Monday, 25 May 2015

Quote of the day - why public transport doesn't reduce car use

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We're constantly told by transport planners that active interventions in transport systems are all about model shift - a posh term for getting people to use something other than their own car. But the problem is that there's precious little evidence showing these interventions (other than pricing interventions such as the London congestion charge) make any difference to behaviour. We prioritise the wrong set of folk.

The line of reasoning in the opening quote* suggests the primary purpose of transit is reducing auto travel, rather than serving people who want to or must use transit. In other words, building transit is good because it reduces traffic congestion (and almost no one argues building roads is good because it reduces transit crowding).

That is at best a secondary benefit, a benefit which could be achieved must more simply and less expensively through the use of prices as we do with almost all other scarce goods in society, even necessities like water.

We should therefore be investing in transit systems so as to benefit the people who for reasons of economics or circumstance have no choice other than to use those systems. The trendy urbanist vision of a car-free city filled with sleek trams, funky buses and kids cycling to schools is - as I know you all suspected - something of an utopian pipe dream. The truth is that we need public transport for the old, the young, the less well of and those unable, for whatever reason, to use a car.

(*the opening quote in the article is: “Every person who is riding transit is one less person in the car in front of us.”)

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Sunday, 24 May 2015

A sugar tax won't make anyone thinner - just poor people poorer

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The other day a Conservative minister I'd never heard of told an audience that he supported a tax on sugar. George Freeman had this to say:

“I think that where there is a commercial product which confers costs on all of us as a society, as in sugar, and where we can clearly show that the use of that leads to huge pressures on social costs, then we could be looking at recouping some of that through taxation.

“Companies should know that if you insist on selling those products, we will tax them.”

Now there are some profoundly unconservative things in this statement - the idea that me getting fat "confers costs on all of us in society" is pretty dodgy from the Party of the individual and individual rights not to mention the idea of 'social costs'. However, my concern is that, even if you accept the validity of taxing things that are bad for society, a tax on sugar is going for the wrong bogeyman.

The first thing of course is to observe that the obesity crisis (or epidemic, if you prefer a different scaremongering line) is not a consequence of our sugar consumption. Not even a little bit. I know this because, while we've been getting fatter, our sugar consumption has been falling. And not just the consumption of the evil white stuff but 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' - that's all the sugar added to food plus honey. Even more importantly - in the UK, at least - our average total calorie intake has also fallen.
UK calorie intake. Source National Diet & Nutrition Survey
You'll notice that the amount of everything consumed (except female consumption of alcohol) has dropped in the ten years from 2000/01. So we can say with a considerable degree of confidence that any increase in obesity over that period is not down to what we eat and absolutely that it isn't down to sugar. The only health condition that is directly linked to sugar is dental caries - and we know that good oral hygiene (brushing your teeth regularly, using a mouthwash and so forth) eliminates most of that risk. Taxing everyone because some people don't look after their teeth strikes me as a largely futile exercise and deeply unconservative.

The next thing is to ask whether a sugar tax (and I can only assume that this means a tax on 'non-milk extrinsic sugars' rather than just sucrose) will be sufficient to change behaviour so suddenly pounds are shed from our waists and the obesity 'crisis' is solved. Certainly the evidence from other taxes is mixed - to work the tax has to be sufficiently high to actually make a difference to behaviour and, as the Danes discovered, won't work if it's easily avoidable.

So let's assume that George Freeman gets his ignorant way and a sugar tax is imposed. The impact will be to increase the price of products containing sugars - I'm guessing no distinction will be made between sugars naturally present in the product (like the fructose on your orange juice) and sugars added to the product (like the honey in those sugar puffs). If you wander round your supermarket idly reading product descriptions, you'll find that sugars crop up - in one form or another - is many processed foods. So the impact of a sugar tax will be to increase the price of a whole host of products - from the obvious chocolate, honey and jam through to pizza, ketchup and meat pies.

