Friday, 30 November 2012

Greenfield development is bad for the economy?


The rhetoric talks about using housing development as a trigger for economic growth - all that spending on architects, builders, plumbers and estate agents acts as a stimulus. And this means we have - as Nick Boles observed the other day - to stop being quite so BANANAs about 'green belts' and England's open countryside.

Short-term this might be true. In terms of equity it certainly is true. But when it comes to longer term prosperity there's a doubt. Here Richard Florida writing about dense cities:

Density is a key factor in both the growth of cities, the happiness of cities, and the wealth of nations. And cities and regions where density is more concentrated near their urban cores — appear to gain the biggest economic advantage.

Check that out - it means that, rather than building on the edge of cities, extended the suburbs and developing exurbs (even with super-fast trains), we should be focusing on the urban core, on city living, on dense urban environments because these are where innovation happens, where creativity springs and where economic growth begins.

It's a thought.


Introducing the new press regulator...


Well we demanded "independence" did we not?


Thursday, 29 November 2012

New Charity Commission boss starts well...


There has been a deal of debate about the funding of charities and the extent to which too many are too dependent and too close to the state. And William Shawcross, the new Charity Commission Chairman has picked this up:

Some charities risk becoming too dependent on the state, the new chair of the Charity Commission has warned, saying there needs to be debate on whether the charity register should make clear how an organisation is funded.

And Shawcross pointed us at how the public perceives charity:

He suggested that some charities risk becoming too dependent on the state, adding that most members of the public would say a charity was an organisation funded by private donations not public funds.

A reminder that the legal definition of charity - the purposes of the organisation - is very different from the public perception.

A big - and welcome - contrast with the previous Chair, I feel.


What the bourbon, one scotch, one beer...

...and sod the fussbuckets.

It has been a bonanza week for the New Puritans and lovers of state intervention. And especially for those who want to pass judgement of those of us who like the occasional binge drink. But what the hell...

But I'm sitting now at the bar,
I'm getting drunk, I'm feelin' mellow
I'm drinkin' bourbon, I'm drinkin' scotch, I'm drinkin' beer
Looked down the bar, here come the bartender
I said "Look man, come down here"
So what you want?

One bourbon, one scotch, one beer
No I ain't seen my baby since the night before last,
gotta get a drink man I'm gonna get gassed
Gonna get high man I ain't had enough,
need me a triple shot of that stuff
Gonna get drunk won't you listen right here,
I want one bourbon, one shot and one beer
One bourbon, one scotch, one beer

The incomparable - the best bar band ever - George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers:


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A good day for organised crime...

Over in the secret hideaways of the organised crime bosses, cognac glasses are chinking, cigars are being lit - the toast is; "David Cameron and the Coalition Government".

Never before has there been a government that cared so much for the interests of the organised criminal. And today was a red letter day for those Dons, drug lords and criminal masterminds:

...minimum unit pricing, ensuring for the first time that alcohol can only be sold at a sensible and appropriate price

Sold at those prices by the legitimate trader. But sold at way below those prices by the smuggler or the moonshine merchant. The man with the van is rubbing his hand with profitable glee as he eyes up the chance to sell cheap booze to kids. The drug smugglers are looking at vodka as a kinder, less judged import. And the big crime lords are grinning from ear to ear and ordering the new yacht.

And then:

The government is to change the law to allow restrictions to be imposed on the interest rates charged for so-called "payday loans".

Honest Joe has got his baseball bat out from the cupboard and it treating it with linseed oil. All those poor folk refused loans by Wonga or Provident present a renewed sales opportunity. These legal lenders had killed his business but no more - now he can go back to lending cash and demanding repayment with menaces! And smashing the occasional kneecap - well it goes with the game.

A good day for organised crime - soon to be followed by plain packs for fags and a new smuggling and counterfeiting cash windfall!

Well done Dave!


This isn't public health it's an attack on the lifestyles of the poor


I want to be angry. I really do.

So we are launching a 10-week consultation, seeking views on five key areas:
  • a ban on multi-buy promotions in shops and off-licences to reduce excessive alcohol consumption
  • a review of the mandatory licensing conditions, to ensure that they are sufficiently targeting problems such as irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs
  • health as a new alcohol licensing objective for cumulative impacts so that licensing authorities can consider alcohol-related health harms when managing the problems relating to the number of premises in their area
  • cutting red tape for responsible businesses to reduce the burden of regulation while maintaining the integrity of the licensing system
  • minimum unit pricing, ensuring for the first time that alcohol can only be sold at a sensible and appropriate price

But somehow, since I knew it was coming, I am resignedly depressed. I joined a Party that stood for personal responsibility, choice and independence but now find myself watching as an unjustified and unjustifiable attack on the lifestyles of ordinary people is prosecuted in the name of “health”.

There is no evidence to support the contention that alcohol is an especial problem – consumption has fallen and is falling further, violent crime is at its lowest level for thirty years and young people’s drinking behaviour is extremely moderate (and is matched by sharp declines in other drug use).

