from a local newsagent. The haul included 35 Jacobs Creek wine bottles with incorrect spellings of Australia and 45 bottles of Arctic Ice vodka, a brand that was found to be made-up.

Recently a shopkeeper was fined £16,000 after Surrey County Council Trading Standards seized fake Glen's vodka which, when tested, contained 235 times more methanol than the legal limit. Just five teaspoons of methanol can be fatal.

While in Staffordshire, trading standards officers acted after people reported suffering from burning throats after drinking vodka that was later found to contain methanol. A recent crackdown has found suspected counterfeit alcohol in more than one in six (18 per cent) of off-licenses in the county.

Whether this will make any difference remains to be seen!


A little point about housing and the 'green belt'

There you have it - a little piece of Bradford's 'green belt'. In this case it's Hewenden Reservoir looking from the Great Northern Trail (the former railway line) towards East Manywells. And like much of the South Pennines it is beautiful in an everyday kind of way. Not spectacular but, when the sun shines and makes those shadows, cryingly gorgeous - one of the things that make this small part of Yorkshire unique and wonderful.

So when the debate about housing arises, it is this sort of landscape, this kind of place that we must protect from development. Or should we?

Today, it being that time of year, I was at Denholme Clough delivering election leaflets. Now up at the Clough -  the bit of Bingley Rural Ward that bumps into Calderdale - there used to be three farms. That was three (or maybe four) dwellings. One was the halal abattoir at Sunside Farm, the other two typical, slightly tatty hill farms. There were perhaps ten electors here (and half of them were Mr Hussein's family).

Today all this is gone or going - the abattoir closed a while back and where there was once just one farm house, we now find a conversion creating five homes. All now occupied. Across the road another farm has been developed - a further five homes. It is, I don't doubt, only a matter of time before the third of the farms turns into a collection of barn conversions, cottages and houses - maybe five or six more places to live.

From three or four homes - all in the 'green belt' - will have been created 15 or 16 dwellings. And the old abattoir buildings and several barns remain untouched - perhaps for another development, another creation of new homes.

This picture is repeated again and again across the area - former farm buildings now redundant as farms consolidate and tenancies end are turned into homes. All within the 'green belt'. At Denholme House Farm and The Flappit there's been new build as well - a dozen or so nice new houses built were once there were tatty barns and corrugated steel cowsheds.

And none of these developments - in the 'green belt' - meet with objections except, on occasion, from planners upset that their precious "open-ness of the green belt" might be threatened by building on these farmyards and by converting these barns. There are maybe 50 such places in Bingley Rural - that's over 200 homes that can be developed without the need to take a single inch of green field.

Imagine the creative planner who said "maybe with a little new build at each of these places we could double that number" - we'd have approaching 500 new homes without any encroachment on those green fields. Spread that across the rural area of Bradford and we might get 3000 new homes - maybe even more. All without a threat to the green belt. All without petitions, protest groups and the endless paper war between the planners and the public - a war in which the planners get a phyrric victory. For sure they permissions granted and houses built but this is at the cost of public perception of planners - the firm view held 'out there' that planners do what developers want.

It's important to see this because Bradford Council want about 1500 homes built in Bingley Rural's villages over the next 15 years. There are already permissions for around 600 houses - with the 500 that developing existing rural sites brings we get most of the way towards the 'target'. There really isn't any need at all to 'release' tracts of land from the current 'green belt' for future development.

But all this requires planners to get out from their closed box, to stop believing the commercial propaganda of the house building companies and to think for themselves how we can meet Bradford's housing needs without any large land take from the 'green belt'.


Monday, 16 April 2012

Consultation on plain packaging for cigarettes - what you need to tell the government


The government has launched a consultation on the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products - be warned the questions are loaded and partisan. However, you do get the chance to make your comments. My advice - be moderate in your comments, provide evidence where you can and stick to the core objections:

1. The proposals fail to understand the role of brands:

"Branding fulfils many significant and positive functions for both consumers and markets. Take it away and consumers lose out and markets become commoditised, with price rather than quality being the influencing factor. As well as calling on Government to consider carefully whether plain packaging will yield any positive impact in practice, we will also encourage it to look at all the possible negative impacts."

2. Plain packaging makes counterfeiting and illicit sale of cigarettes more likely:

BASCAP (Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy) is concerned that plain packaging requirements would increase the prevalence of counterfeit goods in the market and reduce brand owners' ability to take action against such activity, besides undermining the ability of consumers to make informed purchasing decisions. Trademarks serve these important functions in the market for all branded goods. Plain packaging [is] likely to increase rather than decrease burdens on already overstretched public agencies working to enforce intellectual property protections in the face of escalating counterfeiting and piracy in the United Kingdom and worldwide."

3. Plain packaging threatens jobs:

Mr Barber said: “These proposals could have serious implications for our business as tobacco packaging is vital to our turnover. It could cost up to 50 per cent of the jobs here."

4. The proposals will damage businesses:

...a report from Deloitte titled “Potential impact on retailers from the introduction of plain tobacco packaging”, February 2011, states that the operator of a service station can expect to incur additional staff costs of between A$9,000 and A$34,000 due to the extra work that would be required to handle plain packaged tobacco products.

I'll leave you to add your comments on how the proposals are illiberal, anti-business and based on the flimsiest of evidence. I would also urge - as well as responding to the consultation - for you to write to your MP making the above points - this is an unjustified idea without evidence that will destroy jobs, promote crime and damage personal liberty.

The consultation is here - be prepared to give an hour of your time.

And just for the record, I am a non-smoker.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Obesity rates are falling not rising - so why must doctors lie about this?