Now it might be that the impact will be for manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar but that might present some challenges - the sugar's not there by accident. So what happens is that the tax (as taxes usually are) gets lumped on the price and is paid by us consumers as our purchases ping across the checkout scanner. And, assuming that the sugar tax is low, all this will mean is that everyone carries on much as before - buying the stuff they want and getting fatter or thinner depending on how much we stuff in our mouths. Except, that is, for the poorest folk who will discover that the £1.39 pizza is now a £1.49 pizza making it just a little harder to feed the family.

Unless you set the sugar tax at a rate that really changes behaviour - read this as poor people not being able to afford food - the result will be negligible. A sugar tax really won't make anyone thinner. It will just make the poor a little bit poorer.
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Saturday, 23 May 2015

Why do public authorities have such a problem with motorcycles?

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I've noted before that West Yorkshire police's press office dedicates a huge proportion of its press office resource to sending out press releases attacking motorcyclists. It's not just that the popular portrayal of motorcycling and motor cyclists is almost entirely negative but that this form of transport is almost entirely ignored - except as a line in the accident statistics - by transport planners.

The Leeds branch of the Motorcycle Action Group (I so want to call it the Leeds Chapter) staged a protest that called for a greater recognition of motorcycling and, specifically, for bikes to be allow to use bus lanes.

Scores of bikers have taken part in a "demo ride" calling for rights to ride in Leeds's bus lanes.

Organised by Leeds Motorcycle Action Group (MAG), the ride started from Squires Cafe, near Sherburn in Elmet, and finished at a pub outside Leeds.

The group is campaigning for all motorcycles, scooters and mopeds to be allowed to use the city's bus lanes.
The response from Leeds City Council (interestingly this isn't the body responsible for transport planning but we can't expect the BBC to actually know this - it's one of the reasons we need a metro mayor) is typical council-speak about 'harnessing' the views of motorcyclists. Probably because the planners have absolutely no intention of doing what Leeds MAG suggest - recognising that motorcycling has a real role to play in urban transport and especially the relief of congestion. These planners are wedded to trains and buses (including in Leeds having a bus on a string), plus pedal cycles their new favourite means of transport, and see motorised private transport as a bad thing, the main problem from which we all must be modally shifted.

The consultation - being conducted as we speak (I bet you didn't know, did you) by the Combined Authority - completely fails to mention motor cycles and only mentions cars as a problem. I attended a meeting of the Authority's Scrutiny Committee where a presentation about the new strategic transport plan - a good 40 minute long presentation - didn't mention the word 'car' once, let alone refer to motorcycles. Why is it these planners have such tunnel vision? And why do they hate motorcycles so much?

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Friday, 22 May 2015

A reminder why the left is losing...

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Perhaps not everywhere and not in every intellectual argument. But the left is losing - perhaps for the first time in fifty years - the cultural battle. And it's losing because too many of its adherents are nasty.

I am not saying that the political Right is immune from petty name-calling and self-importance. However, looking at my social media accounts alone, I lost count of the number of times I saw the words “moron” and “scum” used in reference to Conservative or Lib Dem voters. I didn’t see anything of the sort emanating from the political centre or the Right.

There has been a lot of talk of late of “shy Tories” being responsible for the electoral outcome. Is it any wonder that people had to be shy about their voting intentions when any admission of Tory solidarity would have resulted in the social media version of public stoning?

Enormous effort is invested in explaining how anyone not suitably "progressive" is motivated by evil, self-interest, greed, arrogance and a lack of compassion. All accompanied by that preening prattle about "values", "morals" and "ethics".

Out in the big bad world there are a lot of ordinary folk. People with jobs, mortgages, children to feed and school, and the regular trickle of painful bills to pay. The left - the Labour Party in the UK - offers nothing to these people except lectures about values, judgemental sermons on behaviour and the sanctifying of people those ordinary folk view as exploiters of our compassion and good nature.