I can only conclude that these proposals are the bastard child of a terrifying union between temperance campaigners and a disdainful upper middle class that cannot countenance the idea of poor people drinking. It is Titus Salt revisited – a man who wouldn’t permit his workers to drink while enjoying a drink himself.

These proposals hand to public health officials the power to shut down pubs (the few that survive the smoking ban, massive hikes in duty and now the late night levy). The reason for this appears to be that we, like Sir Titus, don’t approve of working-class people drinking. It’s not the consumption of alcohol that is the issue but by who and where it’s being consumed. We appear to be OK with public school educated journalists and doctors quaffing champagne. We can just about tolerate a couple of university educated chaps enjoying a pint (just the one, you know) of “craft beer”. But some poor old man buying a can or two of cheap lager – that is terrible and eats away at the foundation of society.

The advocates of minimum pricing are quite clear – they are deliberately targeting the cheapest alcohol, the stuff that the least well off buy. This is despite the fact that – unlike smoking – drinking rates increase with social class and income. It’s those middle-class journalists who are drinking too much not the ordinary working class bloke.

These are not public health proposals.

These are not community safety proposals.

These proposals are a patronising and offensive attack on the lifestyles of ordinary people who, for whatever reason, can’t afford posh beer, malt whisky and fine wines. Why should they be punished just because we don’t approve of their tastes?

I give up.


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

"MP calls for ban..." Here we go again!

MPs like a good call for a ban - guaranteed to get them a headline! And here's Charlie Elphicke a member of the Public Administration Select Committee (boy does this remind me of Jim Hacker):

Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover and Deal and a member of the Public Administration Select Committee, said at a meeting of the committee this morning that face-to-face fundraising was "one of the great infestations of modern life that lashes out at people in the street" and was "toxic to the charity brand".

"If parliament acted to stamp out this abuse and invasion of our personal space, would that be the right thing to do?" 

Well actually, Charlie, that answer to your question is "no". You - by which I mean parliament and MPs - have no responsibility for the "charity brand" (whatever that may mean). Charities are private organisations and their public image is a matter for their trustees and no-one else. More to the point, chugging may be annoying but it is not an invasion of your personal space and a charity fundraiser - usually a student supplementing their income - who "lashed out" at anyone would be quickly charged with assault.

Banning things just because we don't like them or worse, calling for bans just to get a headline, is an appalling attitude. Too many MPs - from every side - seem however to think it OK. It isn't.


In which Bradford Council shows little interest in Bingley's future....


Bingley Market has been struggling. Despite the location in the fine new square, the market has suffered from the lack of footfall in the town. And from Bradford Council's lack of interest in the market - indeed in the idea of markets as a permanent feature of a town rather than as a flashy gimmick for a festival day.

Some business folk in Bingley would like to take on the market - give it a real boost and try to make it work free from the attentions of council busybodies:

Richard Holmes, who manages the 5Rise shopping centre, design firm boss Richard Tempest and market trader Dean McNally had proposed running the setting-up of stalls and collecting of rents themselves as a means of securing the market’s future and saving the Council some £40,000 a year in costs

Great news surely? Local people keen to take control of a local facility and save the Council some brass? The Council have bitten these business folk's hands off?

‘Any relinquishing of the market operation would require a Council decision and would have to go out to tender rather than just handing the operation of the market to just one group’

What nonsense - the Council has no absolute requirement to put business of this sort out to tender merely to have identified particular reasons why not and to have explained how the market has been tested.

It seems the Council would prefer to see the market die a slow death rather than respond to a positive offer from local traders. Pretty typical. And rather sad.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Today's nannying fussbucket is another Tory MP: Dr Phillip Lee


Welcome to the world of judgemental government, to nudging with a baseball bat. Welcome to Phillip Lee MP (he's a GP too so this comes as less of a a surprise) and the punishing of people for their lifestyle choices:

Tory MP and GP Phillip Lee made a striking call this morning for patients suffering from lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes to pay for their prescriptions as part of a larger shake-up of the NHS. He was speaking as part of a series of presentations from members of the Free Enterprise Group ahead of next week’s Autumn Statement on their proposals for spending cuts which would allow George Osborne to meet his target of having debt as a proportion of GDP falling by 2015/16.

But Dr Lee's proposal isn't for everyone with a lifestyle problem - he's not suggesting that horse riders pay for having their broken legs plastered or Sunday morning footballers for patching up their sprained ankles. No these punishments fall only on "Officially Disapproved Lifestyle Choices". And the good Doctor gives us a clue:

‘If you want to have doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fine, but there’s a cost.’

Choose the things we disapprove of and you won't get free treatment on the NHS. That's the message from Dr Lee MP.  So Dr Lee wants a world like that proposed - and rubbished by one of his colleagues - by Katie Hopkins, the well-known former apprentice contestant.

Former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins argues that people who eat, drink and smoke more than is good for them should pay more towards the NHS health care they need, as she sets out her calls for additional payments for some health services.