We've got rather used to the various clubs of doctors - BMA, RCS and suchlike - telling us that alcohol consumption is rising when it isn't (even the BBC now recognise that it is for heaven's sake). Now these New Puritan institutions are lying about obesity:

According to the latest research, 48% of men and 43% of women in the UK will be obese by 2030, a trend that will significantly increase the prevalence of strokes, heart disease and cancer, and lead to higher costs for the NHS.

Now unfortunately, the Guardian doesn't link to that latest research. However, the latest actual statistics from the Office of National Statistics tell us that rates of obesity are falling:

Despite the government ignoring the anti-obesity lobby's urgent suggestions for traffic light labelling on food and suchlike, the latest figures show that obesity amongst men has fallen to 22% and the female obesity rate has fallen to 24%.

So something must have changed - either the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges are scandalously misinformed or else the British public has been on a massive eating binge in the last year (those latest figures are from 2011).

Ah but what about the children say the doctors:

Charlie Powell, campaigns director of the Children's Food Campaign, applauded the academy's intervention. He said: "Andrew Lansley should act on this excellent set of robust recommendations, but his track record suggests that he will once again ignore the advice of our best medical experts."

Ah yes those children - I don't have figures for everywhere but I'm pretty sure Bradford won't be out of the ordinary in terms of obese children -  here, for Year 6 children, there has been a slight fall over the past three years and the rate remains below 20% (marginally above the national average). And note that this uses the very discredited measure of Body Mass Index.

None of these actual facts supports the argument of the Academy that we should set about banning advertising & sports sponsorship, fast food outlets near schools and celebrity endorsement. Let alone introducing "fat taxes".

There really isn't a growing obesity crisis and doctors should help people who get too fat rather than seek to punish the vast majority who never get past being slightly chubby.


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Plain packaging for tobacco will mean hundreds of job losses in Bradford


The packaging industry is important to Bradford and much of it is geared to supply the tobacco industry. Introducing plain packaging is a big threat to these jobs. Here's Paul Barber from Weidenhammer:
“These proposals could have serious implications for our business as tobacco packaging is vital to our turnover. It could cost up to 50 per cent of the jobs here."

And the same goes for Chesapeake which produces packaging for Philip Morris and BAT.

Plus these businesses recognise the agenda of the New Puritans - plain packaging for fags will be followed by plain packaging for booze and crisps.


Tesco's strategy, town centres and the future of the 'high street'

Tesco have announced a significant shift in their development strategy:

After two decades of aggressively buying up land and building stores, the company is understood to be keen to scale back on opening new, large, out-of-town hypermarkets in favour of using the capital to invest in its existing store portfolio and expand its Express network of convenience shops.

It also wants to grow its click-and-collect service, which allows shoppers on the Tesco website to pick up goods, especially non-food items, from their local supermarket. At the last count just 500 of its 2,800 shops were able to offer the service.

Some observers see this as something of a response by Tesco to the fact that their seeming quest for world domination has faltered a little in the last year or so:

The move by Tesco to concentrate on its smaller shops follows its disastrous profit warning that it issued in January, the first in more than 20 years, and which wiped £5bn off its share price.

I’m not so sure – indeed businesses like Tesco have a much longer time horizon than the headlines in the FT or the short-term response of the markets. What the firm is doing is shifting its emphasis away from huge out-of-town emporia, from grand hypermarkets selling everything a shopper could possibly want under one roof, to a strategy founded on the fact that everything the shopper could possibly want is there on the internet.

And what shoppers seem to like is the idea that there’s a convenient spot nearby where they can pick stuff up from. For some, that convenient spot is the front door step but for many the ‘click-and-collect’ idea works pretty well and is rather better than the ‘drive-five-miles-park-push-a-trolley-round-a-store-queue-at-a-checkout-load-car-drive-five-miles’ approach.

In business terms the supermarkets have to switch to on-line selection and shopping because that’s what customers want. And this means that the focus will shift to smaller, local convenience stores as well – great news for secondary retail locations but more bad news for the high street.

Over the short-term, this leaves the supermarkets with a headache:

Analysts, however, warned that though Tesco should initially save money by scaling back its investment in large stores, it would have a long-term problem on its hands.

Jonathan Pritchard, analyst at Oriel Securities, said: "What are they going to do with all that land? Some of it can be reverted to residential property, but it has more than £1bn-worth of property in its landbank."

Worse still, supermarkets stopping building huge hypermarkets is pretty bad news for the regeneration industry – just think how many grand schemes are predicated on the willingness of those supermarket businesses to stump up enormous off-site or mixed use investments just to get the hyper-store permission.

It seems to me that the rate of change in retail is increasing and, as the economy clambers out from the basement, we will not see the recovery in the high street that people seem to expect. The ubiquity of the smart phone and the convergence of the TV and computer will mean that only those who choose not to have access to on-line shopping won’t have access.

We need therefore to think more urgently about the “high street”, about our town centres. And to do something other than call for more “powers” or new rules – although this appears to have escaped the LGA:

Town halls in England and Wales have called for more powers to tackle High Street takeaways, strip-clubs and bookies, which they say could damage local economies.

The problem is that, right now, these are the only businesses that are prepared to take those shops – the alternative is an empty shop that generates zero footfall. And one guesses that the takeaways, strip clubs and bookies (it used to be building societies, then it was charity shops, followed by pound shops – the chain of high street opprobrium continues) do actually generate some custom or else they wouldn’t be there would they?

The problem of the high street isn’t a problem of planning, it is a consequence of changed consumer behaviour. Since we can’t change consumer behaviour, we have to find a new role for the town centre – probably a smaller high street with fewer shops. A place – I’ve said this before – focused on leisure and pleasure.