The Labour Party will continue to lose support - and fans - until it offers something to these workers, stops demonising profit, ceases portraying the private sector as a bad place peopled by sharks or thieves and above all packs in with insulting those who disagree with them. We're not morons, we're not scum and were not without care or compassion. Today - and the Labour Party better get used to this - we are the party of workers, of those people with regular private sector jobs, mortgages and a desire for a better life.
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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Booze, early death and bad reporting




My local paper, the Telegraph & Argus is generally pretty good but every now and then - especially on health matters - it produces some utterly shocking journalism. And today on the subject of early death it produced a corker.

The writer, Rob Lowson presents a more-or-less straightforward report on the last data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) on the matter of premature death. The HSCIC has totted up the gap between the age people die and the "potential" life expectancy - these figures show that Bradford is bottom of the pile in Yorkshire.

For once I'm not going to set off on a rant explaining how the age at which people are dying now is not a very good guide to the age at which people who are living will die. This should be utterly obvious to anyone looking at this data, so obvious that I can only assume that it suits the purposes of public health folk to pretend that current mortality rates are somehow an indicator of future mortality rates (or indeed a thing they call "health inequality").

Instead let's look at Rob's words - he explains the data and how it's calculated, explains the conditions that contribute (coronary heart disease, respiratory problems, cancers) and quotes - at some length - Bradford Council's Director of Public Health who talks about what the Council is doing and urges a degree of personal responsibility:

"Our campaigns also highlight the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their own health by making positive lifestyle choices like exercising regularly, drinking in moderation, eating a healthy diet, and stopping smoking."

Nothing here at all that suggests those lifestyle choices are the reason for the gap - indeed the Council's approach is to stress reducing poverty and improving environmental conditions such as warmer homes and cleaner air. It's all pretty fair and concludes with something of a success story - the reduction in rates of infant mortality in Bradford (which were among the UK's highest and merited the focus of public health efforts).

Given all this, I have no idea why the newspaper chose to illustrate the article with a photograph of a beer engine and a couple of guys drinking pints. A photograph with the caption - wholly unrelated to the article - "excessive drinking is one factor in Bradford's high early death rate". A bald statement based on no evidence and almost certainly not the main - or even a significant - problem. Bradford has one of the highest rates of abstention in the UK (23% of adults) and has rates of heavy drinking significantly below the English average (6.24% as compared to 6.75%). Just to complete the picture the city also has lower rates of alcohol-related violent crime that the English average.

It is lazy, sloppy newspaper reporting to pick on one factor - one unimportant factor - to illustrate a balanced report on Bradford's mortality statistics. And even worse to do so by picking on beer served in a public house as the source of the problem.

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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

In defence of pussy cats (not that they need it)



Writing in the Telegraph, Andrew Brown launches an attack on the pussy cat. Or more precisely on the owners of pussy cats.

What cats do, as everyone knows but some prefer not to think about, is kill wild birds – millions every year, according to the RSPB.

Here are these two birds bringing up their families in our garden, feeding their bleating chicks, and along comes the domestic cat, a ruthless hunter introduced by humans to mess up the natural order of things.

“Belling the cat” (that is, hanging a bell around the animal’s neck, as in Aesop’s fable) ought to be the minimum cat owners do.

At least that would warn birds of their presence. I would go further – cat owners should stop their pets reproducing indiscriminately. It would also be better if cats were kept indoors at night.

If you own a cat, what it gets up to it is your responsibility. If your pet goes out and slaughters millions of birds and chicks, it is your business.
This bloke has a serious problem with your pussy cat. And all because he's noticed that a couple of local cats have been stalking the long-tailed tits nesting in his garden. Our writer is terribly excited about the fact that these birds are nesting there but less excited about the other perfectly natural thing going on - the cat stalking the nesting birds.

Now one thing is true, domestic cats kill a lot of birds every year - about 55 million according to the RSPB. And in the scale of things this seems an awful lot of predation. However, the reality is that predation by cats isn't responsible for any decline in bird populations. Here's the RSPB again:

Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide. This may be surprising, but many millions of birds die naturally every year, mainly through starvation, disease, or other forms of predation. There is evidence that cats tend to take weak or sickly birds.