Please Dr Lee MP, just will you shut up with your fussbucketry, with your judging of folk for lifestyle choices and leave us alone. And if you want people to pay for healthcare, say you want them to pay rather than picking on the few who choices you don't like.


Sunday, 25 November 2012

...on agricultural subsidy


OK, this is from the States but could easily be describing the Common Agricultural Policy. Marion Nestle is professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and - along with her students - has become perhaps the first human to read the US government's farm bill.

And the professor said this:

Well, it's so astonishingly irrational it just takes your breath away.

That's right, this monument to Roosevelt's interventionist politics has become - by a process of renewal and incremental addition - something like this:
I opened up the file that was on the Internet and the table of contents was 14 pages long. The entire thing was 663 pages and it's totally incomprehensible.

This my friends is the evil progeny of bureaucratic inertia and the political favour - like the thing that Quatermass found in the pit, it keeps growing, sucking in politicians, fed off by special interests and protected by the system. All we can do is amend - we cannot kill the beast.

And the beast does this: 
Some things are so completely irrational they just take your breath away. For example, if a commodity producer decides to grow vegetables, that producer will either lose all of the subsidies he's getting or will have to plow the vegetables under. They are required by the way this law works to plow them under, treat them with Roundup and kill them, or let them freeze. But they're not allowed to actually grow and sell them.

 Perhaps we should remind ourselves what PJ O'Rourke had to say about the farm bill:

I spent two and a half years examining the American political process. All that time I was looking for a straightforward issue. But everything I investigated — election campaigns, the budget, lawmaking, the court system, bureaucracy, social policy — turned out to be more complicated than I had thought. There were always angles I hadn't considered, aspects I hadn't weighed, complexities I'd never dreamed of. Until I got to agriculture. Here at last is a simple problem with a simple solution. Drag the omnibus farm bill behind the barn, and kill it with an ax.

Agricultural subsidy fails to protect agriculture, doesn't keep farmers on the mad, makes food more expensive for ordinary folk, leads to corruption and means Africans starve to death.

Can we just stop it please?


Saturday, 24 November 2012

Culture and adoption....


Much excitement over the case of what seems to be blatant political bias in a child protection case in Rotherham.  And there is an oddity in all this around culture and the manner in which we treat its significance during child protection cases. Indeed, it does seem that this is the central reason for the decision that Rotherham took in that they:

"...were severely criticised by the courts in terms of not meeting their cultural and ethnic needs."

And because UKIP has been critical of inward migration from East Europe, the council took the children away from the UKIP supporting foster parents. The rest - emergency placement, crass comments about UKIP's policies and so forth - is just spin (albeit bad spin).

We should also note that the parliamentary by-election in Rotherham provides great cover for the Labour politician who leads on Children & Families - under the daft 'purdah' rules council press during elections doesn't allow for politicians to be quoted or featured.

The interesting bit in all this, however, relates to what we understand by the term 'multi-cultural' or 'multiculturalism'. It does seem that the default social work interpretation is for 'cultural and ethnic needs' to be met through preference for a placement in the same culture. This seems to me more akin to apartheid than 'multiculturalism'. Surely in a multicultural society placements should be blind to the culture of the foster parent but attuned to the need for children to 'access' their birth culture.

It is this that worries me and, indeed, the manner in which the courts have pontificated on 'cultural and ethnic needs' without asking what that might mean in practice. With the result that we trip into the left-wing mind set of the social worker - UKIP are 'extreme right wing' ergo UKIP are racist. And the result of this is that some kids lives are messed about, a good couple (in the true meaning of that term) are upset and po-faced council folk litter the airwaves with obfuscatory explanations for their crass decisions.

The first question we should be asking in child protection is around safety not culture or ethnicity. And the second question we should ask in about stability but culture or ethnicity. Only once the child is in a safer and more stable place should we be considering culture and ethnicity. It appears that this is not the case - culture and ethnicity are made paramount and children are suffering for this reason.

Finally an observation. Would it not have been refreshing if the Council Director had said something like:

We got this wrong and can only apologise for the upset caused. Of course we shouldn't make fostering decisions on the basis of potential foster parents' political opinions. We will be speaking to the social workers responsible to ensure that this doesn't happen again and I will be personally visiting the couple concerned to express our sincere apologies.

Not going to happen though is it!


Nannying fussbucket of the Day: Cllr Steve Bedser


Cllr Bedser is Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing and chair of the Birmingham Tobacco Control Alliance so he has good fussbucket credentials. And the fine gent thinks that smoking should be banned on "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here!"

During this episode a contestant, Helen Flanagan, was filmed repeatedly as she smoked. Whilst I understand that the episode was broadcast after the ‘watershed’ I am of the strong view that the frequency of this image was such that it condoned, encouraged and glamorized smoking, especially by young girls. There was no editorial justification for including these particular scenes.

And, this particular fussbucket argues, this is all for the children who will rush out and start smoking because they've seen some celebrity (of sorts) having a drag on telly. In a 'reality' show - you know, one that's like real life*. The real life where people smoke.