It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season

We also know that of the millions of baby birds hatched each year, most will die before they reach breeding age. This is also quite natural, and each pair needs only to rear two young that survive to breeding age to replace themselves and maintain the population.

It is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact on populations. If their predation was additional to these other causes of mortality, this might have a serious impact on bird populations.

Yet this doesn't stop people like Andrew Brown writing their pig-ignorant rants about predation by cats. So here's a little more information. Firstly there have been significant declines in some bird species with farmland species the worst affected. However when we look at the main garden species - blackbirds, blues tits, great tits, wrens, robins and chaffinches - there hasn't been any decline in the period from 1970 to 2012. Indeed some species such as the long tailed tit (yes, the bird Andrew Brown is so agitated about) have seen what DEFRA describe as 'weak increase'. Put simply the birds that cats are most likely to predate aren't the species in decline.

There are about 7.9 million domestic cats in the UK (according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association who I guess make a study of these things) which means that the average mog catches about seven birds a year. Just taking one species, the blackbird. There are about 5 million breeding pairs in the UK and, in a typical year, a pair of blackbirds with raise two or three broods - four if there's a mild autumn - with each brood comprising 3-5 chicks. That's around 60 million blackbird chicks every year. Repeat this calculation for blue tits, dunnocks, wrens, robins and that lovely long-tailed tit and we have literally hundreds of millions of chicks born every year.

Declines in bird populations are not down to cats. Mostly the declines are down to changes in habitat, modern farming practice and competition from other birds. Andrew Brown may, in his ever so urban and squeamish way, not like to see those little chicks munched up by next door's tom cat but it's a long step to get to blaming that cat for bird population declines that either aren't happening or else are down to fertilisers, hedge-removal and marshland drainage.

Cats have been part of human living for a very long time:

All domestic cats, the authors declared, descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris, which literally means "cat of the woods." Cats were first domesticated in the Near East, and some of the study authors speculate that the process began up to 12,000 years ago.

And during that time those cats have done a sterling job of everyday pest control while also providing the playfulness and cuteness that makes them such an Internet sensation. It seems however that some people have a problem with cats. But instead of using their newspaper column to tell fibs about these wonderful creatures, such people should just come clean and say "I don't like cats". We understand this position (weird though it seems to us mog fans) and it's so much most honourable than trying to argue cat owners are bad people who don't care about wildlife.
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Sunday, 17 May 2015

Celebrating soft loo paper conservatives - a critique of the "Good Right"

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During the recent election there were - as the opinion polls seemed reluctant to shift in the Conservative Party's favour - voices that criticised the campaign strategy and messaging. Most notably Tim Mongomerie who railed against the narrow focus of the campaign and argued that the simple messaging on the economy, welfare and taxes was missing the real concerns of British people.

The reduction of politics to a few simplified messages - repeated endlessly can work in a campaign against a weak opponent but it can't be a governing philosophy.
The problem is that the circumstance of that messaging - the relentless 'long term economic plan' and the idea of rewarding 'hard work' - is absolutely within the context of a campaign. And the first rule of campaigns is that you have to win them. Having a great message, slick organisation and support amongst the great and good is pretty useless if the other side wins - if you're not sure about this ask Neil Kinnock.

I suspect that Tim Montgomerie, in crafting his critique, did so at least in part as an exercise in what us marketers call positioning. At the time it didn't look like the Conservatives were going to win the election - the polling showed the main parties neck and neck, the insurgency of UKIP was damaging the Tories and it looked like the limpet-like nature of the Liberal Democrats would see them holding a load of seats the poll ratings said they should lose. So Montgomerie's critique positioned his "Good Right" argument away from the core of the campaign, away from that simple messaging and the drumming repetition of a choice few slogans.