Cllr Bedser has inhaled the full anti-smoking bible - 'denormalisation' is the game and:

Smoking initiation is associated with a range of risk factors, including exposure to tobacco marketing and depictions of smoking in films, television and other media.

This is thoughtless kneejerk fussbucketry -  peers and parents are overwhelmingly the drivers of smoking 'initiation' not seeing some star with a fag.

*OK "I'm a celebrity..." is only tentatively connected to reality.


High Speed 2 would damage the regeneration of Bradford


Not me saying this (although I agree with the argument) but a former boss of the Strategic Rail Authority:

“On regeneration, I know of no serious academics who support the view HSR will significantly reduce the North-South divide. Most research indicates the dominant ‘hub’ city benefits more than regional centres and in the regions the impact is likely to be a zero sum game.
“A Leeds HSR station would probably be surrounded by shiny new office blocks, but investment in West Yorkshire would be focused there, and the relative decline of Bradford would accelerate.”

And that's before all the suits whizz off to London on the lovely fast train we've built for their convenience!


Friday, 23 November 2012

Respect - playing with sectarian fire...


There are a couple of by-elections going on at the moment in, what might be described as urban seats - Rotherham and Croydon North (where I was educated - not that this has anything to do with what follows). And my dear friends in the Respect Party are standing in both seats.

I can't comment on the Croydon election - although you can never know with Lee Jasper - but in Rotherham, Respect have parachuted in Yvonne Ridley, former journalist and famous Muslim convert. All good politics I guess. But then we get a glimpse at the literature - in a reprise of the recent Bradford West by-election we see a blatant and disturbing appeal to sectarianism:

"The RESPECT Party Britain's only party that openly embraces Islam..."

 "...they (the Labour Party) are also going into pubs and clubs behind our backs and attacking Muslims, Asians and Muslim immigrants in particular."

"...we would remind you the last time the Muslim/Asian community voted to elect a Labour MP from Rotherham (he) set up an Israeli support group the so-called 'Labour Friends of Israel'."

"We have set up a database of Muslim/Asian families to make sure your voice is heard..."

This is what Respect have brought to Bradford and what they propose for Rotherham - divisive, insensitive, racist and sectarian politics. Less of a problem in Rotherham when the Muslim population is less that 15% of the electorate but the fact that this unpleasant sectarianism exists at all should be a cause for concern.

In the end there is little difference between the message pumped out here to young Muslims and the message that the BNP, EDL and National Front target at white working class communities. It's 'them' that cause your problems - vote for us because we're on your side against 'them'.

In Bradford we got a glimpse of this divisive approach at the last Council Meeting - motions on "islamaphobia" and questions attacking Israel. We sit quietly while JUST West Yorkshire - supposedly a 'racial justice' charity - churns out a stream of sectarian 'research' (using funding from those naive idiots at Joseph Rowntree) aimed at supporting this sectarian Respect agenda - indeed the leader of the Respect group on Council is a trustee of this "charity".

These people are not interested in integration, in tolerance or in peace. Respect and its allies are set on stirring up discontent in these communities, in finding demons where there are no demons and in dividing one group of Yorkshire people from another.

After a dozen years of building cohesion in Bradford it is distressing to see Respect attempt to tear that work down. And to see them spread this damaging message in Rotherham


Food for thought...


David Hadley - some bloke in a shed who writes stuff - pens this snapshop of life:

So we sigh, turn off the telly, head off into a kitchen half the size of the box the celebrity chef gets her golden hamster droppings delivered to her door in, and we make a salt ‘n’ vinegar crisp sandwich using the best supermarket own-brand sliced white we can afford, spread liberally with a butter substitute that has the taste, consistency and spreadability of decade-old axle grease, drizzled almost liberally with value-brand salt ’n’ vinegar proto-crisps that may once have has a nodding acquaintance with a real potato , but that was so long ago that they no longer have any memory of it.

Then, satisfied, replete and in awe of our own culinary skills we return to the TV to see if there is anything better on now.



Thursday, 22 November 2012

Free speech, free enterprise, free trade...


...and while I’m about it free choice and free markets.

It hurts doesn’t it! I’ve been struck by the swiftness with which people have told me that, yes, believing in free speech, free enterprise and free trade are great but that this doesn’t mean supporting free markets. Because free markets are a bad thing.

Don’t you just love the division of freedoms? We launch enthusiastically into supporting freedoms where we like them but feel unable to back those freedoms where they don’t suit our prejudices. So here’s a little game with my three freedoms.

Supporting free speech means:

  • Opposing the arresting of people for the ‘crime’ of causing offence - free speech means having the right to offend and to be offended.
  • Believing that there is no institution, religion or organisation that is above criticism or immune from satire – free speech means having the right to criticise, to question and to condemn
  • Rejecting the banning of advertising – marketing communication is speech and should be free, to suggest otherwise is to undermine free speech

Supporting free enterprise means:

  • Believing that there are almost no circumstances where “more regulation” is either right or appropriate – free enterprise can only work where markets are free
  • Rejecting the concept of ‘market failure’ – markets always and everywhere, when left to their own devices, succeed and failure is the result of intervention
  • Opposing market fixing devices such as guilds, registrations, subsidies and regulations that restrict market entry – free enterprise requires a level playing field not a protected system

Supporting free trade means:

  • Rejecting managed markets – and this includes so-called “fair trade” – since they prevent free exchange and free enterprise
  • Opposing protectionism in all its forms whether regulatory or financial – tariffs, duties, anti-dumping rules, quotas and environmental or employment regulation
  • Supporting the liberalising of international markets in finance, government services and insurance – without free trade in these areas, other trading arrangements are compromised

This is the deal with freedom – it doesn’t come in tidy little units where we can have a little free speech but not have free trade. If you want it you have to want it all. So when people try to tell me that they want a free press but not a free market in news (because of the big bad Murdoch) then they are, in truth rejecting that free speech. When people say they want free enterprise but that free markets must be controlled, I know that they don’t support free enterprise. And when people tell me they support fair trade (and suggest that this is somehow ‘ethical’), they are no friend of freedom.

All these freedoms interlock – dividing them doesn’t work and diluting one freedom compromises another. It’s hard to have free enterprise without free speech, free trade requires free enterprise and the ability to choose, interact and exchange is central to any society laying claim to being free.

Those three things – free speech, free enterprise and free trade – are the things that matter. And we know they’re working when we have free markets, free assembly and free choice.


Introducing our biggest public health challenge...


It isn't smoking. It's not drinking. Or sugar. Or salt. Or McDonalds. It kills 27,000 people every year yet is never mentioned in the headlines from the world of public health:

In its new report The cost of cold, published today, the charity warned of a hidden public health scandal as thousands of older people continue to die prematurely from cold-related illnesses because their homes are too cold.

The report said each year there are around 27,000 excess winter deaths, most of them among older people and caused by respiratory problems, strokes and heart-attacks due to cold temperatures.

Even in relatively mild winters, there are around 8,000 extra deaths for every one degree drop in average temperature, the report said.

Rather than lecturing the elderly about drinking or trying to stop them smoking, we should be helping to keep them warm.


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Nannying fussbucket of the day: Professor Dame Sally Davies and Hepatitis


I was tempted to use other words than nannying fussbucket to describe this Lady's deception upon the newspapers and airwaves today. I awoke to a brief reference in the 6am news summary on Classic FM and then heard or read her choice words off and on through the rest of the day.

My report is a stark reminder of the preventable damage that eating too much and drinking too much alcohol can do.

So says Dame Sally before moving into the predictable references to minimum pricing for alcohol and the general evils of drinking. At no point did she - or anyone interviewing her - ever mention the tricksy truths about drinking: that we're doing a lot less of it these days and that young people especially are becoming more abstemious.

Instead we're led to believe that the "rising tide" of liver disease is due to our bad habits rather than anything else. We even get a handy little graph in some reports - doubtless lifted from Dame Sally's report. Now, given that we know levels of alcohol consumption have fallen in the past ten years it seems something of a stretch to lay the increase in liver disease over that time at the door of boozing.

And obesity - another cause of liver problems - has stabilised and may even be declining. So what's the problem. Here's a clue:

As the report points out - almost in passing amidst the temperance propaganda:

Undiagnosed hepatitis B and C are also major causes of liver diseases.

 Ah, now we're getting somewhere - back in 2004:

Hepatitis C is often referred to as the ‘silent epidemic’. Many of those who have the infection show no symptoms over a long period. Estimates indicate that around 200,000 people in England are chronically infected with hepatitis C – yet only 38,000 diagnoses have been reported. If left untreated, hepatitis C can cause serious liver disease in some patients, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
And for Hepatitis B:

We estimate that there are now more than 325,000 people in the UK with chronic HBV infection. Allowing for factors such as under-reporting, the figure may be even higher.

Perhaps - rather than booze and burgers, this 'silent epidemic' has rather more to do with the rise in cases of liver disease?

Update: Seems that the liver chap at Bradford Royal Infirmary blames the rise on Hepatitis too:

There is a silent disease out there – hepatitis B and C,” he said. “When I started work in Bradford in 2004 I had 100 patients with hepatitis B and 150 patients with hepatitis C on our books. Today there are 650 patients with hepatitis B and 850 patients with hepatitis C. We keep treating large numbers of patients every year.”


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why are there no right wing sociologists?


Or for that matter academics in social policy fields?

In one respect this is a 'ha ha ha' sort of question - of course there aren't any right wing sociologists, it's all a load of lefty rubbish after all! But I ask in all seriousness because studying 'society' and developing policies reflecting social concerns and challenges is an important area of enquiry.

And it is overwhelmingly left wing - here's a tweet from Peter Matthews who lectures in social and community regeneration and stuff like that at Heriot Watt University:

I'd suggested that the discipline might benefit from actively recruiting people with a world view that isn't 'left wing' - conservative, libertarian, classical liberal, voluntarist. People whose default position isn't to blame it all on the evils of neo-liberalism or who say (to polite murmurings of assent from peers):

"This article argues that the cuts continue a thirty-year process of redistribution to the rich."

None of this is to say that academics shouldn't believe such nonsense but rather to assert that sociology and social policy would be better for seeking a better balance across the political spectrum - to join the real world rather than live in one where the most right wing opinion is just to the left of the current Labour leadership. The idea that the 'disciplinary basis of social policy' should be left wing explains why so many of us - despite caring deeply about social concerns and public policy issues linked to those concerns - find sociology and 'social policy' to be a load of biased lefty trash not worthy of consideration.

Not that this little jotting in a blog read only by the occasional aficionado will change any thing but perhaps sociology would benefit from some right wing thinking, a few conservative pebbles in its leftist sandals?


Monday, 19 November 2012

The attack on takeaway food is about snobbery not health


With a cry I turned off the radio. I could take no more of the Labour leader from Waltham Forest Council celebrating preventing new businesses, new jobs and more choice for the residents of his borough. And all in the cause of health.

Maybe I'm over-reacting but this 'demonising' of the takeaway - blaming it for fat kids, poor schools and litter - is getting too much. For sure, there are places where converting shops to takeaways isn't right - where there's no parking, or adjacent properties that will be adversely affect by smells for example - but this campaign isn't about those issues, it's about judging the choices of others.

Now the London Food Board in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has issued a set of rules that planning authorities can use to stop all new hot food takeways. This is what the Councillor from Waltham Forest was crowing about - the prevention of business and job creation on the wholly unevidenced and spurious basis that takeaways make kids fat and unhealthy.

Here's the justification from the fussbuckets who authored the "Takeaways Toolkit" - after they'd admitted that takeaways employ local people and provide a valuable economic and community function:

However, as the modern world begins to wake up to the threat of a growing obesity epidemic more and more people have been turning their attention to the impact this food has on the health of the population.

Firstly, let's say it again - there is no "growing obesity epidemic" - rates of childhood obesity have stabilised and, on some measures, are falling. So we're building a scary straw man to beat up rather than addressing a real problem.

And secondly there is precisely zero evidence that fast food contributes to childhood obesity. Indeed there is evidence that suggests the very opposite is true:

When the researchers weighed these children they found something rather interesting. Here are the average body mass index (BMI) figures for each group by frequency of visits to fast food outlets. Bear in mind that a 'healthy weight is 18.5 to 25:

Weekly visits        BMI

Every day:            17.8

4-6 times:              18.3

2-3 times:              19.6

Once:                    20.3

Less than once:     21.4

Now is that clear enough for you? Essentially these findings show that the less often you visit a fast food outlet, the more like you are to be overweight.

And this isn't an isolated discovery either:

...there was no significant association between increasing takeaway and fast food consumption and obesity as measured by BMI corrected for age and gender. This is not a new finding. For example, French and colleagues found no significant relationship between frequent consumption of fast food and being overweight in their analysis of a cohort of 11-18-year-old boys and girls. Similarly, Simmons et al found no correlation between increasing takeaway consumption and obesity measured by either BMI or waist circumference.

Put simply, fast food is not the cause of that "obesity epidemic" (if there is one which there isn't). It's just that it's down-market finger food that's eaten by spotty kids in baseball caps - the Guardian and Daily Mail reading classes don't like fast food because it the sort of thing that "common" people eat.

This attack on the takeaway is about snobbery not health - us foodies peering down our noses at those working class people who don't know about "proper" food.


#AlcoholAware2012: Young people and drinking...or rather not drinking


Alcohol Concern are off out from the traps in "Alcohol Awareness Week" with an opinion survey of 16-24 years olds. This leads them gently to agree with the prohibitionists view:

They told researchers that alcohol promotions encouraged excessive drinking, pointing out it was 'cheaper to buy a three-litre bottle of cider than buy a ticket to go to the cinema'.

Yet again we see false comparisons being made. I'm pretty sure that 17 year old Steve isn't going to impress his new girlfriend by saying; "we're not going to the pictures tonight, I've bought three litres of White Lightning. We can sit on the wall of the park and get pissed."

The real figures - the ones that Alcohol Concern prefer not to mention - tell us that this generation of young people is the most sober generation since the 1960s. Alcohol consumption among children has fallen significantly:

13% of secondary school pupils aged 11 to 15 reported drinking alcohol in the week prior to interview in 2010 compared with 18% of pupils in 2009 and 26% in 2001.

In 1998 71% of 16-24 year olds reported drinking in the previous week (that's any drink at all - just the one). By 2012 this figure had fallen to just 48%. This doesn't suggest that we have a problem with young people and drinking - quite the contrary, the strategy of being open about drinking, informing people and using persuasion has worked.



Sunday, 18 November 2012

Perhaps we should think about taxing the poor a little less?


What do you mean you hadn’t noticed? Perhaps you were too busy campaigning for a ‘living wage’ or ranting about fuel poverty to notice that the policies beloved by left and centre fall hardest on the poor. Indeed, rather than babbling about that ‘living wage’ maybe we should mention that it is quite repulsive – truly hideous and ghastly – that anyone on minimum wage has part of that income taxed.

But I’m not here to talk about income tax – although I don’t think anyone earning less than average income should pay any – but about all the other imposts, duties and proposals that fall most heavily on the poor. Here’s a little list:

  • Energy prices. All those jolly schemes to promote ‘green energy’ and save the planet are little more than a tax – the planet may need saving (although I think she’ll be fine and hunk dory for quite a few million years yet) but is it right that we do this with a regressive tax? Worse still a regressive tax that those with large roofs for solar panels or paddocks for windmills can avoid – and those are things that someone’s granny in a council flat doesn’t have.
  • Tobacco duty. OK this is about making people healthy (or so we’re told by assorted nannying fussbuckets) but we also know that people from the C2DE categories (i.e. the less well off) are far more likely to smoke than those in the ABC1 categories. Raising the duty year after year above rates of inflation is a huge tax on the less well off – except for those who now smuggle the stuff, of course!
  • Employers National Insurance. No this really isn’t a tax on the employer – they have a budget to employ people and the NI is in that budget. If employers didn’t pay national insurance then wages would be higher – we know that rises in employers NI reduced wages.
  • PAYE. You’ve read all those stories about how rich folk with clever accountants reduce their tax bills? Ever wondered why you can’t do this? It’s called PAYE – lower paid people don’t fill in a tax return and the employer does the payments. All those allowances, fiddles and dodges that you’ve heard of – they only apply to people who fill in a tax return. I’ve no doubt that there are thousands – perhaps millions – of people paying too much tax. And they’re mostly the lower paid.
  • Minimum pricing for alcohol. This is the most blatant – “we don’t approve of the poor drinking cheap cider” is effectively the message that it sends out. After all it would be simpler to just increase the duty on alcohol (something that us middling sorts consume more of that the poor) but the moralising ‘return of gin alley’ arguments dominate.

I’m pretty sure there’s more of these – even without me mentioning the de facto tax that is allowing inflation to run at two per cent plus. And – all with either the direct intention or the unfortunate side effect of falling more heavily on the less well off.

Perhaps we should think about taxing the poor a little less?


Saturday, 17 November 2012

Campaign in the North...a message for the Conservative Party


We often hear from London-based commentators that the Conservative Party has a problem in the North. Look, these men say, you have no councillors, no MPs and no organisation across the great cities of the North - Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle. How can you lay claim to being a national party when this pertains? And such wise men have a point.

Others tell the Party's leadership that they must have a plan for campaigning in the North. That the problem must be put right. And each time the psephological runes are read and Party managers decide that this isn't so - the solution (or rather the winning of an election) lies elsewhere.

The Tories have a 40:40 strategy for the next election. The aim is to defend their 40 most vulnerable seats and try and win 40 others to give the party a majority. So which 40 are in their sights? Normally, it’s an easy one to answer: you just look at the last election and count which seats have the most narrow Tory defeat.

If you’d done this, there would only be 9 Liberal Democrat MPs on the Tory hit list. But the Liberal Democrat vote has changed radically since the last election. So Stephen Gilbert, the PM’s political secretary,  has drawn up a new list, added in demographic factors, current polling data and consumer targeting. As a result, the  number of Liberal Democrat seats on the list more than doubled.

And of those 20 Liberal Democrat seats most aren't in the North of England - Solihull, Dorset Mid & Poole North, Wells, St Austell & Newquay, Somerton & Frome, Sutton & Cheam, St Ives, Chippenham, Cornwall North, Norwich South, Eastbourne, Taunton Deane, Eastleigh, Torbay, Cheltenham, Devon North, Carshalton & Wallington. Only Cheadle and Berwick-on-Tweed are in the North and neither are exactly typical.

There isn't going to be a plan for the North. There will be a few target seats - Bolton West, Wirral South, Halifax, maybe Morley & Outwood to annoy Ed Balls - but no plan looking beyond getting 316 MPs from anywhere. Right now the national Party's resource in the North consists of fewer than ten people working out of an office in Bradford. These people work hard and do a great job supporting campaigns from Carlisle to Grimsby and from Ellesmere Port to Ashington.

What there won't be is a strategy for the North or the redirecting of resource from London-based spin doctoring towards campaigning at the grassroots especially if those grassroots are a long way from nice London restaurants in places where people talk funny. The problem is that - as I'm sure Labour is in the South-West and Wessex - the Party is dying in the urban North. We are reaching the tipping point in Sheffield, Hull and Manchester where the situation is unrecoverable - as is undoubtedly the case in Liverpool. Worse still behind these barren places are a row of other places - Leeds, Bradford, Sunderland, Huddersfield, Salford - where only the efforts of a dedicated few folk (and the welcome collapse of Liberal Democrat aspirations) keeps the Party from the same oblivion as in those big cities.

We do need a plan but more than that we need some of the resources currently spent on sucking up to London-based journalists to be directed to the North, to supporting good quality campaign teams in these Northern cities. And this isn't just because it might help us win general elections in the future but because the alternative is to condemn Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and other Northern towns and cities to generations of corrupting single-party government from the Labour Party.

Having failed to resource - or actively support - campaigns for elected mayors, the Party now has to get back onto the ground, survey its wreakage and begin to build. We need to start campaigning against the deadening hand of the North's establishment - public sector panjandrums, Labour council leaders, trade unions and the occasional lawyer or property developer badged as "business".

What I do know is that, if we don't, there won't be a generation of Tories in Bradford to follow on from my generation. And I'm prepared to bet that the same goes for Leeds, for Hull and for Greater Manchester. It really is time for the Party to act. Further delay will be fatal for the Party in the North.


Apathy, elitism and bureaucracy - an ancient problem

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.

So it’s that apathy thing again. You know, people who can’t or won’t be bothered to waddle down to the village hall to vote. Apparently this is “humiliating” for the Prime Minister – or at least that’s what the FT says:

David Cameron’s hopes that Britain would embrace his vision of US-style elected police chiefs lay in tatters as the public turned its back on his latest attempt to change the way the country is run.

An inquiry was launched on Friday by the Electoral Commission into a day of apathy at the ballot box, which saw only one-in-seven voters turn out in an election the prime minister insisted would transform Britain’s policing and which cost £100m to set up.

But it isn’t really as simple as that. And neither should we be as bothered about low turnout as us political sorts say. Don’t get me wrong, I do think we should vote – early and often as the saying goes – but I don’t have a problem with people who choose not to do so. Or indeed for the many folk whose lives are liberated enough for the act of voting not to cross their minds.

Last Thursday’s election saw record levels of apathy – mostly because the government (and the Electoral Commission) lost sight of some basic marketing principles. Police & Crime Commissioners may indeed by a better mousetrap but unless you tell people about this – repeatedly until you’re bored with the sound of it – they won’t avail themselves of your improved rodent catcher.

However, this still doesn’t matter. If people want to vote they will go out and vote. Take note that in Corby where 90% of the UK’s political class – not to mention the hordes of press and TV media folk – has been camped out for the past two months, the turnout was a measly 44%. Every house in Corby had a leaflet – probably a dozen leaflets, if by-election behaviour was normal – and despite this over half the registered electorate didn’t bother.

Why didn’t they bother? Probably because the outcome (and the act of voting itself) really doesn’t matter to them very much, if at all. And why should it unless we make it purposeful? A parliamentary by-election changes nothing, all it does is find a new representative to fill a set of vacated boots. Oddly enough the PCC elections were rather more significant – at least there we were picking someone to be in charge of something!

In an unusual departure the Daily Mail spots the problem:

The reality is that the public is hugely disillusioned with a gilded, out-of-touch political elite which seems incapable of connecting with the aspirations and anxieties of ordinary people.

People really are getting to believe that “it doesn’t matter how you vote, the government always gets in”.  And this is so true – that gilded elite the Mail describes will carry on in ‘power’ even though we vote some of them out and some of them in.

The really funny – or maybe depressing - thing about this is that it’s not new. Here’s S E Finer writing about the world’s first government, Sumer:

“Equally there was a contrast between the mass of artisans and rural labourers, and the ruling elite which comprised the rulers and their courts, the temples and their priesthoods, the scribes and accountants. This elite was very narrow; the more so since the keys to power...were so very difficult to acquire.”

Back then legitimacy – what we like to call “mandate” – didn’t come from those artisans and rural labourers but from the gods. Today, legitimacy in theory comes, via the act of voting, from the people. The thing that those apathetic Britons have spotted is that withdrawing that mandate by not voting exposes the elite for what it is – a self-selecting, self-supporting court surrounding the places where power is executed.

Thursday’s apathy isn’t a reflection on the current government but a consequence of government by the unaccountable gilded by the thinnest sheet of democracy. When I look at the areas where us Councillors are told we have no real jurisdiction (despite de jure responsibility) this becomes ever more clear – education, child protection, planning, licensing; all now so rules bound as to make the councillor’s role little more than a rubber stamp.

To give just one example – you thought, did you not, that the schools are under “council control”? After all there’s an Education Department filled with Directors and Assistant Directors. Think again. The funding goes straight from Whitehall to the schools via a formula set in London. And decisions about the management of those schools are made by a thing called the “School’s Forum” that (in Bradford) meets in private and contains representatives from the schools, council officers and so forth. Councillor’s – the folk you elect to make decisions on your behalf – have no role to play in this at all. Except to be blamed when the school’s fail.

This is where the apathy comes from – MPs and councillors stop being representatives and turn instead into guides through the castle. Our role is to handle ‘casework’ and to act as ‘community leaders’ rather than the idea of representative democracy – that we send someone to the place where the decisions are made so he or she can help make those decisions on our behalf. Today, a councillor or MP can sit on all sorts or panels, committees and boards while doing nothing other than accede to decisions made elsewhere by the bureaucracy.