And I guess that, with Montgomerie and others proved wrong about the election results, it's quite understandable for the architect of that Conservative overall majority to have a celebratory dig at those who criticised his campaign. A campaign that was a vindication for the argument that winning an election is about making people's choice simpler - a binary choice. In this case between 'competence and chaos', between Cameron and Miliband, between a Conservative government and one led by Labour. It may be the case that such things as Montgomerie's 'Good Right' proposes are a sound basis for a future Conservative agenda (although I'd note that if it's just "extending home ownership, cutting taxes for the low-paid, renewing the infrastructure of the north and building world class public services" then we've just elected a government on an agenda to do just that) but getting all wonkish about policy is a sure fire way to lose an election - especially when it involves the sort of crass segmentation beloved of the Labour party.

I have something of a problem with Montgomerie's 'Good Right'. Firstly it's because it implies that the regular sort of right isn't good - that if we question above average rises in minimum wages as bad for job creation or challenge the idea that luxury goods taxes are a good idea then we are bad people. But mostly the problem with the 'Good Right' is that it sees the solution solely through the prism of progressive government intervention positioning the party as a sort of blue rinsed version of Blair's New Deal. And, with its ringfencing of revenues, and centralised "needs-based assessments" to move money to deserving places, it owes more to modern technocratic government than to any moral argument for Conservative ideas.

When I was a student there was a group of Conservatives who wanted our manifesto for election to the student union council to be about services to students rather than the more regular fare of undergraduate politics. We dismissed this group as 'soft loo paper conservatives' - more bothered with such things as the opening hours of the canteen, the stocking of the bars and the provision of discounted dry-cleaning than with the grand affairs of the day (and the latest excuse for a boycott, a sit-in or a lecture strike).

Looking back I see that this group - the soft loo paper Tories - were far more in tune with real conservatism than the rest of us. After all the purpose of government shouldn't be grand sweeping (upsetting) change but the good administration of the services people want government to provide. And we do this knowing that, left to their own devices, people are pretty much able to run their own lives without agents of government to guide them in their choices. Even better - and unlike government - those people will be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial helping make their world richer, happier and more fun.

It seems to me that Lynton Crosby's simple message that Conservatives know what they're doing and can carry on getting the economy fixed while reducing the welfare burden and maintaining health funding is merely that 'soft loo paper' argument writ large. We don't need to set out a precise and detailed blueprint for the government's agenda merely to demonstrate competence and provide a direction that sees service quality improving (and hopefully the price of those services dropping).

Finally if there's a need to demonstrate how the right is morally justified - to promote a 'Good Right' - then it should lie in making the case for free enterprise, challenging the demonising of profit and arguing that property rights underpin our civilisation. Gathering a collection of centrist interventions and badging them as "good" completely ignores the moral basis for lower taxes, the case for decentralising decision-making, the rightness of private initiative in every aspect of life, and the wrongness of the left's nationalising of compassion. If as Tim Montgomerie suggests we need a 'governing philosophy' then let's not make it a sort of half-cooked social democracy, let's make it conservatism.

A while back I wrote this - by way of a felt conservatism:

In Bingley Rural – five villages in the South Pennines – there aren’t many millionaires. The roads aren’t cluttered with flash cars, we don’t have fancy wine bars or posh boutiques, the merchant banker is most definitely a foreign beast – but we are pretty conservative. We like the place as it is, we like the features of the villages, the pubs, the farm shops, the butcher, we enjoy the company of neighbours and friends and we want to work. We love the setting and the country around us.

What we ask of our government is pretty simple – protection from crime, good schools and skilled doctors, helping keep the place clean, maintaining the roads, pavements and parks, providing support – when needed – to those in need and preserving the good things about the places. We don’t ask for lectures about “climate change”, about drinking and smoking, what kind of car we drive or holiday we take.

When I knock on doors and talk to local folk, they don’t ask me about the carbon footprint of Easyjet or the need to ban booze advertising. People don’t mention ‘gross national happiness’ or the equalities agenda. What they ask is why the pubs are going bust, how expensive basic staples – food and fuel - have got, how they never see a copper and why their son can’t afford a house in the village.

Simple, easy-to-understand things concerned with the place we live, with keeping it nice, with making it better – conservative things.

Soft loo paper.